Rafael Chirbes Wins the Premio de la Crítica

The Spanish author Rafael Chirbes won the Premio de la Crítica for his latest novel En la orilla, a criticism of Spanish society and the crisis. It is a realistic novel in the vein Dickens and Benito Pérez Galdós one of Spain’s great writers of the 19th century. He is pessimistic about the world and for that the book is appealing.

En esta novela, En la orilla, como en la anterior, Crematorio, con la que también ganó el Premio de la Crítica en 2007, el autor aborda el momento de la burbuja inmobiliaria, la especulación y la corrupción política, el fraude y la resaca posterior cuando el castillo de naipes se desmorona, una resaca que ha llevado a la sociedad española a descubrir la verdadera carroña que existe cuando llega el dinero fácil, palabra que utiliza en sus dos novelas. Chirbes, poco optimista con el futuro, habla del declive de la sociedad, de la desesperación del ciudadano cuando no tiene para comer porque el paso siguiente es “el cabreo. Mucha gente cabreada sin ordenar las ideas y pasarlo por la cabeza te puede llevar a cometer locuras y eso provoca miedo. Es peligroso”.

El pesimismo de Chirbes es eco del que existe entre los jóvenes que hace una década vivían muy bien con el sueldo que ganaban y que hoy se encuentran en el umbral de la pobreza. “Es duro para alguien de 30 o 35 años que en los primeros años de este siglo tenía un buen trabajo llevando una grúa y un sueldo acorde. Y hoy se encuentre en la calle acudiendo a los comedores sociales porque no encuentra nada y tampoco se le forma para mejorar su situación. El gris que se respira en el ambiente te lleva a los años 50 del pasado siglo, a ese momento en el que las dificultades eran evidentes y no veías el futuro”, puntualiza el escritor.


La Puerta Entreabierta (The Half-Open Door) by Fernanda Kubbs aka Cristina Fernandez Cubas – A Review

La Puerta Entreabierta
(The Half-Open Door)
Fernanda Kubbs (Cristina Fernandez Cubas)
Tusquets, 2013, 221 pg
La Puerta Entreabierta (The Half-Open Door) is Cristina Fernandez Cubas’ latest book and finds her assuming a pen name, Fernanda Kubbs, to create a much more fantastical novel that celebrates famous stories of mystery while creating her own. Cubas’s work has always dealt with the fantastic, but La in Puerta Entreabierta the fantastical becomes almost the primary focus of the novel making the mysterious less an element of suspense, but exploration. Avid readers of her work, as I am, will find the book, dare I say it, a little lighter than some of her other work. Her writing style is still as good as ever and it is a pleasure to read some one of her talent write was is, for all intents and purposes, an intelligent fable.

The story follows Isa a human interest story reporter for a newspaper. She’s not particularly good and doesn’t know how to dress well either, wearing bermuda shorts to a reprimand by her boss. Her assignment is to write an article on fortune tellers. She finds a stereotypical fortuneteller dressed as gypsy and using a crystal ball. Sometime during the reading she is transported into the crystal and is trapped inside. The fortuneteller is a fraud and has no idea how she ended up in the ball. Thus begins Isa’s journey in the sphere, landing ultimately in the shop of an antiquarian dealer who on learning of her predicament tries to helper escape from the sphere.

Interspersed between Isa’s narrative are stories, told as examples, of famous frauds who fooled people with illusions and tricks. Readers of Poe might be familiar with Von Kempelen and his chess playing machine. Here, as in the other stories, she reworks the stories, playing with the legends of the frauds, both showing them as ridiculous and compelling, as if there is something in the stories that is true. It is a typical move for her, but in this book it is more playful and the stories remain what they have long been: fables.

What makes the book enjoyable are two things: the interaction between Isa and her protector; and Cubas’ ability to make what might otherwise be a light story something that shines with her strong language. Moreover, Cubas is a clever writer and her decision to leave the story open ended makes this detour into the magical quite interesting. While this will not be my favorite work of hers (hence the short review), I enjoyed it for what it is and given that it is Cubas it is much better that most books.

Mister Blue by Jacques Poulin – A Review

Mister Blue
Jacques Poulin
Trans: Sheila Fischman
Archipelago, 2011, pg 174

I’m not a cat lover. Other people’s cats are fine, but I have no need for them. And yet for some reason I keep reading Jacques Poulin novels which always seem to have a cat as some central organizing theme, if not a character. In Translation Is A Love Affair, a cat is the bridge between an author and a woman . And in Mister Blue there is something similar, although in this case, the cat is less a bridge and more symbolic of writers in general, independent spirits that don’t need to be with people all the time. In his writings cats have a weight and a currency that makes the mysterious, which along with his sparse and occasionally meditative writing style, fills his work with a tranquility and reflection that belies their simple stories.

