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My Review of Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier Is Up

My review of Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier is up at Three Percent.

One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the overwhelming number of novels in English in the years following the war that prevented their appearance. Just looking at the list of American authors, a country whose contribution was quite short, Wharton, Cather, Cummings, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and of course Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms, makes it obvious that it was a subject that once had to be written about. Still, that doesn’t explain why perhaps the most famous WWI novel is from Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe it was that a second even more devastating war eclipsed the first one, and pushed it into the background. It is a shame, because as Paul Fussell noted, World War I was a literary war and Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel of World War I, ably translated by Malcolm Imrie, is a long overdue addition to that literature in English.

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969) was called up at the beginning of the war, wounded, and after convalescing returned to the front for the remainder of the war. Fear follows a similar trajectory: call up, wounding and hospitalization, and a return to the front. It follows a typical pattern of novels written by veterans and even echoes that of Remarque. The power that comes in front line narratives is not in the intricacies of plot, but in how they can evoke the experience of war. Chevallier is successful in his descriptions of the front lines, the constant shelling, the gruesome description of the dead, and one will come away with a sense of the terror and fear men faced. At times there is a monotony in this and it seems as if all there is to the book is moving from shell hole to shell hole. Yet it is that repetition without seeming purpose, a drama played out on an isolated stage where little context exists and the characters just survive one shelling after another, that is the real story.

Andrés Neuman on Julio Cortázar

Andrés Neuman published an excellent article on Julio Cortázar in El Pais this week, one that is worth reading and shows his breath as a writer.

Los cuentos fantásticos de Cortázar han sido aislados en un canon restrictivo que tiende a traicionar la genuina variedad de su poética. Las piezas perfectas (uno de los epítetos más recurrentes en su prosa) al estilo de Continuidad de los parques, escritas durante los años cincuenta y sesenta, han eclipsado una extraordinaria periferia que, contradiciendo la opinión oficial, incluye su obra tardía. Pese a los sobreexplotados artefactos de inversión como Axolotl, muchos de sus cuentos memorables (La autopista del sur, Casa tomada) no condescienden al malabarismo estructural, ni concluyen en sorpresa. En otras palabras, la mayoría de los cuentos de Cortázar operan al margen de la simplificadora ecuación con que suele identificarse su narrativa breve, persiguiendo más bien lo que él alguna vez denominó “mecánicas no investigables”.

Un ejemplo de esas afueras es Queremos tanto a Glenda, del libro homónimo, legible como parábola de la reescritura, pero también de la censura autoritaria; se trata de un excelente cuento político, descargado de lastres panfletarios. Y sobre todo Diario para un cuento, del postrero Deshoras. En este texto final y sin embargo fundacional, Cortázar declara su intención de escribir “todo lo que no es de veras el cuento”, los alrededores de lo narrable: el contorno de un género. Quizá por eso repita la frase “no tiene nada que ver”, a modo de mantra digresivo. Para éxtasis del hermeneuta universitario, en este cuento se cita y traduce, acaso por primera vez en una obra de ficción latinoamericana, un fragmento de Derrida.

Dead Stars by Álvaro Bisama – A Review

Dead Stars
Álvaro Bisama
Megan McDowell, trans

Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars is a fascinating take on a troubled woman’s failing attempt to survive political violence in Chile. The novel follows Javiera a woman who was beaten and raped by the Chilean secret police during the Pinochet era. She was a committed communist and lost everything, almost dying at the hands of the police as many of her contemporaries did. She is a troubled woman who returns to college, engaging in political activities and taking up with a student years younger than her. It is a rocky relationship and the fights and arguments are legendary among their friends. As the novel progresses it is a relationship that can never turn out well. Why she continues with her brutish lover is hard to understand but she gives up everything for him, even her relationship with the party, sliding farther and farther into obscurity until she only resurfaces in the newspaper with the police.

This is where the narration actually starts. A couple whose tension bubbles throughout the narration as yet another disappointed backdrop, is sitting in a restaurant and stumble on the article in the paper. The article not only shows a tension between the couple, but starts a narrative that is elusive, confrontational, and creates a dialog between what is remember able and what the narrators want to remember.

She said: You’re going to have to listen to me, you owe it to me; we’re going to spend the whole morning on this shit.

It starts just like that: with an image. The two of them sitting together. In the first row. By chance. I stayed in the back. It was the first day of classes. I didn’t talk to anyone. They talked to each other. Maybe that’s what defined everything. The first minute of the years to come, the laws o attraction that would embrace them, the solitude of the rooms they would inhabit and the desert they would flee to, the volume of gray sea’s murmur, like a dream of silence.

Already, Bisama starts to construct the narrative in a series of confrontations and memories. The two narrators are already negotiating what they are willing to construct as they listen to each other and remember what they can.

