sábado, 29 de diciembre de 2012

War and Peace

War and Peace [Voina i mir] (Vintage Classics, 2007)
by Leo Tolstoy [translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]
Russia, 1869

Thinking she was sure to turn my wiseacre 1,215 page proposal down, I challenged Nicole from bibliographing to read War and Peace with me as part of her 2011 bibliographing Reading Challenge in which followers of her blog were encouraged to participate in a personalized one-book, pre-1939 shared read with her.  Unfortunately for the good sport Nicole, she took me up on the dare and pretty much hated the work.  Unfortunately for the spoilsport me, starting and then finishing the work over a full year after my challenge partner did still left me little time to say anything much about it until I return to Caravana de recuerdos headquarters sometime next week.  What follows will have to suffice as an inadequate intro for now.
Whatever its apparent flaws (an annoying opening party sequence, its occasional bloated masterpiece tendencies, that anti-climactic epilogue in which stirring novelistic narration abruptly yields to dry essayistic argument), War and Peace was probably about as satisfying a way to end the reading year for me as anything I could have asked for.  In fact, I'm sure it was because the book version of post-partum depression that kicked in once I lay the work down felt nearly as crushing as it did after I finished 2666 (my usual yardstick for measuring these sorts of things).  I never get that feeling from lesser novels.  So what will I miss most about the chunkster until I can make time for the inevitable reread?  For starters, I loved how Tolstoy went to war on the idea and form of historical fiction itself.  In a work dominated by Napoleon's invasion of Russia, you might reasonably expect a great writer to set down memorable battle scenes that admirably capture the fog of war.  Check.  You might also expect the characterization of real-life field marshal rivals like Bonaparte and Kutuzov to be as "realistically" fleshed out as the characterization of the fictional Prince Andrei, Count Bezukhov, and Natasha Rostov.  Check.  But what you couldn't have expected--or at least, what I didn't expect in my W&P naïvety--was to find a novel that also doubles as an inquiry into the nature of history and its methods.  While not exactly a case of Man vs. Novel, War and Peace's envelope-pushing novel/history hybrid continually begs the question: novel + history = what exactly?  Beats the hell out of me, but I was both surprised and delighted by the genre mashing even though I readily admit that the epilogue's attempt to come to grips with the root cause of the Napoleonic wars is less successful from an entertainment standpoint than the very story it serves as a commentary on.  Another thing I'll miss are all the unresolved tensions in the work.  Tolstoy spends much of the epilogue arguing against the great man theory of history, for example, in effect declaring that the decisions of the Napoleons and Alexanders of the world are as nothing compared to the unknown forces that move millions of men to act in a certain way.  While trying to arrive at a philosophical explanation of what moves men to go to war with each other against their own self-interests, Tolstoy at one time even blames "the spread of printing" for being "that most powerful tool of ignorance" in our "self-confident time of the popularization of knowledge" (1202).  Pot calling the kettle black or a thinker who is raising the bar on his medium of choice?  For me, I found Tolstoy an arresting thinker even when I disagreed with him.  Finally, I'll definitely miss Tolstoy's storytelling--both the sweep of the narrative and the often seamless segueways between exposition and meditation, epic similes and historical self-examination.  I'll try to provide a few examples of this in my follow-up post, but I was almost never bored by his writing and I was frequently moved by many individual scenes.  For me at least, a work that lives up to its canonical hype for sure.

Tolstoy in 1856

sábado, 15 de diciembre de 2012

The Cameraman's Revenge

The Cameraman's Revenge [Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora]
Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz
Russia, 1912

While I've been a lame, absentee landlord of a host for the Caravana de recuerdos Foreign Film Festival for much of the year, Tom from Wuthering Expectations was kind enough to overlook that and challenged me to watch The Cameraman's Revenge with him as part of the "movie challenge" portion of the festivitivies.  Leave it to Tom, the only person audacious enough to challenge me to a watchalong all year, to select the best insect-acted silent film I've ever seen!  Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora, as it was originally called at the time of its 1912 release barring an unnoticed typo or two from me, is a stupendous 12-minute stop-action animation feature which takes that hoariest of silent movie clichés--infidelity among insects--and turns it into a gripping arthropod revenge fantasy.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle appear to have a perfect relationship at the outset.  At least, that is what it seems until Mr. Beetle takes his hard, manly exoskeleton and his Russian beetle pheromones and swaggers over to the Gay Dragonfly night club to meet his sultry young dragonfly lover.  Unfortunately for the two invertebrate lovebirds, an altercation between the beetle and a mysterious grasshopper will have grave consequences for the philandering husband; as the intertitle silently stresses, "Mr. Beetle should have guessed that the aggressive grasshopper was a movie cameraman."  To say anything more about the plot would do a disservice to my many readers and to the even more numerous anonymous spammers who often pose as my readers, so I'll merely draw your attention to a few non-story highlights from Starewicz's cautionary tale: 1) the insect cabaret scene is to die for; 2) the sequence where the grasshopper films Mr. Beetle wooing his dragonfly lover through a keyhole at the HOTEL d'AMOUR offers up a nice visual commentary on how the beetle has stolen the keys to his mistress' heart while foreshadowing a later revelation in a movie theater in which we learn that "the projectionist is none other than the vengeful cameraman"; 3) the insect love scenes, the stunts involving various kind of insect mayhem and grasshopper bicycle riding, and even the showy set piece where an artist insect paints a canvas with his long arthropod arms are all top notch on the wow, giggle, and combined wow-giggle meters.  A big high five to Tom for bringing this amusing and just generally delightful pre-Battleship Potemkin visual oddity to my grateful but undeserving attention.

Starewicz at work with "the talent"
Tom's post
Archive.org's link to the film (dug up by Tom)

