Exploring Technology and Humanity

Exploring Technology and Humanity

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Stay This Day and Night with Me by Belén Gopegui, translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer (San Francisco: City Lights Books, March 21, 2023; 193 pp.; ISBN 9780872868939; $16.95 paper).

First published in Spanish as Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo by Penguin Libros ES, Barcelona, 2017.

Algorithm (noun):
A set of rules for solving problems or doing calculations,
especially rules that a computer uses.
Macmillan Dictionary

Cover by Em Dash Design in Montreal

Technology and humanity. So much current discussion of their relationship. Into the fray rides a Spanish knight astride a modern-day steed worthy of El Cid—in this case, a novel titled Stay This Day and Night with Me. Belén Gopegui brandishes her pen as a sword as she charges straight at one of the tech giants.

“Esteemed Google,” she writes, paying homage to the internet search engine before taking it to task in this English translation by Mark Schafer of the earlier Spanish edition, Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo.

Gopegui frames her book as a job application to the American multinational technology company, whose stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Protagonists Olga (a sixty-two-year-old mathematician) and Mateo (a twenty-two-year-old college student) collaborate to entice Google into hiring Mateo when he graduates with a degree in engineering. He studies philosophy on his own.

The book opens with a report by Inari, “an expert reader of résumés” for Google, who notes the application’s “many peculiarities,” the primary one being its arrival “on sheets of paper” rather than electronically. No cover letter either. “This never happens,” Inari states, going on to explain why the entire application is included in the report.

“Dear Google,” begin Olga and Mateo, continuing for close to 150 pages over the typical one-page résumé. Mincing no words, they spotlight “the bug in the code” of Google’s algorithm through reproaches of the internet company usually expressed in professional papers, editorial columns, or governmental committees. Gopegui’s more literary style, quite witty at times, makes valid critiques in a memorable manner: “Somebody, Google, should really sit down and think. About the unexpected variable.”

Gopegui anthropomorphizes Google in an imaginative way reminiscent of how Portuguese Nobelist José Saramago fashions death as the voice in his novel Death with Interruptions, or Australian author Markus Zusak in his novel The Book Thief. Death also appears as a character in Sir Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy series Discworld, where “the line between thought and reality is, as they say, hazy.” Olga’s never heard of Pratchett or Discworld, which amazes Mateo. Patiently he explains the characters to her. Then he tells her about Pratchett’s death in 2015 after a diagnosis of a rare form of dementia. Olga was recently diagnosed with cancer. The topic of assisted suicide enters their discussion.

Belén Gopegui
Belén Gopegui

Gopegui’s characters usually speak directly to Google. At times though, Olga and Mateo address not only the intern they imagine evaluating their application at Google HQ but also, in asides, the reader of the book—thus breaking the fourth wall. For example, at one point, they bring in the audience to explain they plan to tell Google, “who knows everything, everything it doesn’t know.” Inari in the report speaks to “the recipients of my brief comments” (his Google supervisors), but in a way that engages readers as well.

Olga and Mateo met by chance in a library. As they continue debating concepts such as merit or “the precarious nature of the ego,” they vary their meetups to pubs, parks, or Olga’s apartment. Gopegui gradually sketches out minimal details about their lives. Olga’s son lives in Bangladesh but they don’t communicate often. Work seems more important to him than family. Basically, they’ve lost their connectivity. Perhaps Olga views Mateo as a substitute for her son?

Meanwhile, Mateo’s father is in the process of “cognitive degeneration.” Mateo, who takes care of his little brother in their small apartment, is starting to fall in love with a girl named April who works in a pizzeria. Olga and Mateo befriend the pub cook, Roberta.

Gopegui employs social satire in combination with the philosophy of science, as she did in her earlier metaphysical novel The Scale of Maps (2011, also translated by Mark Schafer into English).

Olga recalls how statistics “developed as a tool the state could use to look at society.” She and Mateo note it’s “simpler to predict the behavior of a group of humans than of any one person.” They wonder together—about a lot. Does Google “shun the margin of error”? What’s not being created? They take up almost a full page of their application to emphasize “data aren’t always information.”

They ask: “Who will have the power to decide which dimensions are worth contemplating?” They write: “Machines are unaware they’re machines.” (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara might have an opinion on that statement.) Olga and Mateo discuss whether humans are machines. Gopegui reminds us “we are narrative machines.” Why? “To protect ourselves from our lack of control over causes, we tell stories.”

