‘Monkey, Paul. Think monkey. Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice. That’s the first step. Second – and this is important – I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra-curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts. Sutler has the details for the new accounts. He has it all worked out. Do exactly what he asks. Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings. Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts: one, two, three, four. Load them up. In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project. Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount. Show him the transfer. That’s five accounts, Paul. Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways. I want all five of them loaded. Do you understand me?’ (p. 11)
Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea – taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table – and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing. A facility for making and receiving local telephone calls only – all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed – the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion. But it rarely rang. This, too, he left on the hall table. Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner – a precious heirloom – with his shoe. (pp. 5-6)
2010 Booker Prize winner and current finalist Howard Jacobson has been known for comic novels that explore the darker elements of English Jewish society. In his latest novel, J (actually with two marks through the letter), however, Jacobson eschews even the trappings of comic satire for a tale that might be considered dystopic not so much for the outer trappings of a society after some social upheaval, but for how his characters are developed in relation to an event that is so profound that they refer to it as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” While the mysteries of that and why Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen puts two fingers to his mouth when pronouncing certain words that begin with “J” might appeal to readers, it is Jacobson’s probing of how we try to communicate through the silences that we enforce through perfunctory social niceties that make J a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read.
There are a couple of main subplots that dovetail toward the end. Kevern’s half-stifled “J” talk, which is semi-abandoned through his arc in favor of slightly more direct talk of what has actually transpired over the decades leading up to Kevern’s tale, is but one small segment of a whole spectrum of social self-silencing that has taken place in Britain after some awful events decades before. There are no email accounts, no social media, television is strictly regulated, even the language of social discourse has been altered – there is a sense of a great, horrific story lurking behind the stony silences of the newly-altered language itself. Kevern’s own surname, Cohen, is a clue, but not necessarily the blatant one some might suspect. Related to this is the seemingly weird behavior of a young adult orphan, Alinn, and how she sees her future and Kevern’s intertwined. This second subplot, however, is not as well-fleshed as the former, and there are places where their interactions feel forced, at least until the latter part of the novel, where more effort is made to connect the two.
I referenced dystopic fiction above not because it is an easy catch-all term for describing a near-future society that would make for an uneasy dwelling experience for contemporary readers, but because J does something interesting here: there is not a focus so much on the material aspects of this culture, but instead on how the characters are altered by this new societal order. Take for instance the half-stifled “j” words said, words like “jazz” or “Jesus” or “joke.” These are words that have become here “j” words, just as we have today the “N word” and the “C word” to denote words that we know what they mean but we durst not utilize them due to their offensive natures. We speak around them, half-allude to them, knowing what we want to imply, but not daring to voice directly those darkly talismanic words lest they evoke hatred and contempt. Therefore, it is interesting to see a similar effect caused by these “j” words through the narrative. What does it mean to have these seemingly-disconnected words being smothered by their erstwhile speakers?
This I suspect is the main thrust of Jacobson’s book. There is indeed another “j” word, one that is never really even half-uttered, that does come to dominate the others. It is the reason behind “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” and how the reader chooses to react to this ultimate “j” word might determine how she comprehends the final parts of the novel. That “j” word, which I shall not utter here for purposes related to exploring Jacobson’s themes, has led to wholesale surname changes. It has led to a polite relabeling of urban areas, all in an effort to efface a calamity of violence that unfolded decades before. It is a cause, if not necessarily the main one, behind the peculiar semantic shifts certain words have taken in the interim. In not talking about it, the characters are constantly reacting to IT. The effects this has on Kevern and Alinn’s self-identities, along with certain others, is chilling not because of what is said or done, but because of what is implied and suspected.
J, however, is not a perfect novel. There are times where the subplots bow down and threaten to collapse under the weight of its narrative pretense. Alinn’s story in particular does not feel well-developed and more could have been done to develop her conflicted relationship with Kevern. Even the particulars behind the “j” words and the ominous “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” are a bit heavy-handed when more direct allusions are made to them. This results in a conclusion that feels at times a bit forced, a bit too strident in places and yet strangely empty and devoid of impetus in others. While this does detract from the power of the setting and its implications, on the whole J is Jacobson’s darkest, most unsettling novel and perhaps his best vehicle for articulating some of his socio-cultural concerns. It is a worthy finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I cannot help but think if it had gone just a bit further, developed its themes of identity and societal self-silencing just a bit more, that it could have become not just a very good novel but a great one.
Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est dit. Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour. La question était: Est-ce que les livres nous regardent? Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches. Mais pas les livres. Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D. Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux. Ils sont aveugles. Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d’une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d’un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance. Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret. Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu’au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié. Ils sont profonds. Des puits. Ils sont l’asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures. De nos pires folies. De nos déraisons. De nos voix les plus sombres. Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux, ils ont des voix. Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d’ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l’expérimentais sans cesse. Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d’une voix argentine, d’une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d’un caveau. Mais de tout cela je n’ai rien pu dire, j’ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n’arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j’en étais ridicule, c’était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d’autres impénétrables desseins. Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale. Jusqu’à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)
In Claudie Hunzinger’s 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative. It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us. Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions. In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.
The plot is relatively simple: a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings. She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far. Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys’ clothes for women. Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the “language of birds,” that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed. It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger’s narrative is at its strongest.
Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly). Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story. There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens. Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation. Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude. There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa’s meditations and her later friendship with Sayo. In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know. Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new “languages” everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.
Hunzinger’s prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals. It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two. Voices and shadows. Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices. The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices. La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most “deep” novels manage to express in 400. Curious to see tomorrow if it’ll make the Prix Medicis shortlist. It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.
Consider this moral conundrum for a moment.
George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.
Not says. Said.
George’s mother is dead.
What moral conundrum? George says.
The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side of the driver’s seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.
Okay. You’re an artist, her mother says.
Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum?
Ha, ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You’re an artist. (p. 3)
Of the six 2014 Man Booker Prize finalists, Ali Smith’s How to be Both might be the most “artistic.” I say this with scare quotes because often there is something about art that confounds and irritates many. Whether it is the perceived “extra effort” that is often involved in understanding an art work’s (literary, visual, or performance, they are all the same here) merits or that niggling doubt that the viewer/reader just might be incapable of the requisite empathy in order to grasp just how that particular piece came into being, often such works are set aside in favor of more “tried and true,” less “difficult” pieces. No, it is not a fair assessment, but it is one that takes place more frequently than any of us are ready to admit.
Yet when one does peer closer at the piece in question and when one does encounter something that captivates them, whether it be a line shadowed just so or a le mot juste or a cadence from an actress or singer that tugs at the heart’s strings, that person is then drawn into the dialogue that is symbolized by the piece or performance in front of her. How to be Both is at its heart a dialogue that forms across the centuries between a sixteen year-old half-orphaned girl and a fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose painting of Saint Vincent Ferrer haunts young George long after her fateful first visit to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara just a few months prior to her mother’s death. It is her life, her changing views on it and on art, coupled with the “voice” of del Cossa through his paintings that George observes, that form a gripping dialogue on just what does ars gratia artis mean in this day and age.
How to be Both intertwines these two narratives, one of a modern young woman with her contemporary concerns about how to live with those of fifteenth century Italy and the struggles that del Cossa had in establishing his art, his vision, in a place where the mercenary wars were about to give way a generation later to the ruinous French invasion. Smith does an outstanding job in establishing these two voices, as George and del Cossa’s concerns are shown in vivid detail. Smith shapes the narrative to suit this dual voice perspective: there is a mixture of monologue, dialogue, and a bit of stream of consciousness. In a less adroit hand, these elements easily could have collapsed under the weight of their artifice, but Smith manages to meld them together in such a fashion that each complements the other, making for a great read.
However, the intricate narrative structure is only just that, a structure around which the story and its themes are constructed. Here too Smith does a fantastic job in establishing character and motivations. The exploration of Art is done in a fashion that does not feel trite or treacly; after all, these two characters have suffered much for their eventual understanding of what Art entails. Each little detail, from hawkers declaiming what they know the piece in question to be to questions of perspective, builds upon each other, creating a literary piece that is stronger than the sum of its already impressive parts.