lunes, 10 de diciembre de 2012

El Fiord

"El Fiord"
by Osvaldo Lamborghini
Argentina, 1969

With the Argentinean Literature of Doom liturgical calendar year rapidly winding down to its increasingly alienating end, I thought I'd better stop putting off writing about Osvaldo Lamborghini--the unofficial dead calendar boy for the event and a "mysterious" figure who's at least somewhat famous in certain hobbyist circles for having made Roberto Bolaño deem his oeuvre "excruciating"--while I still have any readers left.  Of course, a post about Lamborghini's infamous 1969 short story "El Fiord" ["The Fiord"] just might take care of my "reader problem" for me for once and for all anyway.  You've been warned.  A mindbogglingly violent sado-masochistic allegory about the labor movement in Argentina in the late 1960s, "El Fiord" (sometimes referred to as a novel but here mercifully only about 15 pages in length) certainly lives up to its rep as an extremist's delight.  In point of fact, the work was supposedly considered so extreme in its time that its "distribution" was pretty much limited to behind the counter sales at a lone bookstore on the Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires and the sharing of mimeographed copies of the manuscript among Lamborghini's friends.  Since most of "El Fiord"'s more obscure political references are beyond me, how much of the piece's underground classic status is due to its stomach-turning qualities as opposed to its politics isn't quite clear to me.  However, César Aira, a longtime Lamborghini enthusiast who's been overseeing the posthumous publication of the writer's complete art terrorist works for the Editorial Sudamericana, has a perceptive comment about the specific avant-garde literary and political context of "El Fiord" in his compiler's note at the end of Lamborghini's Novelas y Cuentos I: "Si el comienzo de la literatura argentina fue El Matadero de Echeverría, el comienzo de su obra fue su propio 'Matadero'" ["If the beginning of Argentinean literature was Echeverria's 'El Matadero,' the beginning of Lamborghini's work was his own 'Matadero'"] (300).  A matadero, for those who don't know Spanish, is a slaughterhouse, and a slaughterhouse is exactly what "El Fiord" seems to want to replicate in terms of its vile assault on the senses.  To what end, I'm not sure.  However, to help explain the story's intrinsic gross-out wrongness, I should probably note that it begins with a character named Carla Greta Terón (supposedly a stand-in for former first lady Eva Perón) who is struggling to give birth to an "engendro remolón" ["stubborn monstrosity"] in a room full of hangers-on, onlookers, birds of prey, and cockroaches (9).  After an orgy of bloodshed (literally and figuratively) that gives new meaning to the measuring stick of "over the top," the piece ends at a political demonstration where flagpoles are planted into human bodies.  As you might suspect given "Evita"'s presence in the text, one of the other key characters is a man variously referred to as El Loco Rodríguez, "nuestro Patrón" ["our Master"] (11) and "nuestro abusivo Dueño y Señor" ["our abusive Lord and Savior"] (12-13): a malicious tip of the hat to President Juan Domingo Perón, who soon after he's introduced displays his abrasive love of country and lust for power by whipping Carla Greta Terón in the eyes as she tries to give birth and then sodomizing the narrator.  Later the "monstrosity" named Atilio Tancredo Vacán (possibly named in honor of labor leader Augusto Timoteo Vandor, a Perón opponent who was assassinated the same year "El Fiord" was published) is delivered among rivers of blood and shit and semen and vaginal fluids, and the rest of the story sees the characters subjected to beheadings, being burned alive, genital dismemberings (no pun intended), and the surrealistic like.  OK, I know, enough already, but Lamborghini is nothing if not consistent.  Sane readers may wonder at this point why anybody would want to read something like this or, even worse, why anybody would want to review something like this for an audience of practically zero. Good points! While I wouldn't presume to answer for you, I have to say that I personally was curious about the story's alleged artistry (Aira, I believe without joking, even refers to the "uniforme densidad poética del texto" ["uniform poetic density of the text"]) (301) and I wanted to see for myself why other admired writers like Fogwill speak so warmly about the assiduously repulsive Lamborghini.  Although I'm not really sure I found what I came for, I suppose I was impressed with the occasional striking image (the description of the nude Perón  gleaming with "un brillo de fraude y neón" or "a lustre of fraudulence and neon" caught my attention, for example [10]) and I did find what Bolaño found insofar as "El Fiord" seems like must reading for anybody who's serious about wanting to get his/her disgust on.  Plus I can now scratch another work off Ignacio Echevarría's list of the essential books in Spanish-language literature since the 1950s.  O happy day.

"El Fiord," a real crowd-pleaser to be sure, appears on pages 7-25 of the César Aira-curated Lamborghini collection, Novelas y cuentos I.  Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2003.

sábado, 8 de diciembre de 2012

La Vida Nueva

La Vida Nueva (Mansalva, 2007)
by César Aira
Argentina, 2007

I read this earlier in the year, enjoyed it a bunch, but then didn't write about it at the time for some reason that's now completely unfathomable to me.  I decided to reread it this week because--what's the technical term?--it's fucking funny, man.  A 77-page Slinky happily tumbling down the stairs of authorial time in a single uncoiled paragraph, La Vida Nueva [The New Life] is César Aira's warm, chatty, intermittently preposterous account of his friendship with his first publisher, Horacio Achával, and of the many, many, many delays that Aira's 1975 debut novel Moreira suffered at the hands of Lacanian proofreaders, high-speed book-delivery motorcyclists, and other pataphysical forces before finally seeing the light of day.  Without wanting to take anything away from Don César and his own impertinent storytelling personality, I have to say that one of the great joys of reading this book is that it made me think of what Dante's La Vita Nuova might have been like had it been written by the narrator of Bolaño's short story "The Insufferable Gaucho."  Wild!  In addition to providing a fun "autobiographical" goof, however, this novel should also be of interest to at least two Caravana readers on account of its entertaining look at the Argentinean writing life from both sides of the new author/small publisher divide from 1969 up till the present day.  How much of what the 2007 version of Aira says about his younger self is true rather than mere leg-pulling is rather difficult to ascertain, of course, but that shouldn't stop anybody from enjoying the local publishing industry color or laughing at the first-time novelist's alleged doubts about whether a print run of 1,000 copies was way too high of a number for his prospective audience given the well-known anecdote that Borges himself only sold 64 copies of his first book.  Achával, "un típico espécimen, quizás el más típico, del mundo de las editoriales de izquierda, con sus cuantiosas tiradas populares" ["a typical specimen, perhaps the most typical specimen, of the world of leftist publishing houses with their massive populist print runs"] naturally tells the young Aira that "no quería saber nada de esos derrotismos de élite" ["he didn't want to hear anything about that elitist defeatism"] (30) and for good reason; for, as he mentions with exquisite irony elsewhere, Aira's novel is "un arma de grueso calibre contra el cinismo rampante del postmodernismo" ["a high-caliber weapon against postmodernism's rampant cynicism"] (50) and, more to the point, "no había que subestimar al público, que siempre estaba a punto de cansarse de lo convencional y previsible y predigerido, del realismo chato y los sermones bienpensantes" ["there was no reason to underestimate the public, which was always on the verge of losing its patience with the conventional and the predictable and the predigested, of cheap realism and right-thinking sermons"] (12).

The cover of César Aira's Moreira as published by Achával Solo in 1975.  The blurb at the bottom reads: "Un día, de madrugada, por las lomas inmóviles del Pensamiento bajaba montado en potro amarillo un horrible gaucho" ["One day, early in the morning, mounted on a yellow colt, a horrible gaucho was descending through the motionless hillocks of the Mind"].

miércoles, 5 de diciembre de 2012

Cómo me hice monja

Cómo me hice monja (Debolsillo, 2006)
por César Aira
Argentina, 1993

"Cómo me hice monja es mi autobiografía, parcial porque trata sólo de un año de mi vida, entre los seis y los siete, empieza cuando pruebo un helado por primera vez, y termina cuando me asesina la viuda del heladero."
(César Aira, desde la contrasolapa de su "autobiografía")
Cómo me hice monja, si no literalmente una autobiografía, es, digamos, una especie de Künstlerroman disparatada en que "el niño César Aira" cuenta una historia en que su yo femenino (o sea la niña César Aira) afirma narrar "la historia de 'cómo me hice monja'" (11) con una circularidad muy admirable e inventiva.  En otras palabras, es un dedo en los ojos del lector incauto y/o taradito.  La historia, o mejor dicho, la falsedad empieza cuando la supuesta narradora relata, en un comienzo a caballo entre la comedia y el horror, su inolvidable introducción al mundo de helado de frutilla a la edad de seis años.  ¿El giro imprevisto?  "Yo había sido víctima de los temibles ciánidos alimenticios... la gran marea de intoxicaciones letales que aquel año barría la Argentina y países vecinos" (26).  Aunque la niña sobrevive al envenenamiento después de un rato en el hospital, resulta que sus arcadas y su delirio se contagian a lo que queda de sus memorias: de hecho, el novelista se aprovecha de la situación para decirnos no cómo la niña César Aira tomó los hábitos sino sí cómo el niño César Aira aprendió convertirse en escritor en edad temprana (según cabe presumir, el pibe Aira ya era l'enfant terrible de su escuela y un bromista de primera categoría incluso en aquel entonces).  Por supuesto, un torrente de mentiras más una historia de venganza siguen según las reglas del juego en esta serie de besos mandada en honor del oficio de escribir y de la figura del narrador de poca confianza.  Beso #1: "Tendría que haber sido un monstruo para mentir por gusto" (15).  Beso #2: "El mentiroso experimentado sabe que la clave del éxito está en fingir bien la ignorancia de ciertas cosas.  Por ejemplo de las consecuencias de lo que está diciendo" (61).  Beso #3: "Todo este relato que he emprendido se basa en mi memoria perfecta.  La memoria me ha permitido atesorar cada instante que pasó.  También los instantes eternos, los que no pasaron, que encierran en su cápsula de oro a los otros.  Y los que se repitieron, que por supuesto son los más" (63).  ¿La moraleja? Confusion Is Sex.

