A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov – A Review

A Short Tale of Shame
Angel Igov
Open Letter, 2013 pg 145

Angel Igov is a young Bulgarian writer and is a recent winner of the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest. A Short Tale of Shame follows four characters as they drive from Bulgaria to the Aegean Sea in a journey that explores the damage that a friend and daughter, Elena, has done to them all. Each character, Boris a former rock star, and three hitchhiking friends, Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus, alternates in narrating their journey and the past as each of their lives slowly intersect. The journey is unexpected: Boris starts out one day in his car with no particular goal. He is alone, unattached to anything, just a man, a car, and his credit cards. He is not even sure why he is driving. He sees three young people on the side of the road and decides to pick them up. They turn out to be friends with his daughter Elena which gives them instant rapport with Boris. They are going to the Aegean Sea and he decides to take them. Spartacus recognizes him as a former rock star and peppers him with questions for much of the journey in a charming bit of hero worship. As the journey continues they all remember Elena.

It should be said at this point that Elena is a disturbing young woman, more interested in being wild and leading her friends into problems. And her father is the least of her worries. At the same time, Elena has an outsized presence with in the novel that seems to animate the characters, but whose power is ultimately undeveloped. While we are viewing Elena through the eyes of four different witnesses and there is a limit to what we can know about her, the narrators don’t explain well enough what it is about here that is so problematic. So when we read of Boris’s listlessness now that his wife has died, and that he feels somewhat responsible, the effects on Elena are tenuous, not quite there. With the three youngsters, who have formed a love triangle for protection from her memory, it is more clear who wild she was, but even less clear the emotional damage she caused. There is something there but not fully realized.

They all make it to the sea and there is a moment of release for them all. For Boris, the youngsters have become a form of surrogate Elena. For the youngsters, the trip has released them from their defenses, as if life by the sea is open, unimpinged by friendships. Yet as they found themselves on some Greek Island I couldn’t help but thinking, what about Elena? Perhaps they have no more idea than we do, but she seemed to hang in the background. The sea may cleanse as Igov suggests, but it doesn’t forget and the resolution of their journey seemed only a pause, or the beginning. Maybe beginnings are enough, but it was not a satisfying conclusion.

Igov’s writing, translated by Angela Rodel, was enjoyable and portends to a bright future and made the book if not wholly satisfying, interesting. I leave you with a sentence that caught my eye and gives one a sense of his style.

And yell at your kids, Krustev (Boris) added, I’, sure it would be more fun if I could swim, but in any case I never learned, but back in the day going to the seaside and sitting on the beach for at least half a day, that was our idea of a vacation, I’m talking about when I was five or six, that was something new for my parents, I don’t know if they really even liked it or just went along with the trend, we’d rent an apartment on the seaside and go to the beach with our own umbrellas so we wouldn’t have to pay for them, that was an option back then, all this hysteria about hotels and private beaches hadn’t yet begun or was just beginning, I had fun, all kids surely have fun at the beach, and later, of course, whole crowds of us would go, huge groups with tents, guitars, girls and some more dubious things as well; we took Elena to the seaside ever since she was born, that’s how much sense we had, but be that as it may, I’ve got a fair amount of experience with camping, never mind that it was a while ago, true, back then we didn’t insist on having electricity and running water, at least not before Elena was born, so he’d seen her in the mirror, Sirma though, he had seen her smirk when he asked whether there was electricity and running water at the campground and she felt a little ashamed, maybe this person had actually had a much wilder youth than they had.

My Review of The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction at the Quarterly Conversation

My review of The Future Is Not Ours is up at the Quarterly Conversation. This came out last week but I´ve been off line for a while.

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

Review by Paul Doyle

Editor Diego Trelles Paz notes in his solid and lengthy introduction to The Future Is Not Ours that this trend was first evident with the writers born in the ’60s, especially those of the McOndo and Crack groups, spearheaded by Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, respectively. Both as a reaction to the constraint imposed by the writing of the Boom, and to the political climate, writers gave up on the “total novel,” which tried to capture the whole of a country. While Paz oversells the importance of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the murders in Juarez, Mexico, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in shaping the writers and works in this collection, there is a clear awareness of the dysfunctional world they inherited. Paz claims “one can recognize the rather nihilistic conviction with which each writer confronts the disillusionment that” uses cynicism and indifference to avoid disappointment. Having seen so many failures, there is only so much one can say about a nation.