Mark Schafer

Onward they chastise, tsk tsking as if they’re dropping suggestions into an Employee Comments box: “For example, Google, you could have worked on how to share your power with people.”

Gopegui has a masterfully hilarious way of occasionally skewering with veiled but spot-on analogies, addressing Google at one point as “you of the winged sandals….” Think, for a moment, about Hermes, one of the twelve Olympian gods who served as their messenger. He wore gold-winged sandals from Zeus so he could deliver communications quickly from the heavens to the earth and underworld. He was also known as the Greek god of trade, sometimes depicted as a trickster with superhuman strength.

The novel’s title tweaks a line from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” substituting the word “Stay” for “Stop.” Gopegui employs Whitman’s version as an epigram, along with a line from Entre le temps et l’éternité (Between Time and Eternity) by Nobel Laureate llya Prigogine and science philosopher Isabelle Stengers. Gopegui tells Google “you and time” both consider yourselves “rather omnipotent.”

Gopegui poses profound questions about algorithms here, inside a short story embedded in a job application, inviting readers to weigh in alongside the Google evaluator. Stay This Day and Night With Me came out six years ago in Spain—yet like a fine Tempranillo, the work has aged well. It feels even more relevant today, as the relationship between technology and humanity continues to evolve.

The release of this English translation is timed perfectly. It adds a literary dimension and intellectual depth to an escalating discussion previously mined by writers such as William Gibson (Neuromancer) and Jennifer Egan (The Candy House), both standout examples of fiction reflecting the relationship between technology and society. The topic looks to have a continuing pull in the publishing world, as authors such as Naomi Alderman (The Power) demonstrate with her new novel, The Future, coming out in November 2023.

Belén Gopegui once again proves her thought-provoking mettle in Stay This Day and Night With Me to the English-speaking world. It’s tantalizing food for thought.

Belén Ruiz de Gopegui lives in Madrid, Spain, where she was born. She is the author of ten novels plus a variety of stories, essays, plays, young adult fiction, and film scripts. Her first novel,La escala de los mapas (The Scale of Maps), won both the 1993 Premio Tigre Juan and the 1994 Premio Iberoamericano Santiago del Nuevo Extremo. In 2009, her novel Deseo de ser punk (Longing To Be Punk) garnered the Premio Dulce Chacón de Narrativa Española. Gerardo Herrero adapted her novel La conquista del aire (The Conquest of the Air) as a film in 2000 titled Las razones de mis amigos (Friends Have Reasons). Gopegui holds a law degree from the Autonomous University of Madrid.

Mark Schafer, who translated Stay This Day and Night with Me, also translated Belén Gopegui’s earlier novel The Scale of Maps as well as a number of works by other Spanish writers (with a focus on Mexican literature). Schafer has received a number of fellowships and grants, in addition to the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize. He holds an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University (College of Letters) and a master’s degree from Boston University (Hispanic Studies). Schafer is a senior lecturer in Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a visual artist. He is a founding member of the Boston Area Literary Translators Group.

Publisher: City Lights Books

San Francisco’s City Lights has been part of American culture since 1953, when founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti with professor Peter D. Martin (who retired in 1990). It’s been a literary and cultural gathering place since beginning as the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. The publishing arm started in 1955 with the Pocket Poets series, and within a year added Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. That publication resulted in Ferlinghetti’s arrest, and a landmark trial about the definition of obscenity. City Lights now has over two hundred titles of its own in print, including “cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, literary translations and books on vital social and political issues.” The City Lights Foundation is “dedicated to sustaining a vibrant community of readers, writers, and independent thinkers.”

Nancy J. Peters, a poet and author, began working at City Lights in 1971 as an editor. In 1984, she became bookstore co-owner with Ferlinghetti (who passed away in 2021). Since 2007, Elaine Katzenberger has been publisher and executive director, after starting at the store in 1987 as a bookseller. Stacey Lewis (vice-president and director of publicity, marketing, and sales) has been at City Lights for close to thirty years.

The National Book Critics Circle named City Lights Booksellers & Publishers as recipient of the 2022 Toni Morrison Achievement Award, “recognizing their commitment to literary culture, social justice, and intellectual inquiry.”

City Lights Publishers is unable to accept manuscript submissions or book proposals but there are internships available in publicity and marketing. Details may be found on the website.

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