el niño/la niña Aira

viernes, 30 de noviembre de 2012

The Stalin Front

The Stalin Front [Die Stalinorgel] (NYRB Classics, 2004)
by Gert Ledig [translated from the German by Michael Hofmann]
Germany, 1955

This week I took some time off from War and Peace, a "war novel" that I've really been enjoying so far, to spend a couple of days with The Stalin Front, a war novel that I didn't really enjoy at all.  I don't blame that on Gert Ledig, though.  Since the army veteran's brooding, brutal work (originally titled Die Stalinorgel [The Stalin Organ] in honor of the German name for the Russian multiple rocket launcher known to the enemy troops as the Katyusha) primarily seems concerned with transmitting the message that war is hell to a postwar German audience that I'm guessing could hardly have had the time to forget about such a thing so soon, I think that any lack of enjoyment of the novel is probably proof that the writer succeeded all too well at what he'd intended.  In any event, fuck, how's one supposed to effectively evaluate the artistry of a work so unflinchingly dedicated to representing the carnage of war in such a graphic, almost pornographic fashion?  For whatever it's worth then, The Stalin Front, said to have been based on the novelist's own war experiences on the Eastern Front during World War II, takes place in a mercifully short span of time and pages as a small number of doomed German and Russian troops wait to square off against each other in a battle that doesn't seem to carry all that much strategic significance for either side.  Other than the fact that the characters' options seem to be limited to those of fighting down to the last bullet for no real purpose, fleeing, surrendering, taking their own lives, or unfairly taking a countryman's life to save their own, why do I say that the men are doomed?  Well, one of them, the Sergeant, after just having received instructions from the Captain, is introduced with the laconic aside: "He didn't realize he was simultaneously taking orders from fate" (2). Elsewhere, the Runner, who has unsuccessfully sought to escape the war after realizing how hopeless things are and wilfully disobeying orders that might see him punished by death, gasps in horror after accidentally knocking over a stack of corpses that have been used as a protective wall in a bunker.  "'Don't worry about it,' said the NCO.  'The Almighty must approve, do you think He'd allow it otherwise?'  He awkwardly lit a cigarette.  The 'Almighty' sounded unpleasantly cynical" (64).  Later in the novel, we are told that "the master of the hill was Death" (158).  I could go on, of course, but for better or for worse I've decided to spare you some of the more gruesome examples of Ledig's prose which would have made describing the work so much easier.  Suffice it to say instead that, on a surface level, the language itself is violent and choppy with short sentences that alternate between generating an aura of adrenaline and chaos and sucking all the air out of the room.  Par for the course for what was a powerful but often alienating read.

Gert Ledig (1921-1999)

I read The Stalin Front, the November selection for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong 2012, both for that event and as part of my long-overdue participation in Caroline's and Lizzy's German Literature Month 2012.  I look forward to seeing what sort of reception this bleak and uncompromising novel receives from the other readalongers, and I'll link to Caroline's round-up post as soon as it becomes available (update: done!).  In the meantime, you can take a look at what Rise of in lieu of a field guide thought about the work when he reviewed it a full two years ago here.

lunes, 26 de noviembre de 2012

El mismo mar de todos los veranos

El mismo mar de todos los veranos (Editorial Anagrama, 2008)
por Esther Tusquets
España, 1978

El mismo mar de todos los veranos, novela mencionada en la lista de Ignacio Echevarría sobre Los libros esenciales de la literatura en español: narrativa de 1950 a nuestros días y a menudo elogiada por su subjetividad femenina, me ha decepcionado muchísimo.  ¿Lo fundamental del problema?  La narradora sin nombre es tan pesada que, a pesar de tener algunos momentos muy llamativos, la obra también tiene momentos de lo.más.aburrido.  En serio.  La narradora, dicho sea de paso, es una española de unos cuarenta años que, abandonada por su marido durante algún tiempo y en medio de una crisis emocional aparentemente perpetua, empieza una aventura amorosa con una estudiante colombiana más joven.  Después de mil peripecias al principio de la relación, la pareja lesbiana parecen encontrar una medida de felicidad durante su mes juntas hasta que la angustia llega en la figura del marido que ha vuelto a casa.  ¿Será un final feliz para las dos amantes o no?  Aunque no voy a decir más sobre el argumento, supongo que debo aclarar que, para mí, El mismo mar de todos los veranos era una lectura frustrante más que una lectura malísima o algo por el estilo.  Una oportunidad perdida, ¿viste?  Tusquets salió ganando cuando el sinnúmero de monólogos interiores hizo hincapié en la depresión y la opresión de la protagonista frente al ambiente sofocante de su existencia marital.  A veces también me gustaron el ritmo de su prosa y su lenguaje mismo:  "aquellos besos tristes como el grito de los pájaros marinos perdidos lejos del mar en las tardes de tormenta, como el golpeteo desolado de las olas contra los peñascos", por ejemplo, es un buen ejemplo de su lado poético (125).  Al mismo tiempo, Tusquets me perdió cuando esos monólogos interiores fueron monótonos en sumo grado con tan frecuencia.  Además, había una sobredosis de referencias a cuentos de hadas y a la mitología que demostró una falta de sutileza completa.  Qué lástima.

Ana María Moix (a la izquierda), Ana María Matute, y Esther Tusquets (a la derecha) en la casa de Matute en Sitges, 1970.

