Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas) by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán – A Review

Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas)
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Planeta, 1979, 220 pg

Los mares del Sur is the fourth of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho detective novels.  1979 Planeta Prize winning novel is considered as one of his best and it representative of the popular series, filled with all the quirks that made Vázquez Montalbán’s novels popular: food, social commentary, a picture of Spain at a moment of great change. Much like great noir from American authors like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, Los mares del Sur is not just a detective story; it is something more: a picture of Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is the combination of an intriguing and memorable detective with a well drawn Barcelona that makes Los mares del Sur a vital novel.

The mystery is Stuart Pedrell, a wealthy businessman who goes missing. The family calls in Carvalho to search for him. There is a suggestion that he had abandoned everything and had gone to live on an island in the South Seas. From this simple request, Carvalho begins his exploration of Barcelona society. The wife is cold and more interested in his wealth. His closest friends don’t seem to care much about him either. It’s more important that Carvalho keep up appearances. Carvalho’s investigations, though, bring him to a working class barrio where Pedrell has been moonlighting as an accountant and setting himself up in an apartment in the same neighborhood. The discovery of the apartment leads to one of the most detailed description of detection as Carvalho goes from cafe to cafe looking for someone who’d known him. Ultimately, the search brings him to his young, pregnant lover who only knew him as the accountant, not a wealthy man. Her hostility to Carvalho’s investigations mirror those throughout the book as the wealthy who had profited from the Franco regime face the coming of democracy. She has no interest in Carvalho’s ideas of duty. She has her own life and doesn’t care much about the rich who have paid him. The tension between these worlds animates the tension, and, finally, the conclusion.

That scant outline, of course, is, like most great detective stories, almost inconsequential. Los mares del Sur certainly holds together as a mystery and the conclusion makes sense. Nevertheless, it is Pepe Carvalho who is the real focus. Carvalho is one of the great fictional detectives like Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, at once recognizable and uniquely his own character. His most obvious trait is his precise and biting descriptions of Spanish society as it goes through its transition to democracy. They alternate with Vázquez Montalbán’s third person narration which adds another level of commentary. Each provides a prescient criticism of all strata of society, although Carvalho himself is an ex-communist who did time in prison and whose some-time girlfriend is a prostitute. It is a fossilized and brittle Barcelona he encounters, still stuck, in many ways, in the past. Carvalho, like the best detectives, has no illusions about the past, and although he is not a hard boiled detective, he has a hard edge.

Carvalho, as well as Vázquez Montalbán, was a well known gourmet and all the books in the series are filled with references to food. Carvalho is always drinking a white wine or discussing food. And there are several stretches given over to cooking. In one section there is a detailed description of making a shrimp omelette. In another, as he, his butler Biscuter, and several friends discuss the case, they make an elaborate dinner that is described in great detail. The love of food is one of the classic Carvalho elements.

Los mares is an humorous and meta novel. In one chapter Carvalho stumbles on to a noir novel talk presentation from a professor. Vázquez Montalbán both describes what noir fiction is about, and also makes fun of the genre. It lends a level of criticism and self-awareness to the novel that is refreshing. Yes, the novel is criticism, but it is also understood that the noir genre can be over imbued with meaning that is not necessarily there.

Fortunately, for English readers Melvile House published a translation in 2012. Several other of his books are available in English.

También esto pasará (This Will Also Pass) by Milena Busquets – A Review

También esto pasará (This Will Also Pass)
Milena Busquets
Anagrama, 2015, 179 pg

I go back and forth on this book, and have done it for a while. And still I can’t quite decide what I think of it. At times it is the story of a woman grieving for her difficult mother and at others its a wandering tale of self discovery, each of which are intertwined and form an analysis of the narrator. A wildly successful book in its 6th printing (when I bought it), También esto pasará is a short book whose brevity is at first charming, then later, disappointing.

Blanca, the narrator, has lost her mother recently. It is a profound loss, one that marks her narration with pain and a longing for a time past. She describes it in a resonant detail, finding in the ordinary, the smell of her mother in her sweater, for example, traces to a woman who is no longer there. It is both a chance to find solace and loss. Blanca is also willing to describe more than the safe notes of grief. In one passage she notes,

Que yo sepa, lo único que no da resaca y que disipa momoentáneamente la muerte—también la vida—es el sexo.

I know the only thing that doesn’t give you a hangover and momentarily relives the pain of death—and life—is sex.

She has an outlook that is both irreverent, but also longing for a closeness, whether with her mother or an old love, that does not exist. In this balancing act, Busquets creates a character who can describe how the loss permeates everything around her.

Unfortunately, Blanca decides to take a trip to the Catalan coast where her family has a house. She brings her family, and one of her exes. The journey itself is not at issue, but the seeming lack of motion. When she’s in Barcelona she’s exploring the past. On the coast she sits still and the explorations seem to stop. Instead, the banal life of the coast overtakes one and leave her in a state where she spends time with old lovers, makes new friends. None of it amounts to much in terms of action or insight. At best it is a return to the normal.