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir – A Review

Children in Reindeer Woods
Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Open Letter, 2012, pg 198

There’s a war. It doesn’t matter where or why, but soldiers are fighting it. One of them, a paratrooper, lands on a remote farm, killing all the women and children with a quick spray of his machine gun.

So begins the Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods. It is a strange novel full of unnamed locations and events that feel familiar at every turn. After the killing that starts the novel the paratrooper, Rafael, makes himself at home and begins life of a farmer and dedicates himself to taking care of the only survivor of the attack, the Eleven-year-old Billie. Rafael is a brute, not so much in the sense of his willingness to use violence, but in his unrefined behavior. Certainly he kills when ever someone threatens his existence on the farm, but he is also an uneducated man filled with strange ideas. Billie, on the other hand, is not a worldly child, but one that seems to have a practicality about her, even if that practicality is wrapped in fables.

Rafael and Billie inhabit the farm together, each learning to understand the other. Rafael is aways tender with her, yet also warns her not to use the phone or go into the kitchen where she could get a knife. Despite their domestic tranquility, there’s a threat of violence. When tax collectors come to the farm Rafael wastes no time in killing them. Billie isn’t horrified, but doesn’t appreciate the killing. Her reaction is indicative of something that runs throughout the book–a kind of muted fear and recognition of reality.  Is Billie in great danger? Is Rafael as caring as he seems? As the book progresses their lives entwine more and more: Billie relating the stories of her father the puppet; Rafael taking her with him on futile car trips and to destroy cars, gas stations, or anything that could let the world intrude on them.

Children in Reindeer Woods has the feeling of a fable within a fable. The narration is stripped down, but describes a child like state, as if what you are seeing is a reflection of Billie’s inner state. The narration can be see in the stories she tells about her parents. Her father is a puppet who looses his arm easily and is writing a work of jurisprudence and her mother is nurse who takes care of them. Something is aways amiss with them though. Billie is uncertain but describes what we’d recognize as alcoholism. It makes for beautiful language and Ómarsdóttir, as rendered by Lytton Smith, evokes a magical world that both child and adult can recognize, but is completely unreal:

Her navel protruded like a bullet. Her mother believed that the navel would retreat when Billie entered puberty, when the egg in the ovary wanted to be impregnated. Then the ovaries would haul the navel and the umbilical cord in so they could later cast the cord out from the womb with anew shoot hanging on it. But until then her navel would push out because it was still invisibly tied to its headquarters…

The idea of seeing the story through Billie’s eyes also can help understand Rafael’s strange perception of the world. For example, talking to Agnes Elisabet, a nun who happens on the farm and who sleeps with Rafael, they have the following exchange:

“Can nuns commit suicide?”

“Nuns can do everything. May I play it for you, my love?”

“Why did she commit suicide?”

“My love, why does the sun shine? Do you know the answer?”

“Because otherwise nothing would live.”

“It’s surely good to commit suicide when one has given up on getting attention.”

The conversation is naive, as if the solder had no inner life, had been raised only to kill. Rafael may only be a boy of 18 or 19 as many soldiers are, still as unformed as Billie. Between the two explanations,  Ómarsdóttir sees the war, its unsaid location and unstated purpose, as little more than a pointless exercise. Removing the players from the battle leaves them as they truly are: children. Children in Reindeer Woods is a fable can be irritating for its occasional “childishness”, but the depth and beauty of the language and her ability to create characters that express futility is such an enchanting way, make it one of the more surprising reads I’ve come along for some time.

Karaoke Culture By Dubravka Ugresic – A Review

Karaoke Culture
Dubravka Ugresic
Open Letter Press, 2011, pg 323

To even write this review is to participate in the Karaoke Culture the Dubravka Ugresic criticizes. To be one of the voices the mass experiment in democratic culture is only one more example of a worldwide culture that is collapsing into parodies of itself as we all become yet another karaoke singer demanding our moment and adding nothing. It is a hard criticism, but Ugresic has little patience for us off key singers. She has a point.

For Ugresic, the problem stems from the whole concept of Karaoke. It is not about creating something new, nor even paying homage to the artist whose work you are singing, instead it is about becoming one the artist represents. The act, though, is not transformative , it is submissive. The participant becomes a facile representation of the artist, attempting to become the artist and, worst of all, surrendering to the celebrity culture that has spawned it.

