My Review of The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction at the Quarterly Conversation

My review of The Future Is Not Ours is up at the Quarterly Conversation. This came out last week but I´ve been off line for a while.

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

Review by Paul Doyle

Editor Diego Trelles Paz notes in his solid and lengthy introduction to The Future Is Not Ours that this trend was first evident with the writers born in the ’60s, especially those of the McOndo and Crack groups, spearheaded by Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, respectively. Both as a reaction to the constraint imposed by the writing of the Boom, and to the political climate, writers gave up on the “total novel,” which tried to capture the whole of a country. While Paz oversells the importance of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the murders in Juarez, Mexico, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in shaping the writers and works in this collection, there is a clear awareness of the dysfunctional world they inherited. Paz claims “one can recognize the rather nihilistic conviction with which each writer confronts the disillusionment that” uses cynicism and indifference to avoid disappointment. Having seen so many failures, there is only so much one can say about a nation.

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A review

From bottom left clock wise: Cristina Fernandez Cubas, Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Hipolito G. Navarro, Fernando Iwasaki, Enrique Vila-Matas, Mercedes Abad, Andrés Neuman, José María Merino

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, 474 pg.

The Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) is an invaluable guide to the modern Spanish short story, and one of the best books I’ve read on the art of writing. Muñoz is an excellent and dedicated interviewer whose questions show a deep and thoughtful reading of each interviewee’s body of work. He sees interviews as not just another genre, but as an art unto itself and as he mentions in his introduction, he keeps collections of interviews in binders. He believes that letting an author talk about his or her work helps expand it, place it in a deeper context, rather than only letting the work speak for it self. It is this deep devotion to short stories and his ability to draw from the 37 included authors what makes short stories so compelling makes the book a must read for anyone interested in the short story. It is all the more impressive since all the interviews were conducted over a series of  3 or so years and published on his blog, El sindrome Chejov. In one of those great acts of personal fascination lived publicly, in 2006 Muñoz began to interview Spanish short story authors. What started quietly without any grand ambitions, morphed over the intervening years into one of the primary sources about authors working with the short story. Muñoz notes he was a little surprised by the willingness the authors agreed to interviews, but his dedication and preparation, which at the minimum includes reading each interviewee’s oeuvre, makes him a trustworthy interviewer, one that most writers would love to have. Muñoz also brings an sense of excitement to the short story. When reading his interviews (or his blog posts) it is easy to catch that same excitement—I should know, since every time I read one, I want to go out and read the author’s stories. The book is truly a one of a kind success that I wish existed for English language authors.

The only draw back of the book for my English language readers is that very few of these authors are available in English (certainly not the author’s fault). I have tried to remedy that with my recent article about unpublished Spanish Short story writers at the Quarterly Conversation. And when an author has been translated into English it is usually a novel. The most recognizable name in the book is probably Enrique Vila-Matas. Andrés Neuman, the last interview of the book and one of the better ones, also just had a novel come out in English (read my review here). That said, one of the most fascinating things about the book for an English speaker is to see what authors have influenced these authors. Given that English language authors may not be exposed to as many translations as they are in Europe, it might come as a surprise that two of the most common names that came up were Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Over and over in the list of influences these two always showed up. Some authors have turned to the English speaking authors as a refuge from the Spanish language traditions, but even when they cite Spanish language authors those two show up. I’m not so sure that would be the case for the reverse. Other English language authors mentioned were Poe, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mansfield, Lorrie More and Alice Munro.

Spanish language influences tended to come mostly from Latin America. Cortazar was the most sited, the Onetti and Borges, and with a little less frequency Rulfo. There was a sense of disinterest in Spanish short authors from the middle of the century. The only two that were commonly cited were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga and Medardo Fraile. I think this is a function of one generation turning against another, something Andrés Neuman noted, saying that Spanish authors should take more pride in their own tradition with mid century authors like Ana Maria Matute. Only one author, Fancisco Afilado, though, really did not like the Latin Americans, especially Cortazar who he said led too may young writers to play games with their stories. Again, as a contrast to the American scene that notion of play is often lacking and too many write in the realistic vain. Afilado, naturally, is the author who loved the American realists the most, and is a perfect example of those who believe that noir is the best writing because it is the most real. I can’t say I agree with that, but it was refreshing and annoying at the same time to find one author in these interviews who has that opinion.

There were relatively few references to authors outside of the English and Spanish traditions. There were, of course, the trinity, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Kafka, but relatively few references to authors from any other languages (except perhaps Catalan). Only once did I see a reference to Thomas Bernard, for example. But given who rich both of these traditions are, there is quite a bit to mine in terms of influence.

With the exception of a few novelists, all the interviewees are dedicated to the art of the short story. As such, every interview has a question about the disrespect given to short stories in Spain. There were several theories all of which probably have some validity. My favorite was Carlos Castán’s theory that all the Christmas stories that come out ever year and which written by famous authors, turn readers away from the short story, because the stories are written by people who are not short story writers. I think the lack of critics who specialize in the short story, especially those at newspapers, is probably a better theory. The short story has the perception that it is just what you do between novels. Another mentioned that the public likes to engross themselves in a big story and don’t like the stopping and restarting that a collection of short stories entails. That may be the prescient commentary: it is one I sometimes feel when I am reading collections of short stories, especially ones larger than 200 pages.

Of course, things always look better across the water, and there were multiple references to the tradition of the short story in the US. However, I often feel that what they are looking at is a tradition that is from 30 years ago, if not father back. While major publishers do bring out collections of short stories, they are still a small fraction of published fiction. And while there are small magazines and journals like Tin House, the short story also lacks for prestige. Perhaps things are better here, but it certainly is not a paradise.

Ultimately, the book with its ample indexes, appendices of authors cited in the interviews, and a list of each author’s published works, short story or otherwise, is one of the best references to the short story I can think of. And as one might expect my list of authors that I’m interested in reading has grown. These are just a few that you may see on these pages some day: Mercedes Abad, José María Merino, Medardo Fraile, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Iban Zaldua, Ángel Olgoso, among others. That, I think, is the highest praise for La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles.

Note: For those interested you can read my reviews of Miguel Ángel Muñoz short story collection Quedate donde estas and his novel El corázon de los caballos.

Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Traveler of the Century
Andrés Neuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 564 pg

El viajero del siglo
Andrés Neuman
Alfaguara, 2009, 531 pg

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) is a broad novel of ideas that takes place in post a Napoleonic Europe that at first seems distant, but as he makes quite clear the same debates and the same arguments are still with us. It is an impressive bit of scholarship, bringing to life the philosophical arguments that have receded into the past. At the same time, Neuman also constructs a narrative that is equally interesting, giving the book a narrative impulse that is a good counterpoint to discussions about Schiller, Goethe and other 19th century German thinkers.

The novel follows Hans a world traveler who stops at the town of Wandernburg on the border of Saxony and Prussia. He intends to stay only a few days and move on, but he meets an organ grinder in the town square and they begin a friendship. The organ grinder is a kind of sage with whom he respects for his detached way of looking at the world, which lets him obverse the town, but stay distant from its intrigues. He also has seems to know that Hans should stay in the town and suggests after they first meet that he should stay an extra week. In that week, Hans who still plans to leave as he does every town he visits, meets the Gottlieb family and is taken with the daughter, Sophie. Once he has meet the family, striking up a friendship with the father and latter managing to get himself invited to the salon that Sophie hosts, he becomes, at least for a time, a resident of the town.

During the salon Hans, Sophie, an older professor named Mietter, a Spanish expat Alvaro, and several towns people discuss everything from the European union under Napoleon, the value of religion, which forms of government are best, and the merits of classicism versus romanticism.  While everyone chimes in, Hans as the worldly traveler brings the new liberal and romantic ideals to the group and often spars with Mietter who represents a conservative, Catholic, and classical view. The two are usually at odds and although Alvaro with his anti-clericalism can shock the group, Hans is the true rebel of the group expressing ideas that propose to overthrow the established order and many times are illegal in Saxony.

It is during these salons that the book returns over an over to the idea of identity. What is it that makes Europe, Europe? It seems to be odd to discussing these ideas again, and occasionally  during the salons I found myself thinking, yes, I already know this, why do I need to read this way. Yet these arguments are still going on and taking a gaze at Europe it is obvious that these arguments only seem settled because they are old. For example, at one point Alvaro notes it is better have less religious freedom because it leads to greater belief, unlike Spain which has such high disbelief thanks to the church. That friction still exists in Spain and has been an issue for a over a century. In other parts of the book, he looks at the desire for every ethnic group to have its own country, a topic that is still hotly debated in several countries. It is in these discussions that the book is more than just a rereading of German romantic thought, but rediscovery of the same problems that they tried to address and which have yet to be settled. While the novel was written between 2003 and 2008, the questions have taken on even more weight in light of the financial crisis that has exposed even more points of contention between the countries of Europe. (Alvaro’s funny take of the genius of Goya who knew to change the heads of the figures in the painting Allegory of the City of Madrid with the each change in politics, is particularly funny and telling.)

