Dead Stars by Álvaro Bisama – A Review

Dead Stars
Álvaro Bisama
Megan McDowell, trans

Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars is a fascinating take on a troubled woman’s failing attempt to survive political violence in Chile. The novel follows Javiera a woman who was beaten and raped by the Chilean secret police during the Pinochet era. She was a committed communist and lost everything, almost dying at the hands of the police as many of her contemporaries did. She is a troubled woman who returns to college, engaging in political activities and taking up with a student years younger than her. It is a rocky relationship and the fights and arguments are legendary among their friends. As the novel progresses it is a relationship that can never turn out well. Why she continues with her brutish lover is hard to understand but she gives up everything for him, even her relationship with the party, sliding farther and farther into obscurity until she only resurfaces in the newspaper with the police.

This is where the narration actually starts. A couple whose tension bubbles throughout the narration as yet another disappointed backdrop, is sitting in a restaurant and stumble on the article in the paper. The article not only shows a tension between the couple, but starts a narrative that is elusive, confrontational, and creates a dialog between what is remember able and what the narrators want to remember.

She said: You’re going to have to listen to me, you owe it to me; we’re going to spend the whole morning on this shit.

It starts just like that: with an image. The two of them sitting together. In the first row. By chance. I stayed in the back. It was the first day of classes. I didn’t talk to anyone. They talked to each other. Maybe that’s what defined everything. The first minute of the years to come, the laws o attraction that would embrace them, the solitude of the rooms they would inhabit and the desert they would flee to, the volume of gray sea’s murmur, like a dream of silence.

Already, Bisama starts to construct the narrative in a series of confrontations and memories. The two narrators are already negotiating what they are willing to construct as they listen to each other and remember what they can.

Their relationship to Javiera is one not one only of friendship, but of animus. She is the older survivor of the dictatorship and the female narrator felt smaller for it: “The past was a liturgy that excluded us from its miracle […] Because we had no share in the tragedy, and we had no right to ask for anything.” The statement puts a line between the veterans of the repression and those too young and now have different expectations, and throughout the novel one has the impression that a form of survivor guilt is at work in Javiera. The narrator doesn’t understand it in those terms but she does understand that the children of the 80’s are not the same politically engaged revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s.

Memory and the reason when remember keeps returning as a theme as the story evolves and the narrator’s try to make sense of what they are saying and why. The female narrator notes

But that’s how I feel now. Poisoned by other people’s stories, by other people’s lives. When I think about those two, that’s how I feel: I feel like the witness to something that no one cares about. That’s why I haven’t stopped talking, that’s why I’m not going to stop talking, she said.

Then the primary narrator chimes in

I didn’t tell her that I did know parts of that story, I didn’t tell her I’d seen Javiera and Donoso in some photos when I went through her old albums trying to get a look at her face back before we’d bet. It was another life. I wasn’t there. But I couldn’t tell her anything, ask her anything. It wasn’t my place.

Each narrator attempts to construct something. She who knew Javiera does it because she has no choice, as if she is obligated. Yet it is an obligation stemming not a deep bond something akin to guilt. And if one is poisoned by another’s stories why repeat them? Why not forget them? He for his part has attempted to construct something that is unconstructable: a image of Javiera that is his and is accurate. He knows it is hers to do.

As the story continues Bisama keeps returning to the question of why the story has to be told, if these two are really not that interesting. Can anything come from this act? It certainly will not bring the two narrators closer. And she only grows more doubtful as time goes on:

Her: Aside from many other things, the past is that: a photo taken in a hotel we wish was our home–false photographs, proof of the life we never had.

Later she rephrases it:

The past is always a newspaper page left behind on the ground, she said.

In each case there little to be gained from remembering the past. These kind of sentiments reflect something generational in the narrators. An escape perhaps from activist era of Javiera and the disillusionment with her behavior. The narrator during college retreats into punk, into rebellion that is not as political and what there is to remember just doesn’t mater.

Bisam’s continual reworking of the narrative purpose makes Dead Stars more than its basic plot suggests. It creates a narrative the questions if it she be told, and yet when read says, yes, it should. Javiera’s life is tragic, all the more so because no one knows what to do with it. She survived the police, but did not become a hero for it and lost herself and her history in the process.


