The Abominable Mr Seabrook by Joe Ollmann – A Review

The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, pg 296

theabominablemrseabrook_thumbPassion projects don’t always succeed. They can bog down in details that are only interesting to the idiosyncrasies of the author.  Fortunately, Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr Seabrook is the opposite: a well written and sensitive exploration of a forgotten writer from the 1920’s and 30’s.

William Seabrook was a travel writer, adventure journalist, and a best selling author during the 20’s. He was also a self destructive man who drank too much, was in and out of asylums, and ultimately committed suicide.  The Abominable is at times a sad story, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, too. Seabrook’s adventures were impressive. He showed Crusoe around Atlanta. He was an ambulance driver during WWI. He lived with the Bedouins for a couple years, which he wrote about in his book Adventures in Arabia (27). He went to Haiti and studied the rites of Voodoo, the Magic Island (29). It was the book that introduced zombie to Americans. He traveled through West Africa and supposedly ate with the cannibals. Jungle Ways (30).

_seabrook_aWhile those feats might be interesting on themselves, what makes Seabrook interesting is his chaotic life. He was friends with many of the writers and artists of the Lost Generation: Gertrude Stien, the Manns, Man Ray. He was famous and moved amongst some of the famous people of the 20’s and 30’s. Seabrook both enjoyed the fame and let it ruin him. He was constantly at parties and was a raging alcoholic.  On top of all this, Seabrook was a sexual sadist. He derived pleasure from tying women up and though he was married several times, he never gave up his practices. At one point he and Man Ray worked on a project about bondage together.

Ollmann weaves all these threads together with skill and sympathy. While the entry point to Seabrook might be his adventures, its the exploration of his personal life that really makes the story stand out. This is where Ollmann’s extensive research and affection for his subject comes through. While this is not a scholarly biography. Ollmann is clear on his sources and as he narrates Seabrook’s life, he is also narrating the construction of a biography, showing us how each source viewed Seabrooks descent into alcoholism. Ollmann isn’t afraid to call out some of Seabrook’s lies of omission. Seabrook was a complex man and Ollmann shows him as such. It is what makes The Abominable Mr Seabrook such a good book.

My favorite part of the book, the one that shows Ollmann’s dedication to his subject, is at the end. It’s a two page spread. On one side is a photo of a stack of Seabrook’s books that Ollmann has bought over the years. The other is a little one to two sentence description of each. It captures the beauty of a well written passion project and celebrates the world of books. It’s also a bibliophile’s book: Ollmann mentions he has “spent thousands on out of print books and magazines.” A good book indeed.

 

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream)
Samanta Schweblin
Literatura Random House, 2014, pg 124

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I’m not sure what I think of Distancia de rescate. My uncertainty is not a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t that good. Normally I am a big fan of Schweblin as you can see in my writings on her work. Moreover, her approach to writing does not fundamentally differ in Distancia from her short stories. If anything the narrative mystery that propels many of her stories is even stronger in this short novel. Which brings me back to my original statement: I’m not sure what I think about her work and by that I mean is there something I am missing in my reading, or do I think the book is flawed in some way? Let me see if I can answer that for myself and in that way develop an appreciation of the novel that you, my reader, will find useful.

The title for the English language translation, Fever Dream, is more suggestive of what the novel is: a feverish dream from someone who very ill, perhaps about to die. The title also gives away too much, sets a direction for interpretation that while it exists, is more subtle in the Spanish original, roughly means keeping someone close for safety. The Spanish title reflects fear that pervades the novel, the English title the structure of the novel.

Structurally, the novel is a conversation between two voices. One is Carla the mother of a young girl. She is the narrator. The second voice is of David, a you neighbor. Or so we are told. The voice is presented in italicized font and does not identify itself. Only Carla identifies the boy, David. The obvious question is, is this narrative structure as it seems? To answer that you have to go father into Carla’s narrative state. This is where the idea of the fever dream comes. As the novel begins, her narration is even, matter of fact. As she goes deeper into the story, though, her fears mount. Is something going to happen to her daughter? How can she protect her, keep her close? Is the distancia de rescate (safety distance) sufficient to protector? Carla repeatedly wonders in the distancia de rescate is sufficient. Schweblin is an skilled writer and she keeps ratcheting up the tension as Carla slips farther into fear. Which returns us to the question of the narration. The conversation could just be feverish imaginings. Carla is very suspicious of David from the beginning. He is a menacing figure with seemingly supernatural powers. He’s a kind of devil child from a horror movie. Can we trust Carla’s description of events? Despite Schweblin’s facility with the fantastic, you could read the narration as either a conversation between a darkly evil child and Carla, or the feverish imaginings of a desperate mother.

