La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room) by Cristina Fernández Cubas – A Review

La habatación de NonaLa habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room)
Cristina Fernández Cubas
Tusquets, 2015, pg 186

La habitación de Nona is Cristina Fernández Cubas’ first collection of stories since the 2008 publication of Todo los cuentos. She did publish a novel under the pseudonym Fernanda Kubbs and while it returned to familiar territory of the fantastic, it was a less introspective work, one that felt more like a release than a confrontation. With La habitación de Nona she returns to form, employing the fantastic to navigate the space between realities. La habitación, like some of her other collections, mixes stories that have a strong emphasis in a social reality, although fantastical, and stories that are complete fables or tales of horror in a classic sense. In each she is successful, as always.

The title story is indicative of her work, where the young narrator presents her sister as her enemy, someone whose behavior is so strange, perhaps on the autistic spectrum, that she is both jealous of the attention her parents give her and intrigued by her customs. Naturally, Cubas does not give us a clinical description of Nona, more a series of behaviors that upset the narrator. The story feels as if it is one of simple jealousy, or perhaps a story of the fantastical sister, but Cubas rarely gives such simple motivations. Instead there the question is not who is Nona, but who is the narrator? It’s made all the more enigmatic by the repeated phrase, quien yo me sé (who I know, but with a sense of something more complete) that suggests there is more to the story than the narrator’s claimed interests, which as the story draws to its conclusion sees the power of the narration switch from the narrator to Nona. While it doesn’t quite have the enigmatic power of Mi hermana Alba, there are some similarities in how the strange perceptions of children point to something more profound.

She again uses the perception of children in Interno con figura (Interior with figure). The narrator goes to an art museum where a group of school children are taking a tour. They stop in front of a painting, the one that is part of the cover art of book. When asked what is going on in the photo, one child becomes scared and suggests it is something horrible. The narrator takes this to mean that the child is seeing in the painting her own life and is not narrating what is in the painting. The narrator is never quite certain what to do. Should she talk to the teacher, the police, follow them? She does that for a little, but ultimately she cannot do anything. Her only option as she ends the story is to write a story, an act that brings the interplay between art and reality to another level. Did Cubas witness this? The painting is real, so why can’t this be true? And if it is true is what the child said true? This is not an unknown phenomenon. In Cubas work at its best we’re often left with question, or better said, forced to make a decision: which narrative line do we want believe, and, thus, follow?

El final de Barbero (The end of Barbero) recounts the arrival of a stepmother who becomes the ruling force in the family, much to the frustration of the three daughters. While there is a touch of the wicked stepmother in the story, it does not follow the familiar pattern of abuse. Instead, Barbero steals the daughter’s father and leaves them behind. The enmity she engenders is that of remaking the family, erasing a future that the daughters thought they would have and leaving them in the dark. Barbero is a strange woman. After marring the father a week after meeting the daughters she begins to distance the father from the children. Ultimately, she and the father move out, taking anything of value, including the picture frames, leaving the photos of their late mother on shelves in the office. It is these kind of touches that make Barbero at once an object of hate and pity, a woman who is trying to control, but is so strange that her victories are really pyrrhic. Ultimately, the fate of Barbero is uncertain and in true Cubas fashion, what the daughters find out lesson her power, making the whole marriage a tragic-comedy. It is one of the more successful stories in the book.

La Nueva Vida (The New Life) is one of her few stories written in the third person and is the most obviously personal story of the collection. Cubas lost her husband of many years several years before the publication of the book, and that experience is reflected here. In the story a woman is walking through Madrid and finds herself in the past, meeting with her friends, with her husband. It is a stripped down story, one that is more interested in the emotion of loss. There is no magical jam as in Los altillos de Brumal; she is just there. It is the confusion of memory that is the subject, the way that memory lives, and can bring one to a past as if it really is now. The use of third person here is instructive as to her approach. Typically in the first person, she leaves open doubts, missperceptions, but here it is the complete enveloping experience of a memory that she wants to show. The doubts come via a waitress who sees an older woman having problems. It also makes the story one of her most realistic, even though it feels at first if this is some sort of strange time travel story. It is surprisingly effective and impactful story.

