An incredible scene in the final episode of the Netflix series Daredevil has stuck with me since I watched it a few weeks back. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, but if you’re terrified of spoilers, I guess you could stop reading. So. Anyway. The chief villain, Wilson Fisk, is being transported inside a police van, handcuffed and under the watch of two heavily armed guards. A little way into the journey he starts to tell a story. A long story, which the viewer quickly recognizes as the tale of the Good Samaritan. He speaks of a man traveling on a road, and how this man “is set upon by men of ill intent.” Then he goes on to talk about the different people who passed him by as he lies there, nearly dead, until the good Samaritan finally stops and helps.
When the story is finished, Fisk says that he’d always thought of himself as the Samaritan. Yet he has come to realize he’s not the good man, and that he’s not any of the others who pass the traveler on the side of the road, either. (The writing here is great, drawn-out, allowing the suspense to build, and the actor Vincent D’Onofrio really works his breaths and pauses.) Then he delivers the killer line: “I am the ill intent.”
He’s not one of the men of ill intent. No, he’s the very spirit of evil. I love that idea for a character, and yet it only really works because the writers spent so much time developing Fisk as a person through all the episodes. He’s not a spirit. He’s flesh and blood and bones, and he sort of has a heart. Yet through the course of the story he finally comes to accept that he is the embodiment of evil, of ill intent. With that one line he moves beyond the confines of a single character and transforms into a kind of force hovering around the entire world of the story.
The Fisk character also reminds me of a line in one of Hemingway’s letters. In the note, he’s offering advice to Fitzgerald about a book in progress:
“Now watch one thing…don’t let yourself slop and get any perfect characters in…Keep them people, people, people and don’t let them be symbols.”
The writers establish Fisk as a human, then let him bloom into a symbol. But he’s not perfectly evil. He’s in love. And the hero, Daredevil, isn’t perfectly good or noble. He has a vindictive, brutal side. Neither main character is close to perfect.
The good guys have a little bad in them and the bad guys have a little good in them. To me, that’s great writing.
And now for something completely different. Recently I wrote a story about machine translation – how technologies like Google Translate and Skype Translator transform spoken or written words from one language into another. It’s here. Then I read this today, from the great Russian translator Larissa Volokhonsky, in the Paris Review, as she recalled an early experience working on this technology:
“…it was then that I understood that machine translation is not possible. I can formalize all these syntactic connections and relationships until I’m blue and gray and dead in my grave, and still I will never convey the taste, the flavor, the rhythm, the smell, the music that I hear.”
She said this, too, which has nothing to do with translation, but made me laugh out loud:
“We were allowed to hunt, you see. They were very wild places. But I didn’t hunt. I could have told you I did, but I didn’t.”
I could have told you I did, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s the difference between a translator and a storyteller.