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.


Guide to Argentine Literature at the Feria de Guadalajara from El Pais

El Pais has a guide to Argentine literature for the Feria de Guadalajara. The is plenty to read, from the famous to the up and coming. I recommend the overview article which discusses Argentina, writing as a profession and newer writers. I also recommend the list of 16 less well known writers from Argentina. Piglia and Aria are the most well known, and Schweblin has appeared on this blog several times. Hebe Uhart is untranslated, but you can read a few stories of her’s in the new A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from Open Letter which came out recently.

En torno a la generación de los 40 años han despuntado también otros escritores: Félix Bruzzone (Buenos Aires, 1976), hijo de desaparecidos víctimas de la dictadura militar que aborda de forma indirecta en sus cuentos el problema de las desapariciones; también sobresale Samanta Schwebling, quien con dos libros de cuentos publicados en 2002 y en 2009 se convirtió en la autora de la que todo el mundo hablaba hace 14 años. Ahora acaba de publicar su primera novela, Distancia de rescate (Random House). Otro nombre y otro título: Julián López y su primera novela, Una muchacha muy bella (Eterna cadencia, 2013), que relata la historia de un niño y su madre, desaparecida en los años 70. Hay muchos más autores y gran diversidad entre ellos. Pero si algo tienen en común es que casi ninguno vive de lo que publica.

A falta de ingresos por derechos de autor, los talleres son un buen recurso para pagar las facturas de luz y agua. Selva Almada, que acudió en su día al taller de Alberto Laiseca, dirige otro taller. Abelardo Castillo, uno de los escritores más consagrados, cuenta con el que quizás sea el taller más antiguo de Argentina. Y suele recibir a los alumnos advirtiéndoles que el taller no sirve para nada. En una entrevista publicada en 2008 en La Nación, Castillo comentaba:

The Velocipedist Social Club by Norberto Luis Romero At Contemporary Argentine Writers

Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of The Velocipedist Social Club by Norberto Luis Romero. You should give it a read.

Along the town’s main street, there were no more than 400 meters from his home to the fledgling Velocipedist Social Club and Mr. Garcia walked them with his head held high and his eyes set forward, guiding his brand new velocipede beside him by its impeccable, polished handlebars, like someone proudly leading angelic, clean and well-dressed offspring to mass by the hand. But Garcia was a bachelor by inertia and his immediate plans, which had him completely absorbed, did not contemplate marriage but instead other more daring and novel ambitions. With each step he was aware that, behind the lace curtains of every kitchen window, the eyes of housewives were on him until he disappeared from their field of vision: out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the poorly concealed movements in the curtain folds, and even an incredulous face now and then suddenly veiling itself behind lace trimmings and embroidery. He knew that their curiosity wasn’t stirred by his person, despite the tight, flashy orange velocipedist outfit he wore, which was strikingly audacious in and of itself, but rather by the surprising object of his devotion, the true protagonist of that peaceful gray morning: the velocipede.

Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued – A Review

Under This Terrible Sun
Carlos Busqued
Translated by Megan McDowell
Frisch & Co. Electronic Books, Inc., 2013, pg 191

Carlos Busqued’s Under This Terrible Sun is a dark and at times disturbing book that in its tight and economical prose wastes little time in showing men at their worst. The cruelty is elusive at first. The novel opens with a description from a Discovery Channel show of the cannibalistic tendencies of squid. It is the first of many such descriptions of elusive giant squids. While they seem extraneous to the story, just so much TV background noise, they set the tone for the novel, as the mystery and the ruthless violence have their parallel within the novel.

It is a violence that Cetarti, an Argentine stoner, who has lost his job and spends his time watching the Discovery Channel and smoking marijuana is oblivious to. Even when he is told that his mother and brother had been murdered by her new husband, he is emotionless, the violence of it, just something that happened, nothing more. If the killing wasn’t enough, when he arrives in the small town to meet with the lawyer who is going to settle the estate, he finds that the streets are filled with excrement that has bubbled up from the sewers. He has entered into a place that could be hardly anymore disgusting. It sets the tone for meeting with the lawyer, Duarte, whose only interest is getting a little money out of the death benefits that are due him. While Cetarti and Durate settle business, Durate also spends his time transferring porn from video to digital, and the titles are quite hard core. Cetarti, though, as he does when faced with any new situation, doesn’t seem to care one way or another. He is disgusted by the very graphic scene and Durate delights in showing him, but ultimately getting the money from the estate is all he cares about. Once he gets that he can go back to smoking and watching the Discovery Channel.