Finally, Días entre los Wasi-Wano (Days Among the Wasi-Wano) returns to the interplay between story and reality. Again, the narrator is a girl who, along with her brother, is shipped off to her aunt and uncle’s for the summer. The aunt and uncle are a strange pair and live in the country side in a little village. The uncle is given to telling stories of his adventures in Brazil exploring the jungle and meeting the Wasi-Wano tribe. It is a fascinating story that the narrator loves. It is also a story that is only real because of the commitment of the uncle. The narrator, though, is hooked and for her the uncle is the most interesting person. However, there are things behind the facade of the marriage. It leaves the narrator both enjoying the beauty of story that Brazil presents and facing cracks in the dream that is her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Cubas brilliantly plays with both ideas, making the fantastical, Brazil, the more solid, while the real becomes unstable. Of course, that instability colors everything about the uncle and suggests that there is more to a story than its credibility. It is a surprisingly effective story, full of dead ends and questions that can never be answered and leave a sense of melancholy that often comes with Cubas exploration of the fantastic, as if the euphoria of the glimpse of what cannot be deflates one.

La habitación de Nona is one of her better collections, and I think rightly called out as one of 2015’s best books (in Spain).


The Complete Eightball 1-18 By Daniel Clowes

The Complete Eightball 1-18
Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics Books, 2015, 560 pg8ballc-3d

The complete Eightball collects the first 18 issues that Daniel Clowes published between 1989-1997. It is a beautiful two volume set encased in a newly drawn slip cover. Clowes is probably most famous for Ghost World which originally appeared in Eightball. Those who’ve only read Ghost World, which I would count myself amongst, will perhaps be a little surprised by tone of his work. However, after reading the collection it is clear that Ghost World is just another facet of Clowes work and vision, which is dark, comic, and at times caustic, always drawn with a detail and precision that make him one of the most interesting comics artists out there.

The first 18 issues of Eightball usually comprised three or four stories and perhaps a few single page items each issue. During the first half of the run each issue contained an episode of his episodic comic, Like A Velvet Cast In Iron and in the second half, Ghost World was his episodic story of choice. While his two long form stories gave Clowes an opportunity to tell larger and more complicated stories, his short form work is well written and worthy of comment. Thematically, it focuses on common alt-comic themes of alienation and frustration. Written between the late 80’s and through much of the 90’s there issues of the day that show up in the pages. That is not to say, his work is dated, but the obsessions with alt culture and the conflict with corporate comics culture is clearly of the era. The conflict brings me to the second common theme: what it is to write comics. Every issue has some reference to writing comics, often in the form of the Dan Pussey story. Dan is a comic genius who gets too full of himself, thinking he can control his publisher, and ends up as a slave in the corporate empire. While not of  obvious interest to the general reader, the tone of his stories are often funny, definitely irreverent, and filled with just enough self loathing to make them a perfect read when one is in a dark mood.

Of the the two long form stories, Velvet Glove is the strangest and least interesting of the two. As story telling goes, it might be better than Ghost World, since in sustains one story over nine issues. However, it is a very fantastical and nihilistic story that charts a search for a mysterious film and actors that ends in a dark end that is just the last of many indignities heaped on the protagonist. If one likes a dark fantastical vision of the world, it is a delightful story.

Ghost World, on the other hand, is more successful in that it brings that self loathing and the biting sarcasm under the control of a human touch. Most of Eightball is working towards Ghost World in the sense that Clowes is playing the outsider as an alt writer, but in Ghost World, he takes that sense of being surrounded by stupidity and uncertainty and hones it, placing it in his most fully formed characters. The characters have inner lives, something missing in the grotesques that are a staple of his work. Enid becomes Clowes alter ego and in doing so makes a more compelling and less self absorbed character. Clowes is deft at creating characters infused with a sense of alienation, yet making them compelling, characters you want to return to whether or not you relate to them. If I have any complaint with Eightball, it is that dichotomy represented between the self-absorbed frustration of the characters and the more open Ghost World so stark.

Any mention of Eightball, is not complete without a note of his art. Clowes, in terms of art, is a brilliant artist. One thing that strikes you is his detailed line control and use that to make grotesque exaggerations is powerful. His work is never sloppy and so when a charters has a wild facial expression you see every bit of sweat and know that the weight of his pen carries real passion. Even when a story is misses the mark, his art work makes up for it.

Finally, Fantagraphics has done amazing work with this reissue. Not only have they matched the original color, they have matched the original page weights. Given the ever changing publishing history of Eightball, from just a color cover, to later several pages of color, to occasional cardboard covers. That Fantagraphics reprinted each pages as it originally appeared, is testament to their careful and detailed reprint. It is what makes Eightball a great pleasure to read.