How to be Both is the most daring of the six shortlisted titles on this year’s Man Booker Prize. Its language is captivating, its characters are powerfully dynamic despite one not being presented in a “traditional” fashion, its themes are no less ambitious than trying to discern just what “art” truly might be. In a fairly strong field, it holds its own when it comes to being a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times for greater appreciation. It may or may not win the award next week, but How to be Both is certainly one of my two favorites from this year’s shortlist.
2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature longlist: Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory
At one level? None of this mattered. It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father’s head. A little flirting with Finn? That wouldn’t hurt. But I concluded that it couldn’t go any further. When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us. And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of “Don’t Touch.”
Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us. Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like. That’s how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why. I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they’d assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn’t he have tried to hook up with them before?
I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)
This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. From Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love. In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an “Army brat,” Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.
The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley’s point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate. Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above. Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her. She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy’s struggles have become such a “normal” part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:
Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.
Dad looked up from the television. “Hey, princess,” he said with a grin. “Have a good time?”
I hung up my jacket in the closet.
“Giants are playing,” he said. “Philly, first quarter. I saved you some pizza. Double cheese.” He frowned. “What’s that look for?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“You love double cheese.”
“I’m not talking about the pizza.”
“Is it the wings? You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago.”
“Are we going to play ‘pretend’?”
“Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza.”
“It’s not the food,” I said.
“Are you still upset about the cemetery?”
Dad muted the television. “I was thinking about what you said. I’ll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost. Mom didn’t like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful. Good idea?” He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers. “Why are you still wearing the pissy face?”
“Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?” (pp. 185-186)
This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory: Andy’s drug use, Hayley’s mom’s death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley’s frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends. Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease. Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.
Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that. Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced. Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories. For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement. Yet after some consideration, Anderson’s concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy’s lives: recovery. This does not mean that it is a “happy” conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results. However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy’s stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow. Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.
Para empezar, a las mujeres encarceladas nadie las visita nunca. A los varones sí, siempre. Siempre la mujer o la madre, y hasta la hija, pero eso es más raro, va los jueves a las dos de la tarde con paquetes de comida y de ropa, a veces con revistas, a veces con un ejemplar de la Biblia. Eso es maravilloso, no solo porque una ve una cara conocida y porque siente que a alguien le importa que ella esté en donde está, sino porque la visita significa que el tiempo existe. Es maravilloso porque entre una visita y otra se escanden las horas, los minutos, los meses. Si no hay visitas el tiempo es un largo, larguísimo intervalo blanquecino entre dos paréntesis, la vida que se va olvidando y la esperanza que va desapareciendo, convirtiéndose en otra cosa, en algo algodonoso y turbio que reclama que una lo vea y lo toque, y una sabe que no hay que rendirse a la tentación de hacerlo porque si lo hace, si toca eso, nunca va a encontrar no digo consuelo, nunca va a encontrar ni la más mínima tranquilidad, ni el más insignificante jirón de sueño. Pero si alguien llega de visita, si viene este martes o este jueves y una puede imaginar que va a venir el próximo también, entonces el tiempo existe: hay horas, hay días, hay espera. El varón encarelado tiene otro horizonte a la vista y en ese horizonte está escrito «cuando yo salga ella va a estar esperándome». A una mujer nunca la va a estar esperando alguien. Y ella lo sabe. Sabe que el afuera va a ser una prolongación del adentro. Es posible que piense «aquello era preferible a esto». Y para seguir, la mujer que está en la cárcel no encuentra nunca alguien con quien hablar. Y no me refiero a conversaciones ni a confidencias. Me refiero a palabras que van de una persona a otra. ¿Ha pensado usted alguna vez que cada palabra que se pronuncia es como un morral o un zurrón que contiene carne y sangre y hueso, historia, intenciones y horror, sobre todo horror? ¿Ese horror que es el precio que una paga por imaginar lo que de un momento al otra le va a suceder? ¿Se ha dado cuenta de que las palabras lo traen, al horror, digo; de que las palabras no son solo sonidos ni una letra detrás de la otra sino que cada una contiene un mundo? (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer has had several genre careers within her lengthy writing life. From a SF writer in the 1970s to a fantasy writer in the 1980s to a contemporary fiction writer who focuses on feminism and society for the past two decades, her works, diverse as they are, have a few things in common: PoV characters who probe deeply into their societies’ fault lines and prose that makes these examinations feel not just important, but vital for understanding our own selves and our own places in societies that may or may not be conducive for the lives that we wish to live. In her just-released novel, Palito de naranjo (Orange Stick in English), Gorodischer utilizes a singular character, Féry, to tell of not just the burdens that the dispossessed experience today, but also the joys that they might experience on the other side of suffering.