The narrative begins to move ahead at a quick pace when Hans and Sophie begin a passionate love affair. At first it is stolen glances and furtive meetings on country excursions, but soon the begin to meet in his rooms under the pretext of translating poems for publication. Between making love and delving into the subtlest meanings of words, they spend hours together in a world of romance and translation, as if each were part of the other. Neuman spends a fair amount of time talking about translation and his interest in the subject is quite deep. And within the greater theme of the book that Hans as a traveler is a translator of different places and ideas, it ties together all these discussions about politics with the simple need to be heard: without translation, in its specific sense of language, or the broader sense of different ideas into new forms that can be understood by new people, people stagnate. Of course, it is also a literary argument and Neuman shows great care in describing the process of translation, especially the argument between fidelity to the language versus fidelity to the meaning. As Sophie says, “Translation and manipulation are two different things wouldn’t you say?”

Eventually, Hans is found out to be the revolutionary he is–as men and women with new ideas are always called. As a result the love affair ends and Hans knowing that there is nothing left for him, has to leave town, finally, a year latter. At first the ending may see a little abrupt because Hans leaves town and nothing has really changed, except that Sophie is no longer engaged. But that is it. Yet that is really the perfect way for a traveler to come and go, both in the narrative and metaphorical sense. Hans is not meant to stay long, because like ideas, he must continue on, encountering new problems, new challenges to meet. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Hans is, because he has exposed Sophie to something that will continue to grow and help question what identity really is. And in that exploration Neuman has created a  work that is both prescient and needed.

A Note on the Translation

I read the first two thirds in Spanish. I had bought the book back in 2010 and had not gotten around to reading it until now. I switched to the English translation when the publisher sent it to me, mostly likely at the behest of Andrés (but who ever sent it, thanks).  Although it was a little strange to hear the characters all of a sudden in English instead of Spanish when I made the switch, I thought the translation was quite effective. It was a very good representation of the original Spanish and eminently readable.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon – A Review

My Little War
Louis Paul Boon
Dalkey Archive, 2010 125 pg

This scant book is one of the more interesting ways to write about war I have read. It is also what makes it difficult to capture. My Little War is a series of 1-3 page episodes and little paragraph length moments that are tacked to the end of the episodes without any real relationship. They are just more noise of war. All of it is narrated by a person claiming to be the author. I mention this because while the style is consistent, one has the impression that multiple voices are at work. Nevertheless, each of the episodes describes the chaotic lives of the Flemish during World War II. The stories aren’t related and do not create a narrative arc that ties the lives of the characters together, giving the reader much of a connection to the characters. Boon is not creating great heroic stories of the resistance or of the pathos of the long suffering. Instead, he shows a world that in many ways has always existed and which during the shifting power structures of the war force to the surface. In story after story he shows the Belgians stealing and lying to survive. At other times the fascist sympathizers parade around town, finally powerful, only to change their stripes when the allies come. It’s a vision of pettiness that makes some of the Belgians look anything but heroic. That view is part of his larger point about the war. Those who lived  through it were surviving each day lacking any information of what was going on or any power to control it. It is not a sympathetic view, but it is effective and the voices of the episodes that seem anonymous in their brevity begin to suggest one thing: what was it all for?

But all the poets who wrote so enthusiastically about the Eastern front peeked out cautiously in their socks, back to writing poems about the stars and their solitude and God–God for God’s sake–after having pissed right onto Christ’s loincloth.

My Article on Four UnTranslated Short Stories Is Up at the Quarterly Conversation

My article about four untranslated Spanish short story writers is now up at the Quarterly Conversation. It turned out really well and is a much longer form article than I normally write coming in at a little over 3K words. While I think the stories mentioned in the article are great I had to leave out so many different ones that it seems at times I haven’t written that much. Writing about short stories is always hard because you end up with some many different ones and you have to try come up with some sort of thematic element to link them together. This was esspecially the case with these four, but I think I was able to do it.

Collections of short stories are generally considered difficult to market, and thus they’re often looked down upon by editors who acquire new works of literature in the United States. This fact is no less true when it comes to editors who acquire works of foreign literature translated into English, an already notably under-represented group. To make matters worse, what stories that do get translated are often lumped into anthologies of what you might call stories from over there, which obscure the full range of an author’s talent beneath the idea that one story is a representative sample.

This is all very important in the case of Spanish literature, which in recent decades has seen a rebirth of the possibilities of the short story. For authors of what’s called the New Spanish Short Story, this tendency has hidden a great burst of creativity that began in the early 1980s and flowered during the 1990s and 2000s (the few stories that have been translated have been relegated to obscure editions unavailable in the United States). From the stories of the fantastic by Cristina Fernádez Cubas to the structural inventions of Hipólito G. Navarro and the surrealism of Ángel Zapata, Spanish short story writers have created an exciting and diverse body of work marked by its openness and dedication to pushing the boundaries of the form.

I  have also commented on other stories from Navarro and Cubas. The rest of the Quarterly Conversation looks very good, too, and definately worth reading. They have a nicely timed overview of the works of Mercè Rodoreda. (You my reviews of Death in Spring and her short stories)

Tin House #50 – A Review

I finally finished the ever interesting Tin House this week. As usual, there were some excellent pieces and some that, while not bad, weren’t as interesting. The big piece in the issue was an excerpt form Michel Houellebecq’s newest book, The Map and the Territory. I’ve only read Platform and found parts of it interesting, this piece, as is the case with most novel excerpts, did little to interest me, or better said, I would like to read his book in spite of what I read here. On the other hand, Maggie Shipstead’s You Have A Friend in 10A mines in some way similar territory as Houellebecq, but makes it a little more interesting. Essentially, it is the story of a Katie Holmes like actress who is trying to survive the escape from a Scientology-like group. It is a dark picture of control, a story one knows or thinks one knows after passing the magazines at the checkout counter so many times. She had several rhetorical touches that made the story interesting and lifted it above the cringe worth stories of drugs and depravity that can come from this subject. Eric Puchner’s Little Monsters was a nice change of pace, telling a science fiction story of a race of young people who are manufactured and who kill any older adults who were created through sexual intercourse. It isn’t exactly a new idea, I know there is a Star Trek story along those lines, but he brought an impressionistic sensibility to what could have been cold science fiction. And as the two young characters learn to take care of a dying adult, the transformation doesn’t bring about a revolution but does cast the brutality of their lives into a new light. The best story of the fictions, though was Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Little Kretshmar, a story about a couple learning to deal with their disabled son. What set the story apart is Wikswo strips the story down, removing all temporal and physical baggage so that it is just the actions or results of actions that exist.:

For now, the rings dangle on short strings around their necks. When they lean over the little Kretschmar, the rings swing and dangle. But the little Kretschmar cannot see them, nor can he grab at them. The rings swing in peace as the little Kretschmar rolls to the left, and then to the right.

It is all a reminder of the sauna, of Saturday, of sex and disgust and shame. He will no longer look at her rich, high breasts. She turns away when he unbuttons.

And they avert their eyes from the little Kretschmar when he cries, and tuck the rings inside their shirts.

The accumulation of the little pieces, almost devoid of emotion are more arresting, and do not weigh the story down with the extraneous details about time of day or the color of the sun.

The best piece of non fiction in the issue was Sonia Faleiro’s piece Leela, The Mumbai Bar Dancer. The opening is an excellent example of stretching the essay form. Faleiro starts off in what is third person but is really a playful first person between her and Leela, a kind of dance that Leela plays out with all her clients. It gives a great sense of Leela because it characterizes her, lets her act and speak on her own (even though this is just an illusion), instead of a description of her. She manages to capture more than just the working conditions, but a sense of Leela.

Xingu and Other Stories by Edith Wharton – A Review

Xingu and Other Stories
Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner’s Sons, October 1916, 436 pg

Xingu and Other Stories is an uneven collection of stories from a writer in the midst of her most fertile work. The good stories show similar concerns of her more famous novels such as the house of Mirth. When she is examining the lives of couples or more commonly the lives of women she is a powerful writer that doesn’t write polemics, but creates heroines that self aware and willing to try to size what should be theirs. They may not get it, but they’ll try. Interspersed among those stories, though, are less than convincing ghost stories, atrocity stories from World War I, and tales of revenge. Nevertheless, Xingu has some gems in it.

