2012 Premio Alfaguara winner: Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche

December 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Si me hubieran llamado a declarar, pienso.  Pero eso es imposible.  Quizá, por eso, escribo.

Declararía, por ejemplo, que en la noche del sábado al domingo 30 de marzo de 2010 llegué a casa entre las tres y tres y media de la madrugada:  el último ómnibus de Retiro a La Plata sale a la una, pero una muchedumbre volvía de no sé qué recital, y viajamos apretados, de pie la mayoría, avanzando a paso de hombre por la autopista y el campo.

Urgida por mi tardanza, la perra se me echó encima tan pronto abrí la puerta.  Pero yo aún me demoré en comprobar que en mi ausencia no había pasado nada – mi madre dormía bien, a sus ochenta y nueve años, en su casa de la planta baja, con una respiración regular –, y solo entonces volví a buscar la perra, le puse la cadena y la saqué a la vereda.

Como siempre que voy cerca, eché llave a una sola de las tres cerraduras que mi padre, poco antes de morir, instaló en la puerta del garaje:  el miedo a ser robados, secuestrados, muertos, esa seguridad que llaman, curiosamente, inseguridad, ya empezaba a cernirse, como una noche detrás de la noche. (p. 13)

Like most of its neighbors in the 1970s, Argentina went through a period of socio-political upheaval that led to a right-wing military coup.  The “Dirty War” of 1976-1983 led to tens of thousands of disappearances, mysterious robberies, assaults, murders, and other acts of violence.  Often neighbors would witness atrocities, only to be forced to remain silent lest what they saw would be visited in turn upon them.  It is, nearly forty years later, still a controversial topic within Argentina and there are many groups clamoring even today for justice to be served for those who inflicted such violence upon its citizens.

In Leopoldo Brizuela’s 2012 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Una misma noche (On a Similar Night might be an appropriate translation), he explores the issues of fear-driven forgetfulness and subconscious complicity in acts of state atrocity.  Through the eyes of his narrator, a writer named Leonardo Bazán, Brizuela jumps back and forth through two time periods, 1976-1977 and 2010, to probe at just how people could look at a horrific event and manage to rationalize it away from their conscious thoughts.  It is an interesting narrative approach, albeit one fraught with flaws.

The chapters, labeled by letters in the Spanish alphabet, alternate between these time periods.  Bazán at first tries to adopt a more “clinical” approach toward narrating the similarities between the house invasion he and his parents witnessed in 1976 and a 2010 elaborate robbery (which includes, interestingly enough, a member of the local police) in that very name house.  What are the connections between the two?, Bazán begins to ask himself.  Then, as memories are triggered by this 2010 invasion, the question shifts more toward that of what was he hiding from himself all along?

The narrative depends upon the reader’s willingness to consider and reconsider details that Bazán raises as he shifts back and forth from memory (some of which seems to be unreliable, as he recalls in different lights the exact same events he discussed in a prior chapter) and “present” reflection.  At times, the split between the past/present becomes a bit too dizzying, as there are occasionally no narrative bridges between these temporal shifts of thought.  This in turn risks missing out on important information or clues into what happened in the original 1976 home invasion and how Bazán’s family dealt with its aftermath.

In addition, some of the principal characters, including the Jewish family, the Kupermans, are not as fleshed out as much as they perhaps should have been.  These relatively sketchy characters on occasion detract from the narrative’s potential impact as there is not enough information provided about them to enable the reader to form solid connections.  This is a shame, as at times Brizuela’s prose, particular when Bazán is contemplating the connections between the events, is sharp and the narrative flow on these occasions is fluid and devoid of the false steps that plague other parts of the story.  This unevenness in the characterizations and plot development dampens the enjoyment that might have been derived from reading Una misma noche.  It is not by any stretch a particularly “bad” novel, just merely a flawed one, one of the weaker Premio Alfaguara winners in the sixteen years since the award was resumed.

2006 Premio Alfaguara winner: Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo (Red April)

December 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Con fecha miércoles 8 de marzo de 2000, en circunstancias en que transitaba por las inmediaciones de su domicilio en la localidad de Quinua, Justino Mayta Carazo (31) encontró un cadáver.

Según ha manifestado ante las autoridades competentes, el declarante llevaba tres días en el carnaval del referido asentamiento, donde había participado en el baile del pueblo.  Debido a esa contingencia, afirma no recordar dónde se hallaba la noche anterior ni niguna de las dos precedentes, en las que refirió haber libado grandes cantidades de bebidas espirituosas.  Esa versión no ha podido ser ratificada por ninguno de las 1.576 vecinos del pueblo, que dan fe de haberse encontrado asimismo en el referido estado etílico durante las anteriores 72 horas con ocasión de dicha festividad. (p. 13)

Police procedurals, or “whodunnits,” are a very popular literary genre.  If crafted well, each scene, each character interaction builds toward something greater until the final revelations are made and the case is closed.  But what if this murder/mystery tale were wedded to political turmoil and terrorism?  What if coercion and covert sympathy for the offenders were to play a major role in blocking a case from being solved?

Santiago Roncagliolo in his 2006 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Abril rojo (available in English translation as Red April) manages to create a near-perfect melding of these elements.  Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Peru between March 9 and May 3, 2000, Abril rojo is the tale of a state prosecutor, Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, who is trying to solve a series of murders in his hometown of Ayacucho.  What Chacaltana discovers, however, is that the local people may or may not be complicit in harboring some of the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla/terrorist group that had terrorized much of Peru, especially the more Quechua-speaking areas of the mountains, during the 1980s and 1990s.

