Mexican Author Carlos Monsivais has Passed Away

I haven’t read anything from Monsivais but he was an important writer, one whose work has been little appreciated in the English speaking world. His book on Mexico City sounds fascinating. La Plaza has an excellent appreciation on his like and work in English and El Pais has a lengthy piece in Spanish.

The writer was not well-known outside Mexico. Translation of his work is very limited. Unlike contemporaries such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, Monsivais did not strive to address great universal themes but instead concerned himself with the politics and peculiarities of life in Mexico. And specifically, in the urban carnival that is modern Mexico City.

His first book “Dias de guardar” (“Days to Remember,” 1970) chronicles the tumult and tragedy of the 1968 student movement, which culminated with the massacre at Tlatelolco. In “Amor perdido” (“Love Lost,” 1977) Monsivais writes eloquently on the politicians, artists and movie stars of the moment. In “Los rituales de caos” (“Rituals of Chaos,” 1995) Monsivais weaves a kaleidoscopic look at a Mexico City brimming with life under the duress of pollution, crime and overcrowding.

“In the visual terrain,” the book’s opening line says, “Mexico City is, above all, the too-many-people.”

He also wrote numerous biographies, including volumes on artist Frida Kahlo, singer Pedro Infante and  Salvador Novo, an eccentric early 20th century bohemian who is considered Monsivais’ primary predecessor. He published prolifically even late into his life, producing a new set of essays on Mexico City in 2009, “Apocalipstick.”

A dedicated lover of Mexican cinema and popular culture, Monsivais offered to the general public his collection of thousands of photographs, prints and other items with the formation of the Museo del Estanquillo in downtown Mexico City.

Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago dies at 87

Jose Saramao passed away. You can read a short notice at Jacket Copy.

Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature, has died, his publisher announced Friday. He was 87.

Saramago’s works include “Blindness,” “The Cave,” “All the Names,” “The Stone Raft” and “Seeing.” The Nobel committee cited Saramago’s restless need to invent wholly new worlds in his fiction when they presented him the award for literature in 1998. Saramago, the Nobel citation reads, “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality.” It concludes:

New Carmen Laforet Biography: Insight into the Author of a Spanish Classic, Nada

El Pais has good review of the new Carmen Laforet biography, Carmen Laforet Una mujer en fuga. Laforet rose to fame in the early 40s after publishing her classic, Nada, at the age of 23. After that initial success, though, her she published a few more books, but nothing of the quality of Nada, eventually giving up writing completely. While one might be tempted to say she was a one hit wonder, the biography goes into great details about her, until now, hidden private life. She was a shy person, married shortly after her success, but was more interested in women. Unfortunately for her, the 40s and 50s were the height of Francoism, a mix of Catholicism and fascism, and had to keep it secret, delving into Catholicism to make up for her lack of opportunity. At the same time, she suffered from depression and eventually became addicted to amphetamines. She died out of the public eye after suffering for many years with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the biography is not available in English, Nada is considered a must read when looking at 20th century Spanish literature. It is all the more impressive when one considers that it was a first novel. She was able to capture a sense of post civil war Spain that still resonates and can give one the impression of poverty and social collapse that the war brought on.

De modo que enseguida empezó a tener problemas para escribir y para ser, esto es, para adaptarse a la mirada de los otros. La primera década parece normal. Se casó con el periodista Manuel Cerezales; tuvo cinco hijos; hizo diversas colaboraciones en prensa; publicó un libro de relatos y otra novela. Pero si se aplica el microscopio se observa el borboteo de la angustia. No se llevaba bien con su marido, la escritura era un tormento y, en 1951, conoció a Lilí Álvarez, la famosa y atractiva tenista, y se prendó de ella. Porque a Laforet le gustaban las mujeres, pero eso era algo que no se podía permitir. No con su inseguridad y su perenne sentido de culpabilidad, no en el aplastante entorno del franquismo. De modo que Carmen sublimó el amor por Lilí y lo transmutó en un rapto místico perfectamente adaptado al nacionalcatolicismo imperante. Incluso escribió una novela muy religiosa, Una mujer nueva, que dejó patidifuso al personal. La etapa beata duró siete años, los mismos que su relación con Lilí. Después rompieron, y Laforet volvió a ser ella misma. Sólo que unos escalones más abajo. Resulta terrible pensar que algo tan intrascendente como la orientación sexual de una persona pueda llegar a destrozar la vida de alguien dentro de un ambiente represivo.