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris – A Review

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Mark Harris
Penguin Books, 2014, 511 pg

I once proposed you could find in the propaganda films of World War II the answer for the increasing post war militarization of the United States. I spent 120 pages and six months doing it. I have since concluded that’s impossible. However, ever since then I’ve had an abiding love for World War II era films (and for that mater, ephemera) and an interest in their creation. Koppes and Black’s work in the late 80’s and early 90’s covered much of this. While in Five Came Back, Harris focuses on the directors Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens, he also touches on much of the politics that surrounded the five men. In many ways, Five Came Back is a detailed examination of Hollywood during the war that uses the five directors as its focal point. It is a fascinating portrait that is both detailed and critical.

In focusing on the five directors, Harris is trying to tell the story of the men, the war, their art, and the aftermath of the war. That last element is key to the book, as Harris is interested in more than the war, or the politics of it, but the human toll. It is that focus that makes the book more than a history of the war, but a history of the effects of the war. Following the five men, also allows Harris to show all flaws and egos of the men and how that fit into the larger narrative of the war. It is that human element that is often missing from histories of the subject, which is too bad, because given the grandstanding the Ford, Capra, and Huston did makes one wonder how the war was ever won.

Harris definitely admires Wyler and Stevens and I think respects Huston as a solder-film maker. Wyler and Stevens in particular did not grandstand, took their work serious and were effected by the war, Wyler both physically and emotionally, and let that flow into their work. Huston might get that respect, but he was also busy chasing skirts and like Ford and Capra, also very interested in turning the movies they made for the government into their personal projects, ones they could show in theaters and get credit, perhaps even an academy award. Wyler and Stevens, on the other hand, stayed in the military for the duration, risked their lives, especially Wyler when he went out on B17 missions, and did not use their films as a chance for personal glory. The Memphis Belle is perhaps the most emblematic of the war-time documentaries and is perhaps the best. It is about the men and, unlike many of the others that came out at the time, does not use reenactments, something that put Wyler at great risk to create. Eventually, Wyler would lose most of his hearing while flying in Italy.

Ford and Capra come in for some heavy criticism. Both of the men were higher ranking then the other three and definitely interested in personal glory. Ford, for example, took all the footage he shoot during the Battle of Midway and secreted it to the mainland and created his own documentary outside of government channels. He then wanted it released, much like Capra would with his Why We Fight series, to the general public, in part so they would be illegible for an Academy Award. This kind of behavior brought them into conflict with their military superiors, but more importantly with the head of the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) a division of the Office of War Information (OWI). The head of the BMP was a territorial man and the antics of the directors along with his other conflicts with Hollywood caused many problems. The politics of it are complicated, but the self-serving nature of Ford, Capra, and to some extent, Huston, was a source of continual friction.

Although the book makes for fascinating reading, it does help to see the films, especially since Harris describes the creation of many of them in great detail. Many of the films, Harris notes, were completely staged. Most of the film crews of the five directors were behind the front lines. It was the signal corps that often did the front line filming. John Huston’s Battle of San Pietro is a masterwork in recreating supposed war footage. Fortunately the internet makes many of these available and anyone who is interested in the work of the five directors should really see what they created.




Alumbramiento (Illumination) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Alumbramiento (Illumination)
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2006 pg 166

Andrés Neuman is a dedicated explorer of the short story form, both as a writer and an editor. Alumbramiento, one of his earlier collections, shows him as a mature writer working through different approaches to the short story form, in terms of theme and structure. Those explorations, can wander between the literary, as in the section devoted to literature, to the more familiar territory of relationships between people. In no matter which area he is writing the stories take on playfulness and a humanity that never treats characters as something frivolous, no matter how esoteric the story is.

The collection is divided into four parts: Otros Hombres (Other Men), which looks at men and their relationships; Minituras (Minitures), which is a series of short monologues; Lecturas (Readings), which is about reading and literature; and, as in all his collections, aphorisms about writing (I hesitate to call them rules, more thought pieces). Alumbramiento, the first story of the collection, is, perhaps, Neuman’s most stream of conscious story, narrating a man’s thoughts on the birth of his child. The title in Spanish means both  birth and illumination, and it sets the tone for Otros Hombres section, showing men who are in the process confronting a change. For the narrator of Alumbramiento the change is both scary and exciting, and in Neuman’s hands he stretches what might be a rather obvious idea, into an exploration of the narrator’s life, that is at once affectionate and insightful.