The eponymous story Xingu  is a funny send up of conformity and phony intellectualism. A group of women get together regularly and invite a writer to talk to the group about their book. The writers quickly bore of the  morally bland middle class women and their pedantic questions. Nor are the women are capable of  having their own opinions about the works. They all seek a kind of respectable consensus on what each book means and it makes for a conservative and unimaginative group. One day when they are trying to entertain a pompous writer one of the members mentions begins to talk about a place called Xingu. Everyone at the lunch fakes knowledge of Xingu, but none of them have heard of it. As the story builds, they begin to get more and more extravagant in their claims. Finally, the woman who first mentions Xingu , turns the table on them all and tells them what Xingu means, deflating the pedantic women of the group. It is a funny story although the punch line is a little long. Wharton can occasionally draw a story out a little too far.

Autres Temps… is classic Wharton with its subtle and nuanced look at women in society. In the story, a woman returns to New York after her divorce, a scandalous idea in during the late 1800’s, forced her to flee to Europe and a new life. She returns because her daughter has just divorced, too, and is going to remarry and she wants to be there to help her, because she remembers what a disaster it was for her. When she arrives, though, her daughter reminds her everything is alright. No one seems upset, even the women of her generation, the women she was friends with at one time. She begins to think that her exile is over, but slowly her daughter begins to suggest, perhaps she is too tired to come to dinner with everyone. Maybe she should stay in her rooms. It is a brilliant moment, both in the coldness of her daughter who should have been grateful for her help, and the identification of that all too common trait where mores change for the young, but those of the older generation still remember the past sins. It doesn’t so much as mater what she did, just that she did something at some point and should return to her exile.

The Long Run is perhaps the most cutting of all the stories and reminiscent of The House of Mirth. It it, a single man and a married woman are friends and lovers. They have been friends for years and the desire between them is strong. One night she comes to him and says she can be his. She is ready to give everything up for him and will run away that very evening. Although he says he wants it and would love to leave the factory he owns and write again with as his muse, he won’t do it. He says it wouldn’t be good for her. He is not the free thinker he is, but now the respectable factory owner more concerned about what people will think about him. Yet he is aware of his situation:

…she had married that pompous stick Phillip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

But she is too independent for this and refuses his half measures that are more interested in respectability than love. She also sees that the winner if they do things his way is him. She won’t have any power. She wisely says no in the best line of the book:

…one way of finding out whether a risk is worth taking is not to take it, and then to see what one becomes in the long run, and draw one’s inferences.

The novella The Bunner Sisters is a strange tale about drug addiction, or as the drug addict is called in the book, drug fiends. The drug in question is opium and though Wharton never shows anyone taking it, it is the axis of the story. Even in the opening pages of the book there is a sense of danger and squalor populated by drunks and it sets the tone for the book. Describing the neighboorhood the Bunner Sisters live in she says,

These three house fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, with an increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors that softly shot or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls with broken jugs.

In other words, saloons, the so called scourge of preprohibition America. The story is about two lonely sisters who have a small millinery shop. They live a solitary life until one buys the other a clock for her birthday. The man they bought it from has a little shop and both women hold out hopes of marring him, but it is the younger sister finally marries him. Unfortunately, he is an opium addict and the older sister worries constantly about what happened to her sister who went to St. Louis wither her husband. Finally, the sister returns and tells a tale of addiction, poverty, violence, that finally ends in a still born baby and death by tuberculosis. It is a frightful tale of what can happen when you have no one and you are dependent on a man. The younger sister renounces her freedom in the little shop, although it isn’t much freedom, and chooses unwisely. It is a story that is only one step away from Dickens. It is hard to say, though without knowing more about drug usage in her works and in general (I do know in her novel Custom or the Country there is an overdose), whether this falls under prescient or after school special. That said, it is in the general tenor of the social realist problem novel. At the same time, it is well drawn picture of the two spinsters, ones you can imagine she probably met at one time or anther. And Wharton does capture the loneliness well.

As for the rest of the stories, we have Coming Home which is purported to be a story from American ambulance drivers in France during World War I. It is a story of a Frenchwoman who is caught behind enemy lines. She has no other option than put up with the Germans, letting them stay in her house, eat her food, and though it is not said, rape her. When the French take the town back her brother learns the truth and when finding the German officer who raped her he murders him, leaving as if he had been mortally wounded. It isn’t a bad story as they go, but it fits right in there with German atrocity stories and is as much propaganda as anything else. Wharton was quite committed to the war and had already written Fighting France and had helped set up hospitals, and would later write the novel, A Son at the Front. It was also the only story written for the collection and shows a hurried rush to write something relevant.

The rest of the stories are so-so. One is a ghost story with a tiresome ending that has little suspense and another is a mysterious murder that really isn’t that mysterious.

Xingu has some great Wharton and it has some less than stellar work, but the good ones are excellent. Now if only publishers would pay $2000 for stories like these as they did in her time.

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941 – A Review

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941
Neill Lochery
Public Affairs, 2011, 306 pg

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light will tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Lisbon and Portugal during World War II. Perhaps, too much depending on you interests. Neill Lochery not only writes about the Salazar government at war, but about the intrigues and, in many ways, the gossip of those who passed through the city. The book is best at laying out Salazar’s plan to stay neutral and how he was able to play the two sides off of each other. As a man without any other goals than staying in power and making Portugal modern, he was able to sell tungsten to Germany without the least scruples in taking German gold (some of which the Bank of Portugal is said to have, Richsbank stamp and all). And with the allies, especially Britain which Portugal had long had alliances, he also sold materials for gold. As long as one side seemed more powerful than the other, he attempted to favor them more, short of joining the war. During the early years of the war he was quite welcoming to Germany, but he didn’t want to join the war, nor did he want Spain to invade. Spain had made several different plans to invade during the war, but Salazar was able to avoid it. He was always cautious, and even in 43 when Germany didn’t look as strong as it had, he delayed granting access to the Azores to the Allies.It is in the context of the scheming man that Lochery notes that any good that came out of Portugal’s neutrality during the war came about because it suited Salazar or he had no control over it. The Jewish refuges are a case and point. While Salazar didn’t kick Jews out of Portugal, he also didn’t want to grant them entry visas. It was his diplomatic officials early in the war who disobeyed orders and were able to allow Jews to escape through Lisbon.

Lisbon itself was a reflection of Salazar. It was full of spies, refugees, and people taking advantage of the situation. With all the refugees and the limited transportation options out of the country many were stranded there and had to do what ever it took to get out. For the rich such as the Gugenhiems, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Hollywood stars like Leslie Howard they stayed in the best hotels and lived a life that had nothing to do with the deprivations of the war. It is here, in the more biographical sections, that the book suffers a bit. Not that it is badly written, it just isn’t that interesting to me. Especially, the part about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At least I know now how self-absorbed he was but other than that I don’t really care. There are definitely some sections one can skip over.

It is an interesting book, but for me only half of the book was interesting. But if you are interested in the history of Portugal during the war you can’t go wrong with this book.

Hacerse el muerto (Playing Dead) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Hacerse el muerto
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, pg 138

Andrés Neuman, one of the 20 selected by Granta last year, is one of the best of the group of the writers and Hacerse el muerto (Playing Dead) a collection of 30 stories is ample proof of that. Although little of his work has been translated into English yet, two of the stories from this collection are in the Granta volume with slightly different titles: Madre atras (Mother Behind) and El infierno del Sor Juna (Sor Juna’s Hell). What makes his short stories so good is devotion to the short story form as a means to explore different narrative ideas. He has no one style of writing the stories and some range from the heart felt descriptions of the loss of his mother to the fabulistic Sor Juna’s Hell to meta fiction that is consumed with the role of story. It should not be surprising that he has such interest as he has already published 3 other books of short stories and has edited one collection of Short Stories from Spain. That devotion even extends to the inclusion of 20 aphorisms on the art of writing short stories, of which many are koan-like and offer not only a guide to the writer, but a guide to Neuman’s art.

Hacerse el muerto is structured around the theme of death in all its forms, whether real or not, and is broken into six five story sections are thematically and stylistically linked. It is an approach that allows him to experiment with many different forms and modes of story telling. The book opens with El fusilado (The Firing Squad) a story of a man who is kneeling before a firing squad. Neuman describes the fear and terror in linguistic terms, taking apart the logic behind the words. But in that final moment when the order to fire is to be given, the true nature of the firing squad is given: it is a joke. The firing squad marches off laughing, calling him faggot. He is alive, but he is also dead, all his energy spent waiting in fear, he can do nothing more than lay in the mud like a dead man. In Un suicida resueño (A Reverberating Suicide) the narrator explains how he tries to kill himself but every time he tries to pull the trigger he breaks out laughing and is forced to drop the gun. The best he can do is wait and see if that laughter will go away, a sub conscious laughter that makes fun of the narrator’s seriousness and gives him something to live for, even if its to try again.

