My God is a Gun
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart
My God is a Gun, translated into English in 2013 by the late Melvin Milo Melbern from a Spanish translation of an anonymous and untitled Quechuan text, is an anomaly in the history of translation. The acclaimed original Spanish translation, Nuestro padre, la lanza (Our Father, the Spear), was provided by Jorge Paca, who is primarily renowned for his historical work on oral folk histories from Peru and Colombia. Melbern, an author first and foremost, is known in the translation community for his work on other esoteric discoveries such as Hammett’s Statement (a Cornish text dated 1919) and the apocalyptic Diaries from Beyond (which Melbern translated from English into Spanish).
The original untitled text, named by Paca after a line found near the conclusion of the text, is dated to have been written between 1880—1883 in the Tacna region of Peru. The text was originally uncovered by antique book collector Bernard Laurent on the 3rd of January, 2008, near the bottom of a bric-a-brac box at a West London car-boot sale, alongside such charity shop classics as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
Melbern’s English translation differs from Paca’s celebrated (and considerably more linguistically and historically accurate) translation in a great number of controversial ways, and is considered to contain embellished elements not present in the original Quechuan text.
Despite the controversy and purported lack of understanding of both time period and cultural voice, My God is a Gun has the distinct reputation for being the only current official English translation of the text. Furthermore, in contrast to critical opinion, many well-regarded multilinguists have spoken of their affection for the text, and some fans of this unknown Quechua-Peruvian author’s lone work consider this to be the definitive version of the text; both historian Jonathan Bayer and journalist Kenneth Loveman have praised Melbern’s effort as a singular work that transcends traditional translation and achieves its own greatness as a piece of metafictional art (Loveman summed it up in the Observer thusly: “Melbern’s translation is only passingly acquainted with the original historical work; however, it is through this that it unfolds as a masterpiece of artistic translation that deliberately defies rational understanding and instead takes its aim directly at the human pathos.”); other critics, however, blasted it as the work of an exploitative charlatan and a confused, grandiose narcissist well past his prime, particularly after Melbern’s infamous breakdown on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2014, an incident that fellow author Miles Stone claimed as indicative of Melbern’s decline.
In the interest to the reader, I have supplied a number of endnotes; these detail the notable similarities between the translated text and Melbern’s own 2004 novel Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar, his most successful work both critically and commercially.
The additional English translations of sections of the Paca translation are provided by professors Joelle Luna and Dennis Birkbeck of the University of Surrey, to whom I give great thanks.
My God is a Gun
There is no beauty greater than that of the female soul—O, no, lo and behold, I found myself indebted to a wanderlust driven by that need, that fire, for the beauty of a Spanish woman, far from my tribe; salted meat I prepared for the journey, and I left in the dark, speaking not a word of my plans to my mother Saywa, and before long the hills and mountain trails were breaking in my stride, and after some weeks I reached occupied Tacna.
When I arrived in Tacna on the 27th of May, I could still hear the lost echoes of dead souls. Many had died in the city the night before, and weary guards stood stony in the streets, a few lone smiles that read not joy but determined and temporary victory. Despite the upheaval, the people of Tacna continued their lives, unsure of what would come next.
I had no money or goods to trade; I had chewed all of my coca leaves on the journey, and salted meat had little value of note. My cultural background in ceramics however led me to take residence with a contentious and somewhat melted man named Pedro Sciarra, a watchmaker who employed me to create glass domes for his timepieces. Rarely did I complete a project for him in one effort; more often I received diatribes for my work, and Sciarra was not above striking me if he considered the work of low enough quality.
Adjusting to the existence found in this city of labyrinthine streets1 oddly unpopulated and so distant from the huts and hillside abodes of my past life took many months. I spent all of the time not engaged in dome-assembly wandering the city lanes, speaking to no one but observing all. After some time, the faces of the individual shifted into one face with two genders. The further I looked, the less defined became the European face of the Spanish beauty I had seen in my dreams.
In the dust-ridden neighbourhood of Texcuana2 I found a small abandoned house, and I began spending nights away from the Sciarra residence. Only here did I start seeing the image of that Spanish beauty again; she stared into me as I slept, and once I even heard her name. I saw her face clearly now, as vital as the morning sun: her speckled green eyes flickered with an energy I felt familiar. But for all of these dreams, she came no closer to taking material form; and in time, I even forgot the name that she had whispered into my slumbering ear.
Sciarra took ill, and in facing his death, became a new man. I stayed by his bed and listened to him speak of God, and the rites he wished to have performed at his funeral. He asked me to find his only living son, and to deliver him a message, entrusting to me several pages of Spanish that he sealed in an envelope with watchmaker’s mould wax. In the last few days of his life, he spoke of the Trinity, and he spoke of his hope for forgiveness. He repented for beating me, and he entrusted me with the future of his workshop. I stopped visiting that house in Texcuana, and forgot entirely about the Spanish beauty who surely waited for me still.