Where, Alumbramiento is a nervous joy, Una raya en la arena (A Line in the Sand) shows the break down of a couple through what seems so insignificant: the challenge to not cross a line drawn in the sand between a couple. How the man and the woman interpret the meaning and importance of the line shapes whether the line is a permanent, fixed barrier, or a metaphor for a troubled couple. The argument as the couple works through the meanings of the line is subtle. Did the woman even mean for the line in the sand to be a true line in the sand, a point of no return? All of these ideas weave through the story and show Neuman as strong observer of human interaction.

La belleza (The Beauty) is a representative story from the miniatures section. In these brief page long monologues the narrators describe something fundamental about themselves and the world around them. For the narrator of La belleza she is cursed with a beauty that the whole world recognizes and uses to appraise her with. She is not a thinking being, but an image of the ideal and when she speaks those around her are shocked that she has anything to say. In an Neuman touch, at night she dreams of a world full of ugliness. Of course that world cannot exist and when she awakes she finds herself completely alone. While there are familiar tropes about stereotyping beauty, Neuman adds to this with her solitary life, as if there is a beauty that is too much, too frightful.

Finally, in the Lecturas section, Neuman explores and plays with the idea of reading and the reader. Here he shows his great fascination not with narrative, but the idea of narrative, how readers construct and make their own narratives. It is the most humoristic section of the book, finding in a story like Queneau asltaba ancianas (Queneau  Robs Seniors) a celebration of Queneau, but also a chance to laugh at the trials of the robber who becomes less and less powerful, as if they style of the story robs him of his power. It is one of Neuman’s characteristic interests: writing in the border between fiction and the experience of reading that fiction. It is that interplay that is not only on display in the Lecturas section, but informs many of his stories and makes them unique.

Many of these stories are now available form Open Letter Press and any one reading this would do well to get a copy.

Cartoons for Victory by Warren Bernard – A Review

9781606998229Cartoons for Victory
Warren Bernard
Fantagraphic Books, 2015, 255 pg

WWII was a total war and the war saturated everything as all means of communication became another means to further the war. Cartoons and comics were no exception. While the WWII services of the famous names in comics such as Super Man are easy to find in reprints, they lead to a juvenile view of the war. Warren Bernard’s Cartoons for Victory examines a different side of the war, one whose aims were to instruct, to propagandize, to reflect a society where every last detail of life was tied to war. While the art of many cartoonists is worth of reprint on its own merits, the book provides a glimpse at the little ways the war entered the lives of Americans, ways that seem almost inconceivable 70 years plus on.

Cartoons for Victory is divided in thematic sections that illustrate the ways the cartoons were used. There are sections on war bond drives, scrap drives victory gardens and proper lights out procedures, all of which mix a kind of light humor with serious home front campaigns. The target audience for the cartoons ranges from children to adults, although given the medium there is a pronounced targeting of young people. The cartoons themselves are a mix of the well known, Micky Mouse for example, and one off advertisements. While the former could take the shape of newspaper supplemental or a few pages in a comic, the advertisements, not for the war aim itself but a consumer product, are a mix of capitalism and patriotism. It is a fascinating mix that you see throughout war time advertising (Taschen’s All American Ads 1940’s is particularly revealing). For example, there is a Sunco Oil add with Donal Duck that touts the properties of an oil that doesn’t clog engines that are not in use due to rationing. The tag line is, Care for you  car…care for your country. These kind of ads served two purposes: advertise a company’s product so after the war consumers will buy it; and support the war. Some of the ads play on a humor of shared sacrifice. In one Parkay Margarine ad three women standing in front of a shop keeper say, What do you say girls? Should we flip for that last pound of Parkay Margarine? As Kennedy pointed out in Freedom from Fear, the United States did have guns and butter and these kind of ads are a window into a consumer culture at war.

In addition to advertorial cartoons, cartoons commissioned by the government are also well represented. Government cartoons are more serious and focus more on education. Included is a pamphlet on how to prepare for an air raid. It lacks any humor and, instead, shows determined Americans preparing themselves the best they can. In the last image, which is used on the book’s cover, a group of Americans are shown banding together with Uncle Sam pulling his selves up in the background. In more egregious example, the Office of Price Administration promotes rubber rationing with a cartoon of a racially exaggerated Japanese soldier standing in front of a stack of tires.

It’s the one panel cartoons from magazines and newspapers that are, perhaps, the most revealing of the war’s everyday nature. Most of the cartoons excerpted make light of all the inconveniences the war brought on. They also highlight the social changes the war brought on. In one cartoon some children look up at a bomber flying overhead and one says, my mother built that. But for all the Rosie successes, there are negative consequences too and a whole chapter is dedicated to the fear of juvenile delinquency and another racism. In all of these cartoons there is a reflection, at once humorous, proud, and concerned, as the war brought huge changes to the home front.