Ultimately, we come back to where I started: a mixed review. Busquets is unable to sustain Blanca’s irreverent and searching tone. Perhaps more development of the later part of the novel would help, but Busquets seems to have been unable to resolve a story that never has a true end: grief. It’s a challenge she handles well at first, but as the need for resolution comes can’t find the right touch.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus – A Review

Beneath the Underdog
Charles Mingus

This book has been called both a Beat novel and a testament of the Civil Rights struggle. What I’ve never heard it called is an autobiography of  a musician. If you’ve never heard anything about the book, you would be right in thinking you’ll read about his approach to music, how he came to be the musician he was. He played with all the greats, created some great recordings, and yet when you read the book its almost a second thought. Except for a refreshingly detailed account of working with Earl Hines, there is very little about music.

Then what is it? Calling it a Beat novel is probably most apropos. There is certainly an almost juvenile consequence free braggadocio that you find in some of the worst of Kerouac. With Mingus, like Kerouac, his treatment and depiction of women is horrible. There is a certain comedy when he talks about how virile he is and how long he could have sex. Who knows if any of it is true. It’s written as a form of porn. Where it breaks down is his life as a pimp and his joy in turning rich white women in to prostitutes. Certainly, there is something transgressive in an African American jazz musician not only having relationships with white women—this was still the era of miscegenation laws—but becoming their pimp, turning the racial-sexual politics on its head. But the book isn’t about transgression per-say. It’s too glib. It’s about the fun of prostitution. It’s about sexual contest. It’s about the dream life of Mingus. And ultimately, it’s about using women, treating them sort of thing to play with and dispose of later.And when you turn your supposed life long love, an African American woman, into a prostitute I’m not exactly sure what you are.

Again, this is not a reflective book, despite Mingus’ occasional reflective abilities, and it is a shame because it starts out that way, describing his childhood in Watts, the racism he encountered, the lives of Japanese, Mexican, and African American residents of his mixed neighborhood. Here is also where he talks about music—he was a cello player—with something like passion and gives you just the slightest feel for the future musician. His picture of 1920s LA has a vibrancy and spark that is missing in later parts of the book. It is the first 50 pages or so that feel true, whether they are or not, and given his early sexual exploits rendered in such detail, its hard to believe some of it. But there is a there there.

Autobiographies are seldom a list of facts, and given the structure of the book, it is even harder to take this as, at best, an impressionistic account of his past (the veracity of the book has been called into question in many places). The book is written in the third person. Mingus is called “my man”. In the youthful sections, the third person is used as a reflective agent, putting distance between Mingus the author and Mingus the character. The device allows him to not only narrate, but to comment on his life. When he becomes an adult, though, the book becomes a series of dialogs, full of hipster-isms and seeming in jokes. Of course the dialog is artificial, a novelization of his experiences, and instead of giving him a reflective distance turns the book into the kind of braggadocio I mentioned earlier.

Whoever said Beneath the Underdog was a Beat novel was on point. Even though there are redeeming elements I often felt I was reading On the Road the Complete Scroll for good, and a lot of bad. As a literary experiment there is something there but overall it is a misguided book.

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Neuman-The-Things-We-Dont-DoThe Things We Don’t Do
Andrés Neuman
Tran Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 2015, pg 190

When thinking about the short work of Andrés Neuman one word comes to me: joy. In all of his stories, no matter how dark or emotive, you see an author at work who loves the exploration of the power of the short story. In his meta fictions it is most obvious he is fascinated by language and story, but even when looking at the loss of a parent, or the hazing of young recruit, I find a belief in the power of  just a few pages to create fragments of a larger world that exists just at the edge of the page. If one is willing to engage in the search, the varied stories of this collection will show a writer who is both capable of literary invention and bringing out the power of the little moments his characters experience, both profound, brief, and, thankfully, absent edifying epiphanies. In Neuman’s hands, a short story is where one goes to work out a single idea, often quite short. The joy is in that search, the experience of being in the story and finding the same potential in it that he does.

The first story, Happiness, completely captures the joy in Andrés’ work. In it the narrator, Marcos, relates how he would like to be like Cristobal:

He is my friend; I was going to say my best friend, but I have to confess he is the only one.

At first it is an innocuous statement or friendship. But Marcos continues to describe how he envies Cristobal because he sleeps with his wife. From the story descends into the hapless monologue of a man who wants to take control of something he’ll never control. It is the kind of inversion of control that can show up in Neuman’s work, where the expected is reversed.

Happiness shows the reversal in a more overt and comedic way, where as Delivery takes a more lyric turn, following the alternating anguish and joy of a man right before his first child is born. He flies from idea to idea, never falling into sentimentality, yet finding in the coming a birth both a union with the new life, his and the child’s, and separation with his old one. Neuman deftly captures the anxiety and excitement at such a moment, and the translation deftly captures the wild exuberance of the one sentence that twists and double backs on itself, leaving the reader in a twisting labyrinth of emotion.

