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.

Excerpt of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira at Bomb

This came out a little while, but I can’t let it go by unnoticed. Bomb has an the first chapter of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

One day at dawn, Dr. Aira found himself walking down a treelined street in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. He suffered from a type of somnambulism, and it wasn’t all that unusual for him to wake up on unknown streets, which he actually knew quite well because all of them were the same. His life was that of a half-distracted, half-attentive walker (half absent, half present) who by means of such alternations created his own continuity, that is to say, his style, or in other words and to close the circle, his life; and so it would be until his life reached its end—when he died. As he was approaching fifty, that endpoint, coming sooner or later, could occur at any moment.

(via  Scott)

Milestones of Latin american Literature Before the Boom

El Pais has an interesting list of the important works of the 20th century from Latin America, before the boom. Like any list it is flawed but is an interesting starting point and a nice way to see that there was literature before the Boom.

1918 Los heraldos negros. César Vallejo

Cuentos de la selva. Horacio Quiroga

1920 El hombre muerto. Horacio Quiroga

1922. Trilce. César Vallejo

1924. La vorágine. José Eustasio Rivera

Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. Pablo Neruda

1926. Don Segundo sombra. Ricardo Güiraldes

El juguete rabioso. Roberto Arlt

Cuentos para una inglesa desesperada. Eduardo Mallea

New Book of Interviews with Boom Authors to be Published in Spanish

El Pais has an interview with Robert Saladrigas who has published a book (Voces del boom) of interviews with authors of the Boom. It is a collection of previously published essays. I’d be curious to see what the interviews are like. Saladrigas has some interesting things to say about the authors in the interview. Rulfo sounds a little unhinged at times, including politically. I wish there was a sample chapter so I could say whether the book is any good.

P. El propio Rulfo decía que aquello no iba a terminar como había empezado. “La Revolución cubana no es ya lo que fue ni lo que prometió ser. En cambio [decía, refiriéndose a la época de Allende, era 1971], Chile está viviendo ahora la experiencia más bonita de Latinoamérica”.

R. Exacto, y hablaba desde México, estaba muy cerca de nosotros… Pero gente como Vargas Llosa, por ejemplo, no decían eso mismo en voz alta. Lo hacía gente como Rulfo, un hombre ya muy mayor que lo veía desde otra perspectiva. Y lo que dice de Chile hay que verlo desde la perspectiva de entonces; desde ahora, claro, se entendería peor.

P. En su libro aparecen ya los rasgos dramáticos de Donoso, Sarduy y Puig, seres que reflejaban una angustia que no se compadecía con su espectáculo exterior.

R. Muy cierto. Fíjate que, además, en el caso de Donoso hoy es casi inconcebible el éxito de un libro como El obsceno pájaro de la noche. No lo leería nadie. Y en aquel momento nos fascinaba. Pero visto en perspectiva, en efecto, el aspecto de algunos de los que has mencionado resultaba patético, alegres y tan tristes.

Sergio Chejfec’s Translator, Heather Cleary, on Chejfec’s Approach to Writing

Heather Cleary, Sergio Chejfec’s translator, has a fascinating take on his approach to language. She notes that he has a way of distancing the reader at the same time he brings the reader in.

Reading Sergio Chejfec, I’m always struck by the way his prose both deflects and draws the reader in, never allowing complete immersion in the narrative: whether explicitly or implicitly, the medium in which the story is told is under constant scrutiny. In other words, I’m struck by the way Chejfec’s language is never “natural.” He discusses this aspect of his work in a beautiful essay titled “Simple Language, Name,” which hinges on the capaciousness of the word “nombre” (both “name” and, grammatically, “noun”). The piece begins with a reflection on the necessary illusion of linguistic transparency, and then delves into the particular kind of access to personal histories and collective traditions that surnames allow.

The full article is worth reading for this Argentine author. (via)

Guardian Podcast: Latin American novels and poetry

The Guardian has a great podcast this week on Latin American novels and poetry. Mostly the podcast is concerned with describing Latin American writers since the boom (partly prompted by the passing of Carlos Fuentes). They make the case, one that is relatively true, that Latin American writers are not interested in trying to describe their countries or define what it is to be Latin American, as was common in the Boom. They have different interests, often times more literary or experimental. Also included at the link is a list of suggested reading. Definitely, worth checking out.