The above stories are well written and have great turns, but the stories that make up Una silla para alguien (A Seat for Someone) and the story Estar descalzo (To Be Shoeless) are the most arresting. All of them focus on the loss of a parent, mother in the former, father in the latter. He captures a sense of loss that is tied to the absences objects remind us of. In Estar descalzo the narrator is given his father’s shoes in the hospital and it is his relationship to the shoes that is the means for overcoming loss. Or in Madre atras (Mother Behind)  he gives a sponge bath to her back and uses the sponge to write what he has wanted to write since they had entered the hospital. Each of stories (often you might call them prose poems) are a meditation of loss that are subtle and not interested in the immediate feelings of grief, but a reflection years later of what it meant. Perhaps the best example is the very short Ambigüedad de las paradojas (The Ambiguity of the Paradoxes), which captures not only how beauty and loss go together, but how Neuman approaches those ideas, always leaving the story open.

Enterramos a mi madre un sábado al mediodía. Hacía un sol espléndido.

We buried my mother one Saturday at mid day. There was a splended sun.

Neuman also likes to experiment. In the section titled, Breve alegato contra el naturalismo (A Brief Argument Against Naturalism) he constructs five meta stories that either are interested in how one writes, or tries to break out of the naturalistic tendency in fiction. The most successful example is Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer) which describes a murder scene in terms of a cubist. If you use Nude Descending a Staircase as an example the story makes perfect sense. In each case, it isn’t just one image, but multiple images as if you were seeing several photos at once. So in Neuman’s story you see the body, but you also see the person fleeing the scene. In a compact 200 words or so, he describes the arc of the encounter that led to the murder. It is a clever story that is as economical as a story could be and a great reuse of cubism.

Reading the stories of Andrés Neuman it is obvious that he is a great story teller, especially of the micro-relato (less than 1500 words). His stories are notable for their economy and the way he can pull the surprising conclusions together at the very last minute in ways that are both satisfying and leave the world of the story open, leaving one wanting to return to what passed by so quickly. That is the mark of a good writer.

To finish I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite quotes from his ideas about writing short stories. These are not rules, as he points out, but ideas that are still evolving.

Mucho más urgente que noquear a lector es despertarlo.

It is much more important to wake the reader up than knock them out.

El cuento no tiene esencia, apenas constumbres.

A story does not have an inherent nature, it scarcely has customs.

The Girl on the Firdge by Etgar Keret – A Review

The Girl on the Fridge
Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2008, pg 171

Etgar Keret’s work is often marked by a sense that one is in a slightly different reality. It isn’t surrealism, just a place where you might be able to buy for 9.99 the meaning of life. In the stories of Keret that purchase never really works out as one would want, and usually the charters don’t so much as regret their decisions as abandon them as just yet another of life’s let downs.  The stories in The Girl on the Fridge aren’t quite as fantastic (see my review of The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God), but there is still that sense that what one wants doesn’t always work out. Keret’s stories are very short and he has the ability to zero in on those moments with great precision, stripping away everything except those small moments of disappointment.

In The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games, a group of men get together every few weeks to talk and drink. They have a ritual to it and the evenings allow them to not so much find answers to their problems, but find that they are not so bad.  Towards the end one of the men says he’s feed up and is going to commit suicide. His friend, Eitan, talks him out of it. But Eitan, in a moment that has that feeling of melancholy that is just below the surface of many Keret stories takes out his M 16.

“If I want to, I can shoot,” he said out loud. He ordered his brain to pull the trigger. His finger obeyed, but stopped halfway. He could do it, he wasn’t scared. He just had to make sure he wanted to. He thought about it for a few seconds. Maybe in the general scheme of things he couldn’t find any meaning to life, but on a smaller scale it was okay. Not always, but a lot of the time. He wanted to live, he really did. That’s all there was to it. Eitan gve his finger another order to make sure he wasn’t kidding himself. It still seemed prepared to do whatever he wanted. He put the gun on half cock and pushed the safety back in. If not for those four beers, he’d never even have tried it. He would have made up an excuse, said it was just a dumb test, that it didn’t mean anything. But like Uzi said, that was the whole point. He put the gun back in the drawer and went into the bathroom to puke. then he washed his face and soaked his head in the sink. Before drying himself, he took a look in the mirror. A skinny guy, we hair, a little pale, like that runner on TV. He wasn’t jumping or yelling or anything, but he’d never felt this good.

Eitan puts the gun away because that is what one does. He then feels a rush. Is it from the test or the rush that comes after throwing up? Whatever it is, it isn’t the answer to anything, just the relief from melancholic doubt. Tomorrow it may return and when the men return to the bar they’ll talk each other into living again because that’s what one does.

In one of his more fantastical ones, Freeze, a man gains the power to make the world freeze. When the world freezes he takes the opportunity to have sex with the best looking women (rape is what he is actually doing although the character would never admit it). At first it works out great for him, but eventually some one tells him that is not good because the women aren’t asking for it. So he then begins a series of experiments, telling the women why they are in their frozen state to scream during sex. Nothing satisfies him until he realizes all he has to do is tell the woman to love him for himself. Of course that works and the woman loves him. All through the story, though, you have a man getting what he wants only to find it is what he wants and in relationships is isn’t just the one person that matters. He is satisfied, but there is always the lingering doubt that what the relationship, any relationship is built on are demands that only one wants. That he can command someone to love him for himself is in of it self contradictory and at the same time a parody of what should be a operating principle for couples. It is a disturbing story that leaves one wondering what loving one for oneself really means.

Keret often uses the perception of children to expose the strangeness of the adult world. In Moral Something, a man is sentenced to hang and the kids who have seen the sentencing on TV try to understand what happens we someone is hung. Since the adults are trying to protect them from the information and the kids only have roumor they have to experiment. They hang a stray cat, but of course it settles nothing because they don’t know if they have done it right. The boys argue over it and when the prettiest girl in school walks by she tells them they are all animals. Keret in that little scene is able to create what the adult world looks like without the veneer of rules, laws, and moral codes. The kids, too, are on that ever present search for the answers that never exist. They don’t know yet, as Eitan in The Real Winner, that there are only approximations, things you settle on because they work even if they aren’t what everyone else is doing.

There are dozens of brief little encounters such as these that show Keret as a master of the form. His vision of a world that never quite operates with the same rules as ours does makes him one of the most interesting short story writers around. While The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God is a little more fantastical and, therefore, more interesting, The Girl on the Fridge is still a welcome addition to his body of work.

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares – A Review of a Mexican Noir

New Year's Cartoon from La Jornada

The Black Minutes
Martín Solares
Black Cat 2010, pg 436

If you’ve read anything about Mexico in the last few years then you know something about The Black Minutes by Martín Solares. The Black Minutes is one of a growing trend of crime novels that, in some ways, are replacing the novel of the cacique as the literary image of Mexico. I know there are plenty of other novels written in Mexico, but the Black Minutes reflects a moment in Mexican history that is wracked with incredible violence and corruption and it only makes sense for Mexican authors to turn to that theme. The question, though, with such overwhelming violence and mind-numbing numbers of disappearances how does a fiction writer address the subject without seeming shrill or a journalist with a few obscured details? Can a novelist make compelling fiction without falling into polemics? Of course that assumes the goal of the writer is to make compelling, entertaining, or what every adjective you want to use that suggests there is an artistic end to the novel. Solares has decided not to write directly about a specific event—the femicides in Juarez—but create his own version of Juarez, a smaller, more manageable one, that exists both in the past and in the now. It is a strategy that makes for a good novel, not just a good crime novel, which it most certainly is, and Solares’s skills as a writer move it beyond genre.

The Black Minutes opens in the present with the brutal murder of a journalist. It is a resonant crime ripped, as one might say, from the headlines. A crusty old policeman, El Maceton,  is put on the case. Little by little he follows the footsteps of the late journalist as he gets closer and closer to what had happened. Along the way he interviews people who tell him to stay away from it  all, that it isn’t worth it. Chief among them is a Jesuit priest who knows more than he is willing to say, but gives the story an already sinister edge of coverups and corruption. Paralleling the story is the constant powerlessness of Meceton in the face of the crime boss’s son who continually threatens him because he took away his gun. Meceton, a man who’d rather watch TV than have sex, is the typical middle aged civil servant, tired, getting headaches when ever there’s trouble around. Just as Maceton is getting close to finding out what happened the crime boss’s son rams his car a few times, before he is killed in traffic.