Roncagliolo develops the action carefully, utilizing several investigative interviews conducted by Chacaltana to provide context for what is transpiring in Ayacucho.  In these scenes, the citizens interviewed reveal only small fragments of information, leaving Chacaltana impeded in his search for justice for the growing number of people dying in the region, most especially during the weeks leading up to Holy Week in late April.  Furthermore, his efforts seem to be leading to more murders, as those who do agree to divulge information appear to be targets for the murderers.

However, there are some interesting twists to what might seem to be a standard tale of nefarious bandits terrorizing the locals.  Roncagliolo also presents a very realistic portrait of the senderistas through some of the testimony provided in Chacaltana’s interviews.  This composite portrait, derived from actual court cases according to the author, provides valuable insight into the reasons behind the senderistas becoming dedicated to overthrowing the national government, as well as providing a glimpse into the appeal the Sendero Luminoso had for even the more privileged members of Peruvian society.  It is this sense of veracity within this procedural tale that makes each plot development in Abril rojo feel so vital.

Roncagliolo’s writing is sharp throughout the novel.  There is a gradually building narrative tension that rarely suffers from longeurs.  The characters are well-developed and even though some might at first glance appear to be stock characterizations, there is a level of depth to them that often does not appear in murder/mystery stories.  Although the conclusion is slightly weaker than the middle portions of the novel, it provides enough detail and narrative power to make this novel one of the more enjoyable police procedurals that I’ve read in either Spanish or English in quite some time.  Abril rojo is one of my favorite Premio Alfaguara-winning novels and this re-read after an initial read almost eight years ago confirmed my original high opinion of this novel.

2002 Premio Alfaguara winner: Tomás Eloy Martínez, El vuelo de la reina

December 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

A eso de las once, como toas las noches, Camargo abre las cortinas de su cuarto en la calle Reconquista, dispone el sillón a un metro de distancia de la ventana para que la penumbra lo proteja, y espera a que la mujer entre en su ángulo de mira.  A veces la ve cruzar como una ráfaga por la ventana de enfrente y desaparecer en el baño o en la cocina.  Lo que a ella más le gusta, sin embargo, es detenerse ante el espejo del dormitorio y desvestirse con suprema lentitud.  Camargo puede contemplarla entonces a su gusto.  Muchos años atrás, en un teatro de variedades de Osaka, vio a una bailarina japonesa despojarse del quimono de ceremonia hasta quedar desnuda por completo.  La mujer de enfrente tiene la misma altiva elegancia de la japonesa y repite las mismas poses de fingido asombro, pero sus movimientos son aún más sensuales.  Inclina la cabeza como si se le hubiera perdido algún recuerdo y, luego de pasarse la punta de los dedos por debajo de los pechos, los lame con delicadeza.  Para no perder ningún detalle, Camargo la observa a través de un telescopio Bushnell de sesenta y siete centímetros que está montado sobre un trípode. (p. 11)

There is a relatively new cliché that obsession is more than a perfume by Calvin Klein.  Yet there is something beguiling, alluring even, about displays of obsession that draws people’s attentions.  Perhaps it is our own half-understood realization that we all have our things or people that become our objects of fixation and desire.  Seeing it in others can be revolting as well, as though we are witnesses simultaneously something quasi-criminal and a too-clear reflection of our own most shameful lusts.  Yet, sometimes, we observe, perhaps behind some metaphorical curtains or bushes the obsessed soul in action.  We might feel helpless to resist, but there it lies, waiting for us to see how this obsession will unfold.  Sometimes, it’ll be fortuitous, with the obsession transformed into reciprocal love.  Other times (and these can be the most delectable for us, loathe as many of us may be to admit it), the obsession crashes into disaster.

In Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez’s 2002 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel El vuelo de la reina (The Flight of the Queen), the reader encounters a disturbing sort of obsession straight from the opening paragraph.  Camargo, the head of Buenos Aires’ most influential newspaper, is spying upon a
young woman, a reporter named Reina.  It is not a Romeo espying a Juliet; it is a predator stalking its prey.  Camargo is double Reina’s age and furthermore, he has all sorts of power over her:  his ability to block or accelerate her career advancement; his knowledge of an extramarital affair that she had; and his awareness of how precarious her position is in a society that has a double standard when it comes to issues of sex and morality.

It would be too easy to view Camargo as the villian, as after all, he has very few, if any, redeeming personal qualities and his lusts for power and dominance are not exactly heroic.  Yet Eloy Martínez, by having us see events through Camargo’s thoughts and actions, forces the reader to confront these detestable qualities head-on.  Camargo is so blinded by his obsession with Reina that he justifies all sorts of nefarious actions in such a fashion that at times it is hard not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for him, controlled as he is by his desires.  But it is in a few scenes with Reina, leading up to the denouement, that we see the full extent of his power plays and the deleterious effects this has on the young woman.  Here is where Camargo’s self-delusions and machinations are laid bare and the reader is confronted with the insidious nature of Camargo’s actions.  Eloy Martínez manages to execute this so well that when the novel concludes, the reader is left with two wavering images of Camargo, each seeming to elide into the other, with the dissonance serving to illustrate how Camargo’s self-image differs from the reader’s.