Running parallel to Cetarti’s story is that of Durate and Danielito. The two men are scheming to do something and Danielito always seems to be taking care of someone behind a locked door. It is not clear at first who that person is or what they are doing, but as the novel goes on and a woman is kept in the room Durate and Danielito’s intentions become darker and darker, showing that the hardcore porn is only the beginning of Durate’s depravity. Danielito, much like Cetarti, is emotionless and follows Durate’s orders without question. It is never quite clear what the two men are doing, but it is both horrific and yet pedestrian, as if the normal state of men is that of passionless brutes who only follow biological instincts.

The two men and the one who you might think would have something good in him, Cetarti, is too numb to do anything. He has surrendered to marijuana and television. Even when he moves into his brother’s house and begins to clean it, getting rid of all of the junk he had collected as a hoarder, he does it less as catharsis, but as a mechanical event. The contrast couldn’t be stronger between that of a hoarder who sees in everything a rational and Cetarti who can live in the most spartan setting just watching the world go by. It is how Cetarti can join Durate and Danielito as they perform some sort of crime with the woman they’ve been keeping in the room. Cetarti is so uninterested in what is going on other than getting a little extra money he doesn’t even bother thinking about what is happening. He’s there, they’re all there, they do what they are going to do and that is it. Even the writing underscores this passionless view, avoiding any kind of descriptions of emotions or morality, just sticking to a description of the physical events.

It is an approach that when mixed with the nature documentaries is a nihilistic view of men as little more than the predators they are. While it is certainly not the first novel to tackle the subject, Busqued has no interest in explaining why this is. Explanations are not going to help soften the violence. It is an approach that can make for some tough passages, but in general keeps the horrible at a distance, always threatening, but never certain. After reading it, the reader should not be surprised if they want more, but since they are only observers, the whys, those often novelistic easy answers, are never going to come in the form of easy answers. The lack of answers is what makes the book work and Busqued has avoided some of the cliches that afflict crime fiction. Assuming one can get past the descriptions of some of the porn, you’ll see a darker side of Argentina than I have in the recent past.

FTC Notice: I want to thank the publisher for providing me with the book.

The Best Argentine Writers – Roberto Piglia on His New Series

La Jornada has an interview with Roberto Piglia that discusses his selection of certain Argentine authors for a new series of books set to rediscover Argentine. It isn’t a long interview, but it does talk about some authros you may or may not know. They’re are some genre breaking ones in here such as Carlos Eduardo Feiling’s work of terror.

–Entiendo que se trata de reeditar una gama de autores que abrieron las brechas de la nueva literatura argentina, la serie arranca con Nanina (1968), de Germán García, una novela de iniciación, donde un joven cuenta sus andanzas en la gran urbe en su doble exploración del medio cultural y las mujeres, obra cercana tanto en la forma como en la atmósfera a De perfil, de José Agustín y Gazapo, de Gustavo Sáenz, y En breve cárcel (1986), de Sylvia Molloy, una novela corta de ambiente intimista que aborda la relación lésbica de tres mujeres, una escritora, una mujer mayor de cierta solvencia económica y una mujer más joven y apetecible. ¿Cuáles son las próximas entregas de la serie, por una parte y por otra, por qué elegir estos autores tan diversos, con casi veinte años de diferencia en las fechas de primera publicación?

–Nos interesa hacer ver que esos libros, publicados en distintas épocas, más que anticipar, actualizan poéticas literarias de nuestros días: Nanina está en diálogo con el auge actual de la autobiografía y la literatura del yo; En breve cárcel, como usted ha señalado, instaura –y renueva al mismo tiempo– las historias de amor y la pasión entre amantes de un mismo sexo que hoy son una línea muy visible en nuestra narrativa. En cuanto a Oldsmobile 59 (1962), de Ana Basualdo, creo que retoma la gran herencia de los libros de cuentos que se construyen como un conjunto unitario. El mal menor (1996), de Carlos Eduardo Feiling, en su luminosa elaboración del relato de terror, dialoga con los géneros menores que son uno de los caminos centrales de renovación de la novela moderna. Valen por sí mismos y por su novedad y también por su diálogo con obras escritas mucho tiempo después. En ese sentido, también son recienvenidos a una lectura que ellos mismos han contribuido a definir.

Juan Gelman Interviewed in El Pais

El Pais has an interview with Juan Gelman, the Argentine poet. The occasion of the interview is the 1300 page collection of all his poems. While you can’t read that book in English, you can read the brand new collection of his poems from Open Letter. I received my copy in the mail yesterday. He sounds interesting in that he makes up his own words. I would have liked to seen the Spanish included in the book, too.

P. Muchas veces usted descoyunta la gramática y convierte en verbo un sustantivo. De mundo crea mundar, por ejemplo. ¿El lenguaje se le queda pequeño?

R. En el fondo, de Cervantes a la fecha, siempre se ha dicho eso. Cervantes se inventa neologismos y defiende la necesidad de reinventar la lengua. En mi caso es un intento de pasar los límites.

