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”.