Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou – A Review

Why I Killed My Best Friend
Amanda Michalopoulou
Open Letter 2013, 257pg

Amanda Michalopoulou’s short story collection I’d Like was a particular favorite at By the Fire Light, so it is particular excitement that I review her newest book to come out in English, Why I Killed My Best Friend. Originally published in Greece in 2003, it is at once a reflection of that time and the current troubles in Greece. The political events that take place in the book make this a departure from I’d Like’s more literary explorations, nevertheless, Why I Killed My Best Friend has some deft touches that make the book resonate.

Briefly, the story follows two friends, Maria and Anna, from childhood to adulthood. Maria comes from a middle class family who is part of the establishment, and her best friend Maria comes from a revolutionary family, whose parents teach revolution and do not lead anything like a middle class life. It is a friendship filled with conflict, Anna dominating the relationship with her certain positions on politics and life. Even at an young age, Anna repeats leftist political slogans and criticizes Maria for her lack of commitment. The bond is so strong that as they grow and Anna becomes more and more mercurial, Maria becomes the one who commits herself to politics, letting her art become subservient to activism. Maria is the one who goes to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Anna? She marries and architect who says he is a radical in his designs, but it ultimately sounds as if he is just spouting some cultural theory that justifies in action.

From this brief sketch, we have two conflicting lives that are bound with a friendship that is at times intense other times spiteful. It is Anna who always steals Maria’s boyfriends—she is the better looking of them, according to Maria. Neither finds in their rebellion much success. Anna, is more mercurial, listless, uninterested in the politics that Maria has dedicated her life to. Maria, is fighting the good fight, but as much as she loves Anna and the struggle, she is always finding herself in a disadvantageous position. All her battles end in a certain failure and if the political ones can be absorbed, the personal ones that have seen her defeated at the hands of her best friend, leave her unhappy. You get a sense of frustration that permeates what is ostensibly a story of friendship. With friends like these…

While the relationship is interesting, the politics are not so much as uninteresting, but unconnected. They are a mini reportage of the movements of the 80s and 90s, but they appear as name dropping. Perhaps that is the point, that Maria’s reasoning behind her actions are less thought out and are more a reaction to Anna. In this sense the politics do not feel a strange reminder of battles forgotten, as much as battles unexplained. For the reader they are a backdrop, not the raison d’entre of the novel, and in this sense they are interesting, a kind of greatest hits.

Ultimately, Why I Killed My Best Friend secedes as a story of friendship. As a story of modern Greece, it is less successful. It is not as successful as I’d Like, but it is a good effort.

Bumf Vol 1 by Joe Sacco – A Review

Bumf Vol 1 Cover
Bumf Vol 1 Cover

Bumf Vol 1
Joe Sacco
Fantagraphics Books, 2014, pg 120

It is no secret that Joe Sacco is a particular favorite at By The Fire Light. He has mostly worked within comix journalism, writing a series of books on Bosnia and Palestine, along with smaller pieces on various subjects. He did start his career, however, in the alternative tradition (see Notes from a Defeatist) and Bumf is a return to that world. It is a book he has been writing off an on for some time and is quite a departure from his journalistic efforts.

Bumf is pure satire, biting and dark. I read it when the torture report came out and it was a perfect reflection of the report. A work that is comedic and bleak, picturing a world where the secrets of the government are something to fear. Moreover, Bumf directly tackles some of the practices of the last ten years and finds in them not an aberration, but a continuation of a hundred years of war making, yet another bit of insanity in the name of victory.

The brilliance in Bumf is how Sacco mixes tropes and cliches from the 100 years of war and scandal to create a vision of an America that is darkly funny. Starting with the insanity of the First World War where a general commands his men to run naked across the battlefield to scare the Germans, he mixes in the anachronistic story of a World War II bomber pilot. From these sources Bumf presents a military logic that is anything but logical and leaves soldiers at the mercy of the general’s wild ideas. From there, Sacco adds in the figure of Nixon, an a temporal figure who exists in both in the Vietnam era and in the modern era. He is a devious figure and participates in secret rituals, the same ones that the men who torture do. All these layers of images from history and pop culture, create a satirical view of the United States as anything but free or just. Instead, it is a bureaucratic one where the strange whims of its leaders dictate everything.