The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction – A Brief Review

The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
Diego Trelles Paz, ed
Open Letter, 2012, 254 pg

I won’t say too much about the book since I will be reviewing it for the Quarterly Conversation. It was a good book. As with any collection of short stories there were a few stories that didn’t interest me much, but the over all quality was good. Reading stories that come from outside the American tradition is always nice because I don’t have to be bothered with the craft of the story, since the authors tend to have different interests in writing. I did find the introduction slightly annoying, mostly because it promised something that the stories did not deliver: reactions to the recent past. The editor notes how important that the connections to the history of dictatorships, etc is in their work, but that is rarely mentioned in the stories. It is the fault of the introduction not the writers, for advancing that idea. Also his effort to locate the book  in the context of a new Latin American writing that has gone past the Boom and the McOndo of Alberto Fuguet, doesn’t quite work. Many of these stories have a Fuguet quality and don’t seem so distant from the his McOndo style.

All of these are quibbles, since the stories, on the whole, are good. I will leave it at that until the review comes out.

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.

My Appreciation of Mexican Author Carlos Fuentes, RIP

Carlos Fuentes was one of the first writers who I can really remember inspiring my interest in writing. I was not a reader of literature before I got to college. I read history, but fiction wasn’t something I thought much about. It took sometime for literature to interest me. The first author I can remember was James Baldwin, but after I ran across Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes I saw the real possibilities of great writing. I had been taking one of those classes that only The Evergreen State College could create: one whole quarter (16 credits) dedicated to Mexican literature, history, and culture. It was a truly immersive experience and we read two works of Fuentes: The Death of Artemo Cruz and The Old Gringo. One was a masterpiece and the other one of his many less than stellar efforts. We all knew The Old Gringo was week, but when you have an Artemo Cruz it doesn’t really matter. It was Fuentes at his best: expansive, using history as his tablet, and letting his structural inventions wow young writers to be. After going over his works in class and out, I had to find other books, reading Where the Air is Clear, Aura, Burnt Water, and the Good Conscience shortly after. I particularly identified with the Good Conscience, a coming of age story that was set in Guanajuato, a city I had visited once. Thinking about it now it’s funny that I would find the book so compelling, but he was able to capture something. Later, when I finally made it to Mexico city several I spent a day or two with my head raised, looking for the mansard roofs he had mentioned over and over in Where the Air is Clear, as if finding a sloping roof would explain something about Mexico. It was unnecessary; Fuentes had already constructed a Mexico for me, one that I described in my piece, Just a Handshake is Enough.

A few years later I lost some of my fascination with his fiction. Perhaps it was the unevenness of his later works. They never seemed to have the exciting sense of a man forging a vision of a country. Instead they showed a man whose fiction seemed to be self absorbed. Even then, however, his literary criticism, his ability to talk about writing and writers was always interesting. His book La geografía de la novela was the first book I ever read in Spanish and was an exciting not because it delved into theory, but because he could make writing and the whole process of literature sound important and vital. For Fuentes, literature was more than games for grad students and that sense of passion you read in any article or heard in any interview was kept him interesting even after his later fiction lost some of its weight. Hearing of his passing was a shocker because just the other day I was reading an article in El Pais about his adventures in Buenos Aires for the book fair. He always seemed to be connected to the literary world and could talk about the newer generations and the same time as Cervantes, and, again, it made reading and writing exciting. In an age of e-books, hand wringing about the future of books, and enfeebled academia, despite Fuente’s flaws he made writing and love of literature seem one of the most important endeavors one could undertake.


There are plenty of articles and tributes in Spanish that you might want to read.

From La Jornada

Muere el novelista Carlos Fuentes

Travesías de un narrador

La literatura, faro en un país desviado

From El País

Adiós a uno de los pilares del ‘boom’ latinoamericano

Muere el escritor Carlos Fuentes

  • El novelista ha fallecido hoy a los 83 años en México, donde se encontraba hospitalizado
  • La obra y el rigor político del escritor definieron medio siglo de historia de las letras latinoamericanas
Carlos Fuentes, en 2009. / DANIEL MORDZINSKI
Juan Cruz Madrid 95

Era autor de más de 20 novelas y contaba con el Premio Cervantes (1987) y el Príncipe de Asturias (1994). Escribió obras como ‘La región más transparente’ o ‘La muerte de Artemio Cruz’. El velatorio será privado en su casa. A las 13.00 (hora de México) sus restos llegarán al Palacio de Bellas Artes

Memoria y deseo

Se marcha uno de los grandes intelectuales latinoamericanos. Ningún otro combina así creación literaria y reflexión política

Tiempos de Fuentes

Hace poco le decía a Fuentes que la historia de América Latina no era el recuento de sus fracasos, sino el proyecto de futuro