Sergio Álvarez: Magical Realism has become an excuse for atrocities

I’m not particularly familiar with Sergio Álvarez but any kind of strong statement like this always catches my interest. Essentially, he is saying that magical realism can lull one into thinking that violence is the natural state of these exotic people.

Pregunta. ¿Este libro tiene algo de manifiesto?

Respuesta. Un poco. Me interesa mucho recuperar el placer de narrar por sí mismo, rescatar historias de personajes sencillos y salir de ese yo permanente, esa introspección permanente, característica de la literatura de hoy.

P. Entiendo, pero yo me refería a ruptura con la tradición del realismo mágico.

R. Es que ese movimiento literario, que fue magnífico, se ha convertido en una excusa para la atrocidad. Tanto en La lectora como aquí, lo que yo más quiero es señalar que en Colombia pasan cosas horribles y no falta quien diga “ah, claro, pero es que ése es el país del realismo mágico”. Mis libros apuntan a lo contrario: ponen las cosas crudas sobre la mesa para que se vea que estas cosas terribles no se pueden justificar.

P. O sea que usted saluda al realismo mágico pero propone pasar página.

R. García Márquez marca una época, pero hay que seguir adelante con la realidad que tenemos y no con la que quisiéramos tener o la que nos inventamos.

Short Story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo Available at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario has published an English translation of the short story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo at Contemporary Argentine Writers. It is a interesting story and has some nice touches, especially the way the he plays with how narrators describe things.

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s truly what she was like. I’m not sure if I’m really describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

Roberto Bolaño Short Stories Overview at the Guardian UK

The Guardian UK has a good overview of some of Roberto Bolaño’s short stories. (Tip: make sure you read through the comments. There is further suggestions of what to read from the author, Chris Power)

It is impossible to write about any one strand of Bolaño’s work in isolation, because nearly all of it inhabits one sprawling intertextual territory. Speaking in 1998 he said, “I consider, in a very humble way, all my prose, and even some of my poetry, to be a whole. Not only stylistically, but also as a narrative.” Enjoying contrariness, Bolaño rowed back from this statement elsewhere, but the recurrence of characters, themes and incidents in his work is undeniable. His alter ego Arturo Belano, for example, features in or narrates many of the short stories, as well as being a lead character in the novel The Savage Detectives, and the narrator of the novels Distant Star and – according to a note in Bolaño’s papers – 2666.

Bolaño’s stories take the form of fragments of memoir (“Sensini”, “The Grub”), unsolvable detective stories (“Phone Calls”), or anxious transmissions from a region between dream and reality (“The Dentist”). Sometimes, as in “Gómez Palacio”, they feel like all three at once. An account of a writer going to a remote town in northern Mexico to interview for a teaching post, the story establishes its strange air of lassitude and dread at once: “I went to Gómez Palacio during one of the worst periods of my life. I was twenty-three years old and I knew that my days in Mexico were numbered.” The narrator discusses poetry with the director of the art school, has bad dreams (Bolaño’s work is clotted with dreams), and stands in the room of his isolated motel “looking at the desert stretching off into the dark”. Parked at dusk in the desert in the director’s car, a situation with a vague sexual potential that perhaps neither party wants to realise, a man pulls in a few metres ahead of them. “It’s my husband, the director said with her eyes fixed on the stationary car, as if she were talking to herself.” The cars sit in silence. When the writer drives away the man in the other car “turned his back to us and I couldn’t see his face.” The director then tells the writer she was joking, that it wasn’t her husband after all.

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo – A Review

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories
Santiago Roncagliolo
Edith Grossman, translator
Two Lines Press, 2012, pg 176
(Publication Date: April 9, 2013)

Santiago Roncagliolo’s Hi, This is Conchita is a series of phone calls stripped of all narrative clutter. They exist just as voices as if one were listening to a wire tap, or as fits Conchita, voyeurs . It is a structure that served another Latin American writer, Mario Benedetti, well, and in the hands of Roncagliolo it makes for some humorous writing. It also shows Roncagliolo’s talent for comedy, which has not been as apparent in his works translated into English so far.