The story of Mister Blue is fairly simple. A writer living outside of Quebec City on the Saint Laurence river finds a partially read copy of the Tales on a 1001 Nights in a cave. The mysterious reader, Marika, comes and goes on her sail boat, passing through the area unnoticed. The author passes her notes, sends his brother to meet her, and even puts a mail box on the beach, all to get the opportunity to meet her. For him, she is a mysterious reader, someone who becomes enveloped in story and yet is never seen, as unreal as story itself.

Marika is a former resident of a collective of women who live with a matronly woman helps shepard troubled women through troubled times. One such woman is La Petite a young woman not even in her twenties who begins to visit the writer. She is nosy taking pleasure in looking through his things, digging into his past, a past he wants to hide for its pain. She, too, is a mystery. Something has damaged her and the writer does not probe deeply into the past. Instead, his past becomes their shared connection as she slowly pulls out of him his divorce, his interest in living in partial isolation out side of Quebec City. It is a truly Poulinesque relationship because it is one of two damaged people who create a friendship that is sparse and quiet, filled with silences and disappearances but ultimately comes to a peaceful understanding that friendship is quiet and patient respect for one another.

La Petite was curious about everything. She turned the pages of the old album unbelievably slowly; we were advancing at the rate of two or three pages an hour, because she would put her finger on every picture and ask all kinds of questions. We were comfortably ensconced in the wicker love seat with the floral cushions at our backs, our feet on the window ledge. Her legs were stretched out, mine slightly folded: that was a minor difference. There were more important ones, such as the fact that she was sixteen or seventeen years old and I was over forty, but when my work had gone well, i was capable of forgetting certain painful aspects of reality.

The above is a typical passage from Poulin and in it there is a tranquility and innocence in it. I’ve only read two of his books, but ever time I’ve come across these encounters with between older men and younger women I think there is a subtle sexuality, a longing, but it never reveals itself. Instead, it is more of a paternal element that pervades his characters. A paternality, though, that has very little rules.

Ultimately, Mister Blue leaves many mysteries open. What is remains is Poulin’s focus: the need to connect. Without connection the mystery that is other people remains unexplored. In this Poulin has a singular approach to this that make his books disarmingly simple and more complex than they seem.

Hablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

portada-hablar-solos_grandeHablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves)
Andrés Neuman
Alfagara, 2012, pg 179

Andrés Neuman is a remarkable writer who is at home writing short stories and novels. With the publication of his latest book Hablar solos, he has returned to a more intimate writing than what readers of  Traveler of the Century, published in English in 2012, might expect. At less than half the length, Hablar solos is closer in spirit to 2011’s collection of short stories Hacerse el muerto, and is composed of dialogue between three people. The three people, however, never talk to each other and in many ways do not interact with each other, instead they talk to each other as if they were writing a journal entry with all its rhetorical fluidity. I mention Hacerse el muerto because, while comic at times, returns to the theme of parental loss that he first touched on in his short quintet, Una silla para alguien. All of these elements make Hablar solos a much more personal book that shows a broad range of feeling and subjects he Neuman is willing to approach.

The three narrators are Mario, a truck driver and father of, Lito a young boy, and Elena, his wife and a professor of literature. As the book opens Mario takes Lito on a one of his deliveries in his truck, Pedro. As they drive across Spain, Mario takes Lito on a grand adventure, seeping in the cab, eating at truck stops, sleeping in hotels. It is all fascinating for the boy and everything is a big adventure. Even when strange encounters occur Lito has no idea what it really going on. Nor does he know that Mario is dying of cancer and this is their last time together. Everything they do in the truck together is tinged with sadness as Mario knows it is the last time they can do it together. While Lito’s narration is fairly matter of fact: we did this, saw that; Mario’s is a pleas for his son to remember the things they did together and understand some day what he did for Lito on that journey.

Perhaps the best example of the two voices working together is when they spend the night in a strange hotel that doesn’t even have a shower in the bathroom and Mario insists Lito not sit on the bed spread and make sure he walks everywhere with his slippers. In the hotel cafe where men and women dance, that in itself a rarity, they meet a self described magician who gives Lito a hat. Mario can’t wait to get him out of there despite Lito’s protests. He doesn’t understand why his father would do that when they were having such a good time. What Lito doesn’t know is they are in a brothel because Mario felt so sick he couldn’t continue on and stopped at the first hotel he could find. The man, Mario says, though Lito was for rent since who could believe a father would bring their son into a place like that. It is a funny and touching moment showing both the desperation of the father to have that one last experience with his son, and to protect him from what ever harm he can.