Reacciones en el mundo de las letras

Escritores y artistas lamentan el fallecimiento del autor de una gran obra conocida como ‘La edad del tiempo’

Nuestro Virgilio

Conocí a Carlos Fuentes dos veces, y las dos cambió mi vida. La primera, en 1984, cuando yo tenía 16 años

‘Una curiosidad universal’

Con él desaparece un escritor cuya obra y cuya presencia han dejado una huella profunda

The Women of the Boom – Why Is It Only Men Are Mentioned

Ivan Thays has a recent article in El Pais about the forgotten writers of the Boom, especially the women. I have mentioned many times before in the pages of this blog about the seeming paucity of women in the best of lists and various literary pantheons that exist. Here Thays contemplates some reasons why the names of the Boom are all men, especially a certain four: Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Cortazar. As he mentions the times and the authors were at least somewhat sexist, but it was also the image of the male writer as self assure, committed and hegemonic writer that gave little room for women writers. While that image is probably true, recent lists by Spanish speaking critics have shown that there is still a long way to go before that phenomenon has abated. (for more see the Letras Libres failure).

Esta semana en el FB de Andrea Jeftanovic, estupenda escritora chilena, se discutió el tema. Ella, además del nombre de Clarice Lispector, soltó el de la mexicana Elena Garro como otra olvidada del Boom. Sostuvo además que “siempre hay redes de poder en la legitimación y visibilidad” cuando se elabora un canon. Y por supuesto, el Boom es un canon absolutamente masculino por más que sus autores (pienso en las colaboraciones de Julio Cortázar con Carol Dunlop o en la admiración que siente Vargas Llosa por Nélida Piñón, a quien le dedicó La guerra del fin del mundo) no desprecien necesariamente a las escritoras. Más que el machismo de los autores, la ausencia de mujeres en el Boom es producto de la ideología de esos años en los que la escritura femenina ocupaba en América Latina un lugar marginal y opacado por una imagen del escritor masculino, comprometido, seguro de sí mismo, hegemónico. Cuando veo la serie Mad Men identifico a Don Draper con la imagen del escritor latinoamericano del Boom, exitoso, convincente, trajeado y encorbatado, fumando o bebiendo whisky, hablando de negocios, de arte o de política, mientras a su alrededor orbitan mujeres vulnerables.

El Boom fue un fenómeno comercial y un hito histórico instalado en su tiempo. Pero ajeno a este, la literatura latinoamericana permanece en movimiento y en discusión constante. Una prueba innegable de ello es la importancia que ha adquirido un autor que logró ingresar al Boom, aunque nunca fue muy bien considerado por sus pares, como Manuel Puig, quien en las últimas décadas se ha convertido en el principal referente de la literatura latinoamericana. El brillo de algunos nombre y libros concretos del Boom, en cambio, ha ido desluciéndose con el paso de los años. Todo puede ser replanteado a través de nuevas lecturas y, en especial, siguiendo el rastro que los escritores dejan en la obra de los autores posteriores. Por ello, Clarice Lispector (como quizá algún día Elena Garro) ocupa hoy un lugar excepcional en la literatura latinoamericana, más allá del detalle anecdótico de si perteneció o no al Boom.

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 Crime Novel Boom In Latin America

El Pais had a short little bit on the crime novel in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, it is now a field of academic study. While I haven’t followed all the developments within the genre I have found it interesting to see the books develop a following. I don’t believe as I’ve heard some crime writers say that the crime novel is really the only type of novel that describes reality. However, they do capture something fascinating.

El escritor y periodista cubano Leonardo Padura -creador del teniente Mario Conde, protagonista de cuatro de sus novelas, todas ambientadas en La Habana- defiende la pujanza de la literatura policiaca iberoamericana. “Con autores como Rubén Fonseca o [Manuel] Vázquez Montalbán no puede ser considerada un género menor”, explica. Sin embargo, Padura no comparte en absoluto que esas obras puedan leerse en clave transatlántica, independientemente del lugar en el que estén ambientadas. “Son novelísticas nacionales. Cuando lees a [Henning] Mankell estás leyendo literatura sueca, cuando lees a Manolo [Vázquez Montalbán] lees literatura española. La novela policiaca, como se asienta tanto en los prototipos nacionales, en las estructuras nacionales, es marcadamente nacional”.