Finally, Cartoons for Victory celebrates some of the great cartoonists to come from that era such as Will Eisner and Theodore Gisel, and some lesser known such as Miné Okubo. For anyone interested in graphic art the collection is a rich store of work. The section dedicated to Eisner is particularly solid, showing a real command of his art.

Cartoons for Victory is not just for a specialists, but anyone interested in a different take on World War II. For those interested in cartoon history it is even more important.



La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun) by Gerorges Blond – A Review

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Gerorges Blond
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Language: Spanish

Gerorges Blond’s 1962 The Battle of Verdun, or in French simply Verdun, is a strange kind of history, at once more interested in the dramatic value of the story and yet an apparent exploration of the first hand experiences of the soldiers who lived France’s iconic battle of World War I. What makes the book a compelling read (it won the Richelieu prize), is his detailed focus on the experience of the soldier in battle. He is quite clear in his interest: what actual combat was like. Reading Verdun you’ll have a general sense of the battles movement of troops, but even that will be incomplete—he doesn’t even recount large sections of the final stages of the battle. Instead, one will understand the fatigue and exhaustion that overtook the soldiers outside Fluery as they drank putrid water from shell craters that gave them dysentery, while the shells landed around them and the fighting was hand to hand. His descriptions of the battle for Fort Vaux is particularly detailed (perhaps graphic is the right word). The men could hardly breathe and the stink of the dead permeated everything. The French held out on the lower sections of the fort while the Germans slowly worked their way in, loosing great numbers to the determined resistance. He’s at his best when he is describing these almost novelist encounters. One has the impression that he had researched the encounters, and his comments towards the end of the book about his conversations with the veterans of the war, all lend credence to his descriptions. Those close in details follow his general style of narration which places heavy emphasis on characters and personalities, even in the abstract or the aggregate. For Blond, the strategic implications of the battle are only important in how they influence the daily life of the participants. In other words, he likes his characters. It is that focus that brings him to write about the men of the Sacred Way, the only supply line into Verdun, or the pilots battling in horrendous situations. In each case he finds in them a heroism that is both stoic and noble, men who are doing what they have to, many who know they’ll never return. It can be a jarring approach at times. His coverage of the air war is particularly odd since he seems to care little about other strategic elements of the war, and he is certainly not trying to do a survey of all the various factors in the battle. He might have done well to stick to the ground war. His search for character also detracts in the liberties he takes that no academic historian would. In the initial parts of the book he was recording thoughts and conversations that Joffre and other generals were having, yet it was unclear how he knew these statements. There was no sourcing and it felt too complete. It wasn’t until late in the book that he remarked that he didn’t have the details of a conversation, I think with Petain, but it must have gone something like this. For one, such as myself, who wants a little more concrete detail it can be a little discerning. Despite those lapses, Blond’s ability to describe the experience of the front line troops was impressive and given what I know of the battles, I would say on target. While not the most rigorous history, it has some impressive passages. In some ways, the best part were the last pages when he began making more references to the soldiers and the evenings he spent with them at campgrounds outside Verdun, reliving the war. In those moments you see a writer full of respect and admiration for the Poilu. It brought his writing into a fuller, less narrative driven, style that served the pointless of the battle.

The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer – Banipal 53

The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer
Banipal 53, summer 2015

Zakaria Tamer is a Syrian short story, considered one of the best short story writers in Arabic. I have no way to know if that is true, but Banipal 53, the magazine of modern Arab literature, has dedicated an entire issue of its magazine to him. It is filled with effusive praise from his translators across the world. In every case they described him as an economical author of very short stories that both stretch story telling and the Arabic language, but are playful and darkly humorous. After reading the 27 stories, Facebook posts and children stories included in the issue, I would have to agree with their assessment.

He has had a long career, if troubled career. He has lived in exile in England since the 1980s. The Syrian government didn’t like what he had written in the state funded literature magazine he edited. Some of his work addresses life in a police state, not directly, but through fables and little incidents in daily life that the best writers can use to illustrate a larger point. The Arab Prison best illustrates the former approach. In it, the narrator returns home from a three week stay in a jail. All his neighbors ask him leading questions, hoping, though it is not said, that he will describe the terrors inside. The narrator, instead, describes everything as pleasant—to a degree, as if he wants to tell stories but he just can’t quite shake the truth:

Then the interrogator let the burly men who were with him and whose hobby was to collect autographs of celebrities, request my autograph. However, I couldn’t hold a pen, so I had to dip all ten of my fingers in ink and plant their imprints on their notepads.

