Senselessness (Insenasatez) by Horacio Castellanos Moya – A Review

Insenasatez (Senselessness )
Horacio Castellanos Moya
Tusquets, pg 155, 2004

Horacio Castellanos Moya has a sense of humor that even in a darkly troubled book like Insenasatez makes his vision of cruelty and corruption more than a litany of horrors. With Insenasatez you see him in full Bernhard, with the obvious nods with the winding clause heavy sentences that go for page, but there is also the dyspepsia that marks the work of Bernhard, a disgust with modern world is. Here, too, the humor tempers Bernhard’s relentless disgust and makes it less cold and analytical, locating it in a form of madness, not a bureaucratic corporatist state. Castellanos Moya’s vision of hell is no less terrifying and the threat is more real than ontological. What makes Insenasatez a balancing act between a sarcastic humor as the narrator tries to prepare the 1000 page report on atrocities in an unnamed Central American country and the depiction of madness, are the continuous quotes from the victims of the violence. At times such as when the narrator fixates on the smelly feet of a one night stand, a reader could be forgiven for wondering if the book was a comedy. Yet there is always a threat growing off page, lives destroyed, villages decimated in the cruelest and capricious authoritarian methods.

hay momentos en que tengo ese miedo y hasta me pongo a gritar
there are times I have this fear and I have to scream

The constant refrain of these voices allows the narrator to at once be the chronicler of the war and to be its victim. I’ve mentioned the humor several times, but that humor is also the unwinding of the narrator’s sanity. He doesn’t describe in great detail what has happened to the victims, that is only mentioned in glancing and is understood. No, it’s the narrator’s slide into irresponsibility and paranoia. Everyone around him slowly becomes suspect, including his friend Eric who gets him the job, but never appears, just remains a name. It is the space between the actual world of the report and his action that gives Castellanos Moya space to play with the ways the extreme violence plays out. As the narrator slides deeper and deeper in to his madness he becomes more and more paranoid, finding himself going to greater and greater extremes to avoid threats. At one point he spends his time hiding on the roof of a building while he avoids the boyfriend of someone. The man is an army officer from another country, a member of a international observation team. For the narrator, though, just to see a soldier is a threat. Ultimately, the narrator descends into a madness that is uncontrollable.  Castellanos Moya is careful enough to leave open the possibility that he is unreliable, but the ultimate fate of the report makes it hard not to believe the narrator is yet another damaged voice from a dirty war. Insenasatez is a brilliant book that explores a difficult era that has not yet come to an end.

Interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa at the White Review

The White Review has an interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa that is worth checking out:

Q Jorge Luis Borges is a major influence of yours, and it is your earliest writing that is most indebted to him. What was your first experience with his work?
A  Borges made me into a reader and a writer at the same time. Before experiencing him I was a different kind of reader, one who floundered in a country with very few readers, and without any living writers (those who were alive were exiled at the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s). I read and reread Borges in those years, which is to say in my adolescence and young adulthood. I feel that, among many other things, Borges is an ideal author to come to in late adolescence. Apart from serving as a kind of literary road map, he directs us toward the best that is in us – this was what I discovered in Borges as a serious adolescent who wanted to be a poet or a mathematician. The itching to give one’s intellect free reign, this is something that Borges can transmit. Reading him produces what might be called a longing for knowledge – and, why not, a longing for eternity – combined with a pessimism or nihilism that is very Latin American, very Argentine. In Borges’s prose there is a mix of cerebral control and physical despair. This sort of a mixture is something that can be very appealing to an adolescent. After all, who is more easily influenced than a teenager? ‘What is important is the elated, and tranquil, and happy work of the mind,’ writes a character in Bioy’s A Plan of Escape, which Bioy himself wrote under the influence of Borges. I would endorse that statement.
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Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists That Defined the 1980s – A Review

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists That Defined the 1980s
Lori Majewski , Jonathan Bernstein
Abrams Image, pg 320, 2014

I came across the book while listening to my favorite music show, Sound Opinions (link to episode). I have long been a fan of some of the bands covered in the book, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunny Men, Joy Division, New Order. And in many cases if I didn’t know the band’s music, I knew their name. With the exception of The Smiths, I’ve never read much about the lives and times of these bands, who have always seemed so different from what came before that I had the impression they just came out of nowhere. In reading the book I have a new appreciation of many of these artists (and the converse for bands I’ve never liked: Kajagoogoo). While the book, if you are of a certain age, will probably fill you with nostalgia, there is more here.