Sea como sea, no existe consenso acerca de si el género policiaco debe ser entendido en función de la idiosincrasia de los lugares donde acaece o debe abordarse desde la interculturalidad. Si bien, entre los ponentes que, además, son escritores, son muchos los que, como Padura, sostienen que el fin último de la novela negra es escrutar la sociedad, promover una mirada crítica sobre ella, por lo que la conexión entre el crimen y el ámbito en el que se comete es insoslayable. “Si no entiendes México, no entiendes la novela de Ignacio Taibo”, señala Rubén Varona, escritor colombiano de 32 años.

Eraclio Zepeda’s New Chiapan Tetralogy Profiled in La Jornada

La Jornada has an interesting write up of Eraclio Zepeda’s last installment of in his  tetralogy of Chiapas. I’m unfamiliar with his work but if you are interested in family/historical epics this sounds perfect.

Algunos años antes de terminar el siglo, Zepeda ya tenía en mente la escritura de una saga chiapaneca y sabía que abarcaría buena parte del siglo XIX y del XX, y serían cuatro libros y cada uno representaría uno de los cuatro elementos. Para fortuna de la literatura, se dedicó con afán y desvelo a la escritura de la tetralogía; sólo falta una que tiene como elemento el viento.

Ubicada en el cambio de siglo, entre fines de la década de los ochenta del XIX y fines de los años diez del XX, desde la segunda reelección de Porfirio Díaz al período presidencial carrancista, Sobre esta tierra, publicada hace unas semanas por el FCE, tiene como centro del mundo Los Altos de Chiapas, o más específicamente, Pichucalco y La Zacualpa, finca situada en las montañas cerca de la ciudad. En La Zacualpa pasa de hecho toda la novela, hasta la meticulosa destrucción que hacen de ella los carrancistas.

Las tres novelas publicadas hasta ahora nos parecen como una parte de una historia de México no contada, o de otro modo, como una historia que pasara aparte casi de nuestra historia. Como si de alguna manera Chiapas hubiera sido un país dentro del país.

Mexican Novelist Juan Villoro’s New Novel Profiled

Mexican novelist Juan Villoro has published his newest book and El Pais has a profile of the book and author, and a review. The Profile is the much more interesting piece of the two. Juan Villoro is not too well known in the English speaking world, but is well respected for his writing that often revolves around crime writing. You can see that in the recent Words Without Borders issue on the drug war in Mexico and the recent book of non-fiction about Latin America that he edited. His work looks interesting and perhaps with the interest in crime fiction in Mexico he’ll be translated into English.

En el origen de los relatos de Juan Villoro (México, 1956) suele ocultarse una imagen o un sueño detenido. En Arrecife (Anagrama), el núcleo argumental básico se corresponde con una postal paradisiaca, en un hotel de descanso en el Caribe, como hay tantos en México, pero en el lateral, una situación, que no se identifica si es de juego o de violencia, altera el paisaje. Esa arista perturbadora tiene que ver con la búsqueda de emociones fuertes y el contexto de violencia en que se mueve México, con cuerpos que aparecen decapitados en lugares imprevistos, como Acapulco, antaño edén turístico. “Me gustó poner en tensión ambas cosas. El narco y los clientes de un resort ansiosos de peligros controlados”, cuenta Juan Villoro, en su piso del Eixample barcelonés, decorado en un estilo minimalista, con los muebles justos y espacio para moverse. El escritor, uno de los autores de culto de su país, acaba de regresar de México. Vive entre los dos continentes. Ha gestionado la entrevista por su cuenta, sin agentes ni editores de por medio. Sobre la mesa de la cocina reposa el ordenador encendido. Escribe por las mañanas, en lo que denomina un horario bancario, regado con café. En un rato, saldrá para la Universidad Pompeu Fabra, donde imparte clases de literatura.

Con los alumnos debatirá sobre la importancia del cuento en América Latina, pero esta mañana su interés se centra en la violencia de los narcos y cómo han convertido los asesinatos en mensajes, según las distintas maneras de matar; unos los envuelven en mantas y otros practican la llamada corbata colombiana (sacar la lengua por la garganta). A través de ese discurso de la violencia se identifica a los autores de manera que las víctimas se conviertan en mensajes del horror y así matan dos veces. La situación suena escalofriante. Hasta ahora, los mexicanos vivían en dos mundos diferenciados, el de la violencia y el de la vida común, pero el crimen organizado se ha convertido ya en otra normalidad. En algunas regiones del país funcionan escuelas para narcos, hospitales donde son atendidos, clubes deportivos donde están inscritos e iglesias para ellos. “La vida mexicana transita del apocalipsis al carnaval y en ocasiones mezcla las dos categorías”, como su nueva novela.