viernes, 23 de noviembre de 2012

Boquitas pintadas

Boquitas pintadas (Debolsillo, 2009)
por Manuel Puig
Argentina, 1969

"Todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como tragedia".
(Roberto Bolaño, Los detectives salvajes)
Boquitas pintadas, la impresionante segunda novela de Manuel Puig, es una especie de homenaje y parodia de una telenovela cargada de muerte, una novela epistolar a la antigua, y un folletín que empieza como comedia y acaba como tragedia.  Según mi punto de vista más bien pesimista, es un valioso ejemplar de la llamada "literatura argentina de la pesada" de que habló Roberto Bolaño en Entre paréntesis.  Vamos a lo esencial.  Juan Carlos Etchepare, un mujeriego guapo sino tuberculoso, es el centro de atención dentro de la novela, dando besos y escupiendo sangre mientras que él corre tras las faldas en la Argentina de los 30 y de los 40.  No obstante, las noticias de su muerte a la edad de 29 años hacen estallar una reacción en cadena melodramática en cual sus ex amantes y sus íntimos amigos se convierten en las estrellas de sus propios hilos argumentales desdichados.  Historietas de amor.  Historietas de fracaso.  Historietas de amores fracasados.  Aunque la trayectoria emocional de la novela es más y más deprimente hasta el final, Puig proporciona un mecanismo de escape a los lectores con la vivacidad de su prosa.  Lo que sigue son tres ejemplos de la manera asombrosa de narrar de Puig en una novela que se destaca a causa de la riqueza de sus narradores y sus estilos narrativos.  En las páginas 116-119, hay una secuencia onírica que se relata a través de una lista de "Imágenes y palabras que pasaron por la mente de Juan Carlos mientras dormía".  En las páginas 130-131, un narrador sin nombre nos dice a) lo que hizo Nélida Enriqueta Fernández, la otrora novia de Juan Carlos, en el día 27 de enero de 1938, y b) comparte con nosotros las respuestas a las preguntas "¿Cuál era en ese momento su mayor deso?" y "¿Cuál era en ese momento su temor más grande?"; en las páginas 131-137, por medio de una repetición hábil que ocurre en varios momentos a lo largo de la novela, el narrador nos dice lo mismo acerca de Juan Carlos y cuatro otros personajes en los esbozos en miniatura sinópticos que siguen.  Por último, en las páginas 205-210, una mujer se confesa antes de un cura en una escena en cual lagunas dentro de frases y trucos de puntuación idiosincráticos llaman la atención al hecho de que sólo un lado del "diálogo" se escucha.  El punto de todo esto, en el evento que no esté claro todavía, es que Puig era un grosso en lo que refiere al estilo y a la estética.  Y además, pienso que Bolaño probablemente tomó prestado un par de peculiaridades estilísticas del tipo.

Heartbreak Tango (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010)
by Manuel Puig [translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine]
Argentina, 1969
"Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy."
(Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives)

Boquitas pintadas, the impressive second novel from Manuel Puig that's unfortunately only available in English under the cheesy moniker of Heartbreak Tango, is a sort of half-homage/half send-up of a death-laden soap opera, an old school epistolary novel, and a newspaper serial that begins as comedy and ends as tragedy.  From my rather pessimistic point of view, it's an all too worthy example of the so-called Argentinean literature of doom that Roberto Bolaño talks about in Between Parentheses.  Let's cut to the chase, though, shall we?  Juan Carlos Etchepare, a handsome womanizer suffering from an advanced stage of tuberculosis, is the nominal center of attention within the novel, exchanging kisses and coughing up blood while furiously chasing skirts in 1930s and 1940s Argentina.  However, the news of his death at the ripe old age of 29 sets off a melodramatic chain reaction of memories about the character in which his ex-lovers and other intimates become the stars of their own no less unhappy mini-dramas.  Love stories.  Stories about life's failures.  Stories about their failures in love.  Although the novel's emotional trajectory steadily gets more and more depressing until the very end, Puig manages to provide an escape valve of sorts for his readers via the sheer vitality of his prose.  Here are just three examples of how the guy racked up style points galore with me in a novel that offers up a kitchen sink's worth of narrators and narrative formats.  On pages 116-119,* there's a dream sequence conveyed through a list under the heading "Imágenes y palabras que pasaron por la mente de Juan Carlos mientras dormía" ["Images and Words That Passed through Juan Carlos' Mind While He Was Sleeping"].  On pages 130-131, an unnamed narrator tells us a) what Nélida Enriqueta Fernández, the one-time girlfriend of Juan Carlos, did on the day of January 27, 1938, and b) shares the answer to the questions "¿Cuál era en ese momento su mayor deseo?" ["What was her greatest wish at that moment in time?"] and "¿Cuál era en ese momento su temor más grande?" ["What was her greatest fear at that moment in time?"]; on pages 131-137, through a clever repetition pattern used at various points throughout the novel, the narrator tells us the same thing about Juan Carlos and four other characters in the ensuing synoptic vignettes.  Finally, on pages 205-210, a female character makes a confession to a priest in which lacunae within the sentences and idiosyncratic punctuation tricks I won't try to replicate here draw attention to the fact that only the woman's part in the "dialogue" is being transcribed.  The point, in case it's not yet clear, is that Puig was an arresting stylist with many tricks up his narrative sleeve.  What's more, I think that Bolaño probably picked up a couple of good tricks off the guy.

*All page references pertain to the Spanish language edition of the novel.

Manuel Puig (1932-1990)

miércoles, 14 de noviembre de 2012

Bleak House

Bleak House (Oxford University Press, 2008)
by Charles Dickens
England, 1852-53

With apologies to any/all book blog contrarians out there ardently rooting for me to make it through yet another year without ever once cracking the spine of a lemming-friendly Victorian novel, I finally caved and sat down with my first Dickens chunkster since right about the dawn of the gaslight era.  What's more, I actually enjoyed it, guv'ner!  Whatever fuddy-duddy prose and overt Spielbergian sentimentality I was worried about encountering ahead of time, Bleak House gave me 914 pages worth of juicy reasons (mystery, plot twists, spontaneous combustion!) to suspect that maybe I--and not the legions of easily-satisfied Victorian fanboys and fangirls I often think of as my blogging nemeses--was the one who had gotten things all wrong for a change.  A nice surprise: tone and atmosphere.  In a novel in which an unending and not particularly interesting court case thankfully provides a convenient alibi for Dickens to offer up a cross section of London society and embed it in what's at once a love story and a page-turner of a thriller and a powerful denunciation of greed and poverty, I think it's fair to say that the guy just about nailed it in terms of the mixture of irony and gravitas on display.  This winning tone, when coupled with humorous but presumably spot-on observations like "smoke, which is the London ivy" (142), made the atmosphere come alive for me in ways that even Dickens' apparently well-deserved reputation for characterization and description hadn't adequately prepared me for.  An even better surprise: the dual narrators.  Given the size of the canvas and the complexity of the detail laid down in sooty pen and ink within its pages, I have to attribute much of Bleak House's narrative charm and sophistication to its unlikely tag team of Esther Summerson, the likable first person narrator, and the mercurial third person narrator who delivers all the omniscient goods.  Esther, a beacon of goodness, provides the light personal touch and the hope for a happy ending.  The unnamed narrator?  Well, let's just say that he often wields the hammer.  Which brings me to what, in a really weird way, was the most pleasant surprise of all: Dickens, like God, doesn't hesitate to kill off some of his finest, most sympathetic characters without warning here--whether they are deserving or undeserving of such a fate in the reader's eyes.  Why is that a good thing as far as the novel's concerned?  1) The ensuing unpredictability.  2) You're forced to become invested in what happens to the characters on a personal level.  3) Dickens, unlike God, does some of his finest work when addressing the death of innocents.  As just one example, here's the non-Esther narrator chillingly addressing the reader directly after one poor wretch has just been snuffed out while reciting the Lord's Prayer: "Dead, your Majesty.  Dead, my lords and gentlemen.  Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.  Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts.  And dying thus around us, every day" (677).  Not a happy moment to be sure.  However, exactly the sort of moment that makes me realize I've underestimated Dickens for years.  My bad.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Thanks to Himadri and Tom for persuading me via assorted blog posts that I should give Dickens--and in particular Bleak House--another try after years of lack of interest in the guy.  For more on the author elsewhere, please check out the "Dickens in December" event hosted by our pal Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and her pal Delia of Postcards from Asia.

miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2012

The Argentinean Literature of Doom: October Link Action

Thanks to a spirited discussion of Sarmiento's often hyperbolic Facundo, there were more than twice as many ALoD posts in October as there were in September.  Of course, my stats monkey reminds me that there were only two such posts in September.  That being said, gracias to Tom and Rise for their reading/writing contributions this month.  Not yet sure what November will have in store on the Argentinean lit front here at Caravana, but given the "serious" nature of the other reading plans in place, don't be too surprised if J.R. Wilcock's The Wedding of Hitler and Marie Antoinette in Hell makes its long-awaited appearance at last.  That would slap a smile onto your Argentinophile book-blogging face now, wouldn't it?