Concha Urquiza A Modern Mystic Poet from Mexico’s Past

La Jornada has an long appreciation for the Mexican poet Chocha Urquiza, who died young at the age of 35. Her story is turbulent and full of activity as seems to happen with many Mexican artists of the time. At first writing poetry with vanguard poets and joining the communist party, she latter moves to the US to work in the publicity department of MGM. Returning to Mexico a few years latter she returns to the university, and later allies herself with Catholic groups. In 1945 she drowns off Ensinada. Her work is marked by a conflict between mysticism constrained and directed by Catholicism and her ideas about physical love, androgyny, and other transgressive ways of living. The brief description below describes her ideas well. In her poems (which you can read here in Spanish), you can get a sense of that. Of course, nothing is in English and probably never be.

La explicación es obvia. La irrupción de Dios en el alma es un acontecimiento inefable, para el que no existen palabras. Se encuentra, como lo dice ese espléndido tratado de la vida mística, La nube del desconocimiento, “entre el silencio y la palabra”. Mientras el empleo de cualquier vocablo “presupone –dice Borges– una experiencia compartida de la que el vocablo es símbolo. Si nos hablan del sabor del café es porque ya lo hemos probado, si nos hablan del color amarillo, es porque ya hemos visto limones, oro, trigo y puestas de sol”. Para sugerir la inefable experiencia de Dios, los místicos se ven obligados a recurrir a la tradición que reescriben con metáforas prodigiosas que hablan de embriaguez y de amor carnal. Esa experiencia lleva el impreciso y ambiguo nombre de deseo. Todos lo experimentamos, pero sólo los místicos que tienen el don de la poesía, encuentran en él el signo de Dios y de nuestra trascendencia. Raimundo Panikkar decía sabiamente que “Santa Teresa se enamoró primero del cuerpo de los hombres para luego enamorarse del cuerpo de Cristo”. Podríamos decir que a Concha le sucedió lo mismo. Al igual que Santa Teresa, Concha sintió en el deseo por el otro la resonancia carnal de lo inefable que la llamaba a la unión trascendente –de allí su atracción por el mito platónico del andrógino original–; al igual que ella, también, descubrió que esa realidad era sólo una imagen de la encarnación que sólo adquiría su pleno sentido en la carne de Cristo. A diferencia de ella, sin embrago, Concha no logró reordenar su rompecabezas interior y sentir la plenitud espiritual y carnal que Santa Teresa logró con el Cristo y de la cual su “Transverberación” es su expresión más acabada. Incapaz, por el dualismo de la espiritualidad católica de principios de siglo –en donde la sexualidad y la sensualidad quedan excluidas como realidades pecaminosas– de llegar a unir su yo interior con su yo orgánico, atrapada en esa ambigüedad de la mejor tradición cristiana que, como señala Eugenio Trías, percibe, a través de la encarnación, la “inspiración (mística) de un espíritu material vinculado con el amor sensual y físico (y, a su vez, por la ausencia física del Cristo,) el influjo de la idea origenista de un espíritu desencarnado.” y dotado, por lo mismo, de una sensualidad indirecta y travestida, Concha se movió siempre entre el enamoramiento del cuerpo de Cristo y sus resonancias en el cuerpo de los hombres. A través de ese arrobo ambiguo y desgarrador de la pasión intentó acercarse a ese estado en el que, para decirlo con Octavio Paz, “la muerte y la vida, la necesidad y la satisfacción, el sueño y el acto, la palabra y la imagen, el tiempo y el espacio, el fruto y el labio se confunden en una sola realidad”, y la hicieron descender a estados cada vez más antiguos y desnudos.

The Death of Fiction? Or Just a Change in the Landscape

Ted Genoways’ Mother Jones article on the death of fiction isn’t particularly new in its publication (from January), nor its subject manner, but it is does have some valid points and is worth looking at. Yet before I mention the good points, let me get to the tired element: too many schools graduate too many writers, be they poets or prose writers. I think this is true (it happens in other fields, so it can certainly happen in creative writing) and after a certain level of schooling I’m not sure how you can be taught to write fiction. While one of the problems he identifies is an over supply of writers who have turned inward, writing things that only other writers want to read (poetry gets this criticism all the time), he doesn’t ask if there are other reasons. What happened to the readers? Did they all turn into James Paterson swilling boobs or do they have other issues or has other media pulled them away? In many ways Genoways is making the B R Myers argument about not reaching out to readers with readable and interesting fiction.  I’m sympathetic to the criticism. There are certainly modern books I can’t stand, such as White Noise, yet I love Thomas Bernhard who is much father from White Noise in accessibility. What ever you interests, saying there is an over abundance of creative writing programs which has led to an insular, dull, and engaged literary culture is not enough. At least Genoways is savvy enough to know that it is up to the writer to get out there and connect. I wonder, though, if the last 50 years was more of an aberration and writers will be returning to working in fields that have nothing to do with literature just to make a living, like Stevens or Kafka or any number of writers before general interest magazines and latter the university made it possible to live on writing fiction. I don’t want to see it, and hopefully an iTunes model might work and save the us from the Death of Fiction.