Composed of alternating phone calls, Conchita follows four characters in an unnamed city. Conchita is a phone sex worker and her first call opens the book with straight up porn. Within a couple lines she is already talking about how hot she is. Every imaginable cliché follows from there. Roncagliolo adds even more humor as Conchita’s clients break in mid fantasy to correct her descriptions of the act. For example, in the first call she says she is on his office desk and leaning on the coffee machine, and the caller corrects her and says the machine is across the room. From there they go back and forth negotiating what she really would be leaning on, before she returns to the act. The humor intensifies with each call because they all start the same way and have the same non sequiturs into details of the room, or what the caller looks like. For the callers, though, the illusion never fails and one caller continues to call back, falling in love with Conchita. It is a voice of loneliness that inhabits all to frequently the men who engage with phone sex. Roncagliolo does not make fun of the caller, but the situation and in the end he gives a power to change events that he does not know he has and may never realize.

Following on the humor of Conchita are the conversations of a hit man and his client. The hit man is a professional but he is also clumsy and has a philosophical outlook that leads him to question his client if he really wants to kill his lover. The client can’t stand the questions, but the hit man thinks affairs of the heart don’t need to be solved by killing. The conversations between the two are funny and create a dynamic between the passions of the client and the professionalism of the hit man that leave the reader with the impression that the hit man is of great skill. Yet when it comes to the actual hit the only thing professional about him is willingness to kill. And from that a series of humorous events ensue that tie the book together.

Two other callers are a self obsessed ex boy friend who leaves long and rambling messages on his ex’s answering machine. After the first call it seems obvious why she left him. However, Roncagliolo is playing with the reader here, because all one knows is his voice. She never speaks. All that is known is that they had something for sometime and like the Conchita’s callers he is lonely and pitiful. He’ as pitiful as the man who keeps calling the customer service agent and never gets help with what he needs. While the ex boyfriend is occasionally heavy handed, the customer service vignettes with their bureaucratic logic and employees who make one feel as if you are wasting their time, are the most common stereotype throughout the book. If it did not link in with the other stories as the book concludes it would have dragged the book down.

At first the calls are separate, unconnected, then as the story grows the characters begin to intersect. The calls between a man and his lover intersect between the hit man and his client, changing what had been the comedic episodes of two men, intrudes its true horror on the voice of a desperate woman who demands her lover respect her. Roncagliolo doesn’t tie all the stories neatly together, but they do all interrelate, if even lightly. The interrelations, though, expand the characters and adding a level of complexity to them that has not existed until then. Even the otherwise week customer service calls are reframed by the new relationships. It is this ability to shift how one looks at the stories and turns the humor from bright to dark that makes Hi, This is Conchita interesting.

Three stories are also included in the collection. While their is nothing particularly wrong with them, they are not really that noteworthy. For someone looking for a good short story, one should see the story included in The Future Is Not Ours. The stories are typical written in the realistic tradition, ones that populate so many collections of short stories that while well written, don’t really add anything new. However, if one has not read many short stories from younger Latin American writers, they will give an insight into how younger writers are looking at more international models and as such the stories can seem similar.

Hi, This is Conchita and other stories is a funny book from an up and coming star of Latin American fiction. A reader would do well to spend a little time with this short volume of freely rendered conversations.

FTC Notice: The publisher of the book provided me a copy of the book. For that I thank them.

The New Bolivian Literature

Moleskin Literario did a post a week or so ago about some new Bolivian literature called La literature boliviana vale la pena (Bolivian Literature is Worthwhile). In it he lists a couple of reviews of some interesting new books. If you are interested in some new writing, it is worth a look.

Hace unos meses hice un post sobre el probable boom de la narrativa venezolana. Ahora toca preguntarse si existe un boom de la narrativa boliviana. Al parecer, como nunca antes la literatura boliviana tiene autores que empiezan a llamar la atención fuera de sus países como Liliana Colanzi, Rodrigo Hasbún o Giovanna Rivero (sin contar al viejo conocido de Edmundo Paz Soldán, quien en su literatura ha ido pasando todas las etapas de boom, el boom junior, el postboom y el ciberboom, es decir desde la novela comprometida hasta la ciencia ficción, que al parecer lo ocupa ahora). En concreto, Giovanna Rivero llama mucho la atención. Un texto estupendo de la chilena Andrea Jeftanovic (“La vera Giovanna”) comenta su éxito en la feria del libro de La Paz. Y ahora una reseña de Sebastián Antezana a Niñas y detectives la deja muy bien. Y termina con un entusiasmado grito de apoyo a la literatura boliviana: “La literatura boliviana vale la pena”.

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.