Eloy Martínez’s prose is excellent throughout the narrative, and he manages to shape through carefully crafted passages, nuanced portraits of the principal characters.  While Camargo’s obsessed, mostly-malevolent character can be distasteful, especially when he is the primary character, Eloy Martínez manages to make other character perspectives feel dynamic and true to life.  Although there are a few moments where the narrative slows down overmuch, for the most part, Eloy Martínez’s slow ratcheting up of the narrative tension adds greatly to the story.  While the conclusion might be a little “soft” for some readers, it too fits in with the themes of power and desire that Eloy Martínez explores to great depth here.  El vuelo de la reina is a very good novel, one of Eloy Martínez’s best, and it certainly was deserving of its selection as a Premio Alfaguara-winning novel.

2001 Premio Alfaguara winner: Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo

December 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

 – Mamá, ¿allá atrás se acaba el mundo?

– No, no se acaba.

– Demuéstramelo.

– Te voy a llevar más lejos de lo que se ve a simple vista.

Lorenzo miraba el horizonte enrojecido al atardecer mientras escuchaba a su madre.  Florencia era su cómplice, su amiga, se entendían con sólo mirarse.  Por eso la madre se doblegó a la urgencia en la voz de su hijo y al día siguiente, su pequeño de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de segunda para Cuautla en la estación de San Lázaro. (p. 9)

Some of civilization’s greatest thinkers began their paths to discoveries by asking simple questions in life.  There is something of a child’s wonder at what lies beyond the horizon, discovering whether or not there is truly an “end” to the earth, or if, as is stated by the mother above, that such a child can and will be transported to a place beyond current sight, a locale where perhaps conceptualizations of reality can merge with those of a child’s flights of fantasy.  Such stories, both real and fictitious alike, can move readers who witness the development of that curious child into an inventor or trailblazer.

In Elena Poniatowska’s 2001 Premio Alfaguara-winning La piel del cielo (a possible translation being The Sky’s Skin or The Skin of Heaven), she traces the life of such a singular child, Lorenzo de Tena, from his impoverished youth through his struggles to arrive at where he seemed destined to be, an astronomer.  It is not the end point that fascinates as much it is the difficult journey that Lorenzo has to make.  The son of an out-of-wedlock relationship between a distant, wealthy businessman father and a determined, intelligent, yet impoverished mother, Lorenzo has to fight and scrape in order to follow his ambitions.  His humble social origins are repeatedly thrust into his face, as he has to battle in order to make it through into college.  He is for a time associated with Mexican Communists during his youth (the middle decades of the 20th century) before he changes course and becomes an astronomer.

Poniatowska goes to great pains to make sure that Lorenzo’s narrative arc is not clichéd.  While he has difficulties in achieving his ambitions, some of the issues arise from his own sometimes prickly personality.  His demeanor and social attitudes can at times be offputting, but this is almost certainly intentional, as Poniatowska seems to be tracing the machismo roots of certain attitudes that Mexican scientists had during the mid-20th century.  Lorenzo’s flaws, as much as his achievements, are a large part of what makes La piel del cielo such a fascinating character study.  It is difficult to make genius into something relateable, yet for the most part Poniatowska manages to pull this off and make it seem almost effortless.

Yet there are times where the story flags a bit, particularly in the middle sections of the novel.  Here Lorenzo’s struggle does not feel as vital, nor is there a strong enough narrative “hook” to overcome this fall in the action.  However, this fall in narrative power only occurs for a few chapters in this book, as the beginning and concluding chapters are much stronger.  Likewise, Lorenzo’s character, as mentioned above, can be polarizing in how he views the world and its people, but even at his least likeable moments, his strength of character shines through.  Poniatowska’s prose is subtle in its depictions of character interactions and with only a few mild hiccups along the way, the narrative flows smoothly from beginning to end.  La piel del cielo ultimately is an interesting look at how genius can triumph over adversity without ever resorting to alienating the genius’s personality from that of the surrounding environs.  It is a fascinating character/society portrait, one that is deserving of the literary prize bestowed upon it.

Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels (2011; 2014 English translation)

November 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The queen is dead.

She’s lying in the entrance hole, delicate, fragile, her limbs curled up against her body.

I would recognize it as the queen just by the elongated lower body and clearly larger size compared to the worker bees, but there is also a little spot of colour on her back – I marked this female with yellow last year when I placed her in the nest.

Much too young to die.

And why had she left the nest to begin with?

I squeeze a puff from the smoker into the hive, but the bees don’t come crawling out.  They should be languid, of course, fat and heavy with honey to protect from this imagined forest fire, but there’s no movement at all at the entrance.

My heart is racing now.  I put down the smoker and pry the roof off the nest with a hive tool.  I put the roof on the ground and start lifting the honeycombs out of the box one by one and stacking them on top of it.

The workers are gone.

