War, So Much War By Merce Rodoreda – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf – A Review

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Open Letter, 2013, pg 142

It would be easy to characterize Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions as a collection of short stories. In some ways they are short stories in that they are short, usually two pages, and stories. However, anyone looking for a well tuned collection of micro fiction might be disappointed because as the title notes, these are digressions. In some ways they could be called anti-stories since they eschew any claim to plot, character or narrative structure that mark most stories, and instead delight in continually breaking down into digressions that call into question the assumptions that are built around story telling.

Ror Wolf is a German visual artist whose work is marked by surrealism and that juxtaposition of otherwise everyday elements into contrasting elements is evident in his work. For Wolf, narrative only exists to be broken down. His typical story is a first person piece that starts with the announcement about what the narrator is going narrate. The narrator never tells the story, though, instead he changes his mind a few sentences in and begins a new narrative direction. For example, The Next Story begins

The next story I’d like to tell I already told on Monday, and would not like to tell it again. So I’ll tell the story from Tuesday. But now it occurs to me that absolutely nothing happened on Tuesday that I could talk about…

or from The Rate of Fame

In the past, Lemm was often compared to Klomm, to whom he absolutely shouldn’t be compared because, one must admit, not a single feature of Klomm’s can be found in Lemm. Enough about him, but think of him from the start as a man to whom there is no one to compare. So we won’t talk about Lemm or Klomm. We’ll talk about Hamm instead…

Just these two short quotes give you an insight into his approach. First, there is a consciousness that we are observing the act of story telling and that that act is not the formalized illusion of a first person short story, but disassemble of the process of telling a story with all its false starts and digressions. Second, the story itself is not necessarily the import element, rather the act of telling the story is the important element. How the teller tells the story says as much as the story itself. Finally, although it is not quite as evident in these two pieces, all the false starts are new directions one can take the unwritten stories. The false starts are not dead ends, they are openings into stories as yet untold.

No Story is a good example of the creation of stories out side the story. It starts,

I don’t have a story to tell about an accountant’s wife who was unable to sit because she caught a filthy, itchy disease, I’ve never heard of such a case. I also don’t have a story to tell about the illegitimate birth of a child, on the occasion that the woman in question implored me not to tell the story.

Again, he starts and stops, hinting at something larger, but that he won’t tell, as if it were boring or distasteful. The sense that certain stories aren’t worth telling and that certain characters are pointless or annoying is a trait Wolf shares with Thomas Bernhard. With some frequency his stories have the acerbic bitterness of Bernhard and more than a few times his stories felt similar to the Voice Imitator. However, where Bernhard wants to poke fun at society and is preoccupied with the pettiness of bourgeois life, Wolf is more interested in how the stories one tells constructs that reality.

All of his stories call into question what is a story. Is it the plot, the characters, or something else? And more important, what is the point of telling them? After reading several of his stories it is obvious there are no answers. But the idea that narrative contains one story, and whose very existence is to relate something is quickly dashed when reading Wolf’s digressions. The breaking of the narrative strategies can also the stories occasionally tiresome to read. No matter how good they are, all the shifting of the story telling can make a stead diet of them difficult to read. I would recommend dosing your effort to get the full power of his work.

While the first two thirds of the book is made up of the stories I’ve described, the last third is a long form narrative: The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from a Exposed Life. The story is a kind of traveler’s journal of his various ship wreck and travels throughout the world. Except, in typical Wolf fashion, the actual travels are the least important part, often getting a perfunctory line of basic description. They are, if I can use the anti word again, anti-travel writing. The idea that one would describe the emotions, customs, or opinions of the characters is ludicrous. Yet the narrator is aware of his adventures and probably the most telling line from the whole book says,

I took pleasure in these notes; to me they seemed to become increasingly important, they were the real reason for my journey from chapter eight onwards. I didn’t write down my experiences, but tried to experience what I wanted to write down in order to lend a uniqueness to my notes that has not yet appeared in literature, or at best not in in Scheizhofer’s writing. (Emphasis mine)

Here is the crux of Wolf’s writing: one lives to write and in doing so looks for things to write about, but that is an unnatural act. The writing is the artificial element, it is the author’s search for something to write about. And that search rather than reportage, is the disruption of the experiment. Whether or not you love all of his stories, if you are interested in story telling this is a fascinating book to read.

Gasoline by Quim Monzo – A Review

” target=”_blank”>Gasoline
Quim Monzon
Open Letter Press, 2010, 141 pg

I’m not sure if Gasoline is a funny book or an annoying one. Knowing that Quim Monzo is a bit of a joker (reading one of his weekly columns in La Vnguradia made that obvious), should help me conclude the former. But that is outside of the book and doesn’t really make me desire to conclude the later. Gasoline is a relatively brief read, both in pages and complexity, and the actual experience of reading it was not unpleasurable, but for much of the meandering obsessions and love affairs that fill the book I had one thought: who cares. Perhaps if I was a painter I would have enjoyed it, found a way to relate to the characters, that popular, though limiting, mechanism of evaluation. Yet after each episode where one or the other of the Catalan doppelgangers stalks someone, or drinks too much, or has an affair with someone, all the while the art world sings his praises, all I can think is, yes, artists can live messed up lives; point taken. If Monzo wanted to take down modern art he would have done better to follow Michel Houellebecq’s bit from Platform.

