La memoria donde ardía (Where Memory Burns) by Socorro Venegas – A Reivew

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La memoria donde ardía
(Where Memory Burns)
Socorro Venegas
Páginas de Espuma, 2019

The Mexican author Socorro Venegas’ fine collection explores the transition to motherhood, the early stages of pregnancy through the first year or so, where doubts, uncertainty, and strictures from outside one’s self and the process, at times, difficult to adjust to. In economical prose (only one story is longer than five pages) she captures in brief moments the encounters that make the transition fraught. Filtering though out the book, explorations of memory as something that both defines and haunts oneself. In the world of La memoria one is constantly confronting what one is trying to escape.

The idea of escape most clear in Pertencias (Belongings) where a young window, overwhelmed by her loss and the ever present reminders of her late husband, she answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to exchange the complete contents of an apartment. In doing so, the narrator completely changes everything around her, including the location of memory, which Venegas rightly locates in physical objects. A beautiful story about grief, she captures the difficulty of the loss itself, but how one is continually reminded of it in subtle ways.

Con su muerte me sucedió algo singular: los que venian a dar me consuelo me confesaban secretos. ¿Veían en mí un filtro muy ancho, por el que también sus penas podrian irse?

With his death something strange happened: those who came to console me could confess their secrets. Did they see in me a wide filter which would also take make their pains go away?

In the comic and fraught La gestión (The Process), a woman who is a few months pregnant is driving in her used car. On the back is a sticker from the previous owner that says “I feel great, ask me how.” A strange man grabs her wrist and won’t let her go until she explains how. The man is insistent, and to diffuse the situation she invites him for coffee at a café across the street. Sitting, watching him, she realizes he is a lost soul, and wonders what his mother was like. But this kind of though is double edged, and plays into her doubts about becoming a mother, and she knows it wasn’t the mother who is at fault.

Que difícil ser madre. No se deja de ser madre nunca, al menos mientras el hijo exista. Por el mundo, en algún sitio, había una mujer entrada en años que parió a este desdichado. Y esa mujer sería siempre cupluda por la infelicidad de su vástago.

It’s so difficult to be a mother. You never stop being a mother, at least while your child exists. Someplace in the world, there was a woman long ago who gave birth to this unfortunate creature. And that woman will always be blamed for the unhappiness of her offspring.

In El hueco (The Gap), Vía lacteca (Milky Way), and Real de catorce, the protagonists, respectively, are living among the difficulties of postpartum depression, loss of a premature baby, and a loss of family control that might also be postpartum depressions. In each she explores the pressure to be the idea mother, or how the perceptions of what motherhood is supposed to be come in conflict with the reality of it. El hueco is particularly dark since there are suggestions that the new mother, once she has given birth, has performed her main duty. Real de catorce, takes that theme and finds a narrator whose husband is “perfect”—he spends more time with the kids than she does—but that perfection is not one of sharing, but, instead, leaves her with tasks that she can only do: cooking, some cleaning. The idea of the helpful spouse is turned on its head, and the narrator is left in the same situation as the mother in El heco, uncertain if she will see her child again. The narrator in Vía lacteca asks, as if in conversation with these other mothers, if becoming a mother was really worth it. In each brief narrative, Venegas captures the complexities of these moments, giving a picture that is anything but happy.

In La soledad en los mapas (The loneliness of maps) a story with echos of the rural villages of Rulfo, two census takers travel to a remote village that is mired in poverty. The town is full of only children: all the parents have left to find work. The pair spend the night together. As the narrator, a woman, is falling asleep she wonders, “Pensé en esos niños tan semejantes a animales, en sus sonrisas fáciles, en sus manos callosas. ¿Niños?” “I thought about the children so similar to animals, about their easy smiles, their calloused hands. Children?” Its a dark vision of childhood. The next morning, covered in bug bites, she asks her partner, if she looks like a pregnant woman, and he says she looks like a castaway. It’s not just among the starkness of the poor village, is the narrator on her own.

Socorro Venegas’ work is marked with subtle insights and an economy of prose that is both elegant and surprising. In the scant 110 pages, she captures so much. An excellent collection.

Fracture by Andrés Neuman – A Review

fracture
Fracture
Andrés Neuman
Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, trans
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020

Andrés Neuman is many writers; novelist, poet, short story author, and through the range of his diverse works he has shown immense talent and versatility. I first came to his works via the short story, and it is in the short form I know his work best. In short works he’s more experimental, and yet also personal, finding in the brief images of a story, the memories, the personalities, of those around us. The same sense of the personal also show up in his short novel, Talking to Ourselves. Although not as experimental in form, the narration showed an inventiveness in the perspective shifts, refining the story in fragments of lives that seemed lived by real people. But Neuman is also a different kind of writer, one attuned the historical and political. From his blog posts to his untranslated work Barbarismos, a dictionary of  dark, alternate definitions, he is well attuned to the way language and politics intertwine.

To date he has written two novels that, if not fall into these broad categories, at least lean heavily in that direction: Traveler of the Century, and the latest, Fracture. Fracture is takes place over the last 75 years, starting with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and ending with the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Told around the story of Yoshie Wantanabe, Neuman constructs a story that which examines the major historical events in Japan, Western Europe, and particularly the United States. Alternating between a third person account of  Wantanabe’s experience at Hiroshima and his later Journey to Fukushima, and the reminiscences of three ex-girlfriends, there are detailed descriptions of the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Argentine financial collapse, Chernobyl, and too many others to describe. Suffice it to say, if one of the narrators wasn’t there, they had an opinion. Where Traveler of the Century wanted to dig into the liberal tradition in Europe, Fracture is interested in the atomic age as both a metaphor and a problem that is still with us, not something consigned to the past. Given the real dangers of nuclear war, waste, and accidents, it is a laudable goal. And much like I thought when reading Traveler, if one does not continually return to these issue, they are forgotten, or overwhelmed by the expediency of the now.

As a narative, though, there was something missing. Both Traveler and Talking to Ourselves had a narrative that had its own logic, its own animating characters. Here, the characters don’t breathe, so much as explain history, explain political moments. Have no doubt, its well done, with a depth of knowledge that shows Neuman’s skill as a writer. And there are some brilliant passages and lines that make the novel enjoyable reading at times. But I couldn’t help but think the narrators, the ex-girlfriends were just historians, and not particularly good at it. Moreover, I didn’t really get a sense of the characters as living beings. Perhaps it was because all the narrators are looking back, all of their history is linear, well thought out, as if they had rehearsed it at length. Thee was no suspense and despite some good writing in places, many of the memories felt flat.

The story of Mr. Wantanabe is more interesting and there is a sense of his detachment from the world that comes through. His journey to the center of the disaster is a quixotic attempt to return to what he had lost years before. It also underscores the point that first he was a victim, and now he is one of the perpetrators. Nevertheless, he is a mysterious figure, because he never really speaks for himself, his exes do. It’s an interesting approach, and shifts the power dynamic, especially with a man who is always moving, never able settle in one place too long. And that’s where my initial irritation comes back, all I really have are the bullet points of his life against the backdrop of the 20th century.

Ultimately, Fracture is an ambitious novel, one that continues to show Neuman’s great talent as a writer. Compared to his other works, though, it is not quite as magical, and left me wondering what could’ve been. However, having read some of his 2019 book of experimental short works. Anatomía sensible, I know the future is bright.


I want to thanks the publisher for providing my review copy.

 

 

Garden by the Sea by Merce Rodereda – A Review

9781948830089
Garden by the Sea
Mercé Rodoreda
Maruxa Relanño and Martha Tennent, trans
Open Letter, 2020

Mercé Rodoreda’s work is marked by a concise style infused with a deep attachment to the natural world, one that is both emotionless and yet full of beauty. Open Letter has published four of her novels, Death and Spring, War, So Much War, Camelia Street, and the latest, Garden by the Sea, and each of them has been marked with the same disarming style. The first two are more allegoric, and the latter two more connected to the real world, that of Barcelona and near by. As a traditional story with an arc of action, Garden by the Sea is, perhaps, the most complete, which should not dissuade a reader one way or another as all her novels are magical.

The narrator is the gardener of a large home on the Catalan coast, just outside of Barcelona. It is a large garden and he is a consummate professional, so much so that he describes his plants in great detail. It is detail, though, that comes as dead pan, as if the narrator were a simple man (not uneducated) uninterested in gossip, emotion, or reflection. An example,

Senyoreta Eulalia fell ill. She kept the last letters from her husband under her pillow and she would read them from time to time. And apparently she wept all the salt from her body.

The last phrase is classic Rodoreda.

The story comes at you slowly, no foreshadowing, questions to be answered in the unfolding drama. It’s a dislocating style, one that in its simplicity allows for quiet observation and leaves the reader to puzzle out the gaps. The novel follows the intertwining lives of three families, two who come from humble circumstances and marry into money. It is the rare story where marring into money turns out well, and Garden by the Sea is no exception. There is a Gatsbyesque element to the novel. Yet where the narrator of The Great Gatsby is reflective, aware, the narrator here doesn’t seem to care one way or the other what happens to the families. Much of that comes from the class divide that runs throughout the book. The narrator is an employee, a long term one, but an employee just the same. He watches as the families struggle to recover and relive the past. Naturally, one can’t and the decisions that led to the wrong people marring are unrevokable. Instead, repeat themselves as farce, as arguments and drunken battles the narrator sees from a distance. It is a refreshing approach to a family story. The tragedy is there, but like the flowers in the garden it blooms, dies, and disappears back into  the dirt.

Emphasizing the past, is an older couple who raised the ill fated lovers. It is in their memories that we see the love that should’ve been. While the two rich families interact, they generally keep the gardener at arms length so we have no view into what is happening. Instead, the old couple keep the great romance alive and through them the gardener knows about it. Which leaves open the question that perhaps the marriages, and the untimely death of one of the characters, is not because of lost longing. That lost longing is only what a woman with a failing memory wanted. It makes the story, which otherwise seems straight forward, more complicated. Is this a romantic tragedy, or just one of the rich with too much time?

The richness of the language and intelligence of the story telling make Garden by the Sea  another welcome addition to the works of Rodereda in English.