The strongest and ever present voice, though, is Elena. He narration makes up half the book and is where the real exploration of the pain of loss happens. Mario is unable to express himself very deeply. Everything goes through the family, but for Elena the coming loss is overwhelming and leads her into an affair with Mario’s cancer doctor. It is a strange relationship, almost sadomasochistic, one where the doctor fetishes the human body in all its failings. It isn’t so much a love affair as an act of denial: for her that death is coming; for the doctor that in worshiping the body, even with all its flaws, can heal those who are about to feel loss. These are the conversations Mario and Elena should be having, but the novel is called Hablar solos for a good reason: no one is willing to discuss anything and leaves Elena to wonder

Pero otras veces me pregunto: ¿Y si ese, exactamente, fuera Mario? ¿Y si, en lugar de haber perdido su esencia, ahora sólo quedase lo esencial de él? ¿Como una desilación? ¿Y si en este hospital estuvieramos malentendiendo los cuerpos de nuestors seres queridos?

But at other times I wondered: And if this really were Mario? And if instead of having lost his essence, now, only remained the essential parts of him? Like a distillation? And if in this hospital we are misunderstanding the bodies of our dear ones?

Because Mario and Elena speak by themselves they are unable to answer these questions. It makes the grief Elena feels all the greater. Yet when it is a private thing and when she is reproached for not having asked earlier for help from her friends or family she says,

Confunden SOS y SSO, lo que yo llamo Servicio Sentimental Obligatorio

They confuse the SOS and the OSS, what I call the Obligatory Sentimental Service.

It is a line that captures the novel well, the struggle between communicating and expressing one’s self. The irony of the novel is that although the characters are talking alone, they are talking ad they know they need to pass along what they have to say, they just can’t bring themselves to do it in conversation. It is as if conversation would contain their ability to express themselves.

Hablar solos is an excellent book that successfully renders three distinct voices into a conversation. Neuman’s experiment with the different voices is quite successful and even though you don’t know the whole back story to the characters (this feels like Neuman the short story writer at work, and a nice touch), you have the sense of a completion. What really made the novel so good, though, was Neuman’s way of delving into the slow loss that cancer brings. It can make the novel tough at times, but the humor, especially in the voice of Lito, doesn’t less it so much as make it easier to approach. It is a delicate balancing act that shows Neuman at the top of his game and a writer whose next work I look forward to reading.

If you are looking to read it in English, Puskin Press will be publishing it in Spring 2014.


Cristina Fernández Cubas Has Published a New Novel – La puerta entreabierta

One of my favorite short story writers, Cristina Fernández Cubas, has published a new novel called, La puerta entreabierta (The Half Open Door). It is her first work since the death of her husband several years ago, and marks a bit of a transition for her. When she was trying to write after her husband’s death she found it difficult and melancholy work. At a certain point she hit on writing with a pseudonym, Fernanda Kubbs. It is a fascinating thing to do. It isn’t uncommon, but usually using a pseudonym is to hide or create a marketing line between two different literary personalities. Here, though, it is something more. The review from El Pais sounds interesting and not too dissimilar to the short stories collected in Todos los cuentos (See my reviews here and here).

If you understand Spanish there is a good interview at Pagina 2 that I would recommend you watch.

A good overview of her recent struggles at her conceptualization of her work can be found at El Pais.

A veces para cicatrizar la herida que supone una gran pérdida necesitamos un cambio que nos distraiga del dolor. A Cristina Fernández Cubas (Arenys de Mar, 1945, Barcelona) le llevó un tiempo abordarlo. Perdió a su esposo, el escritor Carlos Trías, de un cáncer de pulmón en 2007. La pareja, entre otras complicidades, compartía la pasión por la lectura y la escritura. A medida que pasaban los días, el placer se tornó en martirio. “No podía seguir como si nada hubiera ocurrido. Todo lo que tenía a medio hacer lo mandé a la porra”, cuenta la escritora en un céntrico hotel de Barcelona, decorado en ese estilo minimalista que tanto abunda. La puerta entreabierta, su nueva novela, firmada con el seudónimo de Fernanda Kubbs, rompe un largo silencio en el terreno de la ficción e inaugura una nueva etapa en su carrera que va a mantener en paralelo con su etapa anterior.