At this point the story goes back 30 years to follow Vincente Rangel, a failed rock musician and nephew of a long time detective for the police department of Paracuán, Tamaulipas. At first Rangel is just a rookie—intern might be a better word—who follows his uncle around to get on the job training. He has no formal training, no one does, nor does he have a gun. He is part of a police force that works through favors, friendships, and bribes. When the bodies of mutilated and murdered school girls start to appear around town, his uncle is given the task of finding the killer. It falls to Vincente when his uncle dies of a heart attack. As the story unfolds, the level of corruption and old-boy-networking that goes on makes it almost impossible to find who the killer is. Rangel is constantly dealing with people in his own force who want to stop him, with the seemingly endless number of judicial agencies that want him to stop, local officials who what something to happen as long as it doesn’t snare one of their people. And the police force is completely inept, made up of untrained lifers like his uncle, who most are just in the business to get bribes, and the unofficial helpers that each cop has and who they pay to do some of the grunt work, including bringing them coffee. Yet Rangel some how is able to figure it out and more amazing, perseveres in the hunt despite the ever present threats. Just as Rangel is about to bring the killer in, the story switches to the present and Solares wraps the story up tiddly, closing all the chapters where he left a character hanging.

One of Solares’s strengths is the ability to weave this story of corruption and lies through the two different time periods and leave each section unanswered until the very end. The sense of mystery and dread that that evokes through out the novel starts just the background fear surrounding any crime and grows as Rangel and Maceton find themselves, in typical detective fashion, the lone forces of good. But the real power in the novel is his depiction of the chaotic town of  Paracuán as a reflection of a larger Mexico. Readers can be forgiven if they begin to think at some point, it’s a wonder anything gets done in Mexico. Solares’s depiction of every last member of society as somehow corrupt begins to wear the reader down until all that is left is the same foreboding that runs through out the novel: any second I could get it. Yet the Rangel and Maceton don’t succumb and despite the terror that runs throughout the book, and its antecedents in the press, there is some sort of hope still there.

The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi (one of Solares’s friends according to the acknowledgements page) has said more writers should create political novels, novels that meet the actual. The Black Minutes is one of those few cases where the political—and how a society deals with crime is political—and the novelistic are perfectly tuned.

P.S if you want to feel better about Mexico you might try listening to this interview about Mexico City here .

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – A Review

The High Window
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

Chandler’s The High Window is shorter and less robust than his other novels, but it is one of the few that I have not seen in a movie version (one exists from 1944 but it isn’t considered a particularly good film). In theory that should make for a better reading experience. It has the usual collection of reprobates and self destructive lowlifes. Still, it feels a bit sanitized, as if the real dark side of LA had been overlooked. Sure there are the murders and the mysterious young woman who is kept as a virtual slave in the house of his Marlowe’s client, but there isn’t any tension to them. They just happen 1,2,3 and each time Marlowe goes back to his client, a port drinking shut-in, only to have her refuse to answer his questions. After all that back and forth, Marlowe explains what happened. It is not a particularly interesting way of doing things. Any work of mystery that has to have a lengthy explanation at the end of it to explain what happened is usually a failure. Chandler usually managed to avoid those failures. On the plus side, his depiction of the drunks on Bunker Hill has his typically dark clarity, as do all his depictions of alcoholics. And the young private eye that follows him around only to get killed is funny, if nothing else. As a work of Chandler, though, The High Window is a disappointment. In part because his client, stays in the shadows, both figuratively and literally and does not animate the novel the way Farewell, My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Without that interaction in the plot, something is missing. The High Window is, at best, an intermezzo between his better works, and one any person new to Chandler should not read first.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – A Review

Farewell My Lovely
Raymond Chandler
Library of America, 1995

The problem with Chandler is that every time I read him I hear voices: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and even Gerald Mohr (thankfully, not Elliot Gould). Because I’ve listened to dozens of Richard Diamond radio shows Dick Powell is the foremost of the voices, but they’re all there and as I read the novel itself seems strange, foreign, as if it were the fake and all the films and radio versions were the real thing. That cultural ever-presence distracts one from the source and obfuscates through layers of sanitizing changes the real Chandler and his clear observations. As I read him, scraping away layers of Hollywood, I’m always surprised at the society Chandler describes: its as petty and real as the one I know. There is no tabu that he is unwilling to acknowledge and it is that willingness to show every nasty detail that makes returning to his books so rewarding.

When thinking about Chandler, if you can separate yourself from the film and radio versions, the way he constructs the narrative voice is refreshingly clean, edited down to an almost editorially free mode of observation. That the observations are commentaries in of themselves goes without saying, but he always remains professionally detached. Perhaps not to the level of a Johnny Dollar, but its there. Of course, that detachment is suspect with women characters. Still even his romantic interests have the sense of the reportage about them. This might not seem so important, but when compared to his contemporaries, even some non crime writing, the clarity of his work, uncluttered by repeating the obvious via internal monologues.  While I hate the “show don’t tell” prescription to writers, Chandler is one writer who knew how to follow it and it makes his work still stand.

Farewell, My Lovely opens with a clear eyed description of the changing racial make up of LA. Marlowe goes to a bar in central LA that had changed from white to black clientele. Like most things in these Chandler novels, Marlowe is in the area on a case and sees a tough enter the bar and decides to follow him in. It’s there that Chandler sketches the racial tensions of the changing city as the tough, Moose Malloy, cannot understand how the bar could change. That aggravation, first shown verbally through racial slurs, is ultimately expressed in a violence that leads to murder. When Marlowe is interviewed by the police, Chandler again shows the complete indifference of white society to the minorities. The cop in charge wants some glory from the case, but knows he’ll get nothing from it because no one cares. In those opening pages he sets up a great critique of LA, dark as it can be, and Marlowe is restrained in using racist language (he sticks with the then common negro).

Where his work breaks down, is the silly Indian character who seems like some stereotype right out of the movies. At one point in the book he is captured by a crime boss. One of his henchmen is an Indian who has a sideline as an Indian in western movies. Problem is, he talks as if he were on the plains of the old west circa 1880. Perhaps it was supposed to be a joke, but the only thing it is silly. Where he captured the corruption and racial tensions of LA in the bar scene, here he just imports mid century stereotypes for a little buffoonery that is not funny at all.

Still, it is the I don’t give a damn about you attitude that permeates the characters that makes the book so fresh. Nor is is a cartoonish look. Here I’m specifically thinking of the drunk woman he visits repeatedly. This isn’t a Hollywood drunk of so many noir films that has some semblance of control, but a total wastrel whose only goal in life is the next bottle. The busybody across the street from the woman is interesting, too, a nice depiction of the non criminal, but still having the Chandler eye for details.

Plenty of people have commented on the logic of his plots so I won’t bother here, and really I don’t care. They are good enough for me. It is the world he creates that interests me. But one thing that will strike anyone is that Marlowe is lucky and that several moments of the book hinge on fortunate accidents, especially when he is in a dark canyon and hit over the head and a young woman comes to his rescue. And the chances he takes, such as sneaking on to the gambling ship anchored off Bay City to confront the a crime boss. Occasionally, it is a little too much and were it not for the writing, perhaps it would be. (I can’t help but imagine Marlowe years latter suffering dementia for all the certain concussions he’s received.) Yet despite all that Farewell, My Lovely is an excellent piece of noir that rises above so much of the pulp material of the era (I’ve been reading some of it and have been quite disappointed. Just compare the first paragraph of Chandler’s Red Wind to anything else and you’ll see what I mean). One I could easily read again and hopefully, finally, get those voices out of my head.

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman – A Review

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, pg 383

I once proposed in an massive paper of 120 pages written during my third year of college that you could see a causal relationship in American attitudes towards the Cold War and the Military Industrial Complex by looking at the films of World War II. For a third year paper the oversimplification of the thesis is forgivable. But ever since the months of wading through the ins and outs of the Office of War Information and its film unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), I have been interested in the shaping of not only those wartime films with their BMP approved messages, but the post war period where the films reflected not only attitudes that were shaped during the war but also reflect those of the dark period the second great Red Scare. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War investigates just that topic, mixing film history and American history as a method to look not only at the culture of the 1940s and 1950s, but the development of Cold War and how movies and the people who made movies were part of the political intrigues that mark the times.