What makes Carla desperate and David so threatening are the poisoned waters. In a recent interview in the Clarian Schweblin talked about the destruction of the Argentine country side with the use of glifosato, which in the English speaking world we know by its trade name: Roundup® by Monsanto. It adds an interesting element to what seems fantastical: poisoned waters that no one seems to know about. David’s mother tells Carla about the time he dipped his hand in a pool of water on the farm where they live, put them in her mouth, and took sick shortly after. The local villagers performed a rite to save the boy, but it mingled his soul with another. From then on David has never been the same. He is threatening. He’s often found burring dead birds and small animals. It is not clear if he killed the animals or if they died in the same way that David almost did.  Carla doesn’t want him near her daughter. The fear and suspense runs through the book and it’s the mark of Schweblin’s skill that it continues to the end of the novel.

As I read through what I’ve written I find that Distancia is a better book than I thought when I first put it down. The multiple approaches to reading is a mark of its many strengths. The narration is open ended and her use of the fantastic and a frantic narrator draws you in. It was the feeling of open endedness of the ending is what gives me pause when I think about the book. The nature of the narative’s construction can probably end as something open ended. All narratives continue after they have finished in the mind of the reader. But Distancia’s ending is unsettling. It is a strength of the book, but for me the unsettling end has the effect making me question if read it well enough. (I’m sure I did) Ultimately, Distancia de rescate is an excellent read, but I might have preferred her short stories just a bit more.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – A Review

9781573225434_p0_v2_s600x595The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233

If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after.  Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.

The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war;  the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is  completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.

When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.

The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.

Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?

Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.

The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A Review

The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton
Library of America

At the heart of it, Wharton’s novels are about freedom. It isn’t an existential freedom, it’s a practical one, one that assumes money and love are really what influence a person. For a Lilly Bart in the House of Mirth it is a serious matter, one that leads to her destruction. With The Custom of the Country, Wharton takes a different approach, one that is not as immediately tragic as Mirth, but when looked at from a distance, is as devastating.

Undine Spragg is a young woman from Apex who comes to New York to climb the social ladder and be someone. With Undine, there are only a few things she is interested in, clothing and parties, and those are really just so she can fit in amongst the best people, the ones she reads about in the society pages. She doesn’t belong to New York society and Wharton obviously has fun contrasting her manners against those of the old line New York families.

Nevertheless, she does worm her way into a social scene thanks to her parents who seem to live for her and think nothing of living as high as they can. She marries into one of the old line families, but as often the case with Wharton, that status doesn’t come with money. Her husband Ralph only has a small income and would rather write poetry (I wonder what dreamers in our New Gilded Age will want to do?). It’s not a match for the ages. He makes it for love; she for status. Neither of them get what they want. For Ralph, it slowly destroys him. He has a lover, but he is too bound to convention. Undine, though, doesn’t really care. As long as she has money, she’s happy. She ultimately divorces him, a move that shows her as a scandalous money grabber. She will marry two more times, each time increasing her income.

For Undine, freedom is something to be bought. She is unable to see that is the case. She is a primal person; one who is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate social circle needs. It leads her to surprises when her assumptions fail to be true. Her marriage to the French count is a failure because she assumes because he is rich he can spend his money as he wishes. But for him, the family is an obligation he must honor. Each in their way, is constrained by the structures they are part of and they have accepted as the way the world is. Wharton makes this even more clear when the Count spends a fortune to pay his brother’s gambling debts, but won’t allow Undine to stay in Paris for the season.

Undine, despite her avarice, might seem the most free. She isn’t tied down by convention. She gets divorce three times; doesn’t commit suicide like Ralph; survives every society snub. Wharton doesn’t find anything redeeming in it, though. Her tone isn’t a moralizing, nor is wild like a Thackery in Vanity Fair, although Undine is like a Becky Sharp, but there is a very dry sense of satire. It is so dry it is easy to miss. For readers who want to relate to their heroines, this is not the book; try The House of Mirth. It’s in that dryness, the realistic depiction of a woman so consumed by status and money, that Wharton creates a character who is so untethered to reality, she has no idea what she really wants. She destroys everyone, unintentionally, of course, and when she has gotten everything she wants, or says she wants, Wharton reveals Undine’s true desperation.

The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules. In both cases, though, the characters are trapped in worlds they come from or think they are joining. While the case of Ralph Marvell holding on to a family honor is tragic, that of Undine who does not know who she is, is even more tragic. It’s an illusory freedom. She has no idea what she truly wants and that leaves her after she has married the multi-millionaire uncertain if she has enough yet. It’s a dark ending. She has bought into fashion without understanding the fashion is always changing.

Wharton’s work always meets at the intersection of wealth and freedom. At her best her works are cautionary tales. Although Undine’s passage through the aristocracy of Europe might seem unrealistic, translate them to pop cultural icons, and you have glimpses into a new Gilded Age. The Custom of the Country is a dark and dry satire, which makes it a little bit more difficult to approach like Mirth and the Age of Innocence. But it is one of her better works and worth a read after Mirth and Innocence.

Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde – A Review

Southern Cross
Laurence Hyde
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, pg 255
Original Publish Date Ward Richie Press, 1951

Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross is a wordless novel made from wood cuts. Much as Lynd Ward, Frans Massreel, and Otto Nuckel before him, Hyde wrote his novel with images, relying on his skills as an artist to create a visual language. It is a difficult art, as he points out in his survey of the art included with the book. One that takes careful planning. A rewrite means he has to recarve one or more of his blocks. The results, though, can be evocative.

Southern Cross is fiction, but it tells the story of the American atomic bomb tests at the bikini atoll during the 40s. He tells the story from the perspective of the native islanders and sees the tests as not only an invasion, but a literal rape of a peaceful people. Hyde contrasts idelic drawings of the islands and its sea life with the arrival of the Americans. While the Americans seem peaceful, not only do they want to take the people from their homes, an American rapes one of the native women. Nothing will stop the bomb. The woman’s husband kills the American and they hide on the island. When the bomb is detonated they die.

l-hyde-southern-cross-image-1
A shark

Hyde is none too subtle in his criticism. While his story of an ideal people destroyed by the modern world at its most destructive is well tread, for its time, 1951, it is a brave statement. The rape seems a little over the top, as if the crime of stealing someones home for atomic tests wasn’t bad enough. Is rape really the only crime that make Americans look bad? The escaped to a doomed freedom is the much more compelling aspect of the book and on its own might have been enough.

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Firing the bomb

The plot aside, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ferocity of the bomb is the most striking aspect. It is also the easiest to render visually and in pure symbolism holds up the best. Hyde sees such destruction as an obscenity and in rendering the natural world so carefully he seeks to reconstruct and lament what was lost.

Southern Cross is a fine example of the art of the wordless novel. Perhaps a little one sided; still, an important addition to any collection of these works. Drawn & Quarterly should be commended for their high-fidelity reprint. Not only is it printed on high quality paper, it preserves every detail of Hyde’s original addition, including his overview of the wordless novel up to that point.

War, So Much War By Merce Rodoreda – A Review

War, So Much War
Merce Rodoreda
Open Letter, 2015, pg 185

war_so_much_war-front_largeMerce Rodoreda’s late works are magical miniatures of madness, destruction, and authoritarianism. Much like a Death in Spring, War, So Much War creates a condensed claustrophobic world where the inhabitants are given to a petty violence that is rooted  in jealousy as much as it is custom. Its a dark novel and Rodereda paints war time Catalonia in a less than flattering light. Published in 1980, several years after the end of the Franco regime, it is both a criticism of the events and an act of witness. War, So Much War is not a novel of the righteous lost cause or a golden era. It is a vision of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. She wrote in Death in Spring, “men who are eager to kill are already dead,” and it is an apt description of the characters in War, So Much War. No one wins here.

Structurally, and much like Death in Spring, the narrative is a kind of picaresque and the reality feels as if it is part of a fable as much as it is a description of a given reality. From the few details she teases us with the war is taking place in Catalonia. There is one mention of Barcelona, which is the main link. The only reference to the Spanish Civil War is when she mentions Moroccan troops, which were employed by the fascist side. (It is possible there are more clues in the original Catalan that a Catalan would pickup on.) Other than these small clues, the book is isolated, cut off from any larger world, giving a sense of madness to every remote location the narrator ventures. While Death in Spring had its own unique and terrifying reality, War uses what should seem familiar, farms, fishing communities, and imbues them with terror and violence. Its as if the war is not a singular event, but a reflection of what the normal order.

The start of War, So Much War shows just what Rodoreda thinks of war and soldiers. The protagonist, Adria Guinart, runs away from home with several other boys and join a the army. Militia might be a better term since it is a woefully inadequate group. They are sent into battle and are immediately routed. They flee into the woods where Guinart finds himself on a journey through the war ravaged land. He stumbles on farmers who try to kill him, others who want to make him into a slave. Occasionally, he meets a good person, a farmers daughter who wants to make love to him, a hermit who wants company, and the wounds he receives at the hands of the violent heal before circumstance sends him on his way. In one of the longer sections of the book, he takes up with a man who lives alone by the sea. The relationship is one of trust and when the man dies, he gives everything to Guinart. He lives in the house for a while and he has a chance to examine what it is he is searching for. The moment allows Guinart to become more than a cork floating on the sea as he is in much of the novel and shows that Rodoreda is looking for something more than just a caustic criticism of war.

Ultimately, War, So Much War is a dark book. At times I wonder if there was an urban versus rural dynamic, not just a vision of war. Much of what happens has nothing specifically to do with war. Is the world she has created a result of a war, or war is the result of such a society? Either way, Rodoreda’s late works are magical, brutal, and richly evocative.

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – a Review

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 146

MUNOZ_EM_C_IMPRENTAEntre malvados is the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s third collection of short stories, and represents a return to the short form after two novels. His recent work has been concerned with the intersection between art and identity, best expressed in his last book, the transgressive La canción de Brenda Lee. Entre malvados marks a change of direction towards stories that are concerned with recent history, not necessarily political, but engaged in the events that have shaped recent Spanish history. The title is quite clear in stating where his focus lies; however, the stories are richer and more ambiguous explorations of recent events than a simple reading of the tile might allow. It is also worth noting, that several of the stories were either written or started almost a decade ago. Their collection here, though, does seem well timed.