Every one of them. (p. 13)

After a while, post-apocalyptic stories can become rather wearisome to read.  There’s a perfunctory explanation, usually some virus or super-pathogen or maybe a deliberate bio-chemical attack by some human group, followed by blah-blah-blah about the fragility of human civilization or how resilient humans truly are in a dire situation.  Even in the cases of a viral/microbe attack, the focus is not so much on how humans are just another animal species in an incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystem, but rather on human agency and how humans can overcome even their own proclivities for destruction.  It’s just a bit too much to presume that any future collapse of human civilizations is going to be the central part of any biological calamity.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I ordered a copy of Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels.  Recently translated into English by Lola Rogers, it was my first time reading this acclaimed writer’s fiction in novel format.  The Blood of Angels actively works against several of the presumptions I listed above that are found in other stories of collapse and disorder.  Set in contemporary Finland, it begins with an amateur beekeeper, Orvo, discovering that two of his hives have been abandoned inexplicably, with queens dead and the brood still encased in their protective layers.  Immediately, he think of three dread words that have been uttered more and more frequently by beekeepers worldwide:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

This, coupled with his grieving for the recent death of his eco-warrior son, Eero, leads Orvo to investigate matters further.  In an attic in a nearby barn, he makes a surprising discovery:  a pathway to a parallel world, one in which the slowly spreading ecological disaster caused by the near-total extinction of European honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination of thousands of plant species vital for vast swathes of human and animal food supply systems may have been checked.  As he explores this parallel world and its connection with bees, he discovers that in most societies, bees at one point or another have been viewed as half-mystical, half-divine messenger animals who had come to represent beliefs in an afterworld and in resurrection.

Sinisalo takes some bold chances here with how she structures the narrative.  Orvo’s discoveries, taking place over roughly half a month, are interspersed with blog and journal entries from Eero that detail the important roles that bees play in life, both literally and metaphorically.  At times, Orvo’s own narrative arc could have been disrupted or overshadowed by these fascinating recreations of actual research into bee life, but she carefully structures these interludes in a fashion that makes their contents serve as deepening echos of Orvo’s chapters.  The result is a very scary look at a very possible near-future reality:  one in which mass malnutrition arises due to the inability to find a replacement for these rapidly dying off bee colonies.  Sinisalo’s narrative, especially its blog entries, echoes almost too vividly the warnings in recent years about the actual spread of Colony Collapse Disorder and, in the short asides provided throughout Orvo’s chapters, the calamities this causes for all creatures great and small.

The Blood of Angels is one of the best tales of Collapse that I have read this year.  It manages to avoid the egregious mistakes that most post-apocalyptic tales make in focusing overmuch on human agency as a cause and effect of these type of global disasters.  Through its well-constructed mixture of a grieving man’s search through a parallel world for clues as to what happened to both his son and to the bees, as well as detailed yet never wearisome scientifically-based blog entries written by the now-dead son, Sinisalo invokes a creeping sense of disorder, one in which the collapse of the orderly bee colonies presages much more than a collapse of human societies.  She manages to maintain this atmosphere throughout The Blood of Angels, making this one of the best written and constructed narratives of Collapse published in English this year.

2014 National Book Award winner for Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

November 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We shot dogs.  Not by accident.  We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.  I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

First time was instinct.  I hear O’Leary go, “Jesus,” and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl.  It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up.   And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.

At the time, you don’t think about it.  You’re thinking about who’s in that house, what’s he armed with, how’s he gonna kill you, your buddies.  You’re going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you’re killing people at five in a concrete box. (“Redeployment,” p. 1)

For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, nearly two hundred and forty years, its wars and literature have been inextricably intertwined.  From Thomas Paine’s “The Crisis” to Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the soldier letters and memoirs from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War; to the accounts of the Spanish-American War and the searing novels by the likes of John Dos Passos and Dalton Trumbo on World War I, soldier voices have been heard in one form or another.  Kilroy was there in World War II; before Apocalypse Now, so many found madness in the killing fields of Vietnam and somehow managed to express it in letters, memoirs, and novels.  It is little surprise that eleven years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared, that veteran voices of the plains of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are now clamoring to be heard.

The Iraq-Afghanistan postwar/war novels have grown in number and popularity over the past five years, ever since troops began to be withdrawn from Iraq.  Some, like Kevin Powers’ 2012 National Book Award-nominated novel The Yellow Birds, were written by Iraq War veterans.  One of the latest to emerge (itself a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award) is Phil Klay’s debut collection, Redeployment.  In the twelve stories that comprise this collection, Klay manages to explore various facets of the war experience in Iraq and postwar life in ways that shine more insight on soldier experiences in this war.  It is a powerful collection, one that easily holds its own with Three Soldiers and The Naked and the Dead in regards to the power of the narrative and Catch-22 for exploring the ridiculousness of it all.

The eponymous opening story begins with soldiers shooting dogs.  Told in terse prose, the reader is immediately jolted from her comfort zone.  Why dogs?  Why shoot creatures often valued as much (if not more) than many human beings?  There is a purpose behind this, one beyond showing stereotypical desensitization of the soldiers.  If anything, there is a greater sensitization that is transpiring, as seen in this passage:

So I’m thinking about that.  And I’m seeing the retard, and the girl, and the wall Eicholtz died on.  But here’s the thing.  I’m thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about those fucking dogs.

And I’m thinking about my dog.  Vicar.  About the shelter we’d got him from, where Cheryl said we had to get an older dog because nobody takes older dogs.  How we could never teach him anything.  How he’d throw up shit he shouldn’t have eaten in the first place.  How he’d slink away all guilty, tail down and head low and back legs crouched.  How his fur started turning gray two years after we got him, and he so many white hairs on his face that it looked like a mustache.