Sciarra passed away through the night, and I found him staring inert at the ceiling, clutching his bedclothes. I could tell that his last moments had been difficult; and in his eyes, something spoke to me, words in a language I did not understand. He was buried as per his requests—a scattering of herbs left on his unmarked grave, his coffin nothing but a linen sack. I was the only attendee; I left the letter to his son on the grave, and said a word to the shepherd spirit to deliver his son to the spot, if he still lived. I walked from the grave, herbs and dirt falling from my clothes.
I tried my hand at watchmaking but fell short repeatedly and gave up. To fail to create a facsimile of time is known to corrupt, and with each mistake I could feel myself taken further and further away from the destiny I had ordained for the future. Each ripple contained within it ten thousand paths, and the hope of falling onto the right one began to seem small. Violence spread through the region, until news of new hostilities became ubiquitous. But for all of the war, I thought only of the flower-haired Spanish beauty of the flatlands.
Her return to my life had me renounce any further attempts at watchmaking, and I sold the Sciarra property and took myself to Texcuana to locate and purchase the property I had stayed in the year before, but the house had been razed. Wandering into the night, I drank from pisco from a flask and spoke to many denigrated denizens of their woes and passions. I slept in the bed of an older woman of Quechuan origin named Cuxi3, who spoke of food and farming as we made love upon the course sheets. And although I felt a fervour, I left in the morning before she rose.
I found myself wandering for some weeks, avoiding the streets at night to save myself from losing my small inherited fortune at the hands of dark-eyed knives. Through the markets of dust I walked, passing the dull-eyed camelids and the chromatic drone of the ponchos. I dressed in fine cotton clothing, not for the heat but for my waiting Spanish beauty, the one who got ever closer and ever further away.
Three nights after I heard the fox howl, my eyes set upon a woman. She had conquistador eyes4, flowing rust-flecked hair, a brimmed hat resting atop her head. She was not the Spanish beauty I had been seeking, I knew that; no, she could be nobody else but my own flesh and blood, my own family, my own sister.
Her yellow dress was a beacon. I moved with the wind towards her, to find out how she came to be; how she found herself here; how we had never known each other. But the crowds of like-faced folk churned, and as I pushed further into them, I quickly realised that I had lost sight of her. After catching one more glimpse of that yellow robe, a man took a step directly into me. I fell back onto the floor, sand in my eyes. Something happened, and I clutched at my side. Hands moved around my body, pushing into every pocket. Soon, I looked up to see the crowds of people with their uniform yet shifting faces staring down at me. I looked at my hand to see it smeared red.
My blood painted the sandy street. My fortune was lost. My sister had disappeared into the aether, and my last conscious thought was that I would never see her again.
I spent a month recovering from my wound. When I slept, it was no longer the Spanish beauty that looked into my eyes; it was my sister. I thought of what I might say to her; what I might call her. I thought of many names, but there was no single one that felt natural. I had to find her, to draw the answers from our shared mouth.
I spoke to the Father, but he spoke not to me. God spoke to no-one; I was left out of the loop, alone but for the rain and wind5.
My doctor, Santos, discovered my history working for the watchmaker Sciarra and took me under his wing fixing his medical tools. I witnessed the many victims of the city, those unlucky enough to feel the blade dig too deep or who had deteriorated from the lash of time. Most did not survive. I thought on my luck, and how I would not squander this chance to atone.
All of my time away from the surgery was spent carefully wandering the streets, searching for my sister. I dressed in sodden rags, appearing so to be a beggar or leper. I played the part and kept my gaze toward the future.
Three hundred days passed, and in time I became a master artisan of medical tools. I crafted devices that saved lives and eased suffering, and I played audience to the increasing survival of the unfortunate folk who found themselves on the operating table. Santos and I eventually spoke of my future; his kind eyes followed mine and he nodded as I spoke of the sister I had to find. He was quiet for some time, and then told me that there would be a day soon when he would not see me again. I nodded.
The day came sooner than either of us could have imagined; to be precise, it was that day. Not long after our conversation, I took my leave to a local drinking hole that I had recently started to patronise. As I took my corner seat, she appeared at the door. She was wearing that same yellow dress as before, the same hat, and her eyes were still my own. She only looked briefly into the room before turning and going on her way; I got to my feet and scrambled out of there, leaving my alcohol to the dust and flies.
The streets clamoured with a resounding din of footsteps and mercantile. Through the tangled archways I moved, keeping the woman in yellow in sight at all times; I knew that this would be my final chance to reach her. I saw many infinite versions of us moving through the alleyways that we crossed, our forms blurring as I kept my true sister in aim.