The stories fall into two general camps: ones that deal directly with an event; and ones that are more generalized sources of evil. In the later, Somos los malvados (We are the Wicked), the first story of the collection explores the origins of cruelty and how it propagates itself. The story is simple: a man is abused as a child by local bullies. As an adult his daughter is taught by one. All he has to do is spread rumors about the teacher and he will get his revenge. Obviously, the condemnation of bulling is there, as is a recognition of its power. But there is more here, more than a tale of satisfying revenge. The means of achieving that revenge is a new propagation of cruelty.

In a similar vein, Los hijos de Manson (The Children of Manson) is an exploration of evil, both extreme and commonplace. Muñoz describes four people who in their own ways brought evil to those around them. The firs is the  strange power of  Charles Manson and his manic evil. The  second is the mob killer known as the Iceman who lived with his family in middle class normalcy, but was vicious in his professional life. These two are traditional killers, evil men most people would despise. Then Muñoz turns to the father of the Enlightenment, Rousseau who is monstrously cavalier in his raising of children, giving them all away and convincing himself they would be better that way. Finally, he takes on Arthur Miller who refused to see his son who had Downs Syndrome for his whole life. The contrast between all of them is quite large, but it underscores the general theme of the book. The inclusion of Rousseau and Miller makes for a more nuanced collection and makes it difficult to say, of course they are bad.

Aguantar el frio (Putting Up with the Cold) is a transitional story, one that plays against the back drop of the real and the general. The story follows a cop who is looking for a missing girl. He’s seen this happen before, but in that case he found the girl after she had been killed. He won’t do it again. On a tip from the girl’s neighbors he arrests and brutally beats one a different neighbor. He won’t fail and he knows who did it. It’s just a mater of time before he gets to the truth. At the same time, his son has lost an eye in one of the big government protests in Madrid that happened during the height of the economic crises in 2009-2012. He doesn’t want anyone to know that. He is ashamed that his son has turned out the way he has. It is a classic crime fiction dilemma. Here, though the cop is blinded by the past, his own zeal, an the inability to understand that the same people he wants to protect are being damaged by the government he works for. Moreover, we have echos of the first story, Somos los malvados, that suggest the revenge that felt good in the first story, is perhaps being abused by the neighbors. It is an effective story about the tunnel vision and over application of the lessons of the past.

There are two stories, Los Nombres (The Names) and Un hombre tranquilo (The Quiet Man) that deal with the March 11, 2004 bombings at the Atocha train station in Madrid. Muñoz intended these stories to be part of a larger collection of voices of the event. In each he writes about the last few hours before the bombings. In Los Nombres he describes a man who is having his second child and is about to transition between a soccer playing good time guy, to a dedicated father. Un hombre tranquilo Muñoz  creates a kind of musical journey, as the protagonist surveys the train as he listens to El ultimo habitante del planeta. Its almost a montage from a movie. Where the Los nombres celebrates the life outside the train, Un hombre brings a kind of beauty to the every day. In each Muñoz finds the good and beautiful in the routine. The two stories show his strongest writing in a technical sense and make full use of his skills as a writer to get inside the lives of those who died.

Intenta decir Rosebud (Trying to Say Rosebud) is his most ambitious story. Based on the Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa’s account of his captivity as an ISIS prisoner, builds a compelling account of life as a prisoner and, more importantly, what life is like after the experience. There is more to the experience than survival and the continued reminders that even the simplest things in daily life are difficult moves the story from war to aftermath and touches on Muñoz’s general theme of the continual presence of evil. The actual depictions of life in the prison cell are chilling. The title is both a nod to Citizen Kane and to the power of art to calm. One of the prisoners tries to remember scenes of movies as a means of escape. Kane is his favorite movie and just remembering Rosebud offers him something outside the room. Intenta decir Rosebud is the most brutal and arresting story of the collection.

Entre malvados is a fine collection of stories. While they do give a sense of modern life in Spain, the traumas and the politics, they are more than just newspaper cut outs. There is a search for the darkness in everyone, and what makes the best us overcome it, if even temporarily. After such a long absence from the short form, Entre malvados is a welcome return for Miguel Ángel Muñoz.

 

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists – A Review

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists
Santiago Garcia, ed
Fantagraphics Books, 2016, pg 283

There was a moment when I first began to read Spanish Fever I thought I had made a mistake: not another anthology of excerpts that propose to give you a sense of a writer’s work, but given the brevity of the sample all you get is sections of novels that don’t really say anything. Fortunately, Spanish Fever is better than that. Fist, the pieces are not excerpts. The selected pieces are self contained, almost short stories, and that gives a sense of completeness to the works. While many of the pieces are collaboration between writer and artist, especially older authors, it is critical to see an artist’s work as a whole.