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Siete noches by Jorge Luis Borges
Rise, in lieu of a field guide
"The Golden Hare" by Silvina Ocampo

lunes, 22 de octubre de 2012

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Duras
France, 1958

I finished Haruki Murakami's laughably inept Kafka on the Shore something like a day or two after I finished Marguerite Duras' assured, devastating Moderato cantabile.  Bad timing for Murakami because there's nothing at all funny or inauthentic about Duras' book.  In a quiet seaside town, a restless child's weekly Friday piano lesson is interrupted first by the roar of a passing motorboat--a symbol of freedom and the chance to escape--and then by the piercing wail of a woman who has just been killed in a crime of passion in a neighboring café.  The child's mother, Anne Desbaresdes, will spend the remainder of the novella trying to piece together what happened and why on that fateful day in question; you, in turn, will read on with increasing Madame Bovary-like horror as the desperate provincial mother here seems to try to effect a similar escape by finding solace in drink, a flirtation with adultery with an "homme de la rue" named Chauvin, and finally an open identification with the murder victim herself.  What price freedom, eh?  As with the novelist's later Hiroshima mon amour, I was both drawn to and perturbed by Duras' austere, economic prose and by her uncanny sense of control while charting such emotionally troubled waters.  One of the ways Duras mounts tension in the text is by casually drawing attention to the fact that others are keenly aware of the reckless amount of time that Madame Desbaresdes, the wealthy wife of a big deal import-export magnate in town, and Chauvin, an unemployed factory worker, are spending together drinking wine in the bar.  However, the way she does it is almost cinematically subtle because she never lingers for too long on the shot: "Les premiers hommes entrèrent au café, s'étonnèrent, interrogèrent la patronne du regard.  Celle-ci, d'un léger mouvement d'épaules, signifia qu'elle-même n'y comprenait pas grand chose" ["The first men came into the café, were astonished, and questioned the proprietor with a look.  She, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, indicated that she herself didn't know much about it"] (1224).  Although this kind of unobtrusive moment might not even merit a second glance on its own, it turns out to be just the right amount of detail to set up a chilling scene later on.  As the narrative relentlessly chugs forward to its conclusion, the narrator laconically tells us that "un homme rôde, boulevard de la Mer.  Une femme le sait" ["a man is on the prowl on the Boulevard de la Mer; a woman knows it"] (1246).  While I won't spoil what takes place afterward or cite the brutal final exchange between the couple that practically made me sick to my stomach, suffice it to say that the prowler is Chauvin, the femme is a drunken Madame Desbaresdes who is hosting a dinner party attended by her husband's monied friends, and the thrust of what follows is a queasy dance with death that will help you determine whether Anne Desbaresdes is a martyr to a loveless marriage or just another victim in quest of annihilation.  A total downer--but an impossibly well-written one.

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

This version of Moderato cantabile appears in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Duras' Œuvres complètes, Tome I, 1203-1260.

lunes, 15 de octubre de 2012

Siete noches

Siete noches (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007)
by Jorge Luis Borges
Argentina, 1980

Between June 1st and August 3rd of the Argentinean Literature of Doom year of 1977, the then 78-year old Jorge Luis Borges delivered a series of seven talks on "La Divina Comedia" ["The Divine Comedy"], "La pesadilla" ["Nightmares"], "Las mil y una noches" ["The Thousand and One Nights"], "El budismo" ["Buddhism"], "La poesía" ["Poetry"], "La cábala" ["The Kabbalah"], and "La ceguera" ["Blindness"] at the 1700-seat teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires' upscale Retiro district.  Although there were apparently more than a few dull moments on the noches dedicated to Buddhism and the Kabbalah, I won't gripe about that too much here since Borges was in undeniably fine form on all the non-opiate of the masses evenings in question.  His lecture on "Nightmares" is a good case in point and a good introduction to his presentation methodology in general.  After opening with a thought-provoking contrast between whether the waking memories of our dreams are, as Sir Thomas Browne believed, just a poor substitute for "la espléndida realidad" ["splendid reality"] or whether our dreams are instead, as Borges himself believed, like "una obra de ficción" ["a work of fiction"] that only improves with our retelling of it (36), the man of the hour mentions several examples of dreams in literature before turning to the etymology of the word "pesadilla" ["nightmare"] in various languages both ancient and modern.  A fascinating linguistic detour.  Confessing to his own recurring nightmares about labyrinths and mirrors (the former of which he partially attributes to the terrifying sight of a steel engraving of the labyrinth of Crete in a French book from his childhood), Borges then links the autobiographical with his interest in the treatment of nightmares in literature with the following arresting statement: "Llego a la conclusión, ignoro si es científico, de que los sueños son la actividad estética más antigua" ["I arrive at the conclusion, not knowing if it is scientific or not, that dreams are our most ancient aesthetic activity"] (47).  Throughout, Borges always seems to channel that extraordinary but very down to earth Comp Lit professor who clearly enjoys bonding with his students over the joys of text(s).  Thomas de Quincey, for example, is gently razzed for having "una admirable memoria inventiva" ["an admirable inventive memory"] in the talk about The Thousand and One Nights.  "Cada palabra es una obra poética" ["Each word is a poetic piece of work"] we are assured in the lecture on poetry (104).  No doom and maybe not the best Borges book for me to be writing about late at night considering I still have Ficciones to finish at some point but a satisfying souvenir all the same.

Borges at the Coliseo

Llegamos ahora a la palabra más sabia y ambigua, el nombre inglés de la pesadilla: the nightmare, que significa para nosotros "la yegua de la noche".  Shakespeare la entendió así.  Hay un verso suyo que dice I met the nightmare, "me encontré con la yegua de la noche".  Se ve que la concibe como una yegua.  Hay otro poema que ya dice deliberadamente the nightmare and her nine foals, "la pesadilla y sus nueve potrillos", donde la ve como una yegua tambien.
We now arrive at the most sensible and ambiguous word, the English name for la pesadilla: the nightmare, which means "the mare of the night" to us.  Shakespeare understood it in that way.  There is a verse of his which says, "I met the nightmare."  One sees that he conceives of it as a mare.  There is another poem which deliberately says "the nightmare and her nine foals," where he also sees it as a mare.
(Siete noches, 42)

Obviously anticipating the future release of the ALoD syllabus, Borges fan Rise of in lieu of a field guide reviewed the English translation of Seven Nights as part of his January 2010 Reading Diary.  A quick summary of César Aira's Ghosts, apparently submitted for extra credit, can be found at the same spot by clairvoyant and non-clairvoyant readers alike.

lunes, 8 de octubre de 2012

Mémoires d'Hadrien

Mémoires d'Hadrien (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Yourcenar
France, 1951

Ce matin, l'idée m'est venue pour la première fois que mon corps, ce fidèle compagnon, cet ami plus sûr, mieux connu de moi que mon âme, n'est qu'un monstre sournois qui finira par dévorer son maître.
This morning the idea came to me for the first time that my body, this loyal companion, this surest of friends, better known by me than my soul, is nothing but a cunning monster which will end up devouring its master.
(Mémoires d'Hadrien, 11)