It’s obvious that his hands have been broken, but the narrator is a story teller, both as our narrator and also as someone who is known to create his own stories, so he takes different approaches to story telling. In a typically Tamer move, he ends the story by telling little fables. After the narrator’s mother has left the room, his little brother wants to hear a story. The narrator tells him three stories about kings. In each story there is a threat of violence and loss and the fables do not end well. In the final, for example, a man tells the king he has too many prisoners and if he releases them he will be cured of a milady. In anger he puts the man in jail and later the milady goes away. There is no settling of accounts. Those without power end up at the mercy of those without power.

In the brief Cold Night, Tamer examines the common place cruelties that neighbors are willing to live with. A husband and wife are in bed and they hear their neighbor scream. She is alone and someone might be trying to rape her. The husband says “we’re not the only neighbors […] Someone else will help her.” This kind of indifference has been explored before, but then Tamer goes a little father. The wife describes what she thinks is happening and the husband becomes aroused and wants to make love. The story ends there. It is unclear what has happened, but Tamer has in one page described not only neighborly indifference, but a delight in suffering living just beneath the surface. Cold Night is a perfect example of his precise style.

Tamer is also quite playful. In New of the Sheep he writes 10 on paragraph stories the might be called the disaster of sheep, each describing the well-intentioned naivete of sheep that always turns out bad:

A well-fed lamb believed in the idea of peace between lambs and wolves and devoted all his energies to preaching and advocating it. The wolves fell upon him and gave him the highest honor by cooking his tender, firm flesh in the most innovative ways.

As the translators note and from the stories I’ve read, the darkness isn’t a pessimism, but a reality that is too easily glossed over.

Along with the short stories, most of which have not appeared in English,  the children’s stories which have never been published before, and the reflections of translators and critics, there is a lengthy interview with Tamer that is excellent and will give you an insight to his writing process.

If you are interested in the short story I think this issue of Banipal is a must. I plan to read some more of his stories as soon as I can. There are three books in translation:

Breaking Knees
Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories
The Hedgehog-A Novella.

You can read one of his stories at Arabic lit in English. There is a good review of his recent public appearance in London at Arabic lit also.

Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra (Shadows of Your Black Memory) by Donato Ndongo – A Review

Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra
(Shadows of Your Black Memory)
Donato Ndongo
Ediciones El Cobre, 2009, 174 pg

Donato Ndongo is from Equatorial Guinea a multi lingual country with a history of Spanish occupation. Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra is his response to that colonization as well as a coming of age story, each navigating the space between what it means to leave home, a place of tradition, and entering the world of the Catholic church and Spanish power. For those who don’t know much about Equatorial Guinea (I was one of them), Spain colonized parts of the country for several hundred years. When the story picks up in the 1950’s, Spain is in the midst of Franco’s Catholic-Nationalism dictatorship and the colonial officials, when present, hold the government line, obsessed with God and communism. In a touch of Ndongo’s humor, the narrator recounts when he was six and the priest went on about reds and Russians, all the while he misinterprets the locus of the priest’s ire, believing reds are a different people, like the Spanish are to him. It is also indicative of a tension that runs throughout the book between the traditional culture and that of Spanish, and most importantly, the Catholic church, the main emblem of the state in the narrator’s remote village. The book opens with the adult narrator telling the head of the seminary he is not going to be a priest after all. From there the chapters alternate between key encounters with tradition and with the church. The encounters are rendered in strong impressionistic language that sweeps aside cold logic in favor of a sensual prose which builds in rhythm and power. When he describes his circumcision amongst the elders of the tribe, both the excitement and the power of the moment builds until the actual circumcision and the adulation after is a release. His description of his first communion is rendered in a similar building emotion. But instead of power and mystery, he gives us comedy. The narrator, who pushed into first communion at seven, an early age, because he had been caught giving mass in his bedroom, gets so nervous that instead of honoring the Eucharist, he gets sick at the alter, embarrassing everyone and dirtying his first communion suit (in Spain at that time they were elaborate things that looked like naval uniforms). If there is a flaw to the book, it is its brevity (something I don’t say that often). The novel ends with the narrator at the age of eight or nine going off to religious boarding school to learn what the Spaniards know so he can bring it back home and help free the country. Sure, he won’t become a priest, but what happened between his leaving and that period. A minor quibble to an otherwise outstanding book.

A note of the title: the English title of the 2007 translation, while correct, I think looses a little in the translation, only because the translation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is El corazon de las tinieblas. I think the Spanish title plays with that image.