While I’m familiar with recent Spanish history and how that has played out in literature, I’m less familiar with comics and graphic novels. The only graphic novel I’ve ever bought in Spain was actually Lebanese. The brief introduction from Santiago Garcia is quite helpful in showing how the transition from dictatorship to democracy actually slowed the development of the graphic novel. Tebeos, as they are called in Spain, were associated with the Franco regime, and in the 80s, despite the arrival of mature and irreverent comics, attempts to create graphic novels failed. Only in the last fifteen years or so have writers found success.

Of the writers included here, Poco Roca might be the most famous. His book Wrinkles about Alzheimer patients was made into a successful animated move. His piece here is Chronicle of a Crises Foretold, which describes the economic crash of 2008 and its effects. It feels as if it was an newspaper supplement explaining what happened. It is quite successful and the art is solid and his drawing of monopoly board is very effective.

Other writers of note were Jose Domingo’s Number 2 Has Been Murdered, which is one of the most stylistically drawn works. It is uses very precise angular drawings with stark contrasts between black and white. It is also one of the more sarcastic pieces, making fun of corporate culture. Javier Olivares Finland uses a an approach that is closer to Clowes, with a nice use of color and solid geometric lines. The story is meta and shows strong story telling skills. Both Max and Micharmut’s work eschew realism in narrative and are more symbolic. Max is the more famous of the two and his work is very recognizable. Gabi Beltran and Barolome Segui’s Mathematics is taken from another work and looks interesting. The piece stands on it own, but the stories of his childhood, if they are the same quality as Mathematics, have potential.

As usual, the number of women included in the volume is quite small. 4 out of 28 pieces are by women, which is a pretty bad ratio, especially given that there are many stories with women as protagonists. Ana Galvañ’s Horse Meat was better than I thought it would be. I’m not a big fan of the art, but the story two teenage friends who have the shape of horses was interesting.

It is a collection that is worth using as an entry in to the world of Spanish graphic novels.

Finally, the blog Historia y Comic is a great resource for finding comics, in Spanish, about history.

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses)
Samanta Schweblin
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 123

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I admire Samanta Schweblin’s work. While little has come out in English, and at that only a few stories and a short novel, her work as a short story writer deserves attention. Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) was 2015 Riviera del Duero short story prize winner, and her latest book of stories to come out, published by Paginas de Espuma in Spain. Her work has always played with the fantastic, or, as I think I read somewhere, the borer between the real and the unreal. Her previous 2009 short story collection La furia de las pestes (my review) (re titled Pajaros en la Boca) certainly held to that territory. With Siete casas vacías, though, the fantastic is no longer is no longer an external element or force that one can interact with, no matter how strange. Instead, its an open question, perhaps of motivation, perhaps of perspective. Either way, its something unsaid. In that unsaid, though, is the unreal, or at least the odd. Its a change that brings the common place ever closer to her work and turns it into the fantastic.

The first story, Nada de todo esto (None of all this) is indicative of this move. In it we have a mother and daughter driving through a neighborhood. The mother seems confused, uncertain where she is going or how she get there. She is driving and the daughter is asking her to stop, to let her take over. They end up in the house of a rich woman. At this point the mother proceeds to look all through the house and steals a wooden sugar jar. This was the whole reason for entering the house. They leave only to have the owner of the sugar jar find them. The daughter wants to give it back and yet there is hesitation in her. It is the elusiveness of her mother’s motivations, and the daughter’s growing resistance, that lave the story open ended. What is this habit? Simple theft or something more?  Schweblin’s handling of the ambiguity, mixed with the a kind of comedy of errors, is well handled.

The best story of the collection (and longest at 50 pages) is La respiracion cavernaria (Deep Breathing). It is the simple, and yet mysterious, story of a widow, Lola, who lives alone in her home and is slowly feeling her age and her isolation press in on her. Schweblin captures the day to day struggle against solitude and the simple tasks that age make difficult. All around her home she sees change and crime and threats and is always on the look out for problems. Are the neighborhood boys stealing the things in her garage? What’s that noise she hears outside her window? She visits her neighbor several times to complain about her son. But the neighbor says her son died some time ago. For Lola it doesn’t register. She still thinks he wants chocolates that she would give him. For the reader, the unreality of age, of perception, begins to take the story into a different direction. What does Lola really experience? Its that lack of reality that makes the story even more profound. If the hardships of age weren’t bad enough, the loss of a fixed reality only make it worse. Its here that Schweblin’s skill at the unstated reality shows her work to be of exceptional quality.

Schweblin’s work seldom disappoints and Seven Empty Houses definitely does not. It is a worthy prize winner in a competition that has seen some excellent work by previous winners (my reviews: The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, Mirar al agua by Javier Sáez de Ibarra). Her work stands out as some of the highest quality short stories in the Spanish language.

An interview with Schweblin at lit hub.

Read a recent review of her last novel now translated in English.