Their relationship to Javiera is one not one only of friendship, but of animus. She is the older survivor of the dictatorship and the female narrator felt smaller for it: “The past was a liturgy that excluded us from its miracle [...] Because we had no share in the tragedy, and we had no right to ask for anything.” The statement puts a line between the veterans of the repression and those too young and now have different expectations, and throughout the novel one has the impression that a form of survivor guilt is at work in Javiera. The narrator doesn’t understand it in those terms but she does understand that the children of the 80’s are not the same politically engaged revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s.

Memory and the reason when remember keeps returning as a theme as the story evolves and the narrator’s try to make sense of what they are saying and why. The female narrator notes

But that’s how I feel now. Poisoned by other people’s stories, by other people’s lives. When I think about those two, that’s how I feel: I feel like the witness to something that no one cares about. That’s why I haven’t stopped talking, that’s why I’m not going to stop talking, she said.

Then the primary narrator chimes in

I didn’t tell her that I did know parts of that story, I didn’t tell her I’d seen Javiera and Donoso in some photos when I went through her old albums trying to get a look at her face back before we’d bet. It was another life. I wasn’t there. But I couldn’t tell her anything, ask her anything. It wasn’t my place.

Each narrator attempts to construct something. She who knew Javiera does it because she has no choice, as if she is obligated. Yet it is an obligation stemming not a deep bond something akin to guilt. And if one is poisoned by another’s stories why repeat them? Why not forget them? He for his part has attempted to construct something that is unconstructable: a image of Javiera that is his and is accurate. He knows it is hers to do.

As the story continues Bisama keeps returning to the question of why the story has to be told, if these two are really not that interesting. Can anything come from this act? It certainly will not bring the two narrators closer. And she only grows more doubtful as time goes on:

Her: Aside from many other things, the past is that: a photo taken in a hotel we wish was our home–false photographs, proof of the life we never had.

Later she rephrases it:

The past is always a newspaper page left behind on the ground, she said.

In each case there little to be gained from remembering the past. These kind of sentiments reflect something generational in the narrators. An escape perhaps from activist era of Javiera and the disillusionment with her behavior. The narrator during college retreats into punk, into rebellion that is not as political and what there is to remember just doesn’t mater.

Bisam’s continual reworking of the narrative purpose makes Dead Stars more than its basic plot suggests. It creates a narrative the questions if it she be told, and yet when read says, yes, it should. Javiera’s life is tragic, all the more so because no one knows what to do with it. She survived the police, but did not become a hero for it and lost herself and her history in the process.


Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski – A Review

9780199316892_450Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Paul Jankowski
2014, pg 336

The more I read military history the more I’m convinced that most books divide into two types: the narrative of action; and the analysis of events. The former reads like a novel, full of action and sweeps the reader along—an exciting read, the stuff of adventure. The latter eschews narrative and picks apart elements of a battle or war, often returning over and again to a moment to look at it from a different angle. The former is easy to read, the latter feels more honest to scholarship asking questions that narrative sweep can obscure. Paul Jankowski’s Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War definitely falls into the latter camp and for that is an excellent account of the events and participants that made Verdun a byword for futility and waste.

Jankowski begins with an investigation of motives for the attack. In particular, he shows the Erich von Falkenhayn’s goal to bleed France white was really something he came up with after the war to justify his attack and his persistence. Jankowski notes that it is hard to know for sure these details because the German archives were destroyed in World War II, and both the French and German official histories have elements of propaganda in them. Given that Falkenhayn was not truthful, what were his reasons for continuing with the attack? And for that mater what were those of the French to hold on to a system of forts they had decided were useless and had virtually abandoned? In each case it seems as if there was a momentum that made it impossible to withdraw. The Germans couldn’t withdraw after committing so much, the French couldn’t afford to loose any more land. For the French, Verdun, as the battle dragged on, became a point of pride and instead of withdrawing to safer and more strategic zone they chose to fight.

Jankowski the battle itself was not as legend has led us to believe. The initial losses of the forts was as much luck on the German side as disinterest on the French side. But once lost they became focal points of the battle. The French were not prepared to fight the battle either. They were short of guns, especially heavy ones, but they did advantages when it came to supplying the troops. He spends considerable time looking at what made the troops continue to fight. On the French side it is a critical question because the next year the French army would see mutinies. He points out, though, that the commitment to the battle was stronger than later events would have us believe. It was when the futility of the battles of 1917 became apparent, the men lost their will to fight. His analysis is a complex picture of competing motives and pressures that kept the men at the front.

Ultimately, the brilliance of Jankowski’s book comes from the way he shows there are no easy answers to why the battle lasted so long, why the men fought it, and how the two sides were able to maintain the intensity. I think anyone reading this will come away from it with the impression that what kept it all going so long was simple momentum. And though it did help sap the French of their will to fight, the post war analysis and legends only served to obscure what really was happening and what the participants thought. Jankowski has added new light to those times.

Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic – A Review

Europe_in_Sepia_largeEurope in Sepia
Dubravka Ugresic
David Williams, Trans.
Open Letter, 2014, pg 230

I like the ideas suggested by the title Europe in Sepia, a place that is living on its past and uncertain where it is going. Is it a museum piece or something living, dynamic. And I like the idea of Dubravka Ugresic: a writer who has the insights and bravery to see the problems. As in her previous book Karaoke Culture this is true to a certain extent. Ugresic when confronting the realities of Croatia, her home country, is clear, concise and full of ire at the Croatian nationalism that looks back at mythic times of national purity as a way forward. Her experience as a writer who dares to question the exclusionary policies that come with national pride and to long for not a return, but a reckoning with the peaceful Yugoslav era. How could the Croats and the Serbs share a language and then suddenly not? These questions have led to death threats and she now lives in Amsterdam in exile. These are powerful questions because the flip side to preserving traditions and language, especially in small countries, is exclusion and extreme cases repression of out groups. In Ugresic’s telling, those who do not write about or celebrate the Croatian state are enemies of the Croatian people, even if those heroes were part of the fascist and murderous Ustaše.

When she steps away from Croatia and the Balkans, though, her precision weakens and in some cases she is just so ill informed her arguments are embarrassing. The fundamental problem is in her style. Most of her essays interweave her personal experiences to draw out a larger point. However, her personal experiences are those of an international literati (and as she would insist, one with little influence). She is not an investigator, a journalist, a scholar, or someone who spends time studding a subject. The effect is of one who misses so many opportunities do delve deeper into what is going on, to ask deeper questions, the questions that when you read her takes on Balkans you know she is capable. At her worst we have this

They’re hawkers of cheap souvenirs, angel figurines everywhere, the Slovaks stealing them from the Poles, the Czechs from the Slovaks. Croats sell gingerbread hearts and bags of lavender. Few display and imagination-imagination doesn’t sell. They wan UNESCO to protect their non-material resources; the Croats have already hocked off kulen and sparnik. Yes, they live off souvenirs, like European Indians in a European reservation. Honey cookies, gingerbread, a bit of folklore, embroidery and lacework, olive oil from handpicked olives, traditional local recipes. At the markets in Vienna these Indians (Serbs? Gypsies? Macedonians?) sell fake Roman coins and fibulas. Their squaws—women with bleached hair and faces roasted like Chinese smoked duck (sun beds are sill in fashion)—are ragpickers, traders in “original fakes,” clothing, caps, ans scarves. Everyone sells his or her bric-a-brac. Yes, the future is definitely elsewhere. In the time of communism watches sped ahead, now they go backwards.

On first read it has a certain coherence. But when you start looking at it, it is such as mishmash of ideas that it is irritating. First is the use of the word squaw. I’m not sure if this is the translator at work, but the word is considered offensive. But let’s put that aside because there is a bigger issue here: context. Comparing the American Indians to the groups in Europe with such different histories is lazy writing at best. Instead of asking interesting questions about identity and language and what it takes to maintain these and other elements of culture especially given the different power relationships over time (i.e., subjugation of Native Americans vs. European nationalism), she goes for facile comparisons. And the conclusion of the quote is indicative of her position, too. Given the disaster that the past is she wants to jettison everything about the past. That’ll never happen, and more to the point, there are things from the past worth saving. And I don’t think the slavish devotion to the future is necessarily a remedy either. There are so many potential ideas to work out in this brief quote, yet she just throws them around half developed and that is the greatest problem with her writing, the stutter stop flow of ideas as she comes across something else she doesn’t like. I would have stopped reading her some time ago if I wasn’t always hoping that once, just once, she’d bring it all together.

I have similar complaints with the rest of the book. The notable exception is at the end when she writes about women and writing. She is much more concise here and her arguments are much more narrow in focus and, thus, hold together better. What Is An Author Made of? is the best piece in the collection and one that I would put as a must read, without qualifications. It is so good, I wished it was at the beginning of the book because I almost stopped reading and would have been sorely disappointed had I missed it. Granted, it may only appeal to people interested in literary theory, but it is accessible and compelling. Her core argument is all the theories about the death of the author come at the expense of women and that it is easy for men to play these games with authorship because they have the power and luxury to play them. Moreover, these games tend to silence, or at best sideline, women writers because it diminishes the importance of the author, the voice of a woman who has her own unique things to say, and replaces it with a universalizing kind of literature. She is especially unhappy with the literary establishment that is still too male.

I’ll try her next book, if there is one, but I’m always going to be doubtful. Her essays, with some rare exceptions, just never quite deliver what they promise. That is too bad because she has some great insights.