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944 (The Blue Division) by Jorge M. Reverte – A Review

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944/ The Blue Division : Russia, 1941-1944
Jorge M. Reverte
RBA Libros, 2011, pg 589

The División Azul was a Spanish volunteer unit that served on the Russian front during World War II. The division initially consisted of members of the Flange, the ultra fascist party that formed part of Franco’s ruling coalition. (They wore blue shirts as part of their uniform.) It is important to understand that Franco was still consolidating power after the Spanish Civil War and that the Flange wanted to push an agenda that was much more extreme than Franco’s national-Catholicism, itself quite conservative and violent.

In 1941, the leaders of the Flange were looking for a way to push their anti-communist, anti-mason, agenda forward. Franco was not moving fast enough and given the recent German invasion of Russia, the Flange wanted a more active policy, ideally joining with Germany against the Judaeo-Bolshevik threat that the USSR represented. Moreover, in joining the attack against Russia they would be taking revenge for Russia’s meddling in the Civil War. Since Franco would not enter the war, they created a plan where they would create a division of volunteers that would serve in the German army. Franco assented to the creation of the volunteer group for two reasons. First, it would placate German demands for a Spanish entry into the war and might avoid a German invasion of Spain. Second, it could, and eventually would, cut the power of the Flange. If their members were killed during the war they would not be available later to challenge Franco.

The division left Spain in late summer to parades and much excitement. It would be the closest Spain came to joining the war. Once in Spain they swore allegiance to Hitler. This is a key point and one that Reverte will return to over and over. The volunteers were part of the German army and all the bad that includes. One of the cruxes of the book is the question, what did the Spaniards know about the atrocities the German’s were participating in. Reverte details what the Einsatzgruppen were doing in the sectors the division was passing through. The technique definitely suggests the division members must have known something. He is working at a disadvantage since there are few statements from the Flange diehards to support this.

The technique has some draw backs, though. Primarly, Reverte, in attempting to show the conditions the men were fighting in, will search too far afield to show the suffering that the men must have known was happening. As much as I’m interested in Shostakovitch, the writing of his 7th symphony is not particularly central to his subject, even if the division was on the outskirts of Leningrad.  And discussions of Irene Nemirovsky no matter how tragic they were, are not particularly relevant to the division. It is the weakness of the book, and a 100 pg cut of such materials would have helped the book.

The winter of 41/42 was horrendous and took a toll on the division. When new volunteers were needed diehards of the Flange, essentially college students, were no where to be found. The second group would be made up of the poor who wanted a good wage, or soldiers from the army who were voluntold. Moroccan troops were even sent, but were returned to Spain. German race purity had to be maintained.

In either version of the division, the casualties were heavy. Despite the casualties, the Germans were not impressed with the Spanish troops. The Spanish leadership, on the other hand, was happy with the losses. It showed a fighting spirit that only the Spanish fascist could achieve. The Fascist chant at the beginning of the Civil War, vivela muerte, comes to mind here.

Ultimately, Franco, with the allied victories, was able to let the losses and his consolidation of power, decimate the power of the Flange. By war’s end the Flange was not a threat to Franco’s power.

Despite Reverte’s many off topic asides (a writer falling in love with his subject), La División Azul does make a solid case that the soldiers, if they did not participate in the atrocities, must have known and to say otherwise, as many have maintained, is a lie.

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Issue 49 of Banipal focused on Short Stories and had an impressive collection of stories, from the fantastic, to the experimental to mainstream. Many of them were very good and I was impressed with the stylistic range of story telling. Jokha Al-Harthi’s On the Wooden Park Bench…We Sat was impressive, telling a simple story of a romance played out on a park bench. Salima Salih’s The Body was a haunting and dark story about a man who goes to morgue to find his dead son, and finding he isn’t dead enters a bureaucratic nightmare. Anis Afafai’s Moroccan Dead Transfer Company was delightfully fantastic, playing with reality and dream at the same time. In all of the stories there was an inventiveness that made many of the stories quite different from each other, both in theme and style. There is no over arching take away from the collection, other than there are some great voices out there that I would have liked to read more of. In most cases their works are not translated into English and this is your only chance to read from these ±20 authors. I would have liked a few more stories from women. Otherwise this edition was quite enjoyable.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christoper Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christoper Clark
Harper 2012, pg 562

Christoper Clark’s origins of World War I is a remarkable work of history, especially, diplomatic. Although the term Sleepwalker has been criticized in a few cases (namely Hastings), his thesis is compelling and his analysis of the political currents of the major parties is  richly detailed. It is it is one of the best analysis written of the subject.