Mémoires d'Hadrien [barbarian title: Memoirs of Hadrian] is a profound, remarkably subtle, and understated work which convincingly passes itself off as a long letter from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 C.E.) to a young protégé who would later become known to posterity as the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Although Yourcenar claims in the afterword that one of her goals in writing the work--a work that obsessed and then stymied the novelist for the better part of three decades--was to "refaire du dedans ce que les archéologues du XIXe siècle ont fait du dehors" ["redo from within what the 19th century archeologists did from without"] (327), her attempt to painstakingly reconstruct a vanished world--and in particular the mindset of a physically deteriorating 60-year old man who lived and loved so many centuries before us--would have fallen flat on its historical fiction face had the voice she created for her title character not succeeded so admirably and even paradigmatically.  At the very least, I could relate to listening to him ruminate about his current afflictions and about his love for life in his youth and I could also believe it when he talked about the grief he endured as a result of the suicide of his lover Antinous--an event that is said to have caused the real life Hadrian "to weep like a woman" and an event that the grief-stricken fictional Hadrian at one point describes as "mon dialogue interrompu avec un fantôme" ["my interrupted dialogue with a phantom"] (291).  A keen, affecting, but deceptively low-key production--proof of which is that the book's been trashed by multiple Amazon reviewers for having "no dialogue" and "no plot," those two cornerstones of the ancient epistolary tradition!

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

Mémoires d'Hadrien was my September 2011 reading pick for the gone but not forgotten reading group known as the Wolves.  Although I'm naturally a little embarrassed to be over a year late in getting to my own group read selection, I'm delighted to finally link to the non-slacker Wolfies' posts below.

E.L. Fay, This Book and I Could Be Friends
Frances, Nonsuch Book
Sarah, what we have here is a failure to communicate

miércoles, 3 de octubre de 2012

Facundo. Civilización y barbarie

Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie (Cátedra, 2005)
por Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Argentina, 1845

En la primera de sus dos excelentes entradas sobre Facundo del lunes y del martes, Tom de Wuthering Expectations hizo ver que la obra de no ficción de Sarmiento acerca del choque de culturas entre la "civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas)" ["civilización (Buenos Aires y unas ciudades periféricas) y barbarie (las Pampas)"] en las guerras civiles de Argentina a mediados del siglo XIX es tan "imaginatively rich" ["imaginativamente rica"] que el libro parece haber anticipado ambas la novela del dictador de Latinoamérica y la futura no ficción latinoamericana del siglo XX como Los sertones de Euclides de Cunha.  Aunque el concepto de Tom en cuanto a lo que significa ser "imaginativamente rica" pueda ser distinto del mío, me gustaría adoptar esa idea como un punto de partida para subrayar varias cosas que me entusiasmaron en Facundo.  Primer de todo, para un fanático del lenguaje, es difícil negar el gran impacto del ritmo de la prosa declamatoria de Sarmiento: "¡Sombra terrible de Facundo", fulmina contra su adversario muerto en la introducción, "voy a evocarte, para que sacudiendo el ensangrentado polvo que cubre tus cenizas, te levantes a explicarnos la vida secreta y las convulsiones internas que desgarran las entrañas de un noble pueblo!  Tú posees el secreto: revélanoslo" (37-38).  Si quizá un poco pomposo, en torno al estilo esto no es sólo un recurso retórico: la biografía de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), el símbolo del "gaucho malo" por excelencia, y las diatribas políticas en contra del tirano Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), otro caudillo gaucho que --según el autor-- es culpable por arruinar al país, hierva de la cólera del exiliado Sarmiento frente a la memoria de los varios crímenes violentos de los hombres.  En medio de las letanías casi sin fin escritas sobre el mal, las cuales frecuentemente se leen como las más sencionales de las biografías imperiales romanas de Suetonio, Sarmiento de vez en cuando ofrece algunos momentos tranquilos como la aparencia de los rayos sobre la Pampa (una escena maravillosamente transformada por César Aira en su novela corta del año 2000 Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero) o algunos ejemplos de análisis político como éste donde se describe Argentina como un país a caballo de un pasado iletrado (con raices en la cultura de los gauchos) y de un futuro civilizado políglota (anclado a una visión idealizada de la cultura europea): "En la República Argentina se ven a un tiempo dos civilizaciones distintas en un mismo suelo: una naciente, que sin conocimiento de lo que tiene sobre su cabeza, está remedando los esfuerzos ingenuos y populares de la edad media; otra que sin cuidarse de lo que tiene a sus pies, intenta realizar los últimos resultados de la civilización europea: el siglo XIX y el XII viven juntos; el uno dentro de las ciudades, el otro en las campañas" (91).  Si, como la mayoría de ustedes, no conozco la historia argentina del siglo XIX suficientemente bien para saber si o cuando Sarmiento esté exagerando las cosas para probar algo, no importa tanto dada su destreza "cuentística" como historiador.  De hecho, en un prólogo a una edición de Facundo imprimida en 1974 por la Librería "El Ateneo" Editorial en Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges incluso afirmó que "el Facundo erigido por Sarmiento es el personaje más memorable de nuestras letras" (véase Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos [Buenos Aires: Torres Agüero Editor, 1975], 138).  ¿Tenía razón el juicio de Borges?  Una anécdota desde el capítulo XII de Facundo, el último de cuatro capítulos en sucesión que se llaman "Guerra social", le permitirá que uno puede juzgarlo por si mismo (ojo: te evitaré los detalles subsiguientes en cuanto a los cadáveres y el cementerio).  Es el mes de noviembre del año 1831.  Facundo, el llamado "Tigre de los Llanos", ha justo obtuvo un triunfo en un Tucumán caracterizado como "el edén de América" (266); naturalmente, él está preparando a matar a todos los prisioneros enemigos como de siempre.  Sin embargo, "una diputación de niñas rebosando juventud, candor y beldad" se dirige hacia él; "vienen a implorar por la vida de los oficiales del ejército que van a ser fusilados".  Contra todas las expectativas, Sarmiento nos dice, "Facundo está vivamente interesado, y por entre la espesura de su barba negra alcanza a discernirse en las facciones la complacencia y el contento".  Las esperanzas de las niñas en cuanto al "piadoso fin que se han propuesto" parecen prometedoras cuando Facundo pasa una hora entera "interrogarlas una a una", preguntándolas de sus familias y otros detalles personales.  Pero "al fin", Sarmiento escribe, Facundo "les dice con la mayor bondad: ¿No oyen ustedes, esas descargas?  ¡Ya no hay tiempo!" (268-269)

Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (University of California Press, 2003)
by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento [translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Ross]
Argentina, 1845