Damned Souls by Dimiter Dimov – Love, War and the Plague

Damned Souls
Damned Souls
Dimiter Dimov
Sofia Press

It is one of those fascinating experiences of reading that let one enter into old political arguments, wander through them as if in an attic, and find among the detritus of so much misplaced, or misspent, analysis, otherwise quality writing.  Dimiter Dimov’s (Bulgaria, 1909-1966) writing is certainly marked by it’s time and in parts is not shy about them, yet underneath the cruft, the antiquated arguments that time has only made seem exaggerated, or, at least, mistargeted, is some solid writing. If one were to spend time wading in the intellectual past of the mid 20th century, Damned Souls is not a bad choice.

Damned Souls takes place in Spain right before the July, 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Dimov spent considerable time in Spain between 1939-1946. I came across his name in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise). In that story he is working in a veterinary lab with Zúñiga and they find themselves planning to help Republican refuges to return to Madrid via clandestine methods. It comes to nothing, as does so much in Zúñiga’s post war Madrid, but what is evident is his deep admiration for Dimov.

At it’s core, Damned Souls is a debate between conservative religion and an open, an in some ways ideal, worker centered society. It was the crux of the Spanish Civil war, so the novel fits within that context. As a novel, though, Damned Souls has to make that case as forcefully as it can. Or at least, that is what Dimov tries to do. It makes for occasionally overwrought moments. At its best, Dimov captures the frustrations of his characters. The first third describes the harrowing drug addiction of Fanny, an English woman, who falls in love a reactionary Jesuit priest. The desperation and the lengths she goes to get her fix are some of the best writing of the book. He really captures the sad determination of an addict.

The rest of the book takes place in the  months before the war. Fanny, at that point not an addict, is the stereotypical upper class floater, more interested in having a good time than anything else. In a chance encounter she meets a Jesuit priest and falls in love with him. She begins following him around Spain, trying to get in his good graces. Finally, she lands at small town in northern Spain where he has set up a typhus hospital. He won’t accept her help, so she sets up a rival hospital. Next to it. As the outbreak spreads and more and more of the pueblo’s poor die futile deaths, it comes out that all the priest cares about is taking her money and reestablishing the Spanish empire. It’s that last bit that seems cartoonish, as if he could do it. Or perhaps it’s just the delusion that was at the back of Franco’s supporters. Because the arguments are so distant, it is hard to see them as real, even if they are the same ones in Doña Perfecta. Whatever the case, the descent of the hospital into disease is horrific, and, again, shows Dimov’s skill as a writer.

Ultimately, it is the Republican forces who take the camp over, and in a day remedy all the problems, delousing and burning all infect materials. It’s as if the old system was incapable, even when it tries to use modern methods, is incapable of helping the people. Dimov avoids any discussions of Republican politics, other than trad unions, but there is an undercurrent here that without knowing his work better, is hard to decide which way he is going. Is this socialist realism, or just an over exuberant anti-fascist? That aside, the debates are still present and would not feel as heavy handed if, and this is perhaps the biggest issue with the book, Dimov didn’t continually throw around generalizations, usually in the form, the Spanish are a nation of  fill in the blank.

Despite it’s flaws, Damned Souls is well written and should be read, not as a book about Spain, but as one author’s reaction to Spain and the Civil War.

La guerra (The War) by Ana María Shua – a Review

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La guerra (The War)
Ana Mariá Shua
Páginas de Espuma, 2019, 164 pg

If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.

Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms  since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.

The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)

La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?

The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?

The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.

A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).

Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.

Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.

Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.

A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.

 

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

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La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise)
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Catedra 1989/2007

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) is the second book in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Madrid trilogy, picking up a few years after the close of Largo noviembre de Madrid. It is the early 1940s and Spain is under the control of General Francisco Franco, who has dealt harshly with the defeated Republican forces. Madrid is gripped by poverty and fear and, as Zúñiga makes clear, an ever present fear hovers over the city in general, and in particular the defeated. Where Largo noviembre tried to look at the war through the lives of the inhabitants of Madrid (generally civilians in his telling), La Tierra looks at how those same inhabitants, now cornered, often poor, suffering after a year or two in prison, are trying to survive. The survival is tenuous, made even more so by many of the veterans who are trying to keep a resistance alive. Almost eight years later it is obvious the resistance was futile, but in the midst of World War II, as the Germans were loosing there was some sort of hope, misplaced, but one that provided a kind of balm for the defeated. It is in this milieu that Zúñiga sets his nuanced refection on memory and survival.

Las ilusiones: el Cerro de las Balas (The Illusions: Bullet Hill) is an aptly titled opening story for Zúñiga’s second book in the Madrid Trilogy. Largo noviembre de Madrid ended in October of 1939 with the entrance of Franco’s forces into the capital. The collection here takes off in 1943 in a city devastated both physically and emotionally by the war. The earliest impressions gives the reader are of a poor gypsy woman in rags scratching out a living in a bar. It is an image of more than poverty, which is certainly every where from cheep, run down shacks to the beer that is served warm in dirty glasses because there is neither enough power during the day to keep the refrigerators going nor enough water to wash adequately, an image of the outcast. The narrator is a veteran of the war, a republican soldier who has done a little time in a concentration camp. He works in a laboratory of a veterinary clinic with a Doctor Dimitar Dimov, a Bulgarian who the narrator doesn’t know well, and given that Bulgaria was allied with the axis at the time, perhaps he shouldn’t get to know. Nevertheless, as the walk the destroyed city and drink warm beer a confidence emerges and Dimov asks if he can find a Bulgarian who was part of the International Brigades. It is a dangerous proposition, since, if found, he would be in grave danger. The two men though begin the search and the friends of the narrator give varying bits of help, revealing a country sized with fear, a place where the defeated live in fear of more imprisonment. Ultimately, they decide the best thing is to escape to Viciy France. It is a plan full of illusions that doesn’t really face the reality that France is controlled by Germany and is as much a threat as Spain. There is no escape except in little pleasures such as that of the gypsy woman. The narrator decides he will get close to her despite her appearance, despite who she is. If there is no freedom, at least he can find something with the other outcasts. Of course, this is only an illusion, one that is common in Zúñiga, one that leaves the narrator in a devastating limbo unable to escape what they know should be abandoned.

Antiguas pasiones inmutables  (Ancient, immutable Passions) describes a post war Madrid, returning to the old ways, the rich taking possession of what had been theirs before the war, the poor living in hovels. Yet it is also a story of shifts of fortune that such destruction brings about, allowing a few people who were completely separate before the war to mix, to change, not in some ideological sense, but in practical terms. Told in sentences that continually shifting mid sentence between the perspective of the principle figures of the story, Adela, a maid, and Reyes Renoso, a rich landowner, so that their stories, although disparate, reflect a growing interconnectedness. Zúñiga is a master stylist and each one sentence paragraph, some three pages long, bring the threads of each character’s life together in the contrasts of their experience. She is a semi-literate young woman who has scraped by in the neighborhood, who has always looked at the great house on the edge of the slum where she lives and has wondered what it was like inside. He is the last survivor of a a rich family that was all killed during the war who takes over the house. Wounded and recovering in the home, he is a prisoner in some ways, surrounded by the same people who must have thrown the grenade that wounded him. Each is an observer. He of her; she of the world outside the great windows, which she never would have imagined looking thorough. They draw closer, but it is not clear if it is anything more than transactional, but each gives up part of their past to do it: he an elite sense of class that was destroyed when his family was executed; she a box of papers a republican soldier, a boyfriend most likely long since dead, gave her and told her she had to keep. Lines are crossed, borders frayed as the characters seek refuge of a sort from the war’s aftermath.

Camino del Tibet (Tibetan Road) is a search for a better way of living, one that is so out of sync with its time, it renders the believers unmoored from all hope. A group of theosophists meet in Madrid waiting for their leader, trying to decide what to do. They are dedicated members, one pair refrains from sex even though they sleep in the same bed, others refuse to discuss the left, not because they are pro Franco, but because to analyze the world in those terms is to participate in the physical. It might seem an odd choice for a story about post war Spain, but it fits nicely given that the Franco regime was a Catholic dictatorship which had executed theosophists. Moreover, given the ever present backdrop of World War II, the discussions of ethereal terms, both seems brave and pointless, both in the sense that they will achieve nothing and that faith doesn’t matter. And without the leader, without a sense of purpose, a future, it becomes very difficult to maintain the group. It is a story emblematic of all those faiths, religious or otherwise, that meet the hard reality of the war’s end.

Sueños después de la guerra (Dreams After the War) is a sad and beautiful gem that looks at the lives of the soldiers, now defeated, who lives of poverty and disappointment. Although the disparities between the rich and poor show up in a story like Antiguas pasiones inmutables, Sueños adds another layer of tragedy. Carlos is a shoeshine man who works at an expensive hotel where he hears the the men talk about high finance and wealth all things he has nothing to do with, nothing he can ever hope to access. He a man from humble beginnings who had become a construction worker. During the war, though, he served with distinction and was promoted to lieutenant. He was somebody. Then the war ended, his girlfriend was killed and he ended up in prison. All he has left is the bottle and his dreams. Zúñiga doesn’t stop with just the personal disaster of one man’s war. Despite his fallen state, his complete and utter hopelessness, his ex-comrades look to him as someone who can lead the underground, who can keep the fight going. It’s pointless, a dream that will never come true and Zúñiga makes clear that all dreams, the ones of the past and those of the future do little but make the reality that much more painful.

Pero no era un vencido sino que algo peor había golpeado su hombría: una vergüenza de las muchas que los hombres ocultan a lo largo de años y que a veces, cuando en un momento inesperado vienen al pensamiento, entre tantos esfuerzos como hacemos por olvidar, cruzan delante de los ojos, clavan sus garfios en las vísceras más hondas y el rostro se osxurece y nos sentimos desfallecer aunque luego vovamos a hablar de fútbol, de la corrida en la plaza de las Ventas y se alardea de algo que deseamos poseer y que no hemos conquistado, pero la cicatriz de aquella vergüenza está allí, cruzando el pecho.