P. ¿Y qué dicen sus traductores?

R. [Se ríe] Creo que he logrado que salgan de su lógica. He tenido la suerte de tener excelentes traductores. Rompen sus propias lenguas para hacer el intento, aunque no siempre es posible.

P. Hay quien dice que poesía es justo lo que se pierde en la traducción de poesía. ¿Está de acuerdo?

R. Depende del traductor, y cada lengua tiene su lógica. Bien decía Pavese que para hacer una buena traducción de una lengua a otra no basta con conocer las dos: hay que conocer las dos culturas… Yo creo que traducir poesía es más difícil que escribirla. Yo mismo empecé traduciendo y me fue mal.

Argentine Writer Héctor Tizón Has Died

Argentine writer Héctor Tizón has died. I’m not familiar with his work, but according to the obituary from El Pais he was a kind of Juan Rulfo from Argentina. He used magical realism, but also had a dry realism. He didn’t like literary games in favor of writing what was “before his eyes as Hemingway would.” Like many writers of his generation he spent several years in exile during the dictatorship.

En el mismo libro comentó también su visión de la escritura: “La mayor parte de la literatura actual se hace con la literatura misma, con palabras y juegos de palabras, es decir, con ‘nada’. Yo prefiero contar otra vez las viejas historias, las que ya han sido contadas, semejantes a sí mismas en todo el mundo. Nunca lograremos contar algo que antes no se haya contado. (…) Lo que verdaderamente vale es el modo de narrar, y los hombres alcanzados por la narrativa vuelven a ser niños a quienes no les disgusta volver a escuchar una y otra vez las mismas historias, para protegerse; historias que nos exaltan y a la vez dignifican”.

“Nunca formó parte de las capillas literarias, pero era muy latinoamericano”, afirma Jorge Fernández. “Siguió la premisa de Borges en el sentido de que no había que tener un propósito por ser argentino, sino aspirar a lo universal. Tizón, pintando su aldea, contando cosas tan pequeñas y tan alejadas de las grandes urbes y el mundo, en realidad pintaba la condición humana”.

Cesar Aira Profiled in The Nation

This came out a couple months ago, but I haven’t kept track of anything lately. It is a really nice and long overview of the writer, heavy on the biographical. Worth a read. (via Scott)

Whether or not César Aira is Argentina’s greatest living writer, he’s certainly its most slippery. His novels, which number more than sixty, are famous for their brevity—few are longer than a hundred pages—and for their bizarre, unpredictable plots. In How I Became a Nun (2005) an innocent family outing climaxes with murder. The weapon? A vat of cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream. In The Literary Conference (2006) an attempt to clone the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes causes giant blue silkworms to attack a Venezuelan city, and in Aira’s latest book to appear in English, Varamo (2002), two spinsters get caught smuggling black-market golf clubs.

Aira loves to keep readers guessing—he once said that he deliberately writes the opposite of whatever fans praise—and several of his novels are actually works of probing psychological realism. But for all the variety of his novels’ plots, what has remained consistent during the thirty-odd years he has been writing is his taste for blending genres. Social realism and haunted-house tale mix with architectural theory in Ghosts (1990). Biography, pioneer tale and biogeography melt together in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). The B-movie plot of The Literary Conference is peppered with asides on myth and translation.

La furia de las pestes (The fury of plague) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

La furia de las pestes
Samanta Schweblin
Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, 2008, 111 pg

For readers of Spanish language literature in translation Samanta Schweblin’s name is slowly getting a little more notice. She has appeared in Words Without Borders, the Granta 22 best Young Writers in Spanish, and will appear in the forth coming The Future is Not Ours from Open Letter. However, with such spotty coverage it is hard to get a good sense of this writer’s work, a writer who has earned the respect of many of contemporary Spanish Language short story writers.It is a shame because her reputation as a short story writer to watch is deserved.

La furia de las pestes is Schweblin’s second book and won the Casa del las Americas short story prize in 2008. A couple of the stories have been translated into English: Conservas, which appeared in Words Without Borders (where I first encountered her work), and En la estepa, which is in The Future is Not Ours. Both of these stories are marked by the fantastic and show her at her best. Conservas is the story of a woman who reverses her pregnancy over the course of months, slowly shrinking it down until there is nothing left of it. Ultimately, it is a bitter sweet moment when she realizes that what she wanted so badly is perhaps not quite for the best. It nicely turns what easily could have turned into a didactic story on women’s rights, and gets at a more emotionally wrenching truth that there is no answer to such dilemmas. En la estepa (On the Stepe) is a fantastic story, yet one where the fantastic is only alluded to and like here best work, plays on customs most people would know, but are just a little strange and call into question those very customs. Throughout the story the characters keep mentioning some sort of creature that all want and that the lucky ones have found on the stepe. The first time I read it I thought it was just a story about a beast (and uninteresting at that), but when you look at the language everything the characters says are the words one uses when expecting a child. Used in a different context they sound abusive, selfish and it makes one question exactly what one is talking about when talking about children.