In the first of his two excellent posts on Facundo from Monday and Tuesday, Tom of Wuthering Expectations made the point that Sarmiento's nonfiction classic about the clash of cultures between "civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas)" in Argentina's mid-19th century civil wars is so "imaginatively rich" that it seems to have anticipated both the Latin American dictator novel and early 20th century Latin American nonfiction like Euclides da Cunha's epic Rebellion in the Backlands.  Even though Tom's conception of what's "imaginatively rich" may well differ from my own, I'd like to borrow that idea as a starting point to jot down several of the things that made Facundo such a gripping read for me.  First of all, for a language freak, it's hard to deny the raw power of Sarmiento's declamatory cadences: "Terrible specter of Facundo," he thunders at his dead adversary in the introduction, "I will evoke you, so that you may rise, shaking off the bloody dust covering your ashes, and explain the hidden life and the inner convulsions that tear at the bowels of a noble people!  You possess the secret: reveal it to us!" (31).  While maybe over the top, this isn't just an over the top rhetorical device--Sarmiento's biography of Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), the symbol of "the bad gaucho" par excellence, and his political diatribes against the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), another gaucho strongman whom Sarmiento claims has brought the country to its knees, veritably seethe with the exiled Sarmiento's wrath at the pair's various violent crimes.  In between the seemingly unending litanies of evil, which often read like some of Suetonius' more lurid imperial Roman biographies transplanted to the Río de la Plata region a mere two millennia later, the pugilistic stylist and would-be political scientist Sarmiento occasionally slips in a quiet moment like an arresting nature scene about lightning storms on the Pampas (wonderfully transfigured by César Aira in his 2000 novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter) and many more or less thoughtful attempts at political analysis such as this one where he depicts Argentina as a country caught in between an unlettered past (rooted in South American gaucho culture) and a lettered, polyglot future (anchored to an idealized vision of European immigrant culture): "In the Argentine Republic we see at the same time two different societies on the same soil: one still nascent, which, with no knowledge of things over its head, repeats the naive, popular work of the Middle Ages; another which, with no regard for things beneath its feet, tries to attain the latest results of European civilization.  The nineteenth and the twelfth centuries live together: one inside the cities, the other in the country" (70).  If, like most of you, I'm not nearly familiar enough with 19th century Argentinean history to know when Sarmiento might be exaggerating about events to prove a point, that matters little from an entertainment standpoint given the immediacy of Sarmiento's "storytelling" abilities as an historian.  In fact, in a prologue to a 1974 edition of Facundo put out by the Librería "El Ateneo" Editorial in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges even went so far as to claim that "el Facundo erigido por Sarmiento es el personaje más memorable de nuestras letras" ["the Facundo erected by Sarmiento is the most memorable character in our literature"] (cf. Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos [Buenos Aires: Torres Agüero Editor, 1975], 138).  Was Borges correct in his assessment?  A random anecdote from Chapter XII of Facundo, the last of four chapters in a row called "Society at War," might allow you to decide for yourself--although I'll spare you the coda about the executed soldiers' bodies being dragged off to the cemetery.  It's November of 1831.  Facundo, the so-called "Tiger of the Plains," has just won a resounding victory at the Edenic Tucumán and is preparing to kill off all the defeated enemy prisoners as usual.  However, "a delegation of young girls brimming with youth, innocence, and beauty" approach him and "come to plead for the lives of the army officers who were going to be shot."  Against all expectations, Sarmiento tells us, "Facundo was keenly interested, and from amid the thickness of his black beard, contentment and complacency could be discerned on his features."  The sobbing girls' hopes for mercy are raised as Facundo questions them one by one for a full hour, asking questions about their families and inquiring about other personal details in a friendly and respectful manner.  "At last," however, Sarmiento writes, "he said to them with the greatest affability: 'Do you hear those shots being fired?'  It was too late!" (180-181).


Es inaudito el cúmulo de atrocidades que se necesita amontonar unas sobre otras para pervertir a un pueblo, y nadie sabe los ardides, los estudios, las observaciones y la sagacidad que ha empleado don Juan Manuel Rosas para someter la ciudad a esa influencia mágica que trastorna en seis años la concienca de lo justo y de lo bueno, que quebranta al fin los corazones más esforzados y los doblega al yugo.  El terror de 1793 en Francia era un efecto, no un instrumento.  Robespierre no guillotinaba nobles y sacerdotes para crearse una reputación, ni elevarse él sobre los cadáveres que amontonaba.  Era un alma adusta y severa aquella que había creído que era preciso amputar a la Francia todos sus miembros aristocráticos, para cimentar la revolución.  "Nuestros nombres", decía Dantón, "bajarán a la posterioridad execrados, pero habremos salvado la República".  El terror entre nosotros es una invención gubernativa para ahogar toda conciencia, todo espíritu de ciudad, y forzar al fin a los hombres a reconocer como cabeza pensadora el pie que les oprime la garganta; es un despique que toma el hombre inepto armado del puñal para vengarse del desprecio que sabe que su nulidad inspira a un público que les es infinitamente superior.  Por eso hemos visto en nuestros días repetirse las extravagancias de Calígula, que se hacía adorar como dios, y asociaba al Imperio su caballo.  Calígula sabía que era él el último de los romanos a quienes tenía, no obstante, bajo su pie.  Facundo se daba aires de inspirado, de adivino, para suplir a su incapacidad natural de influir sobre los ánimos.  Rosas se hacía adorar en los templos y tirar su retrato por las calles en un carro a que iban uncidos generales y señoras, para crearse el prestigio que echaba menos.  Pero Facundo es cruel sólo cuando la sangre se le ha venido a la cabeza y a los ojos, y ve todo colorado.  Sus cálculos fríos se limitan a fusilar a un hombre, azotar a un ciudadano: Rosas no se enfurece nunca, calcula en la quietud y en el recogimiento de su gabinete, y desde allí salen las órdenes a sus sicarios.
(Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie, 261-262)
It is incredible how many atrocities must be piled up, one on top of the other, to pervert a people.  And no one knows the ruses, the studying, the observations, and the sagacity that Don Juan Manuel Rosas has used to subject the city to that magical influence, which in six years completely changed consciousness of what is just and right, which finally broke the hearts of the bravest and bowed them to the yoke.  The Terror in France in 1793 was not a means, but an effect.  Robespierre didn't guillotine nobles and priests to create a reputation for himself, or to elevate himself on top of the bodies he piled up.  He was an austere, severe soul who thought that all of France's aristocratic limbs had to be amputated in order to cement the revolution.  "Our names," said Danton, "will go down in posterity as execrable; but we will have saved the Republic."  Terror among us is an invention of government to choke all conscience, all spirit of the city, and finally to force men to recognize as a thinking brain the foot squeezing their throat.  It is the satisfaction taken by an inept man armed with a dagger to avenge the scorn he knows his nullity inspires in a public infinitely superior to him.  This is why we have seen repeated in our times the extravagances of Caligula, who had himself adored as God and made his horse an associate in the empire.  Caligula knew that he was the lowest of the Romans, whom he had, nevertheless, under his foot.  Facundo gave himself an air of inspiration, of clairvoyance, to supplant his natural incapacity to influence minds.  Rosas had himself worshipped in churches and his image pulled through the streets on a cart, to which generals and ladies were yoked, to create the prestige he lacked.  But Facundo was cruel only when the blood had risen to his head and his eyes, and all he saw was red.  His cold calculations were limited to shooting a man, to whipping a citizen.  Rosas never goes into a fury; he calculates in the quiet and seclusion of his study, and from there, the orders go out to his hired assassins.
(Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, translated by Kathleen Ross, 176)

Leí Facundo con Tom como parte de un proyecto mío que se llama "The Argentinean Literature of Doom" ["La literatura argentina de la pesada"].  Los enlaces a los post de Tom se pueden encontrar abajo.//I read Facundo with Tom as part of my "Argentinean Literature of Doom" project.  Tom's posts are linked to below.

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes - some early Argentinean literary doom

How do you think it's going?  In Chile!  And on foot! - Sarmiento's anatomy of the gaucho

domingo, 30 de septiembre de 2012

The Argentinean Literature of Doom: September Link Action

Since Tom and I agreed to postpone our Facundo discussion from last week until this week and I've been sort of enjoying a working vacation from the blog in general of late, I'm afraid there's not too much Argentinean literature to report on here tonight.  Thankfully, two of my favorite Borges fans bailed me out with wonderful end of the month posts--gracias, Miguel and Rise!