So there it was.  Vicar and Operation Scooby, all the way home. (p. 3)

“Redeployment” is a somber tale, one of readjusting to home life after returning from a deployment, but it is also a merging of the war with one of the toughest things any pet owner has faced, that of their pet suffering from terminal disease and choosing to end that life there instead of paying another to do it.  In re-reading it just now, I remember when I was 8 and our dog of roughly a year, Bo, came down with an illness that even today I don’t know if it was rabies or a paralyzing sort of distemper.  What I remember is my dad, himself a Vietnam War vet, taking out his shotgun that he rarely used and telling us not to look outside.  I didn’t.  But even tonight, I remember the shotgun blast.  It still reverberates within me, as I can imagine it doing in the narrator’s mind after the story’s end.  The responsibility for a life, even a dog’s life, weighs heavily on those forced to choose to end it.

Yet not all the stories in Redeployment are as somber as the first one.  Some, like “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” are full of the type of baudy humor one might expect from young soldiers full of lust and life.  Others, like “Psychological Operations,” contain a sort of macabre humor alongside a tale of cultural misunderstandings that underscore so much of what transpired in Iraq during the war and its bloody aftermath.  “War Stories” takes some of the motifs of Vietnam war stories and warp them, make them into something more applicable to the situation in Iraq a generation later.  When I read part of this aloud to my dad on Friday when we were on our way to the urology clinic for my kidney stone surgery, he grunted a bit at some of the biting humor, something that I partially got and I suspect he understood more than he let on.  Some things, after all, do transcend specific wars and are shared grounds for veterans, I suppose.

By the time that I finished reading the final story, “Ten Kliks South,” I felt as though I had read something both familiar and strange at once.  The twelve stories in this collection showed a wide range of soldier experiences, from horror to dazed bemusement to a callous attitude toward civilians to something hard to define, and each were presented in such a way that civilians such as myself could understand much of what was transpiring.  Yet there was enough of a sense of something being left unstated, something whose silence was even louder than the powerful passages contained within, that I suspect would say even more to those who were there, those who do not need to put voice to what they experienced.  Even more, there are elements in common with the wartime classics that I mentioned above that I suspect will make Redeployment not just one of the best Iraq-Afghanistan war fictions, but also will enshrine it in a rich national history of war of literature.  Redeployment is my favorite out of a strong 2014 National Book Award for Fiction finalist slate.

Frankétienne, Ready to Burst/Mûr à crever (1968; English translation 2014)

November 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My bitterness was even greater when I realized that I also needed money to be treated by a doctor.  To acquire a much-needed pair of shoes.  Or in order for Santa Claus to come.  Moreover, I was enraged by all these privations.  Source of my first revolts against the adult world.  My rage against the system.  My refusal to obey laws I didn’t understand.  My taking a stand against social injustice.  My dissidence.  My revenge.  I resolved to protest in every way.  The one who had to deal most often with my bad behavior and my rebellions was Uncle Bernard.  Owner of a big boutique, he was the Croesus of the family.  Exceptionally stingy, he never forgave a cent of debt among family members.  He hated the poor.  His heart was made of neither flesh nor wood.  For the flesh is weak, and wood heats up when it burns.  Truth was, he had no heart.  Completely ungenerous.  He loved no one.  He was harsh.  Inflexible with everyone.  Cruel.  Indifferent to human suffering to the point where he’d refuse to offer the slightest help to my despairing mother, overwhelmed by the weight of her poverty.  One day when we had nothing to put on the fire, we went to him, only to be treated like vile parasites.  In front of people we didn’t even know.  That’s when I decided to act in my own best interest.  I initiated a veritable impoverishment campaign against him, stealing whatever I could from him… I went to his grocery store more frequently just so as to advance my plan for meting out justice.  Not a day went by that I didn’t pilfer some can of something or other, or some money even.  My lifestyle improved.  I drank milk three times a day.  At night I started smoking cigarettes in the toilets.  As time went on, I increased my take to up to ten dollars a day, money I spent recklessly with boys from the neighborhood. (22% Kindle on iPad e-edition)

Frankétienne is one of Haiti’s most famous 20th century writers and poets.  His 1968 novel, Mûr à crever (translated this year into English as Ready to Burst by Kaiama L. Glover), is one of a very few works of his to be translated into English.  Written during the days of Papa Doc Duvalier’s dictatorship, Ready to Burst nevertheless possesses a timeless quality to it, perhaps due to the social injustices Haitians have battled against ever since winning independence from France in 1804.  Certainly, the political repression of Papa Doc’s rule finds resonance with those who have paid attention to the recent political climate.  The street violence, often led by henchmen associated with the government, has never quite gone away since Baby Doc was driven out of power over a quarter century ago.

Ready to Burst is in one sense a tour of Duvalier’s Port-au-Prince, as the two main protagonists, Raynaud and his near-twin, the writer Paulin, commence upon a series of adventures in its streets after Paulin rescues Raynaud from a despondency caused by a romantic affair fizzling out suddenly.  The two are complementary characters:  Raynaud, more of an idealistic dreamer, seeks out hope even beyond hope as the twain travel through a sometimes dirty and dangerous city; Paulin, who seeks to capture in verse and prose what is transpiring, is more a man of action grounded in the stark daily realities that confront them.  Much of Ready to Burst is taken up with presenting Paulin’s writings, such as the lengthy autobiography above and this description of a life crisis after being injured at a political rally below:

Why me personally and not someone else?  I didn’t find any convincing explanation.  I also looked for what I might have done wrong, but couldn’t point to anything.  So it was that I began thinking about chance.  Religion offered no decent explanation.  Only scientific data came to my rescue and, just like that, I understood the laws of ballistics:  understood, that is, the fact that I’d been walking in line, in step with the rhythm of my column; that the rock had been thrown clumsily, in accordance with its own speed; and, finally, that at one point I’d very logically become a specific target on the trajectory of the projectile.  Sudden clarity.  I’d seen the light.  My heart beat more quickly.  I forgot the pain in my head.  Chance no longer existed for me.  My thoughts extended outward to consider the sufferings of all those who seemed to be victims of some dreadful fate.  Those who lived in slavery or misery.  Peoples oppressed by wealthy nations.  I began to understand it all.  Underdevelopment.  The appearance of political leaders, artists, scientists, geniuses.  Beauty.  Ugliness.  Natural epidemics.  Progress.  Vices.  Births.  Wars.  Victories.  Defeats.  Scientific discoveries.  Works of art.  From one thing to the next, the world unfolded before me, clear like water from a stone.  Nothing stopped me anymore, since I’d found an explanation for all cosmic phenomena.  I was now equipped to perform an autopsy on both happiness and sorrow. (37-38%)

Ready to Burst is punctuated with these frequent staccato bursts of description.  This minimalist language, however, serves as a counterpoint to the occasionally wild imagery, often expressed through Raynaud’s thoughts as he travels with his new companion.  Descriptions of his “secret joy, the conquest of dawn,” or the “rebellious stars fight[ing] not to disappear into the greedy mouth of the invading light in which the day sets up house.” (60%)  These more fanciful metaphors not only serve as a counterpoint to Paulin’s more politically-charged thoughts, but they also represent two of the many facets of Haitian society.  The horrors of the neck tire burnings gives ways to wild hopes for something different, something better in the course of quotidian life.

Although based on these descriptions one might presume that Ready to Burst is less concerned with plot than with character and scene, there is indeed a solid plot that underlies Raynaud and Paulin’s travels:  finding a name for Paulin’s novel.  Raynaud stumbles and starts to come up with an appropriate title, but it isn’t until the final scene, in which the experiences and thoughts that the two have done and pondered about come together in a violent clash that provides not only the source of the novel’s name, but it also summarizes in its violence so many of the national contradictions that Frankétienne explores through his two protagonists.

Frankétienne’s style might not appeal to everyone; the prose is perhaps a bit stilted in places, at least for those used to fewer stop-start thought fragments.  There are times where Paulin feels too earnest, too wrapped up in thoughts of revolution and change, to see all that is really transpiring; sometimes, “realists” miss the forest for the trees.  Although ultimately his blindness to this is part of novel’s central theme regarding the clash of Haitian ideals and political repression, at times this voice is too strong, rendering Raynaud’s thoughts and actions ancillary to Paulin’s.  These, however, only weaken the power of the book’s final scene slightly.  On the whole, Ready to Burst is a moving work from one of Haiti’s most renowned writers.

2011 National Book Award winner for Fiction: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“Kilo!” Rico yells.  He grabs Kilo by the back legs and drags the dog toward him.  Kilo smacks open his lips as if he has just eaten something he likes, and China’s leg comes free.  She is bounding toward Skeetah, her smile red like smudged lipstick.  The blood on her leg is a crimson garter.

“Fuck!  He don’t even have to drag her,” Jerome says.

Rico wipes at Kilo’s neck until the blood looks less like a scarf and more like a necklace.  He studies his dog, who breathes so hard he sprays the ground with spit and blood, his nose to the earth.  Manny kneels next to Rico, whispers.  I know that whatever Manny is saying is showing the meanness in him, that he is Jason betraying Medea and asking for the hand of the daughter of the king of Corinth in marriage after Medea has killed her brother for him, betrayed her father.  Manny’s mouth moves and I read, She ain’t shit, ain’t got no heart.  He looks at China when he murmurs, but it feels like he looks at me.

Late August 2005, with the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina, portended doom for many millions of Americans who lived near the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal plains.  In the days before landfall, Katrina swelled up in size until it seemed as though it would wrack the entire South with torrential downpours and devastating winds.  Although it died down in strength somewhat before making landfall near New Orleans, Katrina was so powerful that my native Middle Tennessee was under a Tropical Storm Warning for parts of two days.  The devastation left behind was horrific:  much of New Orleans under several feet of water after the levees protecting the below-sea level city collapsed; houses flattened or torn off foundations for around a hundred miles inland; millions left without homes, potable water, electricity, or belongings.  In some senses, it was akin to a Greek tragedy, with the gods gone crazy on those intrepid people who stayed for “the fun” of the storm and experienced a calamity.

Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in coastal plain Mississippi those last days before Katrina tore up the land similar to what Camille did in 1969.  The ghost of Camille and the looming menace of Katrina lurk in the background of Ward’s story until its final, devastating conclusion.  Salvage the Bones revolves around two African-American Mississippi teens, the first-person narrator, Esch, and her pitbull-raising brothe Jason, or “Skeeter” as he is known to most.  In the week leading up to Katrina’s landfall (an event we are reminded of with small, passing comments throughout the narrative), we get a slice-of-life portrayal of their lives, filtered through Esch’s frequent comparisons to Greco-Roman tragedies such as that of Jason and Medea and Psyche and Cupid.