Those stories are available in English. But what about the rest of the stories? One thing that is obvious is that she is not tied to the fantastic. In two stories Papa Noel duerme en casa (Santa Claus Slept at My House) and Mi hermano Walter (My Brother Walter), she uses depression as a form of the fantastical. In each the characters loose contact with an accessible reality and their actions, naturally, seem strange. Interspersed with in stories of the fantastic, it underscores the strange nature of depression. The depression is not treated lightly and Papa Noel duereme en casa has a troubling vision of a marriage coming to an end and narrated by a young girl. Or in a story called Cosas que se tiran (The Things That Are Thrown), where a the narrator’s partner throws all their possessions into the shower before leaving, there is just a glimpse of something dying (the story is only 2 pages long). It forms a recurring theme of loss that leaves a dull ache for the unobtainable and at the same time a mater of fact sense of attachment to those losses, as if the narrators are so accustomed to them there is nothing one can do. That sense is most evident in El hombre sirena (The Merman), about a woman who meets a merman who is sitting on a dock. He offers her something different, but she doesn’t take him up on it. Or at least that is the suggestion, because she drives away with her brother to the waiting doctor. Is this another depressed person? She is obliviously anxious when she gets in the car to drive away. And like so many of her stories, the narrator says, perhaps tomorrow there will be another one waiting for me. The unspoken future is mostly likely not too much better.

The title story is a nice nod to Juan Rulfo about a man who goes to a forgotten village and tries to get the people to say something. It is one of those lost villages out of The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas) where everyone stays in their stone homes when a stranger comes to town. The twist her is when he tries get the people to talk and offers them something he thinks will help, it only reminds them of what they don’t have.

Finally,Cabezas contra el asfalto (Heads Against the Asphalt) is dark story about art. It opens with the shocking lines

Si golpeás much la cabeza de alguien contra al asfalto–aunque sea para hacerlo entrar en razón–, es probable que termines lastimándolo.

If you hit someone’s head a bunch of times against the asphalt–even though you are doing it for their own good–you’ll probably end up hurting it.

From there it follows a narrator who from time to time gets angry and beats people’s heads against the asphalt. As a child it gave him power because bullies would leave him alone. At other times it terrified people. However, he is able to channel the anger into painting. He becomes famous painting pictures of heads beat against the asphalt. His paintings sell for millions of dollars. All that matters is the frame of reference and beating someone’s head against the asphalt is perfectly acceptable. The narrator is completely detached from what is acceptable and it throws into relief which beatings are acceptable and which are not. The story ends with the ultimate taboo, but as far as the narrator is concerned it was just another beating. It didn’t matter who the person was, he just made him angry and he had to beat him. Unfortunately, for him reality is not self constructed.

Samanta Schweblin’s stories can be deceptively simple, but when she is at her best the stories open up new realities from ones that surround us every day. He ability to turn the language of child rearing into something dark, or reimagine a fairytale like the Little Mermaid as a series of indecisive acts, make one of the more interesting writers coming from Latin America.

Five New Argentine Novels (in English!) – Via Argentina Independent

The Argentina Independent has a list of five new Argentine novels that have come out in English recently. I have heard of two of the authors, Sergio Chejfec and César Aira and I am currently reading Andrés Neuman’s Viajero del siglo (Traveler of the Century). Hopefully, Ill finish it soon. It is enjoyable if a little long. A Full review will be forth coming. I trust the list will get peek your interests. (via)

Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli
For loyal readers of this series, Ángela Pradelli needs no introduction. An excerpt from her novel ‘Amigas Mías’, translated expertly by Andrea G. Labinger, helped us launch as our first installment a year ago. Now, after much anticipation, the full-length novel from which that excerpt was taken will be released in English from the Latin American Literary Review Press. Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. Re-read our interview with Pradelli for more context, or peruse the sample we published last year. Then head over to the LALRP website to buy a copy for all your friends — after all, that’s what the novel is about.

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
When we spoke to Carlos Gamerro last year, two of his acclaimed novels were in the process of being translated into English, both by his friend Ian Barnett (who also translated ‘The Peronist Princess’ by Marcelo Pitrola). Last year, the first of those books, ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press), was released to a critical consensus: The Economist — a publication not known for effluvient rhetoric — declared that Gamerro’s novel had “the makings of a classic,” and the Independent called it “haunting and disturbing.” This isn’t news to us; we’ve been enjoying Gamerro’s brand of darkly comic prose since we published his story ‘Bad Burgers’ in August. Now English-reading fans of his fiction will have another reason to cheer: this May, And Other Stories, a new British publishing concern, will release a translation of Gamerro’s first novel, ‘The Islands’. Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. Written with Gamerro’s trademark muscularity, we’re certain this new addition to the English-language cannon will only swell his growing fanbase. Head over to the And Other Stories site to pre-order a copy.