The book opens with a quick summary of wartime movies and politics which were shaped by new dealers and the necessity to sell Russia as a ally. These two narratives would become create troubles once the war was over. The New Deal had stressed the idea of the common man and many of the movies from the war stressed these themes, usually by highlighting the heterogeneous nature of the soldiers fighting and praising the common soldier. These ideas, straight out of the BMP guidelines, show up in all manner of films, particularly the combat films such as Back to Bataan or Sahara. Films like Mission to Moscow or the North Star, focused on the Russians and painted a sentimental picture of a reliable ally who could be relied on after the war. Many of those involved in the production were either Communist Party members or belonged to the Popular Front, which was an anti-fascist group that was not communist, but had a certain taint as Moscow had directed party members to ally with it starting with the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t the most thorough introduction and one would do well to read Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood goes to war : how politics, profits and propaganda shaped Word War II movies. The other issue that will plague the book is his writing style is his strange associative writing style, where he drops seemingly unrelated names and events in the same paragraph without explaining what they are doing together, other than quite often the simple coincidence of taking place on the same day.

Once Hoberman moves into the post war period the book moves a long much better. He describes of the immediate post war period as it became obvious that the Soviets would not be long term allies as one of turmoil. The members of the Hollywood left who expected that the political climate that had taken shape during the New Deal would continue, were slow to see the changes of the coming Red Scare and its often hysterical reaction. For example, the movie Crossfire which dealt with antisemitism was considered suspiciously red, because those involved making the film had left and communist associations, the Daily Worker praised the film, and the film posited a fascist threat from within the US (criticizing fascism was often used as an indicator of communist sympathies ever since the Spanish Civil War). As in the so many cases, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI were suspicious of anything that even slightly criticized the US. With Crossfire it was the suggestion that American soldiers could hate and kill anther soldier because he was Jewish.

Initially, left leaning Hollywood put up a defense with big fundraisers and assemblies, but soon dissent and the weight of the US government lead to the splintering of resolve. Some of those with Communist party links, whether real or not, went to jail, some became friendly witnesses, and others left the country. Those on the right such as John Wayne and Robert Taylor were only to do their part to counter the menace, lending their support to the Republican party. And the studios? They tried to make a fast buck as always and came out with movies like My Son John, I Married a Communist, and The Next Voice You Hear, all of which contrasted the comically evil red conformity against American virtue.

With the coming of communist China and the Korean war Hollywood found itself under even more attack and it turned to the western and the sci-fi movie as allegory. Hooberman is best here, giving a detailed read of the movies Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and High Noon. While they have come down as classics Rio Grande can be read as a fascistic allegory, and High Noon an attack on the cowardice of the American people, which even in its day raised eyebrows and angered John Wayne intensely (he does not come off particularly well in the book). The preoccupation with communism led the studios to create the biblical epics that were so popular in the 50’s. They were partly designed to battle with television, but they were also an attempt by Hollywood to inject romance and adventure into what otherwise might have been tame biblical history. As in so many cases, Hollywood took advantage of what ever cover they could to make entertainment. Which doesn’t mean people like Cecil B. DeMille were not earnest in their faith, attaching written or spoken prologues to their movies to let moviegoers know how important the film was.

It is this kind of detail placed along side the politics of the time that make the book so interesting. However, as I mentioned earlier he tends to drop little facts into the midst of otherwise well written sections. For example, writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments comes the following paragraph.

Even as Hollywood projects Egyptian splendor, wondrous new pleasure domes are under construction. The Nevada desert has already been transformed into an air-conditioned mirage of Babylonian hanging gardens and Roman bathtubs, while in the sleepy town of Anaheim, Walt Disney is building a $17 million wonderland, ballyhooed by Life as the “most Lavish amusement park on earth.”

While that is all true, it breaks up the flow and doesn’t really say anything specific. Is he trying to say Vegas and Disney Land doomed movies? Or did he just find something interesting to tell us? Except for these strange interludes and his occasional switch to present tense, the book is a welcome addition to the film studies.

Tin House 49 – Cesar Aira Interview and Excerpt, Ben Okri, Kelly Link, and Oliver Broudy – A Review

Tin House issue 49, The Ecstatic, arrived last week and in a fit of diligent reading I finished it off in a week’s time, I’m rather pleased with this. Anyway, the issue, as always, had some high points and some forgettable pieces. What I was most exited with was Scott Eposito’s interview with Cesar Aira which was quite good (unfortunately it is not available on-line). Scott is a good reader and had some great questions to for Aira. Most interesting is his way of working which is a revisionless writing that only continues until he is uninterested or his idea is exhausted. (He does spend a day or so per page, so it isn’t exactly revisionless writing). The review and the excerpt did make me want to read his work. The excerpt which will be out in 2012 was interesting, more than most excerpts, is about a Panamanian government official who writes a master piece by accident. It has potential and I am interested in knowing where he is going with it. The only thing that annoyed me was that tedious statement that says the only way you can enjoy something is in the original language. Not true and rather limiting. I wish writers would stop with this kind of nonsense. There are limits, but there is no other way for most of us to read the world.

The interview with Ben Okri was interesting, if a little too much about NY. It is on-line but you’ll have to a little diffing to find it. The short story from Kelly Link called the Summer People was very good. A mix of the fantastic and the surreal about a young woman who is the care taker for the mysterious inhabitants of an old house. They are never seen, but communicate telepathically giving her their wishes. Anytime she does something they reward her with fantastically create objects, often wind up toys of undescrible complexity. But they are a strange people who though never seen are described in terms of queens and workers, as if they were a form of bee. Link was able to build a fascinating and complex world that has no explanation and though cannot exist, seems like it just could. My only criticism is it was filled with southernisms and while I’m not against them it seems as if they were more stereotypical than real. I haven’t been to the south in years, so I don’t know if they are real, but they felt a little forced.

Finally, Oliver Broudy’s non-fiction piece about a kung fu master who is running a school to train the next masters of white crane style was great. As someone who grew up on kung fu, to read about a man who has gathered a handful of students in a ten year course of study, living a monkish lifestyle of training and asceticism was fascinating. He told the story, in part, from the perspective of a poor young American who seemed the most unlikely to finish the training. The conflict between the easy American life, even in a run down part of Pennsylvania that has no future, and the hard work of kung fu is an almost insurmountable tension. In many ways, it is evocative of problems facing the nation.


Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – A Review

Quim Monzo
Open Letter, 2011, 125pg

Quim Monzo is a joker. A literary one, but a joker all the same. In Gasoline, his last work to make it into English, that humor was sour and lacked direction (see my review). Consequently, I had some trepidation that Guadalajara would succumb to the meandering obsessions that were neither fun nor interesting. Fortunately, Guadalajara is immanently readable and the stories show that his reputation as an inventive short story writer is well deserved. His stories all have an undercurrent of humor often coming from the retelling of well known stories. It is in subverting of the heroic or even just the humanistic that Monzo makes his black commentaries on human behavior, usually to great effect. But Guadalajara also reveals a writer interested in extending and playing with the stories that are literary common places, and in doing so constructing his own enigmas and dilemmas; counter enigmas that stand on their own but enrich the familiar.

In Outside the Gates of Troy he creates an alternate story of the Trojan Horse where Ulysses and his men wait day after day for the Trojans to drag the wooden horse into the walls. But the Trojans are to smart or suspicious and the men slowly die, alone, weak, unable to leave the horse. Ulysses holds on to the futility and can only cover his ears to avoid the groans of his men. Instead of heroism, we have the desperate futility of hanging on to a plan that will not work. Bravery sounded good, but Ulysses is left with nothing and so has to hope for something that will never come. Plugging his ears doesn’t save the men like it would in the Odyssey, it is a disappointment.

In a similar line, Gregor flips Kafka’s Metamorphosis and writes it from the prospective of a cockroach who becomes a man. The process of becoming a man is a discovery: the new sensations, the new physical attributes, the freedom to roam among the humans. But it is a heartless self discovery as he becomes a true human and purposely squashes his family under foot, because to be human is to be amongst one’s own kind, but to also destroy the foreign. For Monzo, Gregor could do little but squash his family, because that is the nature of transformations, you become something else, you are not both.

You see that thought, too, in Family Life, which describes a family where young boys when they come of age, have part of their finger cut off. Some boys go willing into the ritual because that is what one is expected to do, a few are resistant, but they internalize the cutting and in future generations expect others to have their fingers cut. Eventually, though, one boy refuses because he wants to be a musician and the family lets him escape the punishment. But that act of kindness also destroys the tradition and without tradition the family slowly grows apart. Given the power of tradition to hold groups together, the question here is which was worse? Or does that even matter since this is just what happens? With Monzo you have the sense that it is a once a problem, but inevitable. Although, like some of the stories in Merce Rodereda, tradition is too often evoked to excuse the powerful.