Palito de naranjo is dialogue-heavy; almost the entire novel is devoted to the conversations that the aged Féry, who has experienced privation and incarceration, relates to an interviewer. The stories that Féry has embedded within her comments on her rough life (the lengthy quote above is about the different prison lives that men and women experience; Féry notes the numerous visits that male prisoners receive weekly from female relatives and compares that to the near-non-existent visitors for female prisoners) are fascinating. Characters appear in one place, living solely through Féry’s ability to make them seem alive even when they are present only for a singular moment or sentence before giving way to another. As Féry talks, the contours of her life comes into greater focus. The cumulative effect is to present, similar to a finely-detailed mosaic, a life that is fascinating for its experiences and its insights into modern life.
The prose here is nearly pitch-perfect. A dialogue-heavy novel can be tricky, as the author risks loses the reader’s attention can wander if there are not breaks in the conversation and it can become easy to confound which speaker is talking at any given moment. Yet Gorodischer manages to make this into a vivid character sketch, as Féry’s detailed accounts of her life and the people she has come to know works well within the strictures of dialogue description of these others. As Féry talks, she begins to describe situations and people that are notable despite never speaking of their own accord. We come to understand Féry more through her descriptions of these fellow travelers than we might have if these characters were presented through direct interactions with Féry in flashback sequences.
There is no single concrete plot here, instead it is through Féry’s numerous recollections of her past that we come to see that it is her life, her time as a prostitute and an inmate, that is the plot arc we are following. We see her at critical points in her life, sometimes in a bitter lamentation over the social inequalities that women experience in all facets of their lives, other times in her reminisces of others in her life, and the crises that she describes (and has largely overcome in her path toward some measure of contentment, if not full happiness) feel real because of the way they are related to us. There are no lulls to the tale; Féry slowly yet steadily builds toward a solid, moving conclusion. Palito de naranjo may differ significantly in form and purpose than say Kalpa Imperal or Bajo las jubeas en flor, but it is no less of a significant work than these two older works of Gorodischer’s. Highly recommended for those who are fans of her earlier fictions.
Below are three articles that I wrote in June 2010 in response to three essays in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. In light of continuing discussions in social media on points related to these, I thought I would present all three together in order for them to serve as a meditation on these issues that continue to generate discussion as to what constitutes “art” and “the novel.”
“The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” and a refutation of “there are no good nor bad books”
At the suggestion of Zoran Živković, I have begun reading Milan Kundera’s collection of essays, The Art of the Novel. I plan on writing seven essays [ended up being only three] based on something that I read within each of his essays. First up is the opening essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes.” It is fitting that I read this essay today, considering certain comments I’ve read on Twitter and various blogs, including one by author Mark Charan Newton, that have claimed that “there are no good nor bad books.” This argument, misguided and wrong-headed as I believe it to be, actually fits in well with some of Kundera’s points about the “depreciated” role of the novel.
Kundera devotes much of his first essay to outlining the history of the European novel from Cervante’s seminal Don Quijote to the late 20th century. In particular, he focuses on how the limns of adventure and wonder within the novel have shrunk over time, until the notion of “adventure” has come to contain almost as many pejorative aspects as it did wondrous ones. Also, the issue of “time” has become more and more regulated due to the rise of History as this conjured agent of delimitation. Here Kundera explains this:
Half a century after Diderot, in Balzac, the distant horizon has disappeared like a landscape behind