The Short Stories of Francisco Urondo Reviewed at El Pais

I’ve never heard of Francisco Urondo a Argentine writer and revolutionary who died at 46 in 1976. A collection of his short stories has just been published in Spain and El Pais has a good review of them. While he was a committed leftist revolutionary, something that should lend itself to didactic literature, according to the review he manages to overcome. Instead, he creates a picture of a writer who was able to show the truth of the revolutionaries: the infighting, the sometimes pointlessness of their goals. And at this late distance, as the reviewer notes, those features lend not romanticism, but melancholy to the stories.

[…] Urondo podrá caer, con irritante frecuencia, en la retórica circular propia de la guerra fría (“la única manera en que se podía realmente aportar al proceso revolucionario era haciendo la revolución”); podrá intentar establecer analogías bastante explícitas entre la buena nueva evangélica y la buena nueva revolucionaria a través de cuatro personajes, dos de los cuales desempeñan papeles protagónicos, que se llaman Mateo, Marcos, Lucas y Juan (además, tienen un cercano amigo que se llama Pablo); podrá derrochar ingenuidad, idealismo, voluntarismo; pero en su novela late con fuerza impresionante el espíritu de una época contradictoria y convulsionada, con una fe ciega en ideologías abarcadoras y esa sensación incomparable de estar contribuyendo a escribir la historia. Pero el tono es, finalmente, desesperanzado. Hay una tristeza y una sensación de impotencia que se cuelan por detrás de las ínfulas guerrilleras y las perspectivas totalizadoras. Quizá el poeta que hay en Urondo le daba una cierta visión del futuro que no logró hacer explícita sino, precisamente, en el tono, en la vibración de la melancolía que traspasa las páginas de Los pasos previos.

Tiene razón Rama cuando afirma que, desde la perspectiva de la derrota, esta novela puede leerse “como el diagrama de una gran equivocación, como el pecado hijo del irrealismo cuando no del idealismo”; pero como él mismo indica, esa lectura está implícita en la novela, aunque menos en las discusiones ideológicas, como sostiene, y más en su melancolía, en su intuición de la muerte, en la angustia de los desencuentros y las despedidas prematuras. Pero, para citar de nuevo a Rama, era una batalla, no la guerra.

Ernesto Sabato – RIP

Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato has died. He is probably best known for the Tunnel which was written in 1948 and is available in English. You can read a couple brief obit at the BBC and something via the Canadian Press.

Sabato was a widely admired 73-year-old intellectual, author of works such as “On Heroes and Tombs,” when President Raul Alfonsin asked him to lead an investigation into crimes committed under the soldiers who led Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

He called his work of helping to document the murders, tortures and illegal arrests committed by a regime he had initially supported a “descent into hell.” The commission’s report, “Never Again,” served as the basis for prosecuting key figures in the dictatorship after the return to civilian rule.

Official and independent agencies estimate that 12,000 to 30,000 were killed by government forces seeking to wipe out leftists.

Like many Argentines, Sabato initially welcomed the coup that overthrew President Isabel Peron following mounting economic problems, social turmoil and clashes with leftist guerrillas who carried out kidnappings and killings.

He joined other writers in a meeting with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla shortly after the takeover and described him as “a cultured man, modest and intelligent.”

Even as government repression reached its height in 1978, Sabato said in an interview that “many things have improved: the armed terrorist bands have been put, in large part, under control.” He grew critical by 1979, denouncing censorship.

The Diaries of Ricardo Piglia at El Pais

El Pais has an excerpt of the diaries of the Ricardo Piglia. This is the first time they have been published, although reading through them I’m not sure if I’m going to want to read more. You can also read about the origins of the diaries here.

Paso la noche internado en el Hospital de Princeton. Mientras espero el diagnóstico, sentado en la sala de guardia, veo entrar a un hombre que apenas puede moverse. Alto, ojos claros, saco negro de corderoy, camisa blanca, corbata pajarita. Le piden los datos pero él vacila, está muy desorientado, dice que no puede firmar. Es un ex alcohólico que ha tenido una recaída; pasó dos días deambulando por los bares de Trenton. Antes de derivarlo a la clínica de rehabilitación tienen que desintoxicarlo. Al rato llega su hijo, va al mostrador, completa unos formularios. El hombre al principio no lo reconoce pero por fin se levanta, le apoya a su hijo la mano en el hombro y le habla en voz baja desde muy cerca. El muchacho lo escucha como si estuviera ofendido. En la dispersión de los lenguajes típico de estos lugares, un enfermero puertorriqueño le explica a un camillero negro que el hombre ha perdido sus anteojos y no puede ver. “The old man has lost his espejuelos”, dice “and he can’t see anything”. La extraviada palabra española brilla como una luz en la noche.