La dignidad, los papeles, el olvido (The Dignity, the Papers, the Oversight) and the Interminable espera (Interminable Wait) both cover similar ground. In each a veteran of the war are working actively with the Resistance, one distributing papers, the other observing a pick up. In each fear and suspicion mark their every move. The temptation to give up, to find relief in the radio, any kind of distraction. What makes these stories so strong is Zúñiga carfuly balances the same of loosing, the hope for a new future, the fear of getting caught, all the while finding an emotional depth in all of them.

…los receptores de radio cuyas averías arreglaba, traían palabras divertidas y música, girando el interruptor less callaba o les hacía hablar a su antojo y lo prefería a estar como él estaba, sumido en la fasedad del recuerdo proque éste, cada vez que le invocamos, nos da una imagen distinta, va cambiando sin parar según lo que anhelamos o nos conviene, por lo cual no recordamos lo que pasó sino distintas invenciones que acaban siendo engaños.

The last story, El último dia del mundo (The Last Day of the World) requires a note on style. All the stories, save El último are written in long, single sentence paragraphs, some that span several pages. They are perfect for the complex narration, swithing between subjects, as the past and the present mix in the characters mind’s. El último is a transitionary story. As in Largo noviembre which contained one story the took place after the fall of Madrid, El último is the begining of the end of the emediate post war. The story follows three people who refuse to leave their neighboorhood as it is redeveloped. Their defiance is a silent one, one that will end in their destruction. There is no deep psychological examination of fear and hope. That’s gone. What is left is the commercial, the new paradise. This, of course, is not the paradise that is intended by the title of the book, which is a quote of the International. As the vision of a dictatorship, the language changes to simpiler, shorter sentences, which capture a more utilitarian sense of language.

While not quite as magical as Largo noviembre de Madrid, La tierra será un paraíso is an excelent collection.  When taken in the context of the trilogy, the work is even stronger,  examining the profound depths of the end of the war. Where Largo was constrained with action, upheaval, the constant bombing, La tierra is quite, frozen in terror. The two states are perfectly represented in the structures of the narratives and the stylistic approach of the writing. These two works are a must for anyone interested in the Spanish short form.

Doña Perfecta by Benito Pérez Galdós – A Review

20190907_164851For a country whose most famous literary work is a novel, Doña Perfecta has the appearance of an early novel, a novel whose shifts in style and the occasional lacuna in the plot, suggest a nascent form, one that hasn’t quite come into shape. This, of course, is an error.  Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1877 novel is a brilliant work whose structure, style, and themes all seem quite modern, and underscore the struggle between the modern, industrial world of the cities and the conservative, inflexible one of the rural provinces. It is a story, though written nearly 25 years before the start of the twentieth century, presages the internecine battles of the next hundred years.

The titular Doña Perfecta is the matriarch of an upper class family that comes from a rural provincial capital. It is an isolated place. The journey from the modern train station takes several hours by horse back through land that rife with bandits. It is ringed with with shanties and the town has been in decline for some time. None of this stops Doña Perfecta and her circle of friends, which includes a high church official, from looking suspiciously at anything that comes from the Capital, Madrid. When her nephew Pepe comes to town to marry her daughter and claim his ancestral lands, the conflict between these two worlds collide.

Galdós does not make it clear what Pepe exactly does to set off the ire of Perfecta and her friends. He lets the inhabitants relate what they’ve heard, leaving the reader in a game of telephone where what one hears about the young man might be upsetting, but is it true? The accusations are, naturally, all of a religious nature, but essentially are reducible to one idea: he has used his scientific thinking to disrespect the traditions of the city. Pepe, a good engineer more interested in building a physical future, one built on reason, cannot see what harm it is to walk through a church and look at the art. In the age of over tourism, it is hard to take this as a great crime, but it does show an inflexibility, an unwillingness to even listen to Pepe defend himself. Pepe doesn’t do that very well for he speaks in modern terms, ones that they are unable to understand.

Galdós’ characterizations are one of the true strong points of the novel. While he does employ a narrator that gives local color, or pushes the plot along with details from larger events, particularly the revolts of the 1870’s, it is in exploration of the voices of the narrow minded inhabitants of the province that the novel comes alive. Doña Perfecta is a particularly exasperating one, but one of those dark characters who sparkle in fiction. Her ultimate fate, dark and just as it is, is also tragic, and given her moral rectitude one she is completely unable to see.

Ultimately, Doña Perfecta reveals a Spain unable to shake itself of a lethargy and embrace the modern world. It is a failing with tragic consequences for both the characters of the novel, and the country as a whole.

Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd – A Review

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Through the Wheat
Thomas Boyd
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927

Thomas Boyd’s 1923 WWI novel is relatively forgotten work in the literature of the war. Although, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a work of art in his review, it does not quite rise to that status. Overshadowed by the likes of Hemingway and the Europeans who had more to say on the subject, Through the Wheat does have a place when looking reading the war.

Through the Wheat follows a Marine, Hicks and his company as they go from green Marines to experienced combatants. The conventionality of the narrative is more implicit, than explicit: there are none of the traditional scenes of boot camp. Nevertheless, even implicitly stated it slows the book at the beginning. One problem is Boyd attempts to capture the voices of all the men, show their boredom, excitement, the emotions that drive them. Unfortunately, he is not quite able to capture it. There is no real sense of who the characters are and the novel seems conventional, overly dramatic, and plodding. As the novel develops and more and more of Hicks’ comrades die, he becomes the focus and Boyd gives a deeper sense of the internal life. But even then, Boyd keep Hicks at a distance. This is a both a feature and a defect. Hicks is not a thinker; he is an average Marine and before he joined he was an average man more concerned with food and women. That approach cuts off a rich vein of experience and makes the book, especially in the open pages, a popular novel more interested in adventure.

As the book progresses and the American campaign in the Muse-Argonne becomes bloodier and most of Hick’s comrades die, the light tone disappears. Boyd describes the horrors Hicks endures in a mater of fact tone, one that drops horrifying images so quickly that the reader has no time to reflect on what has just happened. It is a reflection of Hicks’ inner life. Hicks slowly becomes numb to these images, but he hardly reflects on them. There is the momentary disgust, but all he cares about is getting relieved and getting a good meal. In this sense, Through the Wheat might most closely resemble All Quiet on the Western Front. The descriptions of the battlefield are certainly similar.

The sights of the dead in all of their postures of horror, the loss of those whom he had known and felt affection for, the odor of stinking canned meant and of dead bodies made alive again by the head of the day, the infuriating explosion of artillery; the kaleidoscopic stir of light and color, had bludgeoned his senses. Now he lay, incapable of introspection or of retrospection, impervious to the demands of the dead and the living.

Hard, cold, and unfriendly dawn broke over the earth like a thin coating of ice shattering in a washbasin. In the eerie light the tangles masses of wire, the weather-beaten posts from which the wire was strung, the articles of equipment and clothing once worn by men looked unreal. The woods ahead, a grayish black, lay against the sky like a spiked wall.

Through the Wheat is probably one of the best fictional descriptions of the WWI by an American of the era. Hemingway, Dos Pasos, ee cummings, all wrote novels about the war, but they were concerned with art, with a politics that at first glance seems missing. One could read the book as both as an anti-war book, as well as a testament to the Marines. When I was reading the first section I couldn’t help wonder if the reprint was driven by the 1926 release of What Price Glory, a successful film that made the Marines seem like a lot of fun. It is the lack of a heavy revulsion at the war, the use of Hicks, the dispassionate observer, that certainly places the work outside the canon. It took me quite a while to appreciate some of its elements. It is certainly not a great novel (a few less adverbs would’ve helped), but it is more reflective of the war than any of his contemporaries.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson
Library of America

Sherwood Anderson’s interrelated collection of short stories is a masterpiece of the form. As good as other works such as The Triumph of the Egg are nothing quite matches the magic of Winesburg, Ohio. Published 100 years ago, it is both modern and wistful, describing a time, even when it was first published in1919, that had long passed. It is that mix of wide-eyed realism and a kind of nostalgia for a small town America that never quite was what it seemed, which makes Winesburg such a compelling read.

Winesburg opens with a form of a frame story, or at least the idea of one. An old writer has written a book about the truths of men, the truths that make them grotesques. It is a book that is never published, but are we reading it? Is Winesburg full of grotesques? I won’t answer that, but even this little story has the marks of an Anderson jewel: multiple levels of story telling, that of the writer and the carpenter; a desire to touch something metaphysical: a truth, an emotion, a dream; and a concision of style that is not minimalist, but is never long. His brief paragraph about the carpenter which captures the horrors of the Civil War and what we now call PTSD is fascinating.

There are a couple overriding occupations for Anderson: the rise of the modern industrial world; and the dark, unsaid disappointments of the inhabitants. The former theme weaves its way throughout as a coloration. It creates the idea of an idyllic small town America, one pure, quiet and beautiful. It is a powerful image, one that still animates American thinking. Usually, he is discrete in his descriptions: a beautiful sunset, the laughter of berry pickers on their way home in the dusk. Other times he is direct, discussing the rise of machines, the coming of industrialism (an archaic usage that captures the passion for the machine age).

It is the latter, though, were Anderson spends most of his time. In a town of 1900 during the mid 1890s, few are happy: failed marriages; marriages made in haste when one lover becomes pregnant; dreams of passion foundering on the realities of a marriage. For Anderson it is not just the social constraints that are important, but the internal passions, often unvoiced and vaguely understood. They drive his characters to take a lover or marry, because they see in the other a way out of a small town, a boring life. The big cities of Cleveland and Chicago are always off in the distance, tempting, influencing, putting ideas into the heads of the inhabitants. He captures it well in most stories, but the two stories about Elizabeth Willard, a sick woman who slowly fades away in her forties, are stand outs. Both show a woman fully aware of the disappointments in her life and unable to overcome the depression which it brings on. But she finds a kind of solace in hoping her son, George the one character who moves throughout all the stories in the work, will leave town much like she wanted to before she married her husband. He also creates a kind of tender connection in her relationship with Dr Reefy. Both of them are damaged individuals and they find in her visits a kind of solace, a forbidden love that is never quite spoken, not quite realized, but gives them a fleeting hope. It is in these moments the nostalgia darkens and this ideal place is less than ideal. A passage from the penultimate story captures this sense well.