Eventually, we reached the outskirts of Tacna. Lonely streets housing lonely homes, and it was as if we were the only living souls around. More cautiously now I followed, her seeming unaware of her brother coming to find her. O how near the truth was now—but I did not rush, I could not. The desertic flats now stretched out into the northeasterly valley, the hills rising up to meet us. Finally, we were the only ones walking.
I was but fifteen feet from her now.
‘What of you?’ she said.
I knew not what to say, but I walked still.
‘You do not mean me harm, lest I would already be dead,’ she said, and she turned around.
Indeed, those eyes were unmistakable; the sleek curves of her face, the parting of her hair; she was my kin, a perfect feminine mirror of my soul.
‘You are my sister,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘We have been living together in this city for some time. Why only now do you seek me out?’
‘I knew you not. If only I had.’
‘Let us keep walking,’ she said.
We walked in silence up to the crest of the knoll that I had traversed on my journey to the city. Finally stopping and turning around, we looked over at the place we had both made home; all was quiet, other than the chirping of insects and the occasional cry of the birds.
‘How long have you been here?’ I asked, finally shattering the illusion of silence.
‘As long as you have. We have found ourselves here again.’
She turned to me. It was as if I were capturing my own gaze.
‘What of our god?’ I asked, but knew not why.
‘My god is a gun6,’ she said, ‘and I am a bullet.’
I inspected her eyes further; I had seen them before somewhere, in some dream state or fugue of youth.
‘Have you forgotten me?’ she asked.
‘I apologise, sister, for I believe that is the case.’
‘Do not apologise; one of us was to remember, and I get to play that role this time. There is much that will come back to you: the many aeons we have spent together. We were there at the start, and we will continue even beyond the end, to even more distant and remote lands and vistas. We have seen every end of this earth a thousand times; we have never failed to meet. We are more than twinned souls, my old friend.’
She offered me her hand, and I took it.
‘Do you feel it now? That sense of being whole—and the forces that conspire to pull us apart. There will always be times when we must be apart, but we will find each other again, always. For beyond brother and sister, you are I, and I am you. We have always been one, and we have always been two. Without one, we could not have the other. We fit together as pieces of a jigsaw, as parallel paths in Sol’s Labyrinth. Every woman you seek is I, just as every man I have adored has been you. Reflection is an ideal; it is purity.’
Our hands fell apart again. I nodded solemnly, and looked away from her eyes.
‘It is not our time yet, is it?’ I asked.
We stared out over the city. I felt the land expanding out before us, incrementally increasing in size, along with the rest of the universe. I turned once more to her, to see her before we parted again for another epoch.
‘I do not believe so, no,’ said she, said I. ‘There is much trouble to come before we are joined forever. We will realise our differences, and then our similarities. For it is not just our eyes that we are similar, just as our bodies are not the only way that we differ. It is only when order and chaos are at peace that we will speak as one. Until then, I will dream of you.’
She smiled, and Inti, the great sun, shone down on us. In the light, our forms were inseparable; two identical bodies, silhouettes without difference or conflict, melding in the solar incandescence.
‘We shall meet again, many years from now. One will give the other a sign; messages caught in the melee, scripture that only the other will discern. Let us take this chance and bury it here on this hill, and one day it shall find us again. When the call finally sounds, we will answer in kind, and after a decade has passed, we shall be together as one, for eternity, as one.’
For those familiar with the lauded Paca translation, it is not difficult to see why Melbern’s ‘fictionalised’ version is so controversial; even the very name of the piece is a personalised corruption. But despite the artistic liberties taken (particularly) with the conclusion of the story, it is noticed that the final paragraph is incredibly close to Paca’s original translation, and despite the final sections becoming divergent to such a degree that the message is changed, Melbern finds a way to finish the tale with the same words, even with the context so vastly changed.
We know the reasons for those lines in the celebrated original translation, of course—the two separated siblings have discussed their return to the realm of the gods where they belong, but must first go their separate ways to attempt, perhaps futilely, to reconcile the brutally contrasting perspectives of their native mother and rapist, colonialist father.
The discovery in the original translation that they are half-Quechuan and half-Spanish makes the account primarily a piece of cultural criticism in the form of a tale, and until Melbern released his own version, that was exactly all the piece was: a primary text of somewhat novelty value, sought after by Peruvian and other Latin American scholars for their collections. Since Melbern’s translation was released, the story has taken on a life of its own; and particularly now, one year after his untimely death, it is being reassessed as one of his defining works.
Many theories abound about his personal changes to the story and the coincidental crossovers between the original Quechua text and Melbern’s own novel Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar, but I am not here to catalogue such conjecture.