Esch is a teenage girl, not the most popular or the prettiest, but intelligent and attractive enough to draw some attention.  She searches for love, only to discover that she is pregnant by someone who just so happens to have a girlfriend who is very jealous of any who might draw attention from him.  Her recounting of impoverished southern Mississippi life, replete with attempts at developing a strong social identity, the endemic fights (the somewhat graphic depiction of pitbull fighting might make some squeamish, but Ward provides unflinching insight into why such animal fighting traditions have lingered into the present in parts of the South), and the relationships between herself, her brothers, and their handicapped (and possibly alcoholic) father creates a vivid, memorable narrative tapestry.  Unlike several first-person narratives where only the narrator is fleshed out, several characters here, from Skeeter to Manny to Rico and even Esch’s father, are well-developed.  Skeeter and his attachment to his pitbull bitch, China, forms a powerful secondary subplot to Esch’s conflicted feelings about her pregnancy.

The narrative unfolds neatly and eloquently all the way to the devastating conclusion.  The reader comes to understand better the world which Esch and Skeeter inhabit.  One may not like certain particulars about this social milieu, but Ward sets up a vivid, poignant tale through her use of Esch’s narrative to recast coastal Mississippian life through the lens of an impending (and ongoing) social tragedy.  Despite knowing the general conclusion and having images already burned into my mind from seeing Katrina disaster footage, Ward’s build up to this seemingly inevitable end made this tragedy all the more devastating because of the anticipation and growing dread over what surely must come.  Yet despite knowing this, the particulars were brutal, precisely because the characters were so well-drawn, and yet there was surprising hope as well.

There are few weaknesses.  One element that might be jarring for certain readers is the idiosyncrasy of Ward’s narrative.  Esch at times sounds too removed from the here-and-now of the immediate narrative, as if she were attempting to make her life into something else, something grander than what would be found in hardscrabble country fields and forests.  It does take some getting used to seeing a pregnant teen recasting her world in such a fashion, yet after a while, it does work, albeit after some effort at acclimating to this narrative style.  At times, the narrative focus seemed to be fuzzy, as Skeeter is such a fascinating character (and at the heart of it is his love and concern for China) that his plight threatens to overwhelm Esch’s own.  Ultimately, however, the two threads do become more attuned to one another and each creates a powerful denouement.

Salvage the Bones on the whole was a cathartic reading experience.  The emotional buildup and release were steady and gradual at first, before the sudden emotional release and rebuilding occurred.  Ward’s characters are half-realistic and half-tragic personages and although at times this division seemed a bit off, by the story’s end the characters emerged as some of the strongest, most memorable that I have read this year.  Although I wouldn’t rank Salvage the Bones higher than Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife or Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, it certainly is worthy to be considered with each of these fine novels as worthy contenders for the 2011 National Book Award fiction prize.

Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole (1970; 2008 English translation)

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change.  After that it was impossible to say how far or for how long he had flown, for as soon as the engine purred into life he reclined his seat and fell asleep.  He was quite exhausted, hardly having rested the last few days, working himself to a standstill, and apart from anything else there was the speech for the linguistic conference in Helsinki for which he had just now been preparing.  He was woken only once during the flight when they brought him his meal, then he promptly fell asleep again, it might have been for ten minutes or for ten hours.  He didn’t even have his wristwatch with him since he intended buying one out there and didn’t want to have to present two watches at customs back home, so he didn’t have the least clue how far he was from home.  It was only later, once he was in town, that he discovered it wasn’t Helsinki and was shocked that he didn’t know where he actually was. (p. 5)

Ever felt you were removed from familiar, comfortable environs, confronted suddenly with a thronging Babel that gives you a sense of vertigo?  In his 1970 novel, Epepe (published in English translation in 2008 as Metropole), Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy (son of the famous Hungarian humorist Frigyes Karinthy) plumbs the depths of despair, longing, and desire that can occur when a familiar touchstone (in this case, intelligible language) is suddenly removed from us.  What would we do in Budai’s place?  Would we manage to cope even half as well as he does when he is unable to converse with anyone in this strange city in which he has suddenly found (and lost) himself?

Metropole follows the linguist Budai’s tortured search for a common ground in an utterly foreign city.  In some ways, his quest can be read as a metaphor for a Hell in which one is alone, surrounded by others who are distinctly other in idiomatic expression.  There is much to be said for that viewpoint:

Even if he had known the language he would probably have made little sense of it:  it was a private matter, hopeless and infinitely complex, completely alien as far as he was concerned.  It was nothing to do with him and he felt no desire to know more.  Thinking this, he picked himself up, broke through the people crowding at the entrance and left. (p. 104)

But there is something else at play beside a potential metaphor for a linguistic Hell:

Budai liked children and was generally touched by them but he had never seen so many all together and the sight confused and terrified him.  He looked to escape, seeking an exit from the clinic.  He was losing patience, wanting to see no more babies, worrying what would happen when the present batch grew up and joined the already teeming hordes in the streets. (p. 158)

Several times Karinthy’s narrator refers to “hordes,” or to the masses of people who move through the nameless, foreign city.  Are these masses benign or is there something driving them?