There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.

Winesburg, Ohio is still a masterwork of the short form that still holds up.The creative vision of his short stories are still magical. And the picture of a world already long past when he wrote the collection, has the right mix of darkness and light, showing that there is no perfect past. Small town America, despite the glowing memories made manifest in places like Disney’s Main Street, was as unfulfilling as any other place; perhaps even more.

 

 

A Woman of the Pharisees by François Mauriac – A Review

Somewhere halfway through the François Mauriac’s 1941 novel, A Woman of the Pharisees, the narrator sides with his stepmother, Bridget. It is a small thing, but it is clear this is no social novel. It is, as the title suggests, more interested in a certain kind of faith, one that is more universal than its very Catholic setting might suggest. Mauriac’s erudite, and yet brief novel (it is only 204 pages in my 1988 Penguin edition), captures a search for a faith that is grounded in personal belief, not the guarding of it. That is why the off handed passing of the tragic fates of its characters is not as important as Bridgette’s inner struggle.

I mention the core struggle of the novel here because the focus on faith slowly bubbles up, in what otherwise appears to be the reflections an aging author on the family scandals. Scandals are there. There are at least five different scandals that weave their way through the book. By modern standards they are tepid, but for 1890’s Catholic Bordeaux they carry the weight of social damnation. For Bridgette Pian, the greatest scandal is when a local teacher, her weekend secretary, falls in love and marries a brother from a Catholic order. What seems loving, to her is a sin, a break down of the way the religious should behave. She does not hesitate to slow the marriage and when the couple find themselves penniless, she does not offer them jobs, even though it is in her power to help. Yet she is not without a sense of obligation. When the young woman is bedridden during a difficult pregnancy, Brigit gives them money. The narrator makes it quite clear that this isn’t a christian forgiveness that makes her do it. It is what the upstanding christian does. But even that comes with a heavy hand, as she not only insists the husband tell his wife that she has been giving them the money, which he had, heretofore, lied and said he had earned it; she goes to the squalid apartment to tell the wife that information, even though it might cause her to miscarry.

It was during this incident the narrator decided to side with Bridgette. Although he seems dispassionate there are moments when his Catholicism seeps in.

I owe it, in justice to myself, to add that his appearance moved me to a sense of pity, or, at any rate, produced in me the sort of moral discomfort which is always excited by the sight of another’s poverty. and which we are tempted to call by the nobler name. But when I thought about Monsieur Puybaraud’s misfortune I could not but feel myself in agreement with Madame Bridgette. I found it difficult not to despise him for having yielded to an attraction which, though I had yet felt its power myself, I was already inclined to view with suspicion and disgust.

The narrator can’t quite decide where his loyalties lie. Are they with his friend Mirbel who has a scandalous affair with his sister, or are they with Bridgette who in her determination to set the world straight, sends his father to an early grave? That conflict gives a seeming dispassionate account of the crashing lives. It is at once callous, as it is to the poor couple, as it is open to a full examination of events, because in the end it is through the suffering and the journey is salvation achieved. That a perfectly good and christian couple fall into poverty and untimely death is beside the point. As with Mirbel and his mother’s scandals. Mauriac uses that duality to give us some delicious lines. When describing Bridgette, a liberal priest says

He said that there are some people who choose God, but that perhaps God doesn’t choose them…

Or is this the narrator making a point that about the end for Bridgette, one that he approves of? Mauriac leaves these questions open.

Despite the religion, there is humor and wit. Mirbel’s mother, a countess has one of the best introductions, one that suggests how scandalous she might be.

“The Comtesse de Mirbel,” said the priest, “is a lady of letters”—and he gave vent to a guffaw of laughter out of all proportion to the very mild humor of his remark. “Did you know that she has written novels?”

“Has she ever had any of them published?” I asked.

“No,” snapped my stepmother in her most sarcastic tone; “she finds it sufficient to live them.”

Finally, Mauric’s writing is precise and at times he creates precise miniatures of an idea. The sense of a lost time and the passage of an era is perfectly captured in this very literary moment.

…I am not going to set own the real name of a man who was once as celebrated as Donnay, Bernstien or Porto-Riche, though to-day it is entirely forgotten. If nothing now remains of a body of work which was once highly considered, if the very titles of his most famous plays have passed from human memory, it remains true that he once exercised a profound influence on many who are still alive and who, like the Comtesse de Mirbel, are dragging out the fag-end of their existence before taking the final plunge into nothingness.

One wonders if Mauriac was not thinking of himself. It is certainly too early for that to happen to A Woman of the Pharisees.

Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel) by Jorge Volpi – A Review

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Una novela criminal (A Criminal Novel)
Jorge Volpi
Alfagura, 2018 493 pg

Jorge Volpi’s Una novela criminal is a novela sin fiction, that is a novel without fiction, a book that tries to examine the complexity of Cassez-Vallarta case that roiled Mexico and France during the second half of the 2000’s and, in some ways, is still not resolved. While the case itself may not be familiar to English speakers (I hadn’t heard of it before), the story of a justice system failing the accused and the victims is a troubling one. Volpi’s precise analysis not only takes apart the flaws in the case, but paints a wider picture of Mexican, and to some degree, French society. He reveals a world of corruption, police misconduct, and indifference to truth that resonates beyond Mexico.

In practice, the novelization in Una novela criminal is not like famous true crime works such as, Cold Blood. Volpi is not using many techniques of a novelist. There are changes in style, and minimal scene setting, but most of that is done in clearly journalistic sense that sticks to factual details. Volpi comes in and out as a narrator, but, again, it is the voice of an essayist. The novel is the story itself, the interweaving of lies and counter lies, ellipsis and lacuna that fill the book and make the idea of justice a capricious and infuriating process.  The book is not so much a novel, but an examination of how a narrative is constructed. And constructed is the right word. From the beginning of the case, the lives of Florence Cassez and Israel Vallarta were put on display. Volpi writes how when they were apprehended by the police for kidnapping, the tv crews were there. Except, that they had been apprehended the day before and the  police were staging, not even restaging, the capture. Time and again, he shows how the beatings, extra judicial maneuverings, and unreliable witnesses create a narrative that is pure fiction and full of holes.

Yet there is more to the case than just injustice. For Volpi, Vallarta is difficult to understand. His testimony changes throughout the course of the book. While he is sure Cassez is innocent, in part because her testimony has always been consistent, he is unable to get a read on Vallarta. Is there something he is hiding? It is not clear, but at the level of the novel, it leaves questions open. It is in these mysteries, despite one’s belief in how bad the law was abused, you can understand why this is called a novel.

It can also be a bleak book, one that captures our times:

Hoy, que tanto se habla de la posverdad —un término tan elástico como inconsistente—, pienso que el caso Vallarta-Cassez, como quizás la mayor parte de los asuntos criminales en México, prefiguraba su lógica. Si la posverdad existe, tendríamos que imaginarla no como el ámbito donde los poderoso mienten, y ni siquiera donde mienten de modo sistemático, sino aquel donde sus mentiras ya no incomodan a nadie y la distinción entre verdad y mentira se torna irrelevante.

Today, there is so much talk about post truth—a term so elastic it is doesn’t mean much—I think that the Vallarta-Cassez, like the majority of criminal cases in Mexico, predates it. If post truth exists we have to imagine it not as the place where the powerful lie and not even where the powerful lie systematically, but where their lies don’t bother anyone and the distinction between the truth and a lie have become unimportant.

It is this sense of injustice, runaway state power, and arbitrary use of the law that makes Una novela criminal a book for our times, not just Mexico.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Here are my favorite reads for 2018. They are not ordered in any way. I didn’t review all of them, but the ones I did are linked. There are some real standout works there. I wish the Zúñiga and Tizón would be translated into English. Great collections each.

Pelea de gallos (Cockfight) by María Fernanda Ampuero – A Review

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Pelea de gallos (Cock Fight)
María Fernanda Ampuero
Páginas de espuma, 2018, 114 pg

A pelea de gallos is a cockfight, the bloody and senseless fight between two roosters all for the enjoyment of rabid men. It is an apt metaphor for María Fernanda Ampuero’s excellent first collection of short stories, where characters, often at the margins, find themselves trapped in often horrifying situations they did not expect. The stories are taught and powerful, unafraid of the violence and inhumanity that comes from a pelea de gallos. Yet there is also a well honed subtlety and an unsaid that create a wide texture of moods and motifs, and reveal an author who knows how to construct a short story. It is a surprising mix that makes a compelling read, one that is hard to put down, and leaves you wanting more, given its scant 114 pages (one of my few complaints, even though concision should usually be commended).

The first story of the collection, Subasta (Auction), is a good reference point for the themes Ampuero explores. The story is in two parts. In the first the narrator tells of her girlhood spent helping her father at the cockfights he ran. She had the duty of cleaning up after the fights, getting covered in the blood and gore of the fight, becoming the brunt of jokes for her filth. In the second part she is kidnapped in a taxi and taken to an auction where she along with other victims are auctioned off so they can be ransomed, or in the case of young women, sexual slavery. It is a terrifying story, one that increases in tension and terror as it builds. It also surfaces two themes that run through out the collection: the extreme disparities in wealth in the unnamed country (Ampuero  is from Ecuador, but never locates her stories in a specific place); and the differing treatment of men and women. These two elements are as clear as it gets in Subasta, and the results are horrifying. Yet the narrator’s solution to her problem, one that both takes her dignity and yet leaves it intact, reveals a world where the powerful are one step away from what horrifies them most.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the stories fall into groups. The first grouping might be said to be the unmoored young consisting of Nam, Crías (Offspring), and Persianas (Blinds). In many ways these three were the most shocking. The way Ampuero explores awakening sexuality within the the context of family. In Nam the teenage narrator finds a growing same sex attraction to her American classmate, an unrequited attraction that is never fulfilled as  the mysterious family reveals its dark secrets. In Crías the narrator is on a journey to the past, to the home she left long ago, which, is often said to be impossible. Instead, she finds in her friend’s brother a continuity with her childhood, a sexual relationship that started when she was thirteen and years later is still with her, permeated with the memories of  his hamsters who eat their young. The dark and seedy place where she feels home, where the opening act of friendship is to give a blow job on a cockroach stained carpet, all open the idea of offspring to question. It’s the same question that arises in Persianas when the narrator’s first experiments are with his cousins, and the outrage of it leaves him alone with his mother whose own loneliness to the most transgressive behavior. In each of these stories, innocence disappears, for the better, perhaps in Nam, and for the worse in Crías and Persianas, but in all of them there is a moment that marks the characters, shows them as malleable, a drift in a world that they cannot control.