Monzo also likes to lean to the surreal. In Centripetal Force he describes an apartment building whose residents cannot leave by themselves. If someone comes to visit, they can leave with them, but if they try the same feat latter they find themselves in an endless loop. It is a contagious feature of the building and when “the man” (he often does not name his characters) is rescued by firefighters, the firefighters become trapped within the building. Its a comic and surreal story, but that Centripetal Force is all pervasive and the man who can’t leave his apartment, is really just an extreme compression of most people’s lives: the daily return to home, that centripetal force everyone has.

He also likes to play with the way people interpret events through the media. In  The Lives of the Prophet and During the War he builds realities based on the rote generics that fill the media during war or great calamity. During the War Monzo narrates the start of a war, but what war is it really? The descriptions that describe the war are almost a template of how wars should be reported. During the War has the strange honor of being devoid of description, or actual specific content, such as place, but feels as if the war is real because it is a narrative seen so many times. His writing style underscores that nicely since Monzo is a spare writer and the bland description of the war starting makes it even more darkly funny.

Despite its short length, Guadalajara is filled with stories like these that are funny, dark, and enigmatic. They also feel fresh, a reinvestigation of the short story that sometimes feels rote and repetitive. He is well deserving of his reputation of one of Spain’s best short story writers.

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi – A Review

It Was the War of the Trenches
Jacques Tardi
Fantagraphics Books

10pg excerpt from Fantagraphics.

Some books about war want to shock you, throw every image and arbitrary decision at you, and hope somehow that you’ll remember at least just a moment of savageness the next time you think war is interesting or good for something. The literature of World War I produced many books like that whose primary goal was to show the brutality and pointless of it all. From All Quiet on the Western Front’s body parts hanging in trees to A Farewell to Arm’s fatalism, the image of World War I was one of brutality repeated over and over again. During the war photos from the front were suppressed, and even now the images that are readily available from the war are relatively benign. But there have been exceptions over the years, such as 1924’s War Against War by Ernst Friedrich (a graphic excerpt) with its graphic images of death on the battlefield and the disfigured survivors. His book, though, was not a best seller and was eventually suppressed by the Nazis. It is hard to create lasting art with that goal in mind, which is not to say All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arm have other merits (I doubt Friedrich thought he was creating art, he had another goal), but so much detail, so much brutality, does not so much as overwhelm you, but inure you to what is coming. There is only so much you need before you get the point.

I mention all this because It Was the War of the Trenches is not for everyone, which is a shame in some ways, but also because in reading it I couldn’t decide if I was honoring the men, or going for a lark through the trenches. It’s not my war, and almost a 100 years latter why did an artist create a book that is surely in the War Against War mold. For It Was the War of the Trenches is a tough read occasionally: cartoon entrails can still seem disgusting. And the endless stories that end with the absurd death of the protagonist who never really seems that different from the last one and who you didn’t really get to know, leaves you with a sense of repetitive futility. I’ve read enough first hand accounts of World War I and II to know how it manifests itself. It is not a pleasant experience, and nor should it be, the anarchist Friedrich might say. However, he was a survivor of the war, Tardi only the grandson of one. It shouldn’t matter, but the book for all its good qualities, the research and the drawings, makes me wonder why, still this story? The story of a war this big should not be forgotten, or left solely to history books that are more about marching men than the quality of the ground after months of fighting, but the way Tardi approaches it the book feels desperate as if not enough people are listening to something that should have been told earlier.

Ultimately, It Was the War of the Trenches is what the title says. A book about the trenches of World War I, as illustrated by a cartoonist. I use cartoonist intentionally, and perhaps this is the strange feeling I get when reading the book, because at times the skulls and corpses that appear every few pages, seem straight out of the pages of late 50s EC comics and it is a little hard to take it seriously, which is a shame. That aside, if you need to be reminded of the futility of war, in general, and the specific futility of World War I, in particular, it is worth the read.

The Plays of Oscar Wilde – Some Thoughts

An Ideal Husband
A Woman of No Importance
Modern Library, Boni and Liverlight, New York, 1919

The Importance of Being Ernest
Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 2

The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
-Wilde, the Importance of Being Ernest

I have  long neglected the works of Oscar Wilde, except for the Picture of Dorian Gray, but recently he seemed just the irreverent and funny antidote to a bad reading experience I had had. If you know little about Oscar Wilde, the two things you may know he was a masterful wit full of witticisms (or bon mots if you must escape into the French) and his unjust imprisonment. While he certainly did provide the humor I wanted, the plays took some adjusting too, not only in accepting the melodramatic endings (one might say Victorian) that seem to permeate his works, which is the curse of the modern, socially active reader, but distancing oneself from the immediacy of the characters and their snobbery, priggishness and most of all that Wildean detachment that always has one stock character who talks as if nothing matters but jokes. Still, his work, even at its most historical, is a departure from its time.

An Ideal Husband, while more concise than the overly witicised Woman of No Importance, seemed the epitome of the Wildean humor, filled with characters who at the outset of the play are more interested in either making the kind of detached wit that despises the world:

Chiltern: A Political life is a noble career!
Cheveley: Sometimes. And sometimes it is a clever game, Sir Robert. And sometimes it is a great nuisance.
Chiltern: Which do you find it?
Cheveley: I? A combination of all three.

At other times it is the boredom of the rich, an incessant dissatisfaction with what they have, although they would never see it changed, “Ah, nowdays people marry as often as they can, don’t they? It’s most fashionable.” If a dinner party or a play or some other social event isn’t tedious, it is something one has to do because that is what one does. End of story.

It would be a mistake, though, to see these witticisms as all coming from the same shallow or decadent place. Wilde uses the comments to demonstrate the ossified thinking of the upper classes, and to also step away from them and show the silliness of society. The first is the most obvious and his plays are full of characters that now seem shallow, not in their depiction, but their concerns. A Woman of No Importance is filled with these, since the first act is primarly given over to witicisms and less the plot. For example, Lady Caroline says, “I am not at all in favor of amusements for the poor, Jane. Blankets and coals are sufficient. There is too much love of pleasure amongst the upper classes as it is. Health is what we want in modern life.” It is a statement that is particularly out of touch, as if the poor were going to over amuse themselves if they can’t afford blankets. She exhibits an elitist moralism that posits that the poor should be grateful for their superiors and do as they wish. It is his classic depiction of the rich, who even when they try to be political actors cannot but show themselves as understanding much.

Every one of the plays under consideration also has his second type of joker, a trickster who is so aloof that everything he says, if taken at face value, would be disgusting. But these characters actually reveal the shallowness of the society they live in. What makes them funny and infuriating at the same time, though, is they do not propose solutions, only show the failings. This feature is in direct opposition to the social realists of the time and a little latter who often proposed solutions, no matter how unrealistic. Even literary kin such as an Edith Wharton, not a social realist, there is a sense of the problem to be solved, as in the House of Mirth. The humor that makes fun of the society is one of the powers of his work. But if you wants a condemnation of society in these aloof characters, you will seldom find it. Only seeing the witticisms as a kind of omniscient and impotent wisdom, can they be seen as critical engagement and not a fatalistic sarcasm.

However, that is not to say Wilde’s characters are all the same. In An Ideal Husband, Lord Goring plays the role of the joker, but ultimately he acts to save a character from ruin. Where as Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance refuses to own up to his error, fathering a child and abandoning the mother, and then expects that 20 years latter the mother will want to marry him. In the former case, the character is able to move beyond their role in society, in the second the witticisms are sterile and become foolish games and the real focus shifts to the the woman of no importance.

Of course, the plays of Wilde are not focused only on witticisms. They have plots and it is with varying success he merges his style with his take on society. The Importance of Being Ernest is the most successful of his works in this sense. He is able to make the stories of all his characters intertwine throughout the play and, most importantly, make use of his witty characters as central actors in the drama, something that doesn’t quite work in the Ideal Husband and A Woman.

A Woman of no Importance although clumsy is in many ways, is also his most scandalous work. While I don’t know the reaction from the time, its focus on a woman who has had a child out of wedlock and refuses to marry the father even 20 years latter is certainly not a Victorian subject. Moreover, when the woman of no importance refuses to marry the father of the child 20 years latter, even though he will help legitimate their child, she takes control of her own life. She is the most independent of all his female characters. Sure, there are the widows with money, but she stands on principle and refuses everything she might gain for herself or her son. In this sense Wilde celebrates the independence and freedom of a woman who by the standards of the times should have lived in shame. The play is Wilde’s most black and white, too, presenting a stark contrast between the woman with scruples and little money, and the rich father who is one of his aloof wits. It is obvious he sympathizes with her despite his obvious delight in Lord Illingworth’s bon mots.

