Are Quotation Marks Irrelevant?

I removed Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth from our kitchen bookshelf to investigate how he handled quotation marks. Kafka's short stories had been sitting right beside his, but I've been having shoulder problems so Bolaño's book was a lesser stretch. I initially read his collection six or seven years ago and had forgotten the grammar was less conventional and perhaps less representative. I began reading at a random page.

Two things occurred. One: I became side tracked. Two: I didn't get to two because of one. Or rather, after finishing the story, I came to my senses, went back and took care of two.

Bolaño chose not to employ quotation marks, and this practice may have partially contributed to my falling off task. The fluidity he created, in part through sparse punctuation disabled my analytic mind. Bolaño’s narrator was recalling and retelling, his speech reported although not necessarily presented as indirect.

. . .suddenly the Eye started talking, saying he wanted to tell me something he had never told anyone else. I looked at him. His gaze was fixed on the paved path winding across the square. I asked him what he wanted to tell me about. A trip, he replied immediately. And what happened on that trip? I asked. Then The Eye stopped and for a few minutes nothing seemed to exist for him except the tops of the tall German trees and, above them, the fragments of sky and silently seething clouds.

Note that two separate voices were presented within a single quite natural sounding paragraph. The essential aspect of my question about quotation marks was thereby addressed: can a reader tell who is speaking without quotation marks? Can Cormac McCarthy, another who does not use much punctuation, noted in his Oprah interview: “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.” McCarthy felt that extraneous symbols filling a page served to distract both author and reader. 

So it can be inferred that quotation marks are not necessary, but the writer has to omit them mindfully otherwise, the reader may become frustrated in trying to figure out who is saying what. I suppose it helps to be either Cormac McCarthy or Roberto Bolaño, but most of us don't have that "luxury." This brings me to the second issue which interests me regarding quotation marks - that which calls attention to a word, gives it a greater emphasis, or conveys irony.

The Chicago Manual of Style defines scare quotes:

Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply, “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.

Personally, I am tempted to use scare quotes every other word as everything seems ironic to me. But I couldn't find any in Bolaño's book. I went back to the shelf, braced my shoulder and removed Kafka. He employed direct quotation marks throughout his stories. I turned to The Penal Colony, the one about the machine that inscribes the prisoner's sentence on their body. Kafka was the master of flaying open institutional irony. So I thought maybe with this one. Only a few 'definitions' were so encompassed:

. . .It consists, as you see, of three parts. In the course of time each of the parts has acquired a kind of popular nickname. The lower one is called the 'Bed,' the upper one the 'Designer,' and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the 'Harrow.'

So it's not necessary to use scare quotes and perhaps, as McCarthy's had pointed out, greater consideration has to be given the writing with regard to not using them. Using a scare quote generally emphasizes an irony that is already present and if applied, might make it all the more heavy-handed and unpleasant rather than instructive. Of course, this would depend on the context of the piece.

I will note also, when I opened Roberto Bolaño's book, I found myself within his story, Mauricio ‘the Eye’ Silva. This edition had been translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. I tend to feel uneasy reading translations because culture, place and time can only drive the nuances of writing. I often try to imagine myself having grown up in Ankara and reading Faulkner translated into Turkish. I can't. Universality prevails with good literature however so, Thank God the good translators are paid to translate. Spanish to English might be an easier task, yet I still fear that half the time I’m watching the dubbed movie version. I had in this instance, been rendered unaware of Bolaño's punctuation in only a few paragraphs; Andrews was good at his job. He and Bolaño allowed me to become immediately fascinated, just as the narrator had been, in both his fictional acquaintance and the telling of a story within a story which concerned an evening on the backstreets of India; how The Eye had rescued two young boys earmarked for castration.

I realize it was not solely the omission of quotation marks which defined Bolaño's genius but his judicious if not uncanny sense of word order and flow. Whatever it was, my critical agenda had been quickly forgotten as I was drawn into Bolaño’s dream state. My unexpected conclusion from this exercise was that I need to release myself from agenda and allow more time to read what I used to read. From time to time I need to reclaim that original vision of what literature is and what it can do. Quotation marks may or may not be relevant in the grand scheme of things.