Entre la inestabilidad que proporciona uno de esos asientos en los que te hundes, Fernández Cubas alisa su melena revuelta por el viento. De negro, de la cabeza a los pies, solo la espina de una sardina, tallada en plata, pone un destello de color en su atuendo. Habla con voz neutra de su melancolía: “Lo de leer lo solucioné pronto a base de disciplina, pero escribir me inducía a la tristeza. No podía con ello. La bola de cristal (en la que queda atrapada precisamente la protagonista de su novela) estaba allí, de manera perversa en mi cabeza; escribía en círculo y no hacía más que ahondar en la tristeza y, bueno, un poco de melancolía vale, pero no podía seguir con aquello”. La puerta entreabierta no nació como un proyecto, sino como un juego que le permitió “salir, disfrutar y gozar. De repente, surgió Isa, una joven periodista, y la magia. La magia siempre me ha gustado y fue ahí donde me di cuenta de que ese cambio de registro o de mirada me había envuelto y recuperaba las ganas de levantarme. Casi enseguida, creo que al final del primer capítulo, pensé en dos cosas: una, yo tiro para adelante, ya veremos dónde me lleva y, otra, que me llamaría Fernanda Kubbs”.

There is also a review at El Pais.

En Fernanda Kubbs está Cristina Fernández Cubas como en La puerta entreabierta están las múltiples sendas narrativas transitadas por la autora en un buen puñado de cuentos inolvidables, la aventura y actualización de un tema clásico pasado por el peculiar tamiz del sueño en la novela El año de Gracia (1985) o los recuerdos y evocaciones de las Cosas que ya no existen (2001) que acaban imponiéndose como un libro de memorias y a la vez conforman un conjunto de relatos sobre la vida de los otros: en apariencia historias sueltas, retazos de memorias, anécdotas de viaje, fotografías que se animaban de repente y, “acabada la función, regresaban a su engañosa inmovilidad de tiempo detenido”. Pero no nos confundamos. No es un totum revoltum lo que ahora nos ofrece la escritora barcelonesa sino un viaje —muy bien organizado pese a la frontera que traspasa y los múltiples territorios de la ficción por los que transita—, a través de sí misma en su faceta de impar fabuladora. Y es también un homenaje a quienes la invitaron —o enseñaron— a recorrer el territorio de la fantasía y la invención literarias: los Grimm, Andersen, Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle… y Ana María Matute.

Andrés Neuman Interviewed on Galería VIP – Spanish Only

Galería VIP, a Mexican TV show has a long interview with Andrés Neuman which is very good. I recommend it highly. He has some insightful things to say about writing, but also traveling. He wrote a non fiction book on what it is like to travel and see the world just from the perspective of hotels and airports, without really getting a good look at the culture of a country.

José María Merino & His New Book Profiled

El Pais has a brief profile of José María Merino and his newest book, El río del Edén. I only recently have been reading his short stories (see my review) and have found his work interesting. This book popped up on a lot of the Spanish best books of the year lists for 2012.

La vida de Merino siempre ha estado rodeada de palabras y sin ellas se haría difícil su existencia. “Ellas hacen lo que somos, si no nos pasaría como el gato —subido sobre la mesa el felino nos mira de reojo durante unos segundos como si entendiese que hablamos de él— que es incapaz de decir nada. Las palabras son la conciencia, el saber, el conocimiento”. ¿Se ha enfadado con ellas algunas veces? “Claro, e incluso me he enfurecido muchísimo. El problema de dedicarte a la literatura es que escribes lo que quieres decir, pero a veces, más de la que uno quisiera, se resisten. Cuando cojo mi primera novela publicada en 1976 —Novela de Andrés Choz (Novelas y Cuentos)— me doy cuenta de que el primer capítulo lo tendría que cambiar entero y cada vez que hay una nueva edición siempre hay algo que retoco. Con el tiempo vas aprendiendo. Antes de comenzar El río del Edén pensé mucho cómo debía escribir esta obra hasta que finalmente me decidí por la segunda persona. Ahora estoy satisfecho porque creo que ha sido un acierto”.

En la novela, Merino narra la historia de una pareja, Daniel y Tere y de su hijo Silvio. Lo hace a través de un viaje que realizan padre e hijo por los parajes del Alto Tajo, lugares que el matrimonio había recorrido de jóvenes. En este recorrido por la vida se agolpan los recuerdos de amor, traición y arrepentimiento. “Antes de escribir la novela mi esposa y yo realizamos un recorrido por esos parajes y en una de las jornadas nos perdimos. Fue una experiencia inolvidable hasta que descubrimos dónde habíamos dejado estacionado el coche”. Se nota que el escritor está satisfecho con esta novela hasta tal punto que confiesa con media sonrisa, a pesar de su semblante serio, “has acertado Merino. El Tajo es un río fantástico. Lleno de mitología y leyenda”.