Little wonder then that the last decade has seen ever-dwindling commercial venues for literary writers. Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis. Oh, sure, The Atlantic still has an annual fiction issue (sold on newsstands but not sent to subscribers), and Esquire runs fiction online if it’s less than 4,000 words. But only Harper’s and The New Yorker have remained committed to the short story.

One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don’t sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.

Ana Maria Matute, Amin Maalouf and Nicanor Parra Finalists for the Principe de Asturias

The Spanish author Ana Maria Matute, the Lebanese Amin Maalouf, and the Chilean Nicanor Parra are the finalists for the Principe de Asturias prize, which will be awarded on Wednesday. El Pais has a run down on the authors. It is interesting that a Lebanese author is listed amongst an otherwise Spanish language prize. As a fan of Matute I would like to see her win.

Martín Solares’ Mexican Noir Novel Reviewed at NY Times

Martín Solares novel The Black Minutes was reviewed by the NY Times. It is a positive review and for a crime novel it sounds a little atypical. Perhaps one of the reasons it was translated was it has a sense of the urgent with characters involved in the drug trade and corruption, something that is plaguing Mexico. While I don’t read much crime fiction, done right it can transcend the genre and become a report on its times. Considering Jorge Volpi’s call for a more committed literature, perhaps this novel is a good example in the Mexican context.

The best detective novels are those that go beyond the limitations of genre and a specific story to limn the broader society in which they take place. Mr. Solares does that in a profound but entertaining fashion here, revealing the surprising subterranean linkages that give politicians, the police, labor unions, drug cartels, the Roman Catholic Church, business interests and sectors of the press an interest in covering up the truth of the two cases.

To that end he makes especially effective and clever use of the separate time frames, one of whose purposes is to show how chronic, endemic corruption erodes the desire and ability of the individual to do the right thing, or even to act at all. Current-day Paracuán’s duplicitous police chief, Joaquín Taboada, is thus shown as a young, somewhat bumbling officer in the 1970s with the hilarious nickname El Travolta. There is also Fritz Tschanz, an immigrant Jesuit priest who knows so much and has heard so many sordid confessions over the years that his world-weariness has paralyzed him.

Over all it sounds good, but I’m not sure what ethnic types he is talking about:

But Mr. Solares is a graceful, even poetic, writer, especially in his hard-boiled dialogue and his descriptions of the wildly varied landscapes and ethnic types of northern Mexico. Though the world of “The Black Minutes” is one to inspire fear and revulsion, Mr. Solares’s descriptions of it are oddly beautiful and fascinating in the same way that overturning a rock and observing the maggots beneath can be a perversely edifying spectacle.

The Most Important Spanish Authors as Critic José María Pozuelo Yvancos Sees It

ABC has an interview with Spanish critic José María Pozuelo Yvancos and an excerpt of his new book on the 100 most important writers in Spain today (link to book review in Spanish). I am familiar with many of them, even though I haven’t had a chance to read many of them. Some are obvious, such as Javier Marias and Enrique Vila-Matas. I’m in the midst of reading Cristina Fernandez Cubas work and I can’t say if she is one of the best in Europe, but she is a great writer and deserves to be know outside of Spain.  I ran this through Google Translate (I don’t have time to translate it) and fixed a few obvious problems although many more remain, but at least you’ll get a sense of them.

  • Armas Marcelo: “The reader sees at once that their literature is written in fury and win, who cares.”
  • Fernando Aramburu: “I appreciate it especially that a work of serious tone and follow other with mocking irony.”
  • Juan Pedro Aparicio, “His stories hide behind wit molla.
  • J. M. Caballero Bonald: “It is one of the few writers have total, so good storyteller as a poet.”
  • Casavella Francisco: “A case of genius cut short by a young death.”
  • Rafael Chirbes: “His novels will help us to trace the memory of the Transition.”
  • Luis Mateo Díez: “One who has conquered territories narrator’s own imagination and memory.”
  • Cristina Fernández Cubas, “In the first row of European short story writers.”
  • Juan Goytisolo: “A commitment-minded narrator essayist.
  • Luis Goytisolo: “It’s nice to see how being a senior makes in experimentation and search for many young people.”
  • Raul Guerra Garrido: “His novels are used to open our eyes on the situation of the Basque Country.”
  • Eduardo Lago: “Few can draw better connection of Spanish and American traditions.”
  • Luis Landeros’: The real disciple of Cervantes in themes and tone. “
  • Manuel Longares: “Example of stylistic requirement that the novel should not forget.”
  • José Carlos Llop: “His stories married life and fiction so intelligently.”
  • Javier Marias: “A great writer who created his own style by combining reflective and narrative voices.”
  • Jose Maria Merino: “To say that he is master of the story should not conceal their excellent novels.”
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina: “The mind is a large area of memory: the best has won.”
  • Ramiro Pinilla: ‘No person may have the same form that has been the formation of Basque History of the twentieth century. “
  • Alvaro Pombo: “He has the rare privilege of looking out the soul of his characters and showing the readers who are like them.”
  • Soledad Puértolas: “Their literature has the merit of linking personal and collective memories.”
  • Valenti Puig: “Reading it one thinks of Chesterton, the smart way to be English from Catalonia.”
  • Juan Pedro Quiñonero “His memoir shows the formation of a vocation as a reader as I have known few.”
  • Clara Sanchez: “He has the rare virtue of that side show their troubling everyday.”
  • Antonio Soler: “Literature made in forging a requirement.”
  • Enrique Vila-Matas: “Few like him can say creators of a unique style, original in the representation of a self.”