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Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America – A Review

Thirteen Crime Stories from Latin America
McSweeney’s No. 46
McSweeney’s 2014, pg 270

Maybe I just don’t like crime fiction? I don’t read much of it. Perhaps reading this collection was a mistake for someone like myself? But I’ve read enough fiction with criminality and violence that I can only conclude something else was at work. As much as I tried to like the stories within and find something redeeming, if not in substance at least in style, I failed. I read one story after another and it turns out most of them are not that good. Lazy is a better adjective. I get the feeling that some of these stories are written by writers who don’t read much crime fiction either. Santiago Roncacliolo’s story is a case in point. It was essentially a police officer’s disposition of a crime, told in a linear fashion with little in the way of interesting touches. The subject, too, was just as uninteresting, a murder of a singer over drugs. There is, of course, potential in the subject but other than pointing out the drugs are a problem, the story is flat. Fine. Roncacliolo’s stories aren’t my favorite anyway. I think the best story of his I’ve read was in the the Future is not Ours collection. The next story by the Argentine Mariana Enriquez gave me a glimmer of hope. The narrator of the story is a woman who lives in a run down part of Buenos Aries. She’s a middle class woman, a little naive, who lives in the neighborhood because of the great old art deco mansions. On the street she encounters a dirty street child, the son of a crack addict who lives somewhere near by. She befriends the boy and he seeks her help when the mother disappears. The mother doesn’t want anything to do with the woman and jealously guards her son. Unlike many of these stories, the story resolves back into mystery when the addict disappears and the narrator is fairly certain, but not 100 percent sure, she has seen the little boy’s corpse by the side of  road. Enriquez’s story presents a couple elements missing from most of the stories: narrative mystery (as opposed to a mystery story), subtlety with her characters, and a resolution that is open ended. It is one of the few stories that doesn’t attempt wrap up a crime in easy terms. Another story of note was from Alejandro Zambra. It has his usual narrative adventurousness and is both a story and the story of a story. What makes the story suffer is the graphic sex with a child. As a subject, child abuse is fine, but there was something off putting about the way he wrote it, as if he enjoyed writing it too much. It is a touchy subject where art and crime meet and in the case I think he went too far. Speaking of graphic sex, several of the writers have something for transvestite prostitutes. Fine, but also a cliche. And why do they have to end up dismembered ? At least Enriquez gave her transvestite her own voice. The only other story of interest was Rodrigo Ray Rosa’s account of a drug clinic buried in the Guatemalan jungle. It was interesting, had an air of mystery to it and until the ending was well written. Unfortunately, it had one of the sloppiest endings that was just tacked on to finish it off. Finally, one last complaint: where are the women authors? There was only one Enriquez. A 1:13 ratio is bad. There have to be a few more women who want to write crime fiction. It certainly would have given a little more variation. So, no, I did not like much about this collection. One of the more disappointing things I’ve read for sometime.


Asymptote Journal’s Latin American Issue Out Now

Asymptote Journal has put together a special feature on Latin American fiction for their July issue. Amongst this rich issue are some stand out Latin American writers. See the full contents here.

Our special feature on Latin American fiction continues this theme of rebellion, with warm tributes to Gabriel García Márquez (by his Portuguese translator), Julio Cortázar (by the great Chejfec), and Osvaldo Lamborghini (by Aira, translated by recent English PEN Award winner and Asymptote contributing editor Adrian West) appearing alongside authors translated into English for the very first time: Julián Herbert (Mexico) and Nona Fernández (Chile). Poetry opens with Waly Salomão, a jet-lagged poet from Syria and Brazil, and closes with Raúl Zurita, the Chilean poet and performance artist who wrote some of the largest poems ever using bulldozers and skywriting planes.

Beyond our striking cover, emblazoned with a polar bear and a map leaping off an iceberg, the juxtaposition of man versus animal extends into Fiction (where Zsófia Bán channels the USSR’s first dog in space and Faruk Šehić‘s terrestrial astronaut learns to read fish), Nonfiction (where Uyghur writer Patigul mimics a monkey), and even to our largest-ever Criticism section (where Guadalupe Nettel translates “animal traits to human behavior”). Throughout, guest artist Robert Zhao Renhui‘s mysterious photography highlights man’s fragile position vis-à-vis the natural world, complementing an exciting lineup that includes César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Amit Chaudhuri, Daniel Hahn, Mary Jo Bang & Yuki Tanaka, ‘Misty poet’ Wang Xiaoni, Mui Poopoksakul‘s survey of Thai fiction, and a review of Qiu Miaojin‘s Last Words from Montmartre alongside an excerpt from a now-uncensored feminist classic from 1954, Thérèse and Isabelle, Violette Leduc‘s scandalous account of convent-girl passion (a treat if you’ve just caught Martin Provost’s “Violette” at the cinema).

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