On a related note, the Bioy Casares Borges diary pictured above, a 1,600 page library chunkster whose cover has been serving as an unofficial button for the Doom project, has been recalled from me again by a person or persons unknown.  Good thing I'm already several hundred pages behind on Galdós' Fortunata y Jacinta for Dwight's October readalong or there might be some Borges-inspired fisticuffs to relate to you all!

Miguel, St. Orberose
Rise, in lieu of a field guide

sábado, 29 de septiembre de 2012


Aurélia (Le Livre de Poche, 1989)
by Gérard de Nerval
France, 1855

"Non! disais-je, je n'appartiens pas à ton ciel.  Dans cette étoile sont ceux qui m'attendent.  Ils sont antérieurs à la révélation que tu as annoncée.  Laisse-moi les rejoindre, car celle que j'aime leur appartient, et c'est là que nous devons nous retrouver!"
"'No!' I said, 'I don't belong to your heaven.  On that star are those who await me.  They predate the revelation that you've announced.  Let me rejoin them, for the woman that I love belongs to them and it's there where we need to meet each other again!'"
(Aurélia, 10)
Although anybody who knows anything about Gérard de Nerval's mental breakdowns and eventual suicide will probably read Aurélia wondering just where the author's imagination leaves off and his illness begins, those of you who know nothing about Nerval can just sit back and enjoy the wild ride...an autobiographical quest narrative with nods to Aeneas' descent into the underworld, Dante's Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia, and Swedenborgian mysticism, Aurélia--set into motion by the woman who broke Nerval's heart and accompanied by disarmingly casual accounts of his time spent under medical supervision--is perhaps best thought of as a lush, poetic odyssey dedicated to exploring its opening sentence's proposition that "Le Rêve est une seconde vie" ["Dream is a second life"] (3); of course, since no amount of playing pin the tail on the donkey re: genre matters can quite prepare one for the onslaught of oneiric imagery depicting the heaven and hell occupying real estate in Nerval's mind, nobody will fault you if you choose to experience Aurélia as a vision literature-damaged memoir or an extravagant poem in prose on the subject of dreams and madness and a seeker's traipses through a nightmarish Paris instead...Jean Giraudoux, referring to the tradition that a manuscript of Aurélia was fished out of the dead man's pockets by his friends after they were sent to identify Nerval's body at the morgue, has rightfully characterized the work as "une préface passionnément mais volontairement écrite au suicide qui allait l'interrompre" ["a passionately but wilfully written preface to the suicide that was going to interrupt it"] (xviii)--a judgement which makes total sense even if it only hints at Aurélia's more alluring and ecstatic qualities as a reading experience.  A revelation.

Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)
Tom of Wuthering Expectations, whom I believe I first "met" on account of this Gérard de Nerval-related post at Caravana here, has written several savvy posts on our troubled French hero and one man doppelgänger.  His No More Death, No More Sorrow, No More Anxiety - The Mad Dreams of Aurélia is as good a place as any to set off on the Wuthering Expectations Nervalmania expedition, but you probably won't want to stop there once you start.

domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2012

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro [La Testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro] (New Directions, 1999)
by Antonio Tabucchi [translated from the Italian by J.C. Patrick]
Italy, 1997

"I will start with a question which I address chiefly to myself," said Don Fernando.  "What does it mean to be against death?"
(The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, 164)

Two novels into my relationship with the sadly recently departed Antonio Tabucchi, I think that one of the main things I appreciate about the Italian Lusophile is his light touch with some very heavy themes.  Much like its 1994 predecessor Pereira Declares, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro cloaks a handful of depressing realities--in this case, a violent crime in Oporto which sports a spider's web of connections to the international drug trade, political torture, and the abuse of power in a modern police state--in the garb of a prose style that's easygoing and almost affable in its sensibilities.  The result is a deceptively simple crime story of sorts in which the gruesome crime that literally costs 28-year old errand boy Damasceno Monteiro his head is only the starting point for a melancholic reflection on a gruesome crime of an altogether different nature and scale: societal apathy to the victimization of the powerless by the powerful be it by bloodshed or by economic means.  Without Tabucchi's light touch, this could have ended up as some seriously heavyhanded reading.  With it, however, one only senses a concerned humanist's attempt to persuade his readers of the interconnectedness of all things literary and political as a call to action.  On this note, I should mention that one of the other keys to my enjoyment of this novel was its oddly affecting portrayal of the amicizia between the apolitical but Elio Vittorini and György Lukács-loving Lisbon crime reporter Firmino and the gluttonous social justice attorney Don Fernando--an activist who comes from old money in Oporto but not only defends the "unfortunates" with his words and his actions but actually identifies with them "because to understand the miseries of life you have to put your hands in the shit, if you will excuse the expression, and above all be aware of it.  And kindly don't force me to be rhetorical, because this form of rhetoric is cheap" (94).

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012)

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro was read for Antonio Tabucchi Week sponsored by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat.  Thanks to Caroline for coming up with such a fine idea for the week.

lunes, 17 de septiembre de 2012

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (Penguin, 1992)
by Peter Matthiessen
USA, 1983

Peter Matthiessen's combative, morally outraged In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a 600+ page polemic concerning "the story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's war on the American Indian Movement," is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately powerful account of the June 26, 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that left one Indian companion of Peltier's dead and probably unfairly landed Peltier in jail for the rest of his life for the execution of two white FBI agents who also died there that day.  I say "probably unfairly" because, without passing any judgement on Peltier's actual innocence or guilt in the matter, it's difficult to argue with the conclusion arrived at by Matthiessen that Peltier never really received his fair day in court due to multiple examples of FBI and judicial misconduct.  That being said, one of the most frustrating things about the work is that, in the first half of the book at least, Matthiessen sometimes undercuts the effectiveness of his charges with surprisingly sloppy argumentation: "Many if not most of the FBI agents, fired up by the the sensational press releases being issued by their own superiors, were in a dangerous, vengeful state of mind" he says in one egregiously unsubstantiated moment (195).  "Many," Matthiessen?  OK, maybe.  "Many if not most"?  Suffice it to say that there's no documentation for this assertion.  The irony of all this is that when Matthiessen sticks to the facts, he's an extremely persuasive advocate for the idea that justice wasn't served in the Reservation Murders case.  Among the many strengths of the work, Matthiessen takes great pains to situate the so-called "incident at Oglala" in its historic context through dozens of interviews with the principal players.  His chapter-long portrait of the nascent American Indian Movement (AIM) in the years from 1968-1973 and a pair of chapters on the Wounded Knee occupation and trials in 1973-1974, for example, provide a troubling but much needed political backdrop to what a later chapter terms "The New Indian Wars: AIM Versus the FBI, 1972-75," all of which helps to explain how longstanding patterns of institutional racism directed against Native Americans and violent intra-Indian rivalries between traditionals and goons on Pine Ridge essentially created a climate where the bloodshed of the day in question probably could have been anticipated although maybe not avoided.  A fascinating if ethically unsettling work--not least for the contradictory impressions of Peltier that emerge:

One AIM leader, asked if Leonard was capable of violence, evaded the question with the statement "All Indians are capable of violence; we had to be in order to survive."  Another (who deplored the "violent element" in AIM) claimed to have heard from Pine Ridge people that Peltier was responsible for the killings, and did not think that "a man of violence" should become a hero for Indian children.  This person conceded that Leonard's guilt could be mere rumor, which is epidemic on the Indian reservations; she scarcely knew Peltier personally, she said, because "Leonard was always outside helping build the sweat lodge, or taking care of something else" (437-438).

Peter Matthiessen