Me dijo que había estado preso por estafa y me contó que su padre era vareador en el Hipódromo y que había tenido mala suerte en las carreras. A los dos días apareció de nuevo y volvió a presentarse como si nunca me hubiera visto. Sufre una imperfección indefinida que le afecta el sentido de realidad. Está perdido en un movimiento continuo que lo obliga a pensar para detener la confusión. Pensar no es recordar, se puede pensar aunque se haya perdido la memoria. (Lo vengo sabiendo por mí desde hace años: sólo recuerdo lo que está escrito en el Diario). Sin embargo, no olvida el lenguaje. Lo que necesita saber lo encuentra en la web. El conocimiento ya no pertenece a su vida. Un nuevo tipo de novela sería entonces posible, “Necesitamos un lenguaje para nuestra ignorancia”, decía Gombrowicz. Ese podría ser el epígrafe.

The Short Stories of Samanta Schweblin – Some Thoughts

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine author, one of Granta’s young Spanish language novelists. Little of her work is available in English except for the Granta piece and a story at Words Without Borders. I’ve had the chance to read the story at Words Without Borders and the four stories that are available in Spanish on her website and I have found them inventive and true to her goal, stories that border on the fantastic but could also be real (she explains this in her interview at Canal-l). Interestingly, I think the story at Words Without Borders is my favorite so if you are interested in reading her work you have the perfect opportunity. The story, Preserves, is about what might be called a reverse pregnancy. The character wants to delay her pregnancy and comes up with a unique method of doing it, only to find perhaps it wasn’t what she wanted. The story is obviously fantastic, but it shows her interest in using one element of the unexplainable and letting it reshape what might be an otherwise common story. Even in doing that, though, the story is actually mostly realistic in style. She’s not give to rhetorical flourishes and lets the element of the fantastic be the flourish. The work in Spanish I liked the most was Perdiendo Velocidad (Loosing Velocity). It is a micro story of no more than 1000 words about a a human canon ball who is loosing velocity. Really, he is loosing his desire to live, but it is as if to be a cannon ball is the only thing he can be. It shows a good ability to grasp just the essential details. I almost debated buying the book last summer, but I decided I have enough Spanish language short story collections that are unread to keep me busy for a while. However, I think I will try to check it out when the pile shrinks again. I’m finding these semi fantastic stories are a nice change from the well written stories about suburban decay.

The Best Books from Argentina for 2010

So it is best of time and Moleskine Literario points to the best Argentine books for 2010. It is as fitting a list as any. I only know Ricardo Piglia and Cesar Aria and look forward to looking into some of these authors.

La Revista Ñ del diario Clarín ha elegido los autores argentinos más destacados del 2010. Desde autores consagrados, como César Aira y Alan Pauls, hasta autores que no suenan mucho en América Latina como María Martoccio o Federico Falco, tenemos acá una lista de imprescindibles de la siempre activa literatura argentina. Les dejo la lista y los enlaces:

La historia del pelo de Alan Pauls

Más liviano que el aire de Federico Jeanmarie

Blanco nocturno de Ricardo Piglia

Desalmadas de María Martoccio

Lisboa. Un melodrama de Leopoldo Brizuela

La hora de los monos de Federico Falco

En cinco minutos, levántate María de Pablo Ramos

Yo era una mujer casada de César Aira


Understanding Argentina Through Its Literature – A List from Papeles Perdidos

On the occasion of the death of Nestor Kirtchner Papeles Perdidos has put together a list of books that describe Argentina. It is a mix of history and literature and I’m not sure what is available in English, but it peaked my interest in more than a few titles.

Radiografía de la pampa de Ezequiel Martinez Estrada. Horrible título (qué libro resiste en su portada la palabra “radiografía”) para un libro asombroso. Capítulos breves, contundentes, líricos, para la obra central de un pensador que todo lo exageraba y cuya verdadera obsesión es la soledad a la que nos condenan nuestras grandes llanuras. Martinez Estrada llevó el ensayo a una forma límite de originalidad, como hicieron en la literatura europea Gottfried Benn y Elias Canetti”.