The book is a series of 36 interviews with New Wave bands, many of them considered one hit wonders. Each interview focuses of a particular song. For most of the bands, it is their big hit. In the case of bands with long careers, such as Duran Duran, it is about their first big hit. Along with the interview, comes a brief analysis of the song that is part of the interview. That approach makes for some surprising conversations. Sure there are the musicians who are too full of themselves, such as the singer from Flock of Seagulls, a completely deluded man if there ever was one. In general, though, the musicians are thoughtful and quite reflective. The Tears for Fears interview is a standout, especially as they talk about their early career before Songs from the Big Chair. After reading the interview I got a copy of The Hurting, the first album, and was quite impressed with its darkness, something called out in the interview. I think it is actually a better album than Songs, in part because it is closer to the experimental nature of New Wave and avoids some of the pomposity of mid eighties post wave.

The Soft Cell interview was another standout, too. I have a new appreciation for their music which is as the title of the first album says, is cabaret music. What comes out, too, in the Soft Cell interview is what late 70s England was like and how that influenced the band (and several others). That period of time was of economic decay and political unrest and many of these bands were living hand to mouth in squats or bedsits (studios) and often stealing to survive. It is partly what makes many of the bands so dark. Obviously, punk demonstrated that, but after that scene died it showed up in many of the bands.

Of course, not all the New Wave bands were dark. We have Duran Duran and ABC as prime examples. I was never a big fan of these bands but to hear them describe their influences. Nile Rodgers and Chic came up over and over. When you listen to the funky base lines in Girls on Film or Poison Arrow it is obvious, but it had never occurred to me. Kraftwerk is a perennial name for the electronic bands. The members of OMD mention that they were almost copying the band and when they mentioned it to Kraftwerk they said they knew. It was fascinating how many had similar influences, and that the influences were more mainstream that you might think.

Yes, Mad World will feel nostalgic, but if you read it with youtube at your side you’ll come to a new appreciation for songs you may have heard hundreds of times. And having the context that comes in the interviews will make many of the songs more powerful than they first seemed. (Although, nothing is going to make Animotion, A-ha, or the Thompson Twins better)

A few of my favorite discoveries (many more are at the book’s website):

Warm Leatherette – The Normal

Sex Dwarf – Soft Cell

Poison Arrow – ABC

Mad World – Tears for Fears

The New Book from Juan Marsé

Juan Marsé has a new book out that continues with what he wrote in Últimas tardes con Teresa 50 years ago. You can read the first 9 pages of the book, here.

Marsé, cuya fama se expandió de modo fulminante gracias a aquella sátira feroz de los comunistas pijos de Barcelona (hoy separatistas) que se llamó Últimas tardes con Teresa, un título extremadamente poético, mostró desde el primer momento que su voz se adaptaba sobre todo a los personajes frágiles que sin embargo se creen fuertes. El encantador Pijoaparte, un pobre muchacho que se hace ilusiones sobre la capacidad revolucionaria de las guapas chicas de Pedralbes, es uno de los grandes modelos literarios de la posguerra y sigue perfectamente vivo tratando de encontrar una puerta en la muralla de los círculos maragallianos.

Era una novela enérgica, valiente, vigorosa, escrita con simpatía hacia el inmigrante, el desdichado charnego que cree poder saltar las barreras de una de las sociedades más reaccionarias de Europa. La novela era ya entonces crepuscular y adivinaba con inteligencia prodigiosa el futuro de aquella sociedad que se creía democrática.

En su último escrito, Noticias felices en aviones de papel, regresan las figuras de aquel comienzo, pero decantadas a una esencialidad sutil. Ya no hay burgueses, ni pequeños ni grandes. Sólo clase baja y lumpen. Porque lo que nos relata Marsé es la recepción de un mundo al que deberá acomodarse un adolescente sin demasiada suerte. Su padre les abandonó, la madre trabaja, no tiene amigos, los vecinos de la finca son todos menesterosos y, sin embargo, a ese mundo debe abrirse el chico y construirlo con su mejor conciencia porque fatalmente ése ha de ser su hogar, aunque todavía no sea posible.