Melvin Milo Melbern died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his home in Oxford on the 3rd of January, 2018. He left behind a final novel, posthumously released this year, titled Woman Behind the Train, or Annotations Through Time, a dense, 1200-page odyssey-narrative of spirit-doppelgangers attempting to contact each other through time and space by leaving messages in the stars.
His other final work was his suicide note. It read:
‘My God will not punish me for this sin, as it is my God that has taken me out of this world.’
1: This marks Melbern’s first moment of erroneous translation: Paca’s Spanish translation describes the streets of Tacna as uncomplicated and bustling with life; moreover, the narrator is portrayed interacting with a number of townspeople (these conversational scenes provide satirical humour, showing supposed Peruvian stereotypes of the era). Conversely, Melbern’s Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar (hereafter referred to as ‘Jars’) is set in the city of Labyrinthia, a city in the lost Latin American country of Quelacicero. The streets are believed to shift in the night, making each new day subject to a sweeping clean of the slate and offering opportunities for constant adventure. As such, Melbern’s translated description of Tacna more closely resembles his own fictional work than the reality of the original text.
2: ‘Texcuana’ is not a real place, nor does it exist in the Paca translation—the area isn’t named in the original text, instead it is implied to be an abandoned hut or outhouse some miles outside of the city. Texcuana is, however, the metaphysical ‘locked cage’ that protagonist Atoc places herself in in the final chapter of Jars.
3: ‘Cuxi’ is the only name that remains the same from the Paca translation (for example, Sciarra’s name is Abracante). Cuxi is also the name of a minor character in Jars: coincidentally, both characters are described as older women of native origin. The similarities end there however, as the Cuxi in Jars is the distant half-sister of Atoc, as opposed to a brief sexual partner of the unnamed protagonist of My God is a Gun.
4: This oft-cited and infamous phrase is the focus of much derision from certain critics, who point out that for all of the liberties taken by Melbern, this shortsighted and insensitive description is the one that unveils him as an ugly, colonial-minded opportunist seeking to use a native primary text for his own means. The Paca translation of this line uses the word espíritu (a form of pun or reference to alcohol) in place of ‘conquistador’. If I may offer my own opinion, I consider Melbern’s reference to conquistadors and colonialism in this paragraph indicative of a deeper understanding and consideration of the original text, especially taking into account the original final reveal of the shared lineage of the Peruvian siblings — due to this, I see these critics as engaging in contrived controversy, and as such, cast doubt on their credentials.
5: This short paragraph does not appear in the Paca translation to any recognisable degree. It is, in fact, verbatim from a passage in chapter six of Jars; it is Atoc’s reply to her brother Tito after he asks her the fate of the magically enthralled apu Father Wind.
6: The title line, and what follows, is the most erroneous and controversial element of Melbern’s translation. Paca’s translation posits these lines as:
Y nuestro padre?
Nuestro padre es la lanza.
‘What of our father?’
‘Our father is the spear.’
This complete rewrite continues throughout the conversation; little of what the narrator and his sister speak is similar or even vaguely related to Paca’s version, and, as such, the entire outcome of the plot diverges onto its own path, as far away from the original outcome as possible, beginning with the revelation that the protagonist and his sister are the children of colonial rape.
Gone is the parade of gods that the siblings witness above Tacna, and absent too is the appearance of their mother. Of note to the reader is this: in the conclusion of Melbern’s Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar (published four years before the discovery of the Quechuan text), Atoc reunites with her father after the battle of the gods has taken the lives of her townspeople, only to discover her father is in fact Illapa, the lord of thunder, who set her off on her journey in the beginning with that portentous lightning strike.
After he asks her if she is happy to see him again, she shakes her head, and says: ‘My father is a spear. He offers only death, and I shall not grasp him.’
Although she tries to destroy Illapa for putting into play the dark, world-changing events that have taken place, she ultimately sees her own face reflected in his eyes; with this revelation, she turns away from her father, and places herself in the locked cage of Texcuana, to be awoken only once all of time has passed.
Anonymous. (n.d.) Untitled. Translated by Paca, J. as Nuestro padre, la lanza, Bogotá: Pontificia Press; and translated by Melbern, M. M. as My God is a Gun, London: Faber and Faber.
Hammett, C. (1919) Hammett’s Statement. Translated by Melbern, M. M. London: Faber and Faber.
Inženia, Ï. (1937) Diaries from Beyond. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
McCarthy, M. (1963) The Group. New York: New American Library.
McEwan, I. (2001) Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.
Melbern, M. M. (2004) Jars of Pickled Brains and the Word of the Dogstar. London: Sahnow.
Melbern, M. M. (2019) Woman Behind the Train, or Annotations Through Time. London: Sahnow.
Wordsworth, W. (2015) ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, in Gill, S. (ed.) Selected Poems. London: Penguin, pp. 61-66.