Another notable set is Cristo (Christ), Pasión (Passion), and Luto (Mourning). Each of the stores explores the innocent and powerless among the religious. In Cristo, a mother searches frantically for medicine for her young child, while her older child is completely indifferent to the power of religion. Is it just a lack of experience, or is the older child wise enough to see her mother’s desperation is easily used against her? Who is more innocent, here, the one who believes, or the one who does not? The question of innocence flows through both Luto and Pasión. Luto is the retelling of the Lazarus story, from the point of view of the sisters, Mary and Martha. Here, though, Lazarus is a brute who beats Mary and banishes her to a barn where she is raped by the men of the village, simply because he caught her masturbating. It’s a dark story that only gets darker when you realized the sainted man who visits the home is Jesus and he says he can do nothing for Mary because Lazarus is the head of the house. Who is the sainted one here, is a good question, but what we know is it’s the men who get to claim credit for holiness. The best of these stories, though, is Pasión, a retelling of Jesus’ life, suggesting that it was a woman with magical power who was responsible for his rise to fame. And like all men once he gets what he wanted, he forgets everyone else. It’s one of those stories that not only questions the biblical, but expands its dimensions and makes the questions of faith and religion more interesting.

Finally, there is the set of Ali, Coro, and Cloro (Chlorine). The first two follow the lives of the upper class told through those below who watch them but are voiceless. In all of these the tight adherence to appearances over everything else, even at risk of self destruction is paramount. While each of the stories are excellent, showing a skill both in narration and in language, Cloro has a particular beauty that captures much of what Ampuero is trying to get at. Cloro is less a story then a landscape, a slow tracking shot through a land of futile gestures for the sake of an unobtainable perfection. The story opens with men cleaning the pool at a large high end resort. It’s a task they do every day, fishing leaves and garbage and dead animals from a pool no one uses. But they have do do it: it’s what the guests expect of the resort. One such guest, checks into her perfect room and looks out at the perfection on the other side her window, and in one of Ampuero’s best observations, the guest puts her finger in the butter on her tea tray only to find that that act has destroyed the perfection all around her. In one little act, an act you must do if you are to eat, the marketing campaign image in her head is destroyed. Yet the repetition continues, and the men will never stop cleaning the pool, and perhaps the same guest will return, expecting the same sterile perfection.

María Fernanda Ampuero’s Palea de Gallos is an excellent collection. There is not one bad story (although I thought Nam could have used a little bit more development in relation to the Vietnam aspect, but that might just be an American perspective when it comes to the war). Ampuero’s collection suggests a bright future, and I look forward to reading more from her.

 

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November)
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
Catedra 1980/2007

largonoviembre Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Largo noviembre de Madrid is, simple said, a masterwork of short fiction. Since its publication in 1980, and the publication of the second and third books of his Madrid trilogy, it has been considered a masterpiece that captures the opening days of the Spanish Civil War, the confusion, the fear, the the atmosphere of destruction. In sixteen brilliant stories, Zúñiga creates and impression war with stories that are both visceral and sparse, moments that seem to come out of his ever present dust and smoke and recede just as quickly, leaving the reader with briefest impression of the desperation and madness that afflicts of his characters.

Before I dive into the stories, two pieces of historical information are important to keep in mind. First, the Spanish Civil war started in July 1936 and by November 1936, Nationalist troops had reached the outskirts of Madrid. The Republicans expected Madrid to fall and moved the capital to Valencia; however, Madrid held and from then on it received repeated bombardment. Second,  Zúñiga was born in Madrid in 1929, and spent the war in Madrid. Too young to fight, he was still a witness to the war. Both of these are important for understanding the shape of Largo noviembre.

All but two of the stories take place during November of 1936. November ’36 both represents the high point of Republican resistance to the Nationalist, where Madrid was able to mount an unexpected defense, and the war in Madrid as a whole. The last two stories form a coda, closing an already a futile war with yet more futile acts. What should also be stated from the outset is the stories are not exclusively about soldiers; soldiers make up a small percentage of the characters. Instead, Zúñiga writes of the civilians who surviving the war and even when he writes of soldiers, it’s when they are in the urban world, if not away from the front, then in the undefined boarder between the front and the civilian world that is the mark of urban combat. It is this larger picture, a story of Madrid, that makes the the collection something large than just war stories. In many ways, Madrid itself is a character, a landscape whose physical presence both shapes the inhabitants and is the locus of memory.

The idea of memory pervades the book. In the first story, a story that one can read as a transition between the past and the present war, memory is ever present. From the first story, Noviembre, la madre, 1936 (November, Mother, 1936), Zúñiga makes it clear that how memory shapes us and the physical and how the physical is a form of memory. In the story, three brothers are deciding what they should do: leave the flat, stay on? They are too old to be soldiers, but to leave the flat is to leave the neighborhood, and leaving is leaving the walks with their mother, their hand in hers, the buildings they looked up to with her. A sense of transition is in effect, from the times at the turn of the century, to the war. Whatever the past had, it is now gone. Even the structure of the story with a narrator looking back at brothers looking back enforces the idea of memory. Zúñiga says it most clearly here:

[…]y aún más dificil de concebir es que esta certidumbre de haber comprendido se presenta un día de repente y su resplandor trastorna y ya quedamos consagrados a ahondar más y más en los recuerdos o en los refrenados sentimientos para recuperar otro ser que vivió en nosotros, pero fuera de nuestra conciencia, y que se yergue tan sólido como la urbanidad, los prejuicios, los miramientos…

[…]and even more difficult to conceive is the certainty of having understood one day will come suddenly and its brilliance will dive one mad and we’ll continue to be dedicated to digging deeper and deeper into memories or repressed feelings to recover the other being that lived in us, but outside of our conscience, and that rises solid like courtesy, prejudice, tact…

A different take on the power of memory comes in Joyas, manos, amor, las ambulancies (Jewels, Hands, Love, Ambulances). Here the memories drive the interlocking lives of a doctors and nurses in a hospital that is treating the wounded. Typical of Zúñiga, the war itself is at the margin. What he is interested in is moving through the minds of his characters as they experience the war. For them its fatigue and a desperation to assemble that past in the present. The nurse wants a ring for her finger and jewels around her neck like her mom had when she’d leave the house. She also learned that if she gave me what they wanted she’d get her jewelry. One of the doctors is sleeping with her, desperate to get his hand on a ring for her. For him the past contains the rings his mother had, and which his brother says have been taken by the military. It’s all desperation, an attempt to hold on to a world that no longer exits. Another doctor knows it’s all meaningless: he’s cut rings off fingers in surgery. It’s a nightmare at the border of rationality, and mixing the story into between bouts of extreme fatigue, Zúñiga gives the moment a horrifying aspect: imagine while there are so many dying these people are just looking for rings.

The idea of avarice comes up over and over. It can be a desire for wealth as in the previous story, an attempt to hang on to what one has. In Riesgos del atardecer (Risks of the Afternoon), we have a successful shop owner hiding all his merchandise in his stockroom, fearful that the government is going to confiscate it. Like many of his characters, they are trying desperately to hang onto something that has changed. The shop is no longer filled with the fashionable. If he can just wait it all out he can take the stock back. Not everyone in Madrid cares about the war. There is an indifference at times. The situation in the city is complicated and Zúñiga is clear in the sense that much of what is happening is not heroic, despite the use of November in the title of the collection.

He has two particularly tragic stories that take on the idea of the adventure seeker: Hotel Florida, Plaza del Callao and Adventura en Madrid. In the former, a French arms merchant comes to Madrid to make a deal, but he is seduced by the war, the sense of danger and freedom that comes in a besieged city. It’s a playground, running through the bombed out buildings, as if he were somehow immune to the dangers. The narrator early on knows this isn’t even true:

Eran meses en que cualquier hecho trivial, pasado cierto tiempo, revelaba su aspecto excepcional que ya no sería olvidado fácilmente.

There were months in which whatever trivial occurrence, after a little time had passed, would reveal an exceptional nature that would not be easily forgotten.

For the French volunteer to the cause, he quickly learns that the war is nothing like he imagined. Zúñiga makes that point, as always, using memory as a differentiator. The hard realities of the front aren’t the focus, but the clash between his memories and his current reality. OF course, the cold night is unpleasant, but it’s the freedom to roam Paris drunk with his friends that creates distance.

It should be clear that Zúñiga’s work is in itself an attempt to capture the memory of a place and that memory is difficult to grasp. In one of the best stories of the collection, the beautiful, Calle de Ruíz, ojos vacios (Ruíz Street, Empty Eyes) he gives us a blind man trying to navigate the city during a bombardment. The city has already become difficult to navigate: what he has in his memory has been destroyed, returning us to Zúñiga’s preoccupation with physical memory. And he can’t see the danger through out the city. But he holds to his daily reading sessions with his friends. When the air raid happens he  is lost, and worse, has lost the book he carries with him. It distresses him; he is panicked: words are more important to him than anything. It’s all he has, all anyone can have. The narrator, sympathetic at first, gets tired of all this and wants to tell him

Te engañan: no hay presente, tu vida únicamente es el pasado, la ceniza de un tiempo que tú no vives, sino que está ya hecho y tú te euncuentras con él en las manos, convertido en recuerdos. No sabrás nunca nada, todo es inútil, deja de buscar ese libro.

They’re fooling you: there’s no present; your life is completely in the past, the ashes of a time where you don’t live, but is already done and you find yourself with him on your hands, turning into memories. You’ll never know, everything is useless, so stop looking for the book.