Por su parte, Andrés Neuman se queda con dos obras contemporáneas que condensan origen y presente: Boquitas pintadas, de Manuel Puig. Sin narrar acontecimientos históricos, esta extraordinaria novela resume con bastante precisión la bipolaridad de la cultura argentina: por un lado, la tendencia al melodrama, al mito popular, a la sentimentalidad arrabalera; por otro lado, la tentación vanguardista, la influencia foránea, la experimentación esnob o genial o las dos cosas. Dicho de otra manera, su costado peronista y su costado francés. Ambos polos, siempre en tensión, explican a Manuel Puig y también a su país natal, que no siempre lo quiso tanto como él se merecía.

Los pichiciegos, de Fogwill. Después de esta novela (y de Las islas, de Carlos Gamerro), será difícil que otro libro metaforice mejor el cruento absurdo de la guerra de las Malvinas. Cuando al fin la leí, me sorprendió encontrarme con una magistral novela realista, cercana a todo eso contra lo que, más tarde, su autor se declararía. Los diálogos suenan fidelísimos, un poco vargallosianos. La narración es de un costumbrismo oscuro y sólo ocasionalmente alucinado, como en la impresionante escena donde los pichis (jóvenes desertores del ejército argentino, que tratan de salvar la vida que su patria les exigió regalar) celebran los bombardeos ingleses como una atracción de circo. Lo demás, como las descripciones del frío, el dolor o el miedo, es de una compasión y una sobriedad apabullantes. Los pichiciegos es acaso la mejor novela de guerra (o en guerra) escrita en español. Como leemos al final de la primera parte, «esas cosas, de la cabeza, en una vida, no se borran así nomás». Un escritor así, tampoco.

Without Borders Featuring Argentina and Granta Youngsters, Andres Nueman and Samanta Schweblin

I’m looking forward to Words Without Borders issue on Argentinian literature. There look to be some interesting items and if you are one of those following the Granta en español best young writers you can put you can give a read to Andres Neuman and Samanta Schweblin. IF you are looking for a fresher take on Latin American literature this would be a good place to start.

This month we join the publishing world in celebrating Argentina, guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a pulse point of the vibrant Latin American literary scene. As might be expected of the heirs of Borges and Cortázar, the writers featured here both reflect and extend the masters’ work, combining a touch of the fantastic with surprising turns of both plot and phrase. The prolific Ana María Shua sends an alien invader in a clever disguise.  Guillermo Martínez watches a couple struggle with chance and unimaginable loss.  Sergio Bizzio’s teens pull a disappearing act. Irish-Argentine Juan José Delaney considers mortality, while young star Samanta Schweblin practices unorthodox family planning. In two tales of the Dirty War, writer and journalist Mempo Giardinelli metes out a karmic revenge, and Edgar Brau finds the key to a prison break. Poet Maria Negroni stands at the mouth of hell. National Critics Prize-winner Andrés Neuman’s quarreling couple literally draws a line in the sand. The great Silvina Ocampo pens a gentle fable. And in contributions from other languages, Witold Gombrowicz’s widow collects tales of his time in Argentina, and Lúcia Bettencourt reveals the secrets of Borges’s muse.

Independent Books In Argentina at Literary Saloon

The Literary Saloon links to a couple of articles about independent publishing in Argentina. You are unlikely to find any of these authors in your typical Latin American collection.Worth a look if our are interested in other Latin American authors.

From the literary Saloon:

Argentinian indie ‘Hot 20’

In the Buenos Aires Herald Ana Laura Caruso writes that ‘Independent publishers showcase their best books in select bookstores this week’ in Hot 20, as:

In Buenos Aires, until next Sunday, indie publisher association Alianza de Editores Independientes de la Argentina (EDINAR) presents a Hot List with what’s hot in the indie literature world. EDINAR, which comprises 30 publishing houses, was created in 2005 in order to defend diversity in the publishing environment. This time, 20 publishers chose one book each from their catalogues to be part of a Hot List, available and prominently displayed at different bookstores – these are not their best sellers, but the books that they feel deserve more of the spotlight than they’re currently getting. The Hot List comprises a great variety of genres such as novels, short stories books, poetry, and essays.

Caruso runs down all twenty titles in English, but see also the EDINAR hotLIST page; authors include Macedonio Fernández, Ricardo Piglia, and … Gary Snyder
And Caruso notes:

Perhaps the best writing of today is being published through small presses, who are keeping the independent spirit of literature alive. New small publishing houses are born every month but they can die out easily due to financial problems. There’s a lot of new things shimmering right now, so let that best-seller book drop off your hand and get to know what’s hot today in Argentine literature.

Sounds good — and, with Argentina the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this fall — see my recent mention — I hope they’ll be well-represented. 

The Millions on César Aira

The Millions has a good over view of the work of Argentine author César Aira. While he is not necessarily new to English, he is lesser known and the article reviews each of his four books. I’m not sure which one intrigues me most, perhaps Ghosts. Which ever one I choose they all sound interesting.