Karaoke-people are everything but revolutionaries, innovators, or people who will change the world. They’re ordinary people, readers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, consumers and conformists. All the same, the world changes and ordinary people have their part to play.

The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight form themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hod for more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.

To illustrate this she investigates the sub cultures of sci-fi and fantasy, hardcore gamers and strange creations such as Abba world in London. In each she see people who are escaping from reality into worlds that don’t offer any freedom, but make them docile. Her greatest vitriol, though, is for the inhabitants of the former eastern block. She often sees them as trashy fools who have traded the enforced worship of the state idols, for the unthinking idol worship of all the worst of consumer culture. Creating needle point rugs that show scenes from porn movies is not art, but just loss of any kind of objective standards. But who needs standards when we are all creating culture, our own culture that is just a pale shadow of the original. And it is in that so called freedom that we loose ourselves in our own excitement that we too are stars, and loose our ability to think critically.

For her, fan fiction is the worst of all things. It is indicative of a world in which the writer is not the creator, but at the beck and call of the fan. The writer must please like a trained seal. Writing is no longer about high and low culture, the only thing that is important is “the fact that we’re producing.” She doesn’t see any saviors, either.

Criticism has changed. Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature. Publishers don’t want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one. Critics hold heir fire, scared of being accused of elitism. Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case. No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to talk about anymore. University literature departments don’t set out the differences–literature has turned into cultural studies in any case

The freedom we thought we gained with the internet and participatory culture has actually destroyed culture.

Those are strong words, but Ugresic has seen the damage that slavish and unthinking adherence to one cultural ideal can do. The rest of the book is filled with short little essays that detail her encounters with such a world. The pieces look as if they were written as newspaper columns, although the book doesn’t say, and have the conversational feel of a newspaper essay. Over and over again she encounters the paradoxes of the west, for example, describing the lives of Filipino maids serving western families in Hong Kong and living in puny little closets. Or she takes aim at the states of the former Yugoslavia, where once the people all proclaimed they were one, but at the first opportunity they turned on each other. Where ever she turns, she sees people proclaiming one thing and living another, and she can’t stand it.

Ugresic, can be funny when she makes these observations. Her experiences in the Balkans are fascinating and the stories are great. In one she describes a Serbian thug who became part of the government and has created his own folk village, one that is run on almost fascistic terms and whose purpose is really to celebrate the thug. At the same time, the man is an environmentalist interested in preserving the forest around his creation. The paradoxes amongst nationalists she describes are disturbing, a bit terrifying, and comic because there is no alternative.

Unfortunately, despite her insights, she can also sound like Andy Rooney. If I have to see another sentence that uses freshman English constructions such as, now days…, I will have to throw the book down. Her criticism is breezy and reads well, but you constantly have the feeling that shes just complaining because the world has passed her by. I don’t think it is necessarily true, but if  when you keep up with the “kid these days” type of criticism, you end up sounding that way. Often times you have the idea that she doesn’t really even know the subject that well. It’s as if she heard about it on the news and is now giving her opinion, rather than first hand experience. It might be a little unfair and first had experience is not required for every criticism one makes, but that sense of the detached outsider doesn’t always work. The other draw back of the book is the short pieces that make up at least half of the book. The essay Karaoke Culture is around a hundred pages and sustains an argument, but the occasional pieces are tedious after a while. Fortunately, towards the end of the book she has some longer pieces that make for more compelling reading.

It is too bad the book has these defects because I was looking forward to reading her essays and although I think the essay Karaoke Culture is interesting, the book as a whole suffers. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading more of her work at some point, as I think it is a great lens for looking at Europe and the world, neither left nor certainly right.

You can read an interview with her at Kirkus.

Open Letter Summer Catalog: Quim Monzo and Sergio Chejfec

I just got the Spring Open Letter catalog and was happy to see that a collection of short stories from Quim Monzo are going to be published in July and the following month My Two Worlds from Sergio Chejfec. I am especially looking forward to the Quim Monzo because I’ve heard so much about his short stories. I didn’t much like his book Gasoline, but am willing to give the stories a chance since this blog is turning into all things short story from Spain. I’m not familiar with Sergio Chejfec, but am looking forward to reading his book. You can read an excerpt of Monzo’s new book at Open Letter (as well as other books in the upcoming catalog). You can also read a story that Open Letter recently published called Books.