If memory is ever present, the future is a luxury. In several stories fortune tellers appear, but the fortune tellers are unable to see. They are blind to the future as the blind man in Calle de Ruíz is blind to the present. There is something extra here: the future is comforting. Without a future there is no comfort. In Presagios de la noche (Evening Signs), a drunk and scared soldier repeatedly asks the fortune teller what his future is. She can’t see. Her assistant chastises the boy

[…] no hay tales presagios, que nadie vigila nuestras vidas […] estamos solos

[…] there are no signs; no one guards our lives […] we are alone

When the fortune tellers give in, there is no hope.

Finally, the last two stories close out the end of the war, both showing the futility of it all. I the first a German International Brigade volunteer is roaming Madrid in February, 1939. He is the last of his kind. (The brigades were withdraw in ’38) Instead of a hero, he’s looked at with suspicion. The war is over, why do we need him? He goes into a bar an everyone looks at him. Are these the people who will take to the streets to give Franco the fascist salute? Are they just tired of the war? It is a sad end. The German has no where to go. He certainly can’t go home. It’s all a waste. It is the same sentiment that pervades the final story, Las lealtades (Loyalties). Zúñiga gives us a soldier guarding an empty building. Asked to search for someone inside all he finds are over turned offices, papers and folders strewn everywhere. The operations of a modern war come to little more than paper under foot. It’s an arresting image of an abstract war, one that exists as office memos, banality that in the confines of the building means nothing. It’s the last image of the war, one that is unsettling given how much smoke, dust, and ash have filled the previous pages.

Largo noviembre de Madrid is one of the great collections of war and belongs aside such works as Issac Babel’s Red Army or Ambrose Bierece’s civil war stories (there is more to Bierce than An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge). It’s more than war, it’s an exploration of memory and existence that transcends the immediacy of its time. There is not one bad story and most of them will continue to haunt long after I have finished reading them.

Cinco horas con Mario (Five Hours with Mario) by Miguel Delibes – A Review

Cinco horas con Mario (Five Hours with Mario)
Miguel Delibes

Note: this book was translated into English sometime in the 80’s, but I can’t speak to its availability.

Miguel Delibes was one of Spain’s most important writers during the last half of the 20th century. Cinco horas con Mario (Five Hours with Mario), published in 1966, was one of his major works and a huge success when published. It’s a novel that reflects its time, yet is also elusive, a chameleon. It can be read as both pro and anti any any category: pro/anti regime, pro/anti intellectual, pro/anti modern, even pro/anti feminist. The slipperiness of the work makes fascinating reflection of its time and a work by a gifted writer.

The story is simple: Mario has died and his wife Maria del Carmen is sitting with his body during the night between the wake and the funeral and recounting their life together. While Carmen does recount their life together, what she is really doing is settling scores. Over twenty-seven chapters she takes him to task for all manner of failings. As she does this a picture of their marriage and Spain emerges. Given the structure of the book it becomes a one sided argument where the reader has create an impression of Mario, but is also given space to agree or disagree with Carmen or Mario. Depending where you stand, some of what Carmen says is disturbing or laughable.

Seat_600_GranadaBefore I go much farther, a little background would be helpful. From 1939 to 1975 Fransisco Franco ruled the country with a Fascist dictatorship. During the early part of his reign Spain was relatively isolated and poor, but by the early 60’s a growing tourism industry, primary along the beaches of the Mediterranean, and a growing middle class had brought more of a western consumer economy to the country. Consumer goods like the automobiles, especially the SEAT 600 became marks of status and prestige. It’s in this world that Cinco horas takes place.

Carmen is a good catholic and a solid supporter of the regime (although she’s a monarchist more than a fascist). For her, almost everything about a modernizing Spain is bad: foreign tourists, women wearing pants, children who don’t respect their parents, even the idea of sending girls to the university. Carmen sees the world as a place where you follow the rules, you keep up appearances, and you care about those around you. The book is filled with her diatribes delivered in her stream of conscious grief. Just to give one example, in one memorable moment she says you can tell the difference between a good man and a bad one by the crease in his pants.

While she doesn’t like the changes that are coming to Spain, she does want some of the niceties it’s bringing, particularly a SEAT 600. She returns time and time again to how she is tired of taking the bus, how Mario, an academic, should have enough money to afford a 600. She sees the car not only as a means of transportation, but a symbol of their status. For someone who criticizes Mario for not showing enough grief after his mother died, not because he should grieve, but because one has to keep up appearances, the car is a symbol of everything wrong with Mario.

But who is this Mario? As noted, he was a teacher and intellectual, who wrote novels, was incessantly buying books, and participated in weekly literary salons. He didn’t have much success with his work, and Carmen makes fun of it over and over, mostly because she doesn’t understand it. She’d like to see him write best sellers like everyone else, and then maybe she’d get her 600. Here is the first of the pro/anti debates. To those who like books and literature, Carmen comes off as crude, uninteresting. Yet she is the voice of the novel, and to some extent, of the regime. This is the first on many examples of the slipperiness of the book. Depending on who’s side you take the book has a position for you.

Of course, if the intellectual aspect was the only issue, she wouldn’t have had to spend five house settling scores. Worse than all his intellectual pretensions, were his leftest ideals. Why don’t they have money for a 600? Because he refuses to do what it takes to get ahead. He’s always out for justice for the poor, or as she says, hicks. Over and over she says, if we raise the poor from poverty and educate them, what will happen? Who will be left to raise up. For Carmen, and she says it several times, every one should stay amongst their own kind: the poor with theirs, the tourists (especially Americans) in their own countries, and when it comes to race, Africans should stay in Africa. If Mario was less interested in justice, in her mind something that makes no sense, and a little more accommodating they’d have the car, the apartment with 6 rooms instead of 3 for a family of 7.

She alternatively blames all this adherence to justice to his literary group and his plain stubbornness. She just can’t understand why the poor are so important. And she knows that Mario didn’t crash his bike in the park at 4 AM. He’d been hit on the head by a guard. Mario a truly quixotic figure, wants to make a complaint against the guard. Carmen thinks it’s all laughable. The guard is like the ministry at those hours, she says. But Mario just can’t help but protest. He always has to do the opposite, she says. Again, we have two narratives, and two ways to read the book. Certainly, Carmen holds the regime line. But is Mario brave, a fool, something else?

I mentioned the book might even be read in pro/anti feminist terms. Even though Carmen is very conservative when it comes women’s roles, noting how scandalous it was for her sister to have an illegitimate child with an Italian during the Civil War and then move to Madrid without consequence, at least in her mind, she holds Mario accountable for his sexist behavior. The first glimpse comes when Carmen says girls shouldn’t go to university, a position that Mario holds. While it may seem to be a very conservative position, part of her reasoning is that the men, even those of his literary group, don’t respect women. Even if a woman gets an education, they are only good for sleeping around with or keeping the home. Mario has had an affair with his sister-in-law. There is a memorable scene at the wake when she is more broken up than Carmen. More over, Mario doesn’t respect her. He makes fun of her breast size, won’t let her discipline the children, and generally doesn’t listen to her. She knows that these men, even the one who are full of talk about justice, only want one thing from women. Carmen’s solutions to the problem are certainly debatable, but she knows what’s happening.

One wonders why they got married in the first place. Given that Mario and his family were on the Republican side, or red as Carmen says, why would she marry him. She loved the war, she says, wasn’t afraid, and had the time of her life. She was good, too, was married a virgin. But that didn’t pay off. Mario didn’t respect her, give her love, said on their wedding night, good night, and then turned over. There’s no passion, not like Paco who she knew as a young woman, and now as an older woman has been driven in his Citroen Tibaron, a car classes above the 600. It’s obvious that she is in love with him. The way she describes his eyes, eyes that still look good twenty years after they first met. That he excites her so is something she can’t handle. After complaining about all the things she’s put up with, she begs Mario’s forgiveness for feeling something. She claims she loves Mario, but she doesn’t. It’s Paco, the car, the attention after a loveless marriage, that attracts her.

It’s the interplay between all these impulses, the conservatism, the resentment, the passion that never can be, that makes Cinco horas con Mario work. Moreover, there is a humor at times, one that even seems self depreciating. When Carmen mentions how Mario criticized her breast size she says,

…  los intelectuales deberían prohibirles ir a la playa, que así, tan flacos y tan crudios, resultan antiestéticos, más inmorales que los mismos bikinis.

… they should prohibit intellectuals from going to the beach, so thin and under cooked, they turn out antiesthetic, more immoral than bikinis.

Finally, the narration is full of life and idiomatic expressions that make the Cicno horas breathe. When describing how much she like the war she says,

Yo lo pasé fábula, Mario, para qué te voy a contar, toda la ciudad llena de gente, menudo barullo, que todavía no sé, te lo digo sinceramente, cómo no te planté entonces, recién novios, que cada vez venías del frente, con lo de tus hermanos y eso, en plan de revientafiestas, como pensativo, o amaragao, ¡qué sé yo!

It was marvelous, Mario, and I’ll tell you, the whole city full of people, what a racket, that I still don’t know, and I tell you this sincerely, how come you couldn’t hold your ground against them, us newly girlfriend and boyfriend, and every time you came back from the front with your brothers, planing to be a spoil sorts, pensive or bitter, oh, how I know!

Cinco horas con Mario is a complex book that can be read in many different ways. It’s slipperiness that makes it difficult to say exactly which direction Delibes was going when he wrote it. Nevertheless, it is worth of its reputation as a seminal work of 20th century Spanish literature.

 

La vuelta al día (Around the Day) by Hipólito G. Navarro – A Review

CORREA_LCA_C_La vuelta al día (Around the Day)
Hipólito G. Navarro
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg. 251

La vuelta al día (Around the Day) is Hipólito G. Navarro’s 2016 return to print after a long, eleven year absence. Navarro is a Spanish writer, mainly of short stories, who has been one of the seminal short story writers who began publishing in the 1990’s. His 1996 collection El aburrimiento Lester (The Boredom, Lester) is a virtuoso exploration of the short story form, both in terms of style and structure. He latter followed up with Los tigres albinos (2000) and Los últimos percances (2005), each of which continued his explorations of the short story form. (I’ve reviewed all three works here and his collection El pez volador, which takes stories from each of these collections.) Given the long absence from publishing, La vuelta al día is a much anticipated work.