So what about the book? What was it that caused me such consternation? The story follows Heribert Julia as he tries to paint new paintings for an upcoming a new exhibition.  Caught in some sort of painter’s block he spends his time sleeping, drinking, and finding obsessions. He does everything except paint. For a while he stalks his wife, convinced she is having an affair. In perhaps the funnest part of the book he creates a disguise one store at a time as he follows her, eventually dressing as some sort of strange clown that makes him completely recognizable as he passes her. In one brief section he decides to buy collectible stamps, spending thousands on them. Then pages latter he changes to rare coins, spending even more, and then as he did with the stamps, he places them in the closet. Between the drinking and shopping he plots his next sexual conquest. His marriage is a disaster and it never seems like they are interested in being together or even care if one has disappeared for a few days, as if their lives have taken divergent paths and they live together out of habit. His undoing, though, is when he starts a new affair and in a moment of passion in a museum he knocks a bronze statue on his himself and ends up in the hospital days latter. He certainly will not be finishing the paintings for the shows, and one can only assume his role as the most important Catalan painter in New York is over.

The second part of the book follows Humbert (most of the characters have first names that start with H), a younger Catalan painter who has taken the New York art world by storm. Humbert is also married to Heribert’s wife. Obviously, the two painters are meant to be opposites and reflect different creative processes. Humbert keeps  six or seven note books with different ideas and is constantly writing them down. Often they can be pretty pedantic: “Still life of different types of glasses and mugs;”or “The city, by night, as seen from the air: millions of tiny white, blue, and yellow dots.” Humbert is always working or going to the gym. He is obsessed with movement and avoiding the traps of Heribert. Eventually, though, he begins to have an affair with his wife’s friend’s daughter. They travel around, staying in hotels, drinking, all the while Humbert worries that he isn’t going to keep up the pace of work. The book ends with Humbert getting into bed with his lover on New Years Eve.

The book feels unfinished, a collection of incidents put together, but without any good reason for writing them. Sure the art world can be messy, but the book doesn’t really help me understand that. At the same time Monzo eschews psychological insights, which is fine, watching a collection of actions is not a bad approach and too much pschologizing can get tedious. But the insights the book itself leaves you with are just as flat as the character’s lives: I do this, then I do that, and then I might get obsessed about this; who knows, life is just one long collection of unconnected events. Unfortunately, it is not so much a tedious assemblage, for some how the book wasn’t painful to read, but it seems to want to dispense with something that isn’t that important to begin with, the art world. And Monzo is dispensing, too, with the idea of psychological insight, but his replacement, a light, episodic comedy falls flat. Monzo makes me long for Bernhard, where nothing really happens, but at least you know there is something behind it all. In Gasoline Monzo is just the class clown who has to be funny by compulsion, not because he has something fascinating to say.

If someone can point me to another work of his to convince me otherwise I will give him another try, but for now Quim Monzo’s Gasoline is the end of the line.

Gasoline
Quim Monzon
Open Letter Press, 2010, 141 pg

I’m not sure if Gasoline is a funny book or an annoying one. Knowing that Quim Monzo is a bit of a joker (reading one of his weekly columns in La Vnguradia made that obvious), should help me conclude the former. But that is outside of the book and doesn’t really make desire to conclude the later. Gasoline is a relatively brief read, both in pages and complexity, and the actual experience of reading it was not unpleasurable, but for much of the meandering obsessions and love affairs that fill the book I had one thought: who cares. Perhaps if I was an a painter I would have enjoyed it, found a way to relate to the characters, that popular, though limiting, mechanism of evaluation. Yet after each episode where one or the other of the Catalan doppelgangers stalks someone, or drinks too much, or has an affair with someone, all the while the art world sings his praises, all I can think is, yes, artists can live messed up lives; point taken. If Monzo wanted to take down modern art he would have done better to follow Michel Houellebecq’s bit from Platform.

So what about the book? What was it that caused me such consternation? The story follows Heribert Julia as he tries to paint new paintings for an upcoming a new exhibition.  Caught in some sort of painter’s block he spends his time sleeping, drinking, and finding obsessions. He does everything except paint. For a while he stalks his wife, convinced she is having an affair. In perhaps the funnest part of the book he creates a disguise one store at a time as he follows her, eventually dressing as some sort of strange clown that makes him completely recognizable as he passes her. In one brief section he decides to buy collectible stamps, spending thousands on them. Then pages latter he changes to rare coins, spending even more and then as he did with the stamps, he places them in the closet. Between the drinking and shopping he plots the next affair he can have. His marriage is a disaster and it never seems like they are interested in being together or even care if one has disappeared for a few days, as if their lives have take divergent paths and they live together out of habit. His undoing, though, is when he starts a new affair and in a moment of passion in a museum he knocks a bronze statue on his himself and ends up in the hospital days latter. He certainly will not be finishing the paintings for the shows and one can only assume his role as the most important Catalan painter in New York is over.

Juan Jose Saer, Mercè Rodored, Mathias Enard’s Zone Winter 2010 from Open Letter

Open Letter Press has released its fall catalog and it has some pretty exciting items in it. Of particular interest to me are Mercè Rodored’s short stories. I read her Death in Spring last summer and thought it was great. I don’t know much about Juan Jose Saer, but the description sounds interesting. And Mathias Enard’s Zone is one of those stylistic works that is too tempting not to read.You can down load the catalog which contains samples and bios from Open Letter.

The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia) Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)

It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.

One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.

Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.

Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)

Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.

Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .

One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.

Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi – The Briefest Review

I just finished writing a review of Season of Ash for the Quarterly Conversation. I won’t say much, since that is why I wrote the review. I will say that it was an interesting book as a work of history, but I was a little disappointed as a work of fiction. However, if you’ve thought that Mexican writing was only about Mexico, the Revolution, or some other stock theme of Mexican writing, this novelized history of the Cold War is definitely worth reading.