In The Sounds and Seas by Marnie Galloway – A Review

In The Sounds and Seas
Marnie Galloway
One Peace Books, 2016

Marnie Galloway’s In The Sounds and Seas is a beautifully drawn and imaginative wordless fable. The art of the wordless book is the purest expression of the  graphic novel, depending solely on the writer’s ability represent a story with images. There are few practitioners of the art, such as Lynd Ward, Franz Masreel, and Otto Gluck. Galloway’s book is a welcome addition to the form and creates richly detailed work that is part quest, part myth. What stands out, of course, and its what caught my eye when I bought the book at the Short Run festival, is her hyper  detailed drawings. The two shown below are indicative of her style, with its attention to detail. She excels at the interplay of black and white, creating subtle shadings of light and dark. Her fine hatching and clean lines bring motion and light and a liveliness to drawings. Even in the more traditional narrative panels that bring a more traditional comic feel to the book, her work is finally detailed. The voyaging section in the Storm chapter is one of the best examples her skill.

The narrative follows three women as they make a long maritime journey. Its a journey, which the epigraph from Homer suggests, that will not find a resolution, but is more a voyage of discovery. The discovery is both geographic and environmental as the women are both moving across the seas, but are also part of the sea. Images of boat ribs becoming whale bones, or even in the image below with the whale caring a human inside, make clear the relationship between the characters and their environment is part of the story. Its a fantastic relationship, one where its possible to swim in currents of rabbits and birds. The use of the fantastic is extends to the women’s relationship to the boat. One of them grows long hair which she ties to the ship, becoming an extension of the boat, an apt metaphor for the relationship between voyager and vessel.

Ultimately, Galloway leaves the narrative open ended. Both the impetus for the search and the its resolution allow the reader explore multiple ideas, both realistic and metaphysical. It invites rereading and looking at the narrative in different terms, examining the rich detail for new clues to its construction. Between the detailed drawings that invite reexploration and a narrative that shifts with that same exploration, its a great wordless novel.

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A List of Spanish Short Story Writers

A few months ago the Spanish writer Sergi Bellver sent me article that had a great list of living short story writers. I’m now getting around to posting it. Many of them I’m familiar with, but there are some news names here that are worth exploring. Many of them, of course, are not in translation. One can always hope.

I’ve mentioned Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga, Cubas, Hipólito G. Navarro, Eloy Tizón, avier Sáez de Ibarra, and Ángel Zapata in these pages, especially my article that appeared in the Quarterly Conversation on short story writers.. A quick search will bring you my thoughts about any of them. But there are so many more.

Recomendaría a mi impaciente compadre y a cualquier lector latinoamericano que comenzara leyendo a Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga o Cubas, pero si pudiera facturar en una maleta veinte kilos de libros para que se hiciera una idea atinada del cuento español del siglo XXI, empezaría sin dudarlo por Hipólito G. Navarro, bicho raro y luminoso como El pez volador (2008). Si de luz hablamos, añadiría enseguida Técnicas de iluminación (2013), de Eloy Tizón, el libro de relatos ―en― español más inspirado de los últimos años. Me arriesgaría en la aduana con la eterna búsqueda de Javier Sáez de Ibarra en Mirar al agua (2009) y el material inflamable de La vida ausente (2006), de Ángel Zapata. Para compensar, incluiría a tres narradores puros, como Gonzalo Calcedo, Jon Bilbao y Óscar Esquivias, pero dudaría qué título elegir de cada uno, aunque creo que me decidiría, respectivamente, por La carga de la brigada ligera (2004), Como una historia de terror (2008) y Pampanitos verdes (2010). En una esquina, bien protegidos, colocaría Museo de la soledad (2000), de Carlos Castán; Los peces de la amargura (2006), de Fernando Aramburu; Leche (2013), de Marina Perezagua; y Ocho centímetros (2015), de Nuria Barrios. Y en la otra, para combatir el dolor, pondría analgésicos del tipo El camino de la oruga (2003), de Javier Mije; Llenad la Tierra (2010), de Juan Carlos Márquez; El mundo de los Cabezas Vacías (2011), de Pedro Ugarte; Una manada de ñus (2013), de Juan Bonilla; Mientras nieva sobre el mar (2014), de Pablo Andrés Escapa; y Hombres felices (2016), de Felipe R. Navarro. No me dejaría unos cuantos libros brillantes sin los que cojearía la maleta, como El hombre que inventó Manhattan (2004), de Ray Loriga; Bar de anarquistas (2005), de José María Conget; Gritar (2007), de Ricardo Menéndez Salmón; Estancos del Chiado (2009), de Fernando Clemot; No es fácil ser verde (2009), de Sara Mesa; Antes de las jirafas (2011), de Matías Candeira; La piel de los extraños (2012), de Ignacio Ferrando; y El Claustro Rojo (2014), de Juan Vico. Para romperle la cabeza a quien pretendiera requisarlos, cubriría el conjunto con Alto voltaje (2004), de Germán Sierra; El malestar al alcance de todos (2004), de Mercedes Cebrián; Breve teoría del viaje y el desierto (2011), de Cristian Crusat; y Los ensimismados (2011), de Paul Viejo. De contrabando irían algunas sustancias extrañas y adictivas como El deseo de ser alguien en la vida (2007), de Fernando Cañero; Nosotros, todos nosotros (2008), de Víctor García Antón; Órbita (2009), de Miguel Serrano Larraz; Los monos insomnes (2013), de José Óscar López; y Extinciones (2014), de Alfonso Fernández Burgos. Creo que la maleta ya reventaría a estas alturas, pero para que mi interlocutor imaginario no se quedara con las ganas buscaría hueco y le daría una oportunidad a alguno de los primeros libros de relatos de jóvenes como Aixa De la Cruz, Mariana Torres, Juan Gómez Bárcena, David Aliaga, Raquel Vázquez o Almudena Sánchez. Estoy seguro de que la compañía aérea me hará pagar por exceso de equipaje, y de que camino del aeropuerto olvidaré algún buen libro, como acabo de hacer ahora. Habrá sido el mezcal de mi compadre.