At the core of much of Navarro’s work is humor. It is often dark or colored with a sense that the joke is some misfortune of one’s own making that is impossible to escape. Even in the length introduction to the collection he remarks that his mother, when he gave her a copy of his last book, Los últimos percances, as she was dying said,

¡Los últimos percances! ¿Por qué no le has puesto penúltimos, al menos?
The last misfortunes! Why didn’t you call it the penultimate, at least?

You most often see this sense in the Navarran unfortunate, usually it is the narrator, but occasionally it is just the main character of the story. The Navarran unfortunate is a man (it’s never a woman, although they can be the narrator) who through some obsession, large or inconsequential, has screwed up somehow. They are aware of the mistake and describe themselves in self depreciating tones that both show an acute self awareness and a deep fatalism about their future. Generally, the unfortunates reveal this desperation in a wildly verbal prose full of racing thoughts that are hard to control. Navarro is a rich stylist of the language and uses these monologues to full effect. Some of the unfortunates have a happier ends, but even they know that they are idiots and lucky to have gotten what they did.

In the latter category falls Ligamentos (Ligaments). A kind of love story, the narrator has an injured leg, but he meets a friend of a friend and is so taken with her he goes on a long walk with them in the woods. He knows nothing about nature, but he fakes as much as he can. The humor comes in his confessions to the reader about how little he knows about the world and his desperate, boyish attempts to keep up with her on the walk, which results in his further injury. The narrator is self aware of how silly he is, how every thing he does makes him even more ridiculous, and it gives him a sacrificial charm when finally wins her admiration by covering himself in remnants of the forest floor.

Verruga Sánchez takes the self obsessed male even further. Narrated by Sánchez’s wife, it’s the story of a Professor who is extremely popular with his students and well respected with his colleagues. The only issue is he has a distinctive mole near his eye. He can’t stand it any finally has it removed. Of course, it doesn’t go as he wishes and looses the adulation he’d grown accustomed too. He mopes around on the couch. It’s his wife who tries, unsuccessfully, but loyally to get him to forget it. It’s dark without the usual self pity: vanity allows no self reflection. Sánchez, like all of the unfortunates, has brought this on himself and has paid the price. What is notable is this is one of Navarro’s female narrators. It stabilizes the story, keeps the manic obsession at bay and makes it even sadder to know she still loves him.

Included are three much darker and riskier stories that I think may have gotten away from Navarro. La escusa termodinámica (The Thermodynamic Excuse) is narrated by a cuckold who’s wife has gone to a cabin in the woods with his brother. The desperate rant is a series of questions that the narrator asks himself about why he couldn’t start a fire. On its own the story has commendable aspects. Its when you get to something like Las estampas del timo with its light harted story of infatuation that includes incest, though, all these men become a little too much. Where it is the most distributing is the ultimate unfortunatein En el fondo de la memoria (In the Depths of Memory). Here Navarro creates his most manic character, a man who is pacing his small apartment, describing it as a kind of cell as he waits for his wife to bring her son home. The son does not live with them and he has never met the child. Yet he is afraid of the boy because he knows he is the father: he was the one who raped his wife. It is such a complicated statement, one that opens so many questions, some of credulity. I’m still not sure I can even contemplate the idea that the woman he raped would not know it was him somehow, or hadn’t seen the likeness already.

Whatever the case, all these stories give much of the collection a male-centric view of the world that is both self pitting and self obsessed, and leads to self destruction. When done right, as in Ligamentos and Verruga Sánchez, they are tragicomedies; when they misfire they are off putting.

Even though the Navarran unfortunate is heavily present, the real standouts, are his elegiac stories, stories that look to the past and find a restrained melancholy. The two standouts are El infierno portátil (The Portable Hell) and Tantos Veces Huérfano (So Many Times an Orphan). The former is the memory of a boy who worked in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop. Some nuns come down the hill from the convent to ask for hand outs. He notices the younger nun and as they look at each other for a moment he finds himself attracted to her. The story is handled deftly, the attraction is brief, subtle, as is the punishment the boy thinks he receives when the nun leaves. He is able to capture the sense of something new and uncontrolled in the briefest interlude. It’s in the unguarded moments that these realizations come.

Tantos Veces Huérfano, for me, is the best story of the collection. In it an old man remembers a journey to his father’s home town for the arrival of electric lights. It’s an awakening both in terms of sex and violence, all happening within his extended family. And it’s as memory is, unclear. Why was his father murder? The narrator doesn’t know. It’s the strength of the story that the narrator’s memory comes and goes, and an exact clarity of the events is illusive. Along with La vuelta al dia and La poda y la tala de los arboles (The Pruning and Triming of Trees), there is a sense of the past as both something alluring and melancholic, a place one would like to be, but a world that not only doesn’t exist, but in which one does not belong.

Finally, if humor and great verbal ability are two hallmarks of Navarro’s writing, the last is a playfulness. Los k (The ks) is a perfect example of this. The ks refer to kilobytes and the narrator imagines them as living creatures who have a mind of their own. They escape and he loses part of his novel. With this comes the sense that writing is something alive, something not only exists, but has its own independent life. He’s used stories like these to explore the short form and his earlier work was marked with this playfulness. In La vuelta al día we get a glimpse of this skill. I wish there had been a little more of this as they are delightful.

In all, the collection is a welcome return publication. There were certainly some misfires. The stories that dealt with the past were the strongest and most compelling, while those of the Navarran unfortunates show that Navarro is still in command of his verbal powers. Hopefully, it won’t be eleven years for the next collection.

The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca – A Review

The Taker and Other Stories
Rubem Fonseca
Clifford E. Landers, trans
Open Letter Books, 2008,166 pg

This is a post in honor of Spanish and Portuguese lit month from Richard and Stu.

It took me ten years to get around to read this book. I no longer know why I bought it. I wish I did, because the stories were a one note samba, seeming to repeat themselves, unable to get beyond a surface of crime and violence. There are several solid stories, but as a collection, it isn’t particularly captivating.

Night Drive, the brief opening story is one. It describes a businessman who releases stress via long night drives, where he hunts down pedestrians and kills them, before returning home to his average family. It’s a story that suggests, and lets the shock of the violence leave the reader to wonder if there is something in the power dynamics of the place he lives that would allow this. Is violence acceptable if it is by the right person?

All solid questions and it takes us to the next story, The Taker. The nameless narrator is an angry man, a poor man who the rich have taken advantage of all his life. He sets out to kill and destroy as many rich people he can. It is a relentless story and the violence is a liberation. Given Brazil’s great wealth inequality, the story is an obvious attack, a kind of cathartic horror-fantasy. I say fantasy, because while the horror of random violence could certainly descend on the rich, the taker himself is no more than a darker Robin Hood. And as criticism of inequality, it stops there. There’s no subtlety, only the gratuitous, like some silly action movie. What makes this worse is a sense that when it comes to women in power the only thing you can do is rape them. The taker’s narrator rapes a woman and implies she liked it. It’s a strong statement, but the sexual politics of the book leave me questioning the direction of some stories. A prime example is The Notebook, where the narrator keeps a book of all the women he has slept with. He recounts how he has tricked the most recent into sleeping with him. In the context of the other stories, this isn’t the exploration of a bad man, but a game with dark consequences. A game that seems a little too fun.

Even the stories that are not just men going around killing, are at heart that. Trials of a Young Writer and The Dwarf are both stories of men who tier of their lovers and luck into their deaths, the former from a drug suicide, the latter from an accident. In each case their good luck turns against them an in a twist they lose what they had so happily gained. I was so happy to see a little differentiation I had missed, until I leafed through the stories again, how much of a male fantasy these were, too. The sexual power of these men is legendary. Either Fonseca only writes unreliable narrators, or he is unimaginative. I go with the latter.

The collection is definitely mixed. The weaker stories cannot get beyond violence without showing more than a inequality as a motivator. There is more there, I’m sure. As I said, a one note samba.

The Seawall by Marguerite Duras – A Review

The Seawall
Marguerite Duras
Herma Briffault, trans
Perennial Library 1986, pg 288

Duras’ The Seawall is one of her earlier works about Vietnam. Published in 1950, as the French empire was about to lose its eastern possessions (Dien Bien Phu was four years away), it captures an empire that had long begun to fade. Set in the mid 1920’s, Duras’ Vietnam is a place where one does not go to make a better life, but rather suffer in miserable penury.  Written at a time when France had been convincing itself that the empire was critical to hold on to, it is powerful work full of cynicism that both questions the social and political dimensions of the colonial project.

Much like The Lover, the central focus of the The Sea Wall is a young woman Suzanne, who has no prospects and whose mother seems intent on marring her of to someone of wealth. It’s a purely commercial transaction, one where Suzanne’s mother in her struggle to eek out a the smallest living, places little value on her. Suzanne has agency, though, and her vacillations between the men who wish to buy her and her search for someone who she wants, give the novel its liveliness and its edge. Suzanne is certainly no prude, although she is a dreamer, her head filled with the dreams found in movie theaters. She lets one suitor, in what becomes a commercial transaction, watch her shower. Druas is frank in her depictions of the back and forth between Suzanne, her mother and the men, and it’s what lets Suzanne breathe.

Duras has sympathy for Suzanne’s mother. While she wants to essentially sell her off, she is a woman beaten down by the illusion of the empire. Moving to Vietnam with her husband to teach, she ends up a widow with two kids trying to run a plantation. The land though is worthless and despite trying to build a seawall to reclaim some of the land she’s in debt to the land agents who knowingly sold her worthless land. She slips into anger and bitterness, always hopping she can rebuild the wall. But its futile. The seas come back every year and salt the land and make it unusable. For her, the dream of an empire where you can go strike it rich don’t exist. For most colons life in the colony is all hard work and little gain. Your only hope is that some rich person who’s well connected and made their fortune years before, will connect you. For the average colon, the question is, why stay in Vietnam anyway? Suzanne’s mother never asks the question, but a reader sure will.

