A Woman of the Pharisees by François Mauriac – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Reads of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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