 

 

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice) by Clara Obligado – A Review

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice)
Clara Obligado
Páginas de Espuma 2015, 228 pg

Clara Obligado’s La muerte juega a los dados is a loosely interconnected collection of stories that forms a kind of inter-generational family epic. Given the title of the collection, though, Obligado is less interested in a family epic but the capriccios of history. The overarching family story is always there, but Obligado through the different way she constructs her stories, through the sometimes oblique connections of the stories, creates a dark set of stories that are both structurally inventive and rich with characters.

While Obligado suggests one can read the book in order or randomly, she doesn’t quite achieve a Hopscotch like work. Nevertheless, the structure of the book is very loose and each story could stand on its own. The longer, family oriented stories are less experimental, but Obligado’s command of the genre is obvious. One of the stand out stories (the longest of the collection) La peste (The Plague) is a portrait of a patrician family on the decline. Its an almost Gothic picture: the patron of the family confines herself to her room in grief, the children are decadent wastes, and the grandchildren are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of it all Buenos Aires suffers the March, 1956 polio outbreak. The sense of a world collapsing in on itself and coming to end is ever present. As Obligado shifts her focus in brief sections from family member to family member, capturing each one’s unique collapse, and in the case of the grandchildren, their confusion, the capriciousness of history shows itself.

The power of each story, though, is enhanced with the interweaving of the tragic arc of the family. Starting with the unsolved murder of the patriarch of the family during the 20’s, the survivors are continually at the mercy of the 20th century’s major events. Its a history that Obligado deftly and judiciously recreates. She wisely avoided a greatest hits of the century, instead focuses on the personal, how events shape the characters. As such we follow the newly wed Lenora as she makes her first transatlantic journey with a husband more interested in his strange house keeper Mdme Tanis. In another, she writes of Mdme Tanis’s teenage years in a brothel in revolutionary Mexico. Or she describes the torture and disappearance of Lenora’s granddaughter, Sonia in 1970’s Argentina. Each story has just enough sense of place to carry the story forward, without loading it up with extraneous details. When Obligado veers into occupied France, she connects the story to the other through the presence of a rare book on origami, avoiding the temptation make the family more important that it really is. Its these light touches that make the discovery of each little connection part of joy in reading the collection.

Ultimately, it is Obligado’s ability to tell a story that makes the collection strong. El verdadero amor nunca se olvida (True Love Is Never Forgotten) is perhaps the best of the collection. She captures the strange family dynamic of a distant mother who cares only about appearances and a father who still loves her. It is the daughter who doesn’t understand her distant mother, an Eastern European immigrant who doesn’t seem to fit in Buenos Aries. As the daughter describes her mother, the richness of the story is revealed. The daughter thinks, how could anyone love her? And yet her father all these years later has never given up. The strength of Obligado’s writing is one can see how both positions are valid.

La muerte juega a los dados with its shifting genres, styles, registers, and its sense of decay, is both an excellent collection of stories and a novel.

 

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg

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Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – A Review

Amsterdam Stories
Nescio
Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.

The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.

His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:

“I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I;m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”

In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows

You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.

The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.

We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.

But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.

Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?

The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.

Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus – A Review

Beneath the Underdog
Charles Mingus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo – A Reivew

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

Cleaning Stable for Bedroom
Cleaning a Stable for a Bedroom

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

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

Building Furniture
Building Furniture

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

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

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

La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room) by Cristina Fernández Cubas – A Review

La habatación de NonaLa habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room)
Cristina Fernández Cubas
Tusquets, 2015, pg 186

La habitación de Nona is Cristina Fernández Cubas’ first collection of stories since the 2008 publication of Todo los cuentos. She did publish a novel under the pseudonym Fernanda Kubbs and while it returned to familiar territory of the fantastic, it was a less introspective work, one that felt more like a release than a confrontation. With La habitación de Nona she returns to form, employing the fantastic to navigate the space between realities. La habitación, like some of her other collections, mixes stories that have a strong emphasis in a social reality, although fantastical, and stories that are complete fables or tales of horror in a classic sense. In each she is successful, as always.