The humor is quite dark. In one scene Nixon is given a torture kit and a prisoner to torture. In the next panel his wife is yelling at him to get the dead body out of the bathroom. She doesn’t want it there any more. In the following panels Nixon and his men are shown lugging the body out of the bathroom while his wife is sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. The tortures are also ridiculous. They all wear a black hood, much like the prisoner in the Abu Grave photo, and are naked. For much of the story Sacco follows a couple who walk around naked with their hoods. They are part of a twisted love story that finds them playing out romantic lives while all around them the absurd cruelty continues. They, too, are part of the absurdity, often having sex while Nixon looks on. Into this satire, Sacco also injects a dose of religion. Many of the torturers as they celebrate their bacchanals site passages from the bible, often perverting the quote to fit the needs of the state.

Bumf’s vision spares no one. It is one of the most biting satires I’ve read. What makes it work is Sacco’s humor and willingness to be completely absurd, mixing military tropes from the last 100 years into a surreal cometary that distills the essential madness of these ideas. I was a little doubtful that I would like Bumf. I don’t like alternative comix at times because they can become to self referential and juvenile. Bumf is anything but. It is a true departure from his journalistic work, but a fascinating work nonetheless.

Barbarismos (Barbarisms) by Andrés Neuman – A Review of his Alternate Dictionary

Barbarismos (Barbarisms)cubierta_NEUMAN_Barbarismos_imprenta
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2014, pg.130

Anyone has followed this blog will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s work. He has an incredible range of impressive writing working in novels, short stories, short essays, and editorial work with the short story. (He writes poetry, but I’ve not read it.) To this list we can add Barbarismos his personal dictionary. In Spanish, the title refers to the linguistic concept of using a word incorrectly or include an expression from a foreign language in Spanish. From this starting ground he has created a dictionary of alternative definitions. Ambrose Bierce’s Devils Dictionary is the most obvious example to an English speaker, although Dr. Johnson’s dictionary with its love of opinionated definitions is a cousin. In these alternative definitions are humor, notes of satire, and the exploration of writing, all written with a subtly and insight that make the book a fascinating exercise.

With respect to his definitions about writing and literature, he tends to look at them as a process, both of finding yourself reflected in a work and creating the work as you interact with it. For Neuman there is a constant interplay between one who is working with a text, either in writing it or reading it, and the text itself. This interplay gives a mystery and elusiveness to a work. He’s not facile about this interplay, instead he sees in it a kind of epistemological relationship between an person and what they can know. At the same time, he sees it as a collective enterprise that has no leader, but is organic. His take on politics is humorous without being particularly caustic. Certainly there are jabs at patriotism and religion that go beyond the day to day frustrations of living in a democracy that doesn’t quite live up to its ideals. He’s at his best here when he takes down sacred cows, as he does with patriotism and his definition for flag.

Ultimately, Barbarismos succeeds as a book because Neuman’s way of finding the vital truth of a word is spot on, showing him to be an excellent observer and a clever writer. While he does play with words (see imán), many of his definitions I think would appeal to readers outside the English language. One would hope that some day a few more of these would appear in English.

bandera. Trapo de bajo coste y alto precio.
flag. Rag of low price and high cost.

búsqueda. Hallazgo casual de otra cosa.
search. Casual discovery of something else.

cuentista. Mentiroso que busca la verdad un poco más lejos.
storyteller. Liar that searches for the truth a little bit father out.

democracia. Ruina griega. || 2. ~ parlamentaria: oxímoron.
democracy. Greek ruin || Parliamentary democracy: oxymoron

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.
writing. Collective autobiography.

imán. En el campo de la física, atracción fatal. || 2. En el campo religioso, ídem.
magnet/imam. In physics, fatal attraction.  || 2. In religion, the same.

izquierda. Ideología política que parece irreconocible hasta que gobierna la derecha. || 2. Sentido critico con tendencia a atentar contra si mismo.
left. Political ideology that seems unrecognizable until the right governs. || 2. Being a critic with the tendency to attack one’s self.

vacaciones. Acción de transitar por los mismos lugares a menor velocidad.
vacation. Act of passing through the same places at a slower pace.


El Pais had a review of the book with more definitions and definitions from 20 other Spanish authors

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.

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.

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