Best Books of the Year In Spanish – The Lists

I was rather disappointed with El Pais. I thought it was a little predictable. Moleskine Literario has a good round up of the lists. The lists form La Vanguardia and El Cutural were particularly rich. El Cutural has the advantage that the list includes the voting from 9 different critics so you get 9 lists in 1. I will say, the list are very male author centric. The one woman writer that seems to show up regularly is La trabajadora by Elvira Navarro.


An Overview of the Work of Rafael Chirbes

Fernando Valls has an overview of the work of Rafael Chirbes in Revista Turia. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes it into English soon.

La consagración como gran escritor parece haberle llegado a Chirbes tras la publicación de sus dos últimas novelas: Crematorio (2007) y En la orilla (2013), con las que ha obtenido –entre otros- el Premio de la Crítica. La primera apuntaba a una grave crisis económica y moral que, todavía larvada, estaba a punto de estallar, mientras que la segunda no hacía más que confirmar y completar el certero diagnóstico. Antes nos había proporcionado obras de indudable valor, desde la prometedora primera novela corta, Mimoun (1988), hasta el díptico formado por otras dos piezas de semejante intensidad: La buena letra (1992) y Los disparos del cazador (1994), o la novela generacional que es Los viejos amigos (2003), aunque todas ellas posean una notable entidad. De lo que se trataba, en suma, era de dejar constancia de setenta años de historia española, de lo público y lo privado, de la educación sentimental y la política, los negocios y la intimidad, destacando una serie de hechos que gran parte de la sociedad española, encabezada por los dirigentes políticos, parecía haber olvidado. No olvidemos que para Chirbes, como para Balzac, la novela consiste en contar la vida privada de las naciones, frase que nuestro autor ha recordado en más de una ocasión[1]. Por tanto, nos hallamos ante un empeño narrativo que podría encuadrarse muy bien en la tradición de los Episodios nacionales, uno de esos grandes relatos que abarcan toda una época, a pesar de que los teóricos de la posmodernidad nos hubieran anunciado no sólo su fin sino su falta de sentido.

Rafael Chirbes nació en 1949, en Tavernes de la Valldigna, un pueblo de Valencia situado en la comarca de la Safor. La suya era una familia obrera en un mundo de calculadores campesinos, como él mismo nos ha recordado, vinculada a Denia (“el Mediterráneo de mi infancia fue el de Denia”), donde vivía el abuelo. Quizá porque su padre, peón de vías y obras, murió cuando él tenía 4 años. Su madre trabajaba de guardabarreras y tras la guerra fue depurada. En una de las entrevistas que ha concedido, confesaba que su infancia estuvo llena de miedos y pudores. Cuando Rafael contaba sólo 8 años lo enviaron a estudiar a un colegio de huérfanos de ferroviarios, primero en Ávila y luego en León, como le ocurre a Rafael del Moral, el personaje de La larga marcha. Después, estuvo interno en Salamanca, donde sus compañeros solían ser hijos de la burguesía local, rompiendo con la igualdad que imperaba en las anteriores instituciones escolares. El radical cambio de paisaje y de clima, el frío seco de Ávila y el húmedo de León, y la separación de su familia, le resultó en parte trágico pero también excitante, como él mismo ha explicado. Este temprano alejamiento supuso además un cambio de lengua, pues el castellano se convirtió en su vehículo de cultura, al margen de que la lengua familiar hubiera sido siempre el valenciano.

Best Books of the Year from El Pais

El Pais has their end of year top ten. No real surprises here this year. The better list is the top 4 by genre. In the fiction in Spanish are

1. Así empieza lo malo. Javier Marías. Alfaguara.

2. El impostor. Javier Cercas. Literatura Random House.

3. El balcón en invierno. Luis Landero. Tusquets.

4. Como la sombra que se va. Antonio Muñoz Molina. Seix Barral.

The most interesting is in the Spanish non fiction category. They list Continuación de ideas diversas by César Aira, which is an interesting choice. It is a meditation on writing in a free associative style. Caravana de recuerdos has a review.


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