Included within are two stories that pay homage to Borges’ ideas. In one he describes a literary lecture by Borges where all the participants come dresses in gold clothing. The lecture itself is uninteresting and unimportant. What matters is that as a group they left an impression on Borges. The story is an echo of a Borges’ quote, I am going to cause a tiger,” and the story ends as the narrator notes that the audience caused a tiger. It’s a story that expands a Borges idea, both in the sense of a literary essay and the creation of the literary character, Borges. It is indicative of a fascination with the work of Borges and his interest in the writer himself.

The Poem -Translating Machine follows on another theme that you kind find in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In the story, a poet tries to have one of his poems translated. The translation is a disaster, but instead of trying again, he asks a friend to translate the translation. Although the results are unimpressive and don’t match his work, he continues to pass the various translation on to other translators, going back and forth between the various languages. Eventually, a translator returns a poem to him that is just like his. While, Menard republishes the same thing and it is just the times that make it seem different, here it is the different approaches to language that shifts the meaning and brings out the fluidity of language, making both the point that translation is near impossible, and any writing, even in its original is open to many shifting meanings. It is one Neuman’s celebratory explorations of language and writing, one that makes it clear that he takes a great interest in how meaning shifts.

The Things We Don’t Do collects stories that have appeared in four Spanish language collections of short stories (links are to my reviews, and include descriptions of some of the stories included within): Hacerse el muerto, Alumbramiento, El ultimo minuto, and El que espera. (My one complaint with this collection is there is no indication which story came from which collection) It is divided into several sections, but follow the typical Neuman pattern: stories that are less meta, more interested in character and relationships; literary commentary that can explore a literary idea or just celebrate literature; and epigrams about writing short stories, which are a must read for any short story writer, even if you don’t agree with all of them. In The Things We Don’t Do, the weighting is towards the first type, but every type of story gets its due. My only other complaint is I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer), which is one of my favorite stories, but that is a small thing. The translation is sharp and well done. The only thing I took exception to was the use of the word “wimp” in Man Shot, instead of the stronger gay epithet that appears in the original and gives a deeper meaning to the story.

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent introduction to the short stories of Andrés Neuman and will reward any reader with a delightful array of stories.

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo – A Reivew

Citizen 13660
Miné Okubo
University of Washington Press, 2014, pg 219 pages

Cleaning Stable for Bedroom
Cleaning a Stable for a Bedroom

Citizen 13660, originally published in 1946, was one of the first accounts of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It is also one of the first graphic novels. It is a work of both historical and artistic importance, one that gives an early voice to the same of the camps and helps set a new approach for visual narrative.

While comic books had existed in some form or another for at least 10 years, newspaper comics for nearly 50, and there were more serious narrative works from authors like Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel during the 30s, an actual graphic novel that we recognize today did not exist. Okubo’s work is not a true graphic novel either, at least in a modern sense. It is a more transitional work. Like Ward and Masreel, she uses single wordless panels to narrate her work, but unlike them she also includes a textual description below. Where as Ward and Masreel had to use their drawings as narrative, Okubo is free to use her work as something more documentary, which is important because she is more focused on reportage, rather than fictional narrative. As such each image stands alone, as she were a photo-journalist. Many of the drawings don’t need a caption as they explain themselves, but the use of the caption expands the meaning of her drawings and weaves them into a narrative that brings the whole experience together.

Building Furniture
Building Furniture

It is the experience, of course, that is Okubo’s main preoccupation. An experience that she lived. In almost every panel she can be found somewhere. The two in this review show her quite clearly, but even in a great crowd scene she is clearly visible. It is at once autobiographical and a statement of power, as if she were saying, I know this because I was there. The visual approach can become sardonic, as when she shows a Caucasian spying through a peephole while she, in turn, is poking her head around a corner spying on him. It is in these moments she shows not only how the internees survived, but tired to take as much control of their own situation. You can’t stop a spy, but at least you can keep track of him.

Most of the drawings, though, are of daily life, both the indignities of the whole internment process, and the way the internees made the best of what they had to create a new life that put them in degrading and difficult circumstances. Okubo does not avoid any detail, from the way the bathrooms were configured for the women, to how they were forced to sleep in horse stables, whose smell was terrible. After spending several months at horse race track in California, she was sent to Topaz, Utah. Topaz was an inhospitable place, where wind storms blew alkaline sand everywhere and the winters were cold in their tar paper dormitories. Topaz, like Manzanar and other camps, was not placed in an area where anyone would want to live. Yet the internees built the best version of their lives they could. From baseball to sumo wrestling to gardening, they reestablished the culture they knew, both American and Japanese. They organized their own schools to make sure the children did not go without. Okubo was among many of the volunteer teachers.

The book ends with her release from the camp: “My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.” It is an abrupt end, but a fitting one for a work like this, whose power is in looking at the indignities of the internment. Moreover, there is nothing more that she can do in 1946, but bear witness. Certainly, there have been other works on the subject, but in its raw documentary form it is a vital account of the internment disaster.

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.