An Ideal Husband, on the other hand, is more tame and pokes fun at the way people can idealize each other, demanding morality at every turn even though it is impossible. The story, briefly, is a satire of society’s idealistic demand that one seek the perfect mate, the ideal husband. Sir Robert Chiltern is a man of the highest moral standing and a leading political figure known for his honesty and morals. His wife idealizes her husband, seeing in his morality the perfect mix of manhood and godliness. She is so attached to the ideal that she could not accept him as anything but perfect. As far as she knows, she will only Mrs Cheveley, on the other hand, has no scruples at all and wants Sir Robert to make a speech in parliament the next day supporting the fraudulent canal project his is going to denounce.

The tension between the amoral Mrs Cheveley and the naively good Mrs Chiltern is the crux of the action. Interestingly, it is the aloof character, Lord Goring, who saves the good from themselves. Lord Goring, because he is outside of the everyday expectation of morality is able to act for those who are too naive to defend themselves. Mrs Chiltern’s absurd notion that the only way she can respect her husband is if he has been perfect all his life, is an impossible standard to live up to and is easily abused by a Mrs Cheveley who has no scruples. For Wilde, the lack of an ideal type frees one, not only to see new things, but is a defense mechanism. Only someone like Lord Goring who has been cut loose from the strictures of society has the ability to go beyond the arbitrary rules of society. That freedom, though, comes at a cost and Lord Goring is, like his typical wit, alone and jaded.

In the Importance of Being Earnest Wilde is able to have a wit as a central character and let those witticisms plays the role of outside commentator, and at the same time, the life of the wit is also undone by its own cleverness. Since this is Wilde’s last play it is tempting to say he had reached some sort of conclusion with the work, but that is just creating a trajectory where there may not be one. However, it is his most complete play and he is able to make fun of the ways that people live multiple lives, while those who know them only see that one life. All his plays are about the secrets people have, but Ernest makes that the focus of the work. What also changes is the weight of his focus. Whereas A Woman and Ideal Husband both focus on the dark outcomes of the secrets, Wilde softens his touch and the repercussions for having secrets is softened. In contrast to the other plays, too, he final achieves the comic twists and turns that make the play so good. Except for the ending. The ending has the deus ex machina elements that comedies that rely on mistaken identity often have. It makes for a happy ending, if a little too pat.

Stay Where You Are – Quédate donde estás by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

Quédate donde estás / Stay Where You Are
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, Madrid, 2009
154 pg

Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a playful work from an author who takes the art of the short story very serious and has created a work that both relishes the act of reading a well written story and the act of writing it. The stories shift between two themes: what it is to be a writer and what it means to face a loss, whether that loss is a fabulistic extra set of arms or Kafka losing his ideal place to work. While I find stories about writing sometimes tedious (even if you are a writer it never sounds that interesting), Muñoz injects a humor and insight that makes his works clever and perceptive. While the styles and themes clash at times and I’m not sure if all the micro stories between the larger stories create a cohesive work, Muñoz shows himself as a skillful cuentista (short story writer).

The first story of the collection Quiero ser Salinger (I Want to Be Salinger) is kind of a misleading opening, yet it is idea Muñoz returns to continually: how does life inform the writer. He is not interested in platitudes, but a question to reveal the art. In Quiero ser Salinger, the narrator wants to be a writer, a Salinger and for him it is taking on all the gestures of Salinger, his isolation, his strange habits. It is a Borgesian question about what creates the writer, the circumstances that one lives in, or something else? Would living as Salinger in Spain really make you a writer like Salinger?

The question is indicative of the questions Muñoz finds in the lives of the writers he explores. In the story Hacer feliz a Franz (Making Franz Happy), he creates a fictional bet between Franz Kafka and Jakob Blod, where Blod bets Kafka he could not stand to be a locked in a cell without human contact and just write for even a week. Naturally, Kafka loves the writing and he finds the need to leave the cell when the bet is over not a relief but a loss, as if his relation with the power of words has been disabled. He’s a man who seeks the ultimate isolation where words are more interesting than people and its the power in themselves, not the communication they facilitate that is most interesting.

In a more humorous vein is Vitruvio (refers to Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the proportions of a man). It is the story of a writer who under goes a transplant operation and has 3 extra sets of arms attached to his body so that he can be a more productive writer. It helps greatly as one pair of hands is incessantly scribbling notes in notebooks and he begins publishing at a feverish rate, becoming a great success. His personal life also improves, including his sex life: eight hand are better than two, it turns out. But one day he receives strange letter that says he has something that belongs to someone. He makes a journey to the address to find the original owner of the arms waiting for him. What ensues returns again to the question of what makes a writer, in this case the hands, or the mind? But what happens after you loose the power in the source? Muñoz treats writing not mystically, but fantastically, almost surprised that the power exits. His use of the fantastic as a way to get at the question is intriguing, something I see quite often in Spanish language writers, and adds not only a bit of humor, but a more nuanced way to get at the question. Having to bother with reality can be so limiting.

His wonderment at the power, though, doesn’t stop him from writing the more traditionally realistic El reino químco (The Chemical Rein). In El reino a young boy goes with his parents to visit his grandfather who he has no memory of ever seeing. His father hates his grandfather so until this one summer they have never met. From the start the visit is mysterious and plagued with troubles, the car breaks down and when they arrive he wakes up from a long nap and all he sees are stars, as if the whole world had disappeared. Quickly, though, the boy sees that the real problem is in the strained relationship of the grandfather and dad, which can’t even bear a week long visit. After an argument, of which the origins are never clear, the father demands they leave right away. The grandfather, taking his only opportunity to really get to know the boy, takes him to a secluded cove on his property where he has a little roller coaster suspended over the water which dumps the passenger into the water at the end of the ride. The boy at first says he’ll do it, then he struggles and fights, afraid to go down the track. When the grandfather is knocked into the water during the struggle the boy thinks he has killed him. Instead, the grandfather stands up and says, you’ve got more balls than you father. You’re alright. The strange reaction of the grandfather is what makes the story so interesting. Too often when a character is domineering any deviation from his rules is a weakness, but when they grandson says no, he is congratulated. What, then, did the son do that he hates his father so much? It is that open question that makes it one of the better stories in the collection.

Finally, I should touch on Muñoz’s style, which is clear and analytical, especially in his third person stories. However, he can shift styles as he does in Quédate donde estás, the eponymous story, where he shifts to a stream of conscious-like narration to examine the decisions a young makes when his girlfriend is found to have skin cancer just as he is leaving for university. The way he obfuscates, and reveals the story so that what ever decision he makes, is sure to be painful, if not wrong, is impressive.

Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a solid collection of stories, ranging from the funny to the painful to the intriguing. All of his stories are clever and well written and I hope to read some more of his work sometime. In the meantime I will continue to read his blog avidly. Hopefully, someday a few of his stories will make it into English.

You can read an interview in Spanish with him about Quédate donde estás.

The Dylan Dog Case Files – A Review

The Dylan Dog Case Files
Bonelli Comics, 2009, 680 pg

The Dylan Dog Case Files are the most ridiculous and ludicrous comics I’ve read in ages. In some ways, because they are so silly, it was refreshing to read a comic that doesn’t take it self so seriously like those countless super hero comics that are filled with mopey teen age anxiety and cry about having super powers. On the other had, Dylan Dog is a repetitive joke that gets old. The Italians love them, 56 million copies of worth of love, but after the first story, which was actually funny, they slid into the realm of tiresome who done-its. Fortunately, it takes little time to read each story, so I don’t feel I lost wasted time reading them. You might be asking yourself why I read them in the first place as they really aren’t my kind of thing? It was the jacket blurb (yes, they do work): I can read the Bible, Homer, or Dylan Dog for days on end without every feeling bored–Umberto Eco. All I can say is his idea of boredom and mine are two different things.

Dylan Dog is an investigator of strange cases, kind of a paranormal Sherlock Holmes. Typically the cases revolve around beautiful women who he manages to seduce in each episode. Like hard boiled novels, he is outside the law and often in trouble, but in the end always the one who figures out the problems. His cases range from zombies to serial killers and as in any detective story he usually gets something wrong–falls for the wrong woman, believes the wrong man–before he solves the case, often with his superior fighting skills. Accompanying him is his trusty helper and Groucho Marx clone, who loves to tell Goucho like jokes: I gave my cat lemons to eat and now I have a sour puss. (I’d love to know what the original was, because that joke can only work in English.) In the first story when the Groucho had more of a role, it was funny, but as the stories went on and he disappeared into the background, the humor abated.

There is certainly a charm to the Dylan Dog character. The wise cracking loner has so many possibilities, but the repetitive and predictable nature of the stories quickly grows tiresome after a while.