Sleepwalkers starts with a lengthy analysis of Serbia and Hungry, each receiving a chapter. The two chapters are unlike any others in the book and it shows not only the importance of the two countries in the start of the war, something perhaps obvious, but how Clark views each country’s leadership. In the case of Serbia, Clark is extremely critical, seeing the country as mass of violence, intrigue, and outsized ambitions to become the leader of the Balkan Slavs. It is that ambition, one that was unable to get beyond its own nativism, that led to most of the problems. While the war was not Serbia’s fault per say, their ambitions to become the regional power, a self selected protector of Slav culture, despite what the Croats or other peoples in the region might think, made the region very unstable. It is easy to see in his analysis a criticism of Serbia in the 1990’s too.

In the case of Hungry, he showed not so much as a weak nation, but an unwieldy one. The dual monarchy meant that major decisions to  like going to war had to go through both the Austrian parliament and the Hungarian. The motive of each group was not necessarily in line with the other, and Hungarian nationalism often played a key in how each side would decide to enter a political decision. He does note that Austria was less divided than one might think and although the an observer of the Austrian parliament might hear multiple languages during a debate, the frictions for independence were not as decisive as one might expect. Like all great powers of the era, it did believe that it had a sphere of influence that it could operate in and it was their right to do it.

After those two chapters he moves into a more chronological history. In this part 6 points are come out: the weak control over institutions within countries, France’s  bellicose attitude and financial aide to the Serbs, the growing fear that Russia would be able to mobilize faster than Germany, the British and Russian relationship might come to an end, Italian ambitions, the collapse of the Ottomans, and most importantly, no side thought they had an option but go to war.

Clark notes in several chapters that the prime ministers and presidents of several countries, particularly France and Great Brittan, but also Russia and Germany, often did not have direct control over their foreign ministries. Instead, the leadership that came and went with some regularity, was unable to control the bureaucracy of the ministries. Often the ministers worked against what the heads of state wanted. France and Britain had paralytically bellicose ministries that often planed for wars and were in a constant state of panic about the central powers. Even when a head of state wanted to reign in a ministry in an attempt to deescalate a situation it was difficult to do, and they would find themselves without allies within the government to control the situation. France was especially susceptible to this.

The far greater problem, though, was empire. For Britain and Russia it was the contest for regions along their borders, particularly India. the two countries had accords to limit competition, but as they grew closer to 1914, there was some question as to how they would work together in the future or if they would become adversaries again. The issue made the need to bind Britain to Russia and France critical and would in the run up complicate planning for each party in the war.

More important, though, and what Clark sees as a key element to the crises was Italy’s 1911 invasion of Libya. Until then there was a balance of power between the Ottomans, the Austrians and other regional powers. With the loss of Libya, it was now obvious that Turkey was a weak state and its possessions could be wrest from it. In 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and Montenegro began the First Balkan war to take land that had been Ottoman, though inhabited by Slavs. The war was  a success and the nations expanded in size. The destabilization of the region and the growth of Serbian power led to a bellicose situation in the region, where Serbian and Austrian ambitions were in conflict. France made things worse by guaranteeing Serbia large loans. The loans were given with the condition that Serbia spend the money in France. They bought large amounts of arms, further escalating tensions. France disregarded any council that their actions could lead to an escalation.

Finally, he lays out his key thesis: when the crisis came, every country thought of itself as a victim. Worse, instead of viewing themselves as an actor who could control the situation, they thought they could only react to the situation. The interlocking treaties, fears, and military plans all gave each side the sense that they were a victim and had to do something. It is this idea that most clearly illustrates the idea of the Sleepwalkers. Even for Clark it is difficult to believe that they could all find themselves without options. The obsession with mobilization and military time tables, amongst other things, made it difficult for any actor to slow the rush to war.

Sleepwalkers is a complex and nuanced work whose analytic depth makes this an impressive work of scholarship.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumf Vol 1 by Joe Sacco – A Review

Bumf Vol 1 Cover
Bumf Vol 1 Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.
writing. Collective autobiography.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senselessness (Insenasatez) by Horacio Castellanos Moya – A Review

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

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

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

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

Interview with Rodrigo Rey Rosa at the White Review

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

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

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists That Defined the 1980s – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Leatherette – The Normal

Sex Dwarf – Soft Cell

Poison Arrow – ABC

Mad World – Tears for Fears

The New Book from Juan Marsé

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

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

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

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