The title story is indicative of her work, where the young narrator presents her sister as her enemy, someone whose behavior is so strange, perhaps on the autistic spectrum, that she is both jealous of the attention her parents give her and intrigued by her customs. Naturally, Cubas does not give us a clinical description of Nona, more a series of behaviors that upset the narrator. The story feels as if it is one of simple jealousy, or perhaps a story of the fantastical sister, but Cubas rarely gives such simple motivations. Instead there the question is not who is Nona, but who is the narrator? It’s made all the more enigmatic by the repeated phrase, quien yo me sé (who I know, but with a sense of something more complete) that suggests there is more to the story than the narrator’s claimed interests, which as the story draws to its conclusion sees the power of the narration switch from the narrator to Nona. While it doesn’t quite have the enigmatic power of Mi hermana Alba, there are some similarities in how the strange perceptions of children point to something more profound.

She again uses the perception of children in Interno con figura (Interior with figure). The narrator goes to an art museum where a group of school children are taking a tour. They stop in front of a painting, the one that is part of the cover art of book. When asked what is going on in the photo, one child becomes scared and suggests it is something horrible. The narrator takes this to mean that the child is seeing in the painting her own life and is not narrating what is in the painting. The narrator is never quite certain what to do. Should she talk to the teacher, the police, follow them? She does that for a little, but ultimately she cannot do anything. Her only option as she ends the story is to write a story, an act that brings the interplay between art and reality to another level. Did Cubas witness this? The painting is real, so why can’t this be true? And if it is true is what the child said true? This is not an unknown phenomenon. In Cubas work at its best we’re often left with question, or better said, forced to make a decision: which narrative line do we want believe, and, thus, follow?

El final de Barbero (The end of Barbero) recounts the arrival of a stepmother who becomes the ruling force in the family, much to the frustration of the three daughters. While there is a touch of the wicked stepmother in the story, it does not follow the familiar pattern of abuse. Instead, Barbero steals the daughter’s father and leaves them behind. The enmity she engenders is that of remaking the family, erasing a future that the daughters thought they would have and leaving them in the dark. Barbero is a strange woman. After marring the father a week after meeting the daughters she begins to distance the father from the children. Ultimately, she and the father move out, taking anything of value, including the picture frames, leaving the photos of their late mother on shelves in the office. It is these kind of touches that make Barbero at once an object of hate and pity, a woman who is trying to control, but is so strange that her victories are really pyrrhic. Ultimately, the fate of Barbero is uncertain and in true Cubas fashion, what the daughters find out lesson her power, making the whole marriage a tragic-comedy. It is one of the more successful stories in the book.

La Nueva Vida (The New Life) is one of her few stories written in the third person and is the most obviously personal story of the collection. Cubas lost her husband of many years several years before the publication of the book, and that experience is reflected here. In the story a woman is walking through Madrid and finds herself in the past, meeting with her friends, with her husband. It is a stripped down story, one that is more interested in the emotion of loss. There is no magical jam as in Los altillos de Brumal; she is just there. It is the confusion of memory that is the subject, the way that memory lives, and can bring one to a past as if it really is now. The use of third person here is instructive as to her approach. Typically in the first person, she leaves open doubts, missperceptions, but here it is the complete enveloping experience of a memory that she wants to show. The doubts come via a waitress who sees an older woman having problems. It also makes the story one of her most realistic, even though it feels at first if this is some sort of strange time travel story. It is surprisingly effective and impactful story.

Finally, Días entre los Wasi-Wano (Days Among the Wasi-Wano) returns to the interplay between story and reality. Again, the narrator is a girl who, along with her brother, is shipped off to her aunt and uncle’s for the summer. The aunt and uncle are a strange pair and live in the country side in a little village. The uncle is given to telling stories of his adventures in Brazil exploring the jungle and meeting the Wasi-Wano tribe. It is a fascinating story that the narrator loves. It is also a story that is only real because of the commitment of the uncle. The narrator, though, is hooked and for her the uncle is the most interesting person. However, there are things behind the facade of the marriage. It leaves the narrator both enjoying the beauty of story that Brazil presents and facing cracks in the dream that is her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Cubas brilliantly plays with both ideas, making the fantastical, Brazil, the more solid, while the real becomes unstable. Of course, that instability colors everything about the uncle and suggests that there is more to a story than its credibility. It is a surprisingly effective story, full of dead ends and questions that can never be answered and leave a sense of melancholy that often comes with Cubas exploration of the fantastic, as if the euphoria of the glimpse of what cannot be deflates one.

La habitación de Nona is one of her better collections, and I think rightly called out as one of 2015’s best books (in Spain).