If one can’t make it on their own, finding a someone with means is the answer. Scenes of wealth and extreme disparity run throughout the book. Monsieur Jo, the dandy, is the most obvious example. He offers Suzanne gifts, drives around in a large chauffeur driven car. Her description of the large city (possibly Saigon) near the farm gives you the sense of the differences.

As in all Colonial cities, there were two towns within this one: the white town-and the other. And in the white town there were still other differences. The periphery of the white town was known as the Haut-Quartier—the upper district, comprising villas and apartment buildings. It was the largest and airiest part of the city and was where the secular and official powers had their places. The more basic power-the financial—had its places in the center of the white town, where, crowded in from all sides by the mass of the city, buildings sprang up, each year higher and higher. The financiers were the true priests of this Mecca.

Duras does describe the Vietnamese and the poverty they are subjected to. She also describes a Malay servant, the Corporal, the family has. Stylistically she her writing changes when she describes them, moving from a narrative, to a set piece of description, where the lives of the people are not voiced, but aggregated. Its telling the her description of the city is written in the same way. It makes it even clearer the Vietnamese are an after thought in any French plans, and the layer on layer of oppression dehumanizes everyone. So much for bringing civilization to new lands.

The Sea Wall is an impressive work and is a good start when looking for literature of colonial collapse.

 

The Arab of the Future by Raid Sattouf – A Reivew

Arab-of-the-Future-by-Riad-Sattouf-on-BookDragon-550x800The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
Raid Sattouf
Sam Taylor, trans
Metropolitan Books 2015, 153 pg.

Raid Sattouf’s spent the years between 1978 and 1984 living primary in Libya and Syria, with small stints in France. The son of a French mother and a Syrian father who was a teacher, he lived in a quickly changing landscape of languages, cultures, and political systems. Told through the eyes of a young child with little analysis from Sattouf the author, Arab of the Future is both surprising and occasionally disturbing as the family navigates the end of the era of pan-Arabism.

It is both a fascinating and some times disturbing book. On the one hand you have his experiences in two police states. Libya is the most extreme. Sattouf’s father has accepted a position to teach, which grants the family a certain level of status. Nevertheless, there are the usual lines for food and the inevitable shortages. And housing is a problem. On their first day they go out for a walk and return to their to find their apartment newly occupied, because no one was in it and that meant it was abandoned. While Syria has ready food availability, the presence of Assad is every where and when his mother buys foreign magazines, they are completely cut up by the sensors.

What is harder to take, but one of the cores of the book, is his father.  Sattouf’s father is a proud man. He believes in the future of Arab countries, gives up what could have been a comfortable life in France to teach in Libya and Syria. He dreams of having a Mercedes and is a little irritated when he can’t have one. At the same time he is seemingly brutish. He makes merciless fun of a bus driver who is afraid of snakes. He often makes comments about Jews. Within the context of Syria in the 1980’s the father may not be that strange. However, Sattouf’s mother is there. What did she think? It is the story of the boy, but his father is so dominating, it is hard to get a read on her. It makes his father’s behavior that much more pronounced. And placed alongside the poverty and dysfunction of the Syrian state, it is an unsettling story.

That aside Sattouf’s familiy’s mishaps are an interesting read that hopefully the second volume will fill out more.

 

 

Velocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens) by Eloy Tizón – A Review

velocidaddejardinesVelocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma 2017 (1992), pg 146

Velocidad de los jardines, published in 1992, is considered one of the key collections from the generation of authors that first began to publish in Spain during the 1990s. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary Páginas de Espumas has brought out a new edition that returned a classic to print. Both in terms of narrative and style, Velocidad is a rich collection from a young author, just beginning to explore the short story.

Velocidad is well known for its verbal richness and  Los puntos cardinales (Cardenal Points) demonstrates that the reputation is well regarded. The narrator is an aging traveling salesman who has spent his career moving from place to place, never spending much time in any one place. His story is the story of a melancholy loner, one whose view of the world is all externalities that have their own life, as if solitude has made them his companions.

Puede decirse que mi trabajo es una rutina imprevista. Noches para la fatiga. Tapioca. Jardines donde las hojas secas son dulces y los codos de las ninfas como escamas transparentes. Mi corazón esta lleno de esquinas con carteles desteñidos, empapelados transitorios, peines sin púas, una puerta giratoria en a que doy vueltas y mas vueltas y no consigo salir a la calle.

You could say my job is an unforeseen routine. Fatigue for the night. Tapioca. Gardens where the dry leaves are sweet and elbows of nymphs that are like transparent scales. My heart is full of corners with  faded handbills, transitory wallpaper, combs without teeth, a revolving door in which I go around in circles and never make it out to the street.

It is a loneliness aware of its surroundings. You can see this sense in his 2013 collection of stories, Technicas de illumination (my review). This sense fills the narrator and he notices the woman who leads an old man through the subways. They are alone, unobserved, but he sees their strange journey. It so fascinates him that when the man disappears he sits with the woman. It is an act of the lost in an artificial and transitory world. Is it permanent? We don’t know, but for a moment, at least, the narrator isn’t alone.

That richness is also on display in Austin, a story that follows an middle aged professor as he drives out of Madrid one night. It is a journey not only a physical journey out of the city, but one that is a journey towards something lighter, less complicated.

Atrás quedaba la ciudad, y áreas de húmeda oscuridad dejaban vislumbrar, entre grandes tubos huecos de hormigón y polígonos de fibrocemento, collares de luces temblorosas e instalaciones fluorescentes que vibraban.

Behind remained the city and areas of a damp darkness that left to be revealed, between great hollow pipes of cement and asbestos-cement plants, necklaces of trembling lights and vibrating florescents.

Its an industrial wasteland, but it is also a present that the journey seeks to erase. As Austin drives into the dark he is driving into his past, finding where he has failed to be the man he wanted to be, to have the loves he wanted. It is a return to the theme of a future unrealized, a present that is only regret:

En alguna parte, a lo largo de otra melancolía, existía, había existido un muchacho indeciso, privado de futuro, atormentado por la idea del porvenir, que llebava su mismo nombre y que pasaba frio en las autopistas del continente.

In some part, throughout the other melencholy, there existed, had always existed a young, indecisive man, lacking much future, tormented by the idea of the future, who carried his name and got cold on the freeways of the continent.

The richness in his writing can also be found in his narration. Los viajes de Anatalia is a journey of a rich family to an unknown country at the point of war. It was the flavor of an early 20th century escape from an eastern country, the wealthy, both oblivious and self entitled, caring on until the end comes suddenly. One cloud easily see the characters as a Russian family. Even Anatalia in Spanish means one from the east. But there is more—a sense of melancholy, of a past that is slipping away and yet was never was.

Los deseos son futuros incumplidos. Todo parece indicar que nuestros antepasados tambien abrigaron deseos humanos, razonables, y todos ellos desaparecieron sin dejar rastro. ¿Son algo? Una galería de bonitos muertos chistosos.

Desires are unreliable futures. Everything appears to indicate that our ancestors also had human desires, reasonable ones, and all of them disapeared without leaving a trace. Are they something? A galery of beautiful and amusing dead.

In that atmosphere, amongst the loss, the disconnection, the fragments the characters also disappear in all senses. And when Anatalia waves goodbye to her family in the empty train station, it is more than metaphorical her disappearance. The dissolution is complete.

Several stories, including the title story, are about coming of age or looking at the world through the eyes of a child. La vida interminente (The Intermittent Life) is a form of love story between two teeneaged students. Tizon plays with the idea of young romance from the begining: ¿Se amaban ellos porque estaban en el mismo curso o estaban en el mismo curos porque se amaban? (Did they fall in love because they were in the same class or were they in the same clase because they loved each other?) For Tizon it’s not the love that motivates, but the miscues, the passing through without really understanding what is happening.

In Familia, desierto, teatro, casa (Family, Desert, Theater, Home) it is not the confusion of love, but family that confuses a young boy. In one of his more subtile and effecting stories, Tizon narrates a boy’s experience among a family of women while one of them, the one he is closest to, slowly fades as she grows near death. It is a special bond that is wound up in the world of drama and make believe. He deftly captures the intersections of the real, the fantastical, and the unknown and how children fill in the gaps between one and the other to come to some understanding of the world.

Finally, the most prescient story is En cualquier lugar del atlas (In Whatever Place on the Atlas), which describes the movement of refugies through a network of smugglers based in cemetaries. The narrator descibes a writer friend who meets a Polish woman Klara who is in Madrid illegally. They fall in love, but her situation becomes untenible and she has to flee and enters the world of the cemetary where the dead and forgotten rule. It also makes the obvious point that those who have entred into this underground world are no more important than the dead. The narrator’s friend describes the world as <> (“A beautiful place where every kind of misfortune happens”). It is a dark story, but it is not out of line with stories like Austin and Los puntos cardinales, which also have their sense of foreboding.

The anniversary edition also comes with a fine introduction where Tizón describes his early years during the Movieda in Madrid and how he came to write the book. It is not a typical first person introduction that relates chronological events. Instead, it is told in second person with an impressionistic tone such that the introduction is less about events, and more about what pushed him to be a writer. As such there multiple quotes on the power of writing:

Toda la literatura es epistolar: necesita del otro para existir.

All of literature is epistolary: it needs the other to exist.

Uno, un poco, se convierte en lo que ama. Un ser humano termina pareciendose a lo que sueña. El carpintero, a su silla. El astrónomo, a su eclipse…Todos somos otros cuando alguien nos ama o deja de amarnos.

One, a little, turns into what one loves. A human being ends up as what she dreams about. The carpinter, his seat. The astronomer, her eclipse…We are all others when someone loves us or stops loving us.

And perhaps my favorite:

Que es mejor tener fiebre que tener bibliografía.

It is better to have passion than a bibliography.

Velocidad de los jardines is a true masterpiece that I am glad I’ve finally had a chance to read.


I have also review his other two books of stories Parpadeos and Técnicas de iluminación