    The people in the street moved aside but not very far, remaining close to the tank, chanting slogans at its invisible crew, raising their arms in oaths of allegiance.  Then they sand their anthem again:

Tchetety top debette
Etek glö tchri fefé… (p. 213)

As the story progresses, hints emerge as to what is truly happening, possible foretellings that might support an interpretation that some made in the past quarter-century that Metropole might be a disguised critique of the Hungarian Communist regime after the failed 1956 uprising (and its Czechoslovakian echo in 1968), but this is too facile of an argument.  Certainly, the alienation reflected within Budai’s story could be read in that fashion, but with the sense of the character’s futility as he continually butts his head up against an impenetrable linguistic barrier (his prior role as linguist proving to be ironic on several levels), some readers might find closer parallels with Kafka’s work than with that of an Orwell or London:

It was as though the combatants themselves had changed:  he couldn’t see anyone he had fought with.  On the other hand, there were ever more mysterious, suspicious-looking figures, some of them demagogues of the first order.  That that dissolute, bearded man with the pockmarked face who looked strangely familiar:  he was halfway through directing the hanging of one of the prisoners. (p. 226)

By this time, simple explanations or metaphors have to be eschewed.  The confusion, the true babbling sense of the other people around Budai, these find their echo in the larger, more violent outpouring of the latter stages of the novel.  One cannot these two elements; each is a reflection of the other.  Overlaying this is a sense of irreality, where this might possibly be a very unsettling dream, although one (and Budai) certainly fears it will prove to be otherwise.  Metropole’s unnerving atmosphere defies easy categorizations.  Its narrative can rattle unwary readers who are not prepared for the twists contained within the story.  When the story “ends,” one might wonder if one is “escaping” or merely going into the next stage.  Metropole certainly is a tale that cannot be forgotten easily, as it lingers in the subconscious, spawning dreams in its wake.  Highly recommended.

Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili/Invisible Cities (1972; English translation 1974)

November 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. (p. 5)

Italo Calvino is one of my favorite 20th century writers and one of a rare few whose works I have in three different languages (Italian, English, and Serbian). Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Calvino displayed a rare talent for constructing imagined vistas populated with interesting people, resting on sometimes unsettling thematic foundations. Calvino did not have to use expansive vocabularies or extremely detailed descriptions to create these vivid settings; a few words placed just so conveyed more wealth of ideas and images than most writers can do with pages of prose.

In his 1972 novel, Invisible Cities (later nominated for the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novel), Calvino perhaps created his most multilayered work. Using the historical backdrop of Marco Polo and his relationship with the Emperor Kublai Khan, Calvino explores not just how we imagine strange settings, but also why we have such a need for such created realms in the first place. Moreover, the framing story of Polo and the Emperor serves to highlight not just these fictional creations, but also how our own desires and fears can be reflected in our imaginations.

The framing story has Kublai Khan ask Marco Polo about his travels within the Emperor’s vast realm and what he witnesses there. Polo proceeds to describe strange cities, cities of memory, desire, signs; cities that are thin, cities with eyes, cities of trade and cities of names and eyes; sky and city and the dead and city are also touched upon in these tales. Below is one such description:

Cities & Memory 1:

Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time. (p. 7)

In this passage, not only is Diomira described as a physical form, but that there is a personal quality attached to it, one in which a visitor newly arrived would find him/herself reminded not just of the concrete present, but also of a memory of something that resides within the soul of that traveler. This entry, the first of over 50, serves to show the reader that Polo’s descriptions are far more than just simple narrative exercises. But there is another quality on display in these tales and in how the Emperor receives them. Here, in the second part of the framing story, the nature of Polo’s early storytelling is shown:

Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks – ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes – which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused. In the Khan’s mind the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian’s logogriphs. (pp. 21-22)

It is here where the stories told begin to transform, their meanings deepening and becoming more complex, even though Calvino rarely has a tale go past three pages. It is this idea that words and places represent still greater values and truths, perhaps ultimately ending in Truth being expressed through the emblematic nature of these stories of places, that makes Invisible Cities a work that has to be sampled, considered, put aside, and then read anew regularly.

For myself, this book is like a multifaceted prism that casts off various colors of light, each representing just one tiny perceived part of the whole. As Polo continues to tell his stories about the fantastical cities that he may or may not have seen, as the Emperor continues to probe and to test Polo’s veracity, one can begin to recognize so many elements in common that unite these tales. There is something universal about describing human beings, even when showing them and their customs (as reflected in the physical nature of the cities Polo describes) as being so diverse. It is that realization that in all the strangeness, in all the diversity of customs and traditions, in the growing doubts even of the Emperor, that a reader can begin to be sucked into the tale. After all, if you were to pick five people from any given city to describe that city to someone who had never heard of that place, much less seen it, wouldn’t it stand to reason that each tale would reflect different facets of that city, real as it should be?

This re-read of Calvino’s work is my second time total, with the first being read in early 2007. In this re-read, I discovered that Calvino’s prose sparkled even more, that my imagination was running a bit more, trying to picture cities such as Diomira. I found myself wandering in thought, wondering about the power that cities often have on the human imagination. I became lost in reflective ruminations, before I came to realize that this perhaps was just what Calvino was aiming to do with this work. Many people read fantasies to experience another’s imagination; here I found myself creating my own imaginative settings while reading a few words from the author. For this alone, even above Calvino’s prose and economy with words, I would have rated Invisible Cities as one of my favorite fictions. Since these other elements are also present, it is a work that I would strongly encourage readers to read, reflect, and then to re-read multiple times over the years, just to see how deep Calvino’s work sinks into your own imagination.