Ghosts shares Episode’s preoccupation with the visible world, if in a less frenzied key.  The entire action takes place over the course of a single day, New Year’s Eve, in and around a Buenos Aires construction site.  The night watchman, a Chilean immigrant, and his family live in the unfinished building as squatters.  The father, Raúl, is a good worker, but a bit of a drunkard.  His wife, Elisa, is a levelheaded housewife, “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.”  Their daughter, Patri, quiet but philosophically “frivolous,” spends the day wandering through the empty structure.  All of them see the ghosts which haunt it: portly naked men covered in fine cement dust whose members stretch like accordions.  The ghosts float between floors and sit on the satellite dishes “on which no bird would have dared to perch.”  Raúl uses them to refrigerate his wine; inserting a bottle into the ghosts’ thorax not only cools the wine, but also transmutes it into an “exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon.”  Elisa does her best to ignore them.  But Patri is drawn to them by a strange attraction, and they to her, swarming around her head in a “luminous helix.”  Toward evening, they invite her to their midnight feast, though without mentioning the price of admission.

Between hauntings, Ghosts is filled with Aira’s beautifully precise observation of the texture of everyday life.  Most of the novel is occupied with the description of a workday, the preparations for a lunch, the problem of getting change in a grocery store, the difference between Chilean and Argentinean hair styles, laundry.  Elisa uses an inordinate amount of bleach in her washing, with the result that her family’s clothes “were so faded and had that threadbare look, humble and worn, yet beautifully so.  Even if an article of clothing was new, or brightly colored when she bought it, for the very first wash (a night-long soak in bleach) it took on the whitish, delicate and somehow aristocratic appearance that distinguished the clothes of the Viñas family.”  Viewed from this close, ordinary existence opens out to other dimensions.  Aira is a master at pivoting between the mundane and metaphysical.  In the middle of Ghosts, Patri takes a nap during the siesta and dreams of her unfinished building.  Her dream turns into a disquisition on the problem of the unbuilt in the arts, on the philosophical underpinnings of architecture in different cultures, and finally, a blueprint for Aira’s brand of literature, “an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts.”

Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Peron Books Reviewed at Book Slut

Jesse Tangen-Mills has a review of three of  Tomás Eloy Martínez’s books, Saint Evita, The Novel of Peron, and the Tango Singer at Book Slut. He gives a good overview of the books, ones I should have read some time ago, especially since I own a copy of the Novel of Peron in Spanish. Both of the Peron novels are intriguing approaches to story telling. He gave an interesting interview here where he discussed some of what he wanted to do with the books.

His first attempt, The Perón Novel, took him thirty years to complete, and took me nearly six months to find. Big Spanish-language publishing houses have bases in more than one country, certainly in the biggies like Mexico and Argentina. The really big publishing houses have a base in every country in South America, and publish roughly a dozen autóctonos novels in each country, that will only be sold within that nation. The Argentine novelist, and contemporary of Martínez, Ricardo Piglia recently described it as “the Balkanization of literature in Spanish.” A less brilliant mind might just say it sucks. Every bookseller I spoke to in Colombia had read the novel, but didn’t have it. The translation was much easier to get used. In the end, I decided to read a bootleg version first (bootleg PDFs abound in Spanish) on my grime-covered laptop, before turning to the translation.

I didn’t mind starting The Perón Novel on a laptop because it was as good as I had expected, although I should warn the the reader that despite the straightforward prose with which the novel is written, without a good foundation in Argentine history, the book’s plot — and its many unbelievable characters — will be confusing. So before I get into the novel, I need to provide some background. Perón was what no American president has ever been, but always promises to be: bipartisan. He’s a Fascist-socialist-dictator-populist. And depending on who you ask, he is all or none of those labels. He’s Mussolini, an orator he greatly admired; he’s Lenin. His second wife was Evita, Miss “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” until her death in 1952 (Martínez devotes another novel, Santa Evita, to her). Then in 1955, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu led a coup, and Perón was forced into exile for nearly twenty years. And then one day he came back. That’s where this novel begins.

It should be said that Martínez never intended these books to be nonfiction. He was adamant about that. He said it was fiction correcting the so-called “truth.” The entire book, in fact, reconstructs the arrival of Perón to Argentina and the mayhem that followed. The whole historical cast is here: José López Rega, astrologist, maniac, the Iago to Perón’s Othello; Isabel Martínez de Perón, who is also a star-reader; the dictator Aramburu’s guerrilla assassins for whom Perón is like Trotsky; the counter-insurgent Archangel, a poor boy trained in the art of taking abuse. I’m not sure if that last one is real, and all of them appear to be fictional. Astrology? Really? Yes? It’s all quite unbelievable.