Jorge Volpi Interview at El País: History Is Often More Important Than Fiction in a Novel

El País offered readers a chance to submit questions to Jorge Volpi for a form of on-line interview. I took the opportunity to submit a question about Season of Ash which I reviewed for the Quarterly Conversation and found to be more interested in writing history than a novel, sacrificing character development to his thesis. I wanted to know if he thought the history was more important than the fictional elements:

When you write fiction mixed with history, what do you think is more important: the narrative and characters, or the history? I noticed in Season of Ash that at times the narrative served more to explain the history, and the characters became a method for arriving at the history.

My intention is for history and fiction to complement each other, though it is certain that in this novel I wanted the History in capital letters to have an importance as clear as the history of the characters, perhaps this provokes the sensation that the characters serve the grand History.

¿Cuando escribes ficción mezclada con historia, cual piensa es mas importante: la narrativa y los personajes o la historia? Noté en ” No será la tierra” que a veces la narrativa sirve mas para explicar la historia y los personajes se convierten en un método para llegar a la historia.

Mi intención es que historia y ficción se complementen, si bien es cierto que en esta novela quería que la Historia con mayúsculas tuviese una importancia tan clara como las historias de los personajes, acaso eso provoque la sensación de que los personajes ficticios “sirven” a la gran Historia.

It is an honest answer and confirms to his interest in writing politically engaged novels. Many of the other questions in the interview make it obvious that he is a political writer, by which I mean he wants to comment on politics and history and use fiction to explore ways of getting at these ideas. He doesn’t write from to serve a specific political base, such as the PRI or PAN, which would make him a hack. He is certainly not a hack and his commitment to working with politics and history is commendable, but it comes with risks. I think Elias Khoury from Lebanon use politics and history in his works with much better affect. Or Fernando Del Paso’s News from the Empire which has the grand sweep of history that Volpi wanted, is also a good example of how to mix the two.

As he mentioned in his lectures for Open Letter Press, he sees the younger generations as less politically engaged:

How do you see the lack of political literature and authors, lets say, or how they called it during the Boom “committed” on a continent that in the midst everything it is very political in those countries that often only breathe politics?

In effect, if we compare the present Latin American literature with that of the 60s and 70s (and after), we find an absence of political literature. On one hand, the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR contributed to the disappearance of committed literature. And on the other hand, the gradual democratization of our countries made it so that politics stopped being regular material of those intellectuals and passed to the political scientists and political analysts that are part of the media. In addition, the latest generation are not only apolitical, but very apolitical. However, there continue to be examples of political literature in Latin America, you only have to mention the novel of Edmundo Paz Soldan, Ivan Thays, or Santiago Rocagliolo. And, in one sense, the literature about the violence that fills a good part of the region should also be considered political. Even this way, it is certain that writers don’t have a direct interest in contemporary politics, even the most authoritarian and picturesque.

¿Cómo ves la poca presencia de literatura política y autores digamos o como se decia en la epóca del boom “comprometidos” en un continente que en medio de todo es muy político en los países muchas veces tan solo se respira política?

En efecto, si comparamos la literatura latinoamericana actual con la de los sesentas o setentas (e incluso después), nos encontramos con la ausencia de literatura política. Por una parte, la caída del Muro de Berlín y el fin de la URSS contribuyeron a que desapareciera la literatura comprometida. Y, por la otra, la paulatina democratización de nuestros países hizo que la crítica política dejara de ser materia habitual de los intelectuales para pasar a los politólogos y a los analistas políticos de los medios. Además, las últimas generaciones no son sólo apolíticas, sino un tanto antipolíticas. Sin embargo, sigue habiendo ejemplos de literatura política en América Latina, baste mencionar las novelas de Edmundo Paz Soldán, de Iván Thays o de Santiago Roncagliolo. Y, en un sentido, la literatura sobre la violencia que prevalece en buena parte de la región también debe considerarse política. Aun así, es cierto que no parece haber un interés directo por parte de los escritores hacia nuestros políticos actuales, incluso los más autoritarios o pintorescos.

Finally, he talked about his latest novel, a free verse novel that is part fable, part history of the Holocaust. Mixing the Holocaust with non realistic elements could be interesting, or just lend itself to silliness. Hopefully, it isn’t the latter. It is an interesting approach and I would like to look it over someday, if not read it.

What made you write Dark Forest Dark, your latest novel, like a fable?

Dark Forest Dark is meant to reflect on the way everyday people can become an active part of a genocide, with Nazism in the background. However, in this meditation about innocence it seemed to me I could establish a connection between the massacres of Jews in the forests of Poland and the Ukraine, and the forests in the stories of the brothers Grimm, stories that Germans read obligatorily in those years. From this starting point I included many of their stories in the book.

¿Qué te llevó a construir Oscuro bosque oscuro, tu última novela, como una fábula? Gracias por tu literatura.

“Oscuro bosque oscuro” intenta reflexionar sobre la manera en la que la gente común se puede convertir en parte activa de un genocidio, con el nazismo como telón de fondo. Sin embargo, en esta meditación sobre la inocencia me pareció que podía establecerse una conexión entre las masacres de judíos que se producían en los bosques de Polonia y Ucrania, y los bosques de los cuentos de Grimm, que los alemanes leían obligatoriamente en esos años. De allí la inclusión de muchas de sus historias en el libro.

Javier Marias – I Would Like to Be Sherlock Holmes – Spanish Only Video

El País in celebration of the Madrid Book Fair has a video of Javier Marias explaining that if he were to be any character he would like to be Sherlock Holmes. It is a brief interview, but fun for its willingness to pick a character that might not seem the most literary—although, that is not something I would claim as I like the early stories of Doyle. Unfortunately, it is only in Spanish.

Satirizing Modern Spain on the Edge of Crisis: Robert Juan-Cantavella at the Quarterly Conversation

The Quarterly Conversation has a very good article on the young Spanish novelist Robert Juan-Cantavella and his satires of modern Spain on the edge of the current crisis. Whether or not you will ever read him, it is a very good summary of many of the cultural trends that have afflicted Spain in the last few years as the country moves farther from the transition to democracy after the death of Franco. While one article can’t describe a literary scene, he does sound like part of the literary scene where there is quite a bit of playfulness in stories. You can see some of that in my reviews of Fernando Iwasaki and Hipolito Navarro. The segment of from his novel is quite short, but looks like it has promise. Perhaps he’ll be translated or I’ll get a copy in Spanish one of these days.

Ever since the publication in 2001 of Otro, his first novel, Robert Juan-Cantavella has seemed to position his work as a continuation of a certain Spanish literary tradition as much as a cheeky raid on its vaults and a blithe taunt to anyone wishing to hold him accountable for his hijacking of or attacks on sacred cows. In Proust Fiction (2005), a story collection, Juan-Cantavella introduces into several of the pieces a character called Escargot—not really an alter-ego or a pseudonym, probably a heteronym . . .—and we learn that, were it not for him killing them all beforehand, a bunch of giants really would have been waiting for Don Quixote on that fateful day at the windmills. This is no mere comic gesture, not any more than an attempt by a bold young man to pretend that Spanish literature owes him something; it’s also, and more importantly, a way to insist that all creation is also recreation (in more than one sense of the word).

Julio Cortazar Letters During Hopscotch Period To Be Published in Spain

El Pais notes that the letters of Julio Cortazar written while he was writing Hopscotch will be published in July in Spain. The letters were found amongst a collection of unpublished works last year. In addition to the letters of Cortazar, the letters of his friend and corespondent Eduardo Jonquières will be included, giving a detailed account of this time of his writing career. The almost weekly letters given an excellent insight into the writer as he worked on most important work, and, I’m sure, will be an important book for Cortazar fans.

These letters are “the almost weekly chronicle of Cortazar’s time in Europe.” In them is “the humor, that blessed prose, that capacity for observation and that culture that defined the best of Cortazar.” He writes to Jonquieres “about his poverty,” but this wasn’t an obsession, nor an interruption in the search for the beauty (music, painting) that he reveled in. Carles Alvarez Garriga says tht Cortazar “the only thing he lacked were the indispensables for living: a table, a seat to read in, and most important, time to stroll through the city, go to museums, listen to music…” And it would always be this way. Bernardez explained to Julio Ortega and the audience while at the Casa de America that Cortazar was solitary and stayed in his home while his wife enjoyed Paris; and even when he went out, on returning Julio would say to him, “tell me just a little bit…”

From the little bits he was making Hopscotch which was born in the the world of silence that now remains in the letters to Jonquieres.

Esas cartas son “la crónica casi semanal de la instalación de Cortázar en Europa”; ahí están “el humor, esa felicidad de la prosa, esa capacidad de observación y esa cultura que define al mejor Cortázar”. Escribe a los Jonquières “sobre su penuria económica”, pero esa no era una obsesión, ni una interrupción de la búsqueda de una belleza (música, pintura) que le emborrachó. Carles Álvarez Garriga dice que a Cortázar “sólo le hacía falta lo imprescindible para vivir: una mesa, una silla donde leer, y sobre todo tiempo para pasear, ir a museos, escuchar música…”. Y así sería siempre. Bernárdez le contó en la Casa de América a Julio Ortega (y al público) que Cortázar era un solitario que se quedaba en casa mientras ella callejeaba por París; e incluso cuando él mismo hacía esas excursiones, al volver Julio le decía: “Contame algunas cositas…”.

De esas “cositas” se fue haciendo Rayuela, que nació en un mundo en silencio del que ahora quedan las cartas a los Jonquières.

Encounters With Street Poets: Fernando

Coffee in had, 9:30 AM, I was studying a fixie in a bike shop window when this guy comes round the corner, stops, and asks if he can ask me something. I look him over—20oz Starbucks cup, cigarette, faux fur vest, shaved head—and think, what’s this guy want. Reluctantly, I say yes, but keep sipping my coffee, as if this is going to protect me some how.

“I’m a street artist and I’m trying to get something together so I can buy a new shirt at Value Village. You see my shoes, ” he points to his Docs, “these are Super Glued together.” I could see an opaque bead of something between sole and shoe leather.

“It works,” I said—one should be encouraging and he did do a good job.

“Can I do a poem for you? If you like it you can give me something,” he says in a kind of half audible voice. Maybe he’s been up all night, he has the look of the tweaker, a little shifty. Then again maybe he’s just nervous, or maybe he’s hitting on me. What ever it is, he has the look of someone who lives on the rough edge but wants something soft like a sonnet without the criticism that comes with poetry.

“Sure,” I say. Poetry can’t hurt, even if it comes from a stranger on an empty street.

“Oh, my cigarette is bothering you.”

It wasn’t.

“I’ll put it out,” and he steps back and puts it out on the side walk. Its a sympathetic moment and he seems to really care about his listener. “Its a love poem about the world. I write poems about love so I can change the world…no, I don’t know if I can do that, he laughs. At least he knows his limits. He closes his eyes for a moment then starts and as advertised its about love, about tenderness and has a hip-hop edge, almost musical. It isn’t a complicated poem, but I can’t remember it now, having left it on the street that generated it. Yet the experience of it is filled with earnestness and sympathy, a belief that this poem, this moment is a bond, an experience that we have to have and will take us beyond the street corner.I don’t so much like the poem as the idea of the poem on the street corner.

He stops. It is awkward, silent, as he looks at me: too much direct eye contact. And I say what you have to say, “Its good.” Another pause, because I don’t know what our contract was. What was I supposed to pay him?

“So can you help me out?” he asks, but is still quiet.

I feel like my ears are plugged. Did I hear him right? I dig down in my pocket: 22 cents. “All I have is this I say,” as I stretch out my hand. It seems insulting.

“Any thing helps. But you could help me buy  new shirt.”

I don’t want to buy him a shirt. It costs too much and now we are back to the moment when I was first looking in the window, thinking what does he want. There is another pause as he realizes I’m breaking the contract.

“You sure?”

“I can’t,” I say.

He turns and I say good luck. He’s disappointed and I as I watch him walk he passes by the Value Village without even looking at the window displays.

‘Lost Booker’ for Irish writer JG Farrell – Books, Life & Style – Belfasttelegraph.co.uk

The Lost Booker award was given to JG Farrell for hist book Troubles. I haven’t ready any of the trilogy yet (although I own the Singapore Grip) but the coverage of the prize has made me look forward to when I can read him.

‘Lost Booker’ for Irish writer JG Farrell – Books, Life & Style – Belfasttelegraph.co.uk.

The Book Trailer – Do We Really Need This?

The 2010 Moby Awards to celebrate the best and worst of book trailers are just around the corner. I watched several of them and had the same thought I had when I watched the Spanish trailer for Enrique Villa-Matas’ latest book: why? I understand publishers are looking for new ways to engage the audience, but these stilted, often unimaginative readings of the author’s works don’t really sell the work. They don’t compel me to read the books, but, instead, suck the life from them. The publishers seem to mistake the book, its plot, its characters, its style, its feel for something that can be reduced to drama or an impressionistic musing on the author’s wittiness. Seldom do they actually give me a sense of the book. Unlike a film trailer where you watch snippets of the actual film and have some sense of what the film will look like, a book trailer at best gives you a plot summary. Perhaps for one of the countless zombie books it doesn’t really matter, but if you come an author who shows a clip from a Hindi film that the author consciously acknowledges has nothing to do with the book, what does that say about the book? I have an idea of what it says about the author and perhaps that might be sufficient to do more research, but I’m doubtfull. Moreover, the book trailers, unlike film trailers, don’t actually come with other books. They are separate from the reading experience. You have to seek them out. Perhaps when the Kindle, the iPad and the other readers have the ability to show videos publishers can package the videos with their books. For the time being, it is a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps I’m the wrong person for these things. I have seen so many film trailers that looked horrible and didn’t sell me on the film, even if I had heard about the film and was eagerly looking forward to it. The trailer is an art and if these book trailers last they will change. Hopefully, they can look more like this first example than the second.

You can read more here.

PJ Harvey Designed Zoetrope in June

PJ Harvey is the guest designer for Zoetrope‘s Summer issue. I’m not sure what kind of artist she is but I love her music too much (I’ve seen her 5 times) not to be tempted, although I don’t think the artistic math works here: great musician = great painter. I wish there was going to be something musical in the magazine, too. Oh, and there is some Bolano, too.

Forget Magical Realism-It’s The Narco Novel in Latin America

El País and Global Newsroom Americas have an articles on the boom in narco novels in Latin America. From countries like Mexico and Columbia and places like Puerto Rico, the narco novel is replacing the novel of the dictator and, instead, replacing it with stories of drug lords and the violence that comes with it.

“If we are talking about violence we are talking about narco violence,” says Cabiya while Élmer Mendoza notes that it is about the second most important business after arms trafficking: “It is not something exotic, but daily life.”

“Si hablamos de violencia hablamos de narco”, dice Cabiya mientras Élmer Mendoza apunta que se trata del segundo negocio más importante del mundo después del tráfico de armas: “No es algo exótico sino la realidad cotidiana”.

The story is all to familiar and the United States, unfortunately, is part of the problem. It seems problems never end and get recycled in fiction:

What the Paraguay of José Gaspar Rodrígues de Francia, the Dominican Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the Guatemalan Estrada Caberera or the Chilean Agusto Pinochet represented for he authors of the boom, today the leaders of the mafias from Medellín or Ciudad Juarez represent for their heirs. The capos of the drug traffickers have been substituted for the dictators en Latin American Literature. The military jeeps had given way to fleets of four by fours with tinted windows and the violence has stopped moving in the sense of vertical to colonize horizontally the entire society.

Lo que para los autores del boom representaron el paraguayo José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, el dominicano Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, el guatemalteco Estrada Cabrera o el chileno Augusto Pinochet lo representan hoy para sus herederos los jefes de las bandas mafiosas de Medellín o Ciudad Juárez. Los capos del narcotráfico han sustituido a los dictadores en la literatura latinoamericana. Los jeeps militares han dado paso a una flota de aparatosos cuatro por cuatro con cristales ahumados y la violencia ha dejado de moverse en sentido vertical para colonizar horizontalmente la sociedad entera.

The Global Newsroom Americas has a similar story in English. In both there is the notion that magical realism has out lived its usefulness, which probably over states the power of magical realism and plays into the stereotype of Latin American literature.  They do raise a valid point: when does art describe and when does it celebrate? Although they don’t make the connection the world of naro-corridos is the extreme end, where drug gangs and their members are celebrated in song. Much as gangster rap described the tough world of the streets then became a self reinforcing parody of themselves.

“Overnight, all of the elements of an eccentric and harrowing thriller arrived on the table of the Latin American writers,” says Mexican writer and scholar, Jorge Volpi. Latin American writers “hurried to incorporate drug dealers into their texts, first as a backdrop then as the centre of the action.” The traffickers acquired an almost “mythic aura,” he said, speaking last year to an audience at the University of Rochester, USA. Stories tell of poverty stricken adolescents struggling up through the ranks of drug gangs, of young hit men, as portrayed in Colombian writer, Fernando Vallejo’s novel, La Virgin de los Sicarios, (Our Lady of the Assassins), of women more beautiful than any other and of the police; underpaid and almost always corrupt.

[…]

This style of fiction is a world away from the Latin American style of magical realism, with its tales of morality and fairy stories, seen in literature such as Gabriel García Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The contemporary novel finds its influence in westerns and films such as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction. And writers draw on what is happening around them. Dictators have fallen out of favour, says Volpi, what interests them now is, “the enemies of the system, the criminal bands and drug dealers that are waging war against the state and their rivals.”

[…]

But for some members of the public it is not only the characters of narco-literature who are the bad guys, it’s the writers. Drug traffickers have gone mainstream. No longer are they just constrained to Mexican ballads. They are now regular stars not only in books but also in films and soap operas. And with this new found popularity comes concern. Groups such as, No more Narco books in Colombia and No more Violence nor Narco Books on Facebook, talk about social responsibility and the danger of glorifying violence and drug traffickers. Writing on, No more Narco Books, Series and Films, one member said, “With all the damage that drug trafficking has done us, television now wants to glorify it. They want to damage us with more and more violence.”

New Daniel Sada Short Story at Letras Libres – With Translation

Letras Libres has a new short story form the Mexican author Daniel Sada. Since not too much of his work is available in English (and as an exercise) I have translated the first paragraph, including some of his stylistic peculiarities. I like his style, although, it can be difficult to read in Spanish: not for the novice. It is a Borges-like story with its focus of books, something a little different than the last story that was in Letras Libres.

With something of a boast he arrived and put the book on the table: Here you have what you were looking so hard for: the phrase was said at full volume so that it resonated through the whole restaurant, he saw it immediately, a damaged edition, but complete, the only one in Spanish. Gastón, who was seated at the cabinet, put on his glasses and yes: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, the Italian Joyce that Italo Calvino cites en his Six Suggestions for the Coming Melenium, as an example of the supreme multiplicity. Like that the surprise. Even more when Atilio Mateo described to him the grueling pilgrimage that he made through a score of antiquarian bookstores. Dangerous streets at all hours, stinking, and scattered through the most horrible and snorting parts of the city. There were five days of searching. Many lazy people sent him north. Strange people well informed. Fantastic circumstances, or not? And speaking of Atilio Mateo: what a show of friendship! During five days he stopped going to his job as a bureaucrat so he could dedicate himself to a search for a book that is difficult to find. In the first four days he worked 12 hours (from 9 to 9) in his inquires, but it was the beginning of the fifth when he ran into a rarity named Bookland and found it finally and: You don’t have another copy? I could take two or three copies at one time, even if you have more I could buy more. But the book seller, raising his eyebrows, told him:  Sorry, I only have this one. In sum: too much time for the find. The Atilio Mateos advantage was that both his immediate boss and his boss’s boss let him be absent for what ever reason he fancied. If someone from higher up asked them about the fugitive both of them would say that he was doing an investigation, more or less. In addition, both admired the intellectual: an unappreciated genius and, since then, deserving of constant caresses. Yes. An enviable job for a profound being.

Con algo de jactancia llegó y puso el libro sobre la mesa: Aquí tienes lo que tanto andas buscando: la frase fue dicha a todo pulmón para que resonara a lo ancho del restaurante y, lo visto al instante, una edición estropeada, pero completa, la única en español. Gastón, que estaba sentado en el gabinete, se colocó sus gafas y sí: El zafarrancho aquel de via Merulana, de Carlo Emilio Gadda, el Joyce italiano que cita Italo Calvino en sus Seis propuestas para el próximo milenio, como ejemplo supremo de multiplicidad. Así la sorpresa. Más aún cuando Atilio Mateo le describió la extenuante peregrinación que hizo por una veintena de librerías de viejo. Calles peligrosas a toda hora, malolientes, y desperdigadas por los rumbos más horripilantes y bufos de la ciudad. Fueron cinco días de búsqueda. Mucha gente vaga le dio nortes. Gente fachosa bien informada. Circunstancia fantástica, ¿o no? Y hablando de Atilio Mateo: ¡qué muestra de amistad! Durante cinco días dejó de ir a su trabajo de burócrata para dedicarse a la busca de un libro difícil de hallar. En los primeros cuatro días empleó doce horas (de las nueve a las nueve) en su indagatoria, pero fue al comienzo del quinto cuando se topó con una rareza llamada Librolandia y halló por fin aquello y: ¿No habrá otro ejemplar?, de una vez me puedo llevar dos o tres, incluso si tiene más se los compro. Pero el librero, alzando las cejas, le dijo: Lo siento, sólo tengo éste. Total: demasiado tiempo para el hallazgo. La ventaja de Atilio Mateo era que tanto su jefe inmediato como su jefe superior le permitían ausentarse por la razón que se antoje. Si alguien de más arriba les preguntaba por el fugitivo, tanto uno como el otro decían que andaba haciendo una investigación, o más o menos. Además, ambos admiraban al intelectual: un genio desperdiciado y, desde luego, merecedor de constantes apapachos. Sí. Un trabajo envidiable para un ente profundo.

Perhaps Not Borges – Alex Epstein and Israeli Flash Fiction

PEN and the Jewish Daily Forward have an interview and excerpts from the Israeli writer Alex Epstein’s new book of flash fictions. They are sometimes metaphysical, sometimes meta-fiction, often cryptic, but play with simple images and frozen moments to capture the essence of a thought, an idea, or a impression.  I didn’t like them all, but several, especially those at the forward (The Name of the Moon and Blue Has No south) used brief images to create a larger picture of really is happening in the unwritten story, which is the mark of a good sudden fiction. I would like to give the book a look, but I’m afraid I would find his work a bit repetitive.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of the Borges moniker attached to any author who writes about books and doubles. Enough, already, and lets just say writing about book is just one of those things writers do, in part, because that is what they know so well. I love Borges (well until the Aleph or so, after that he starts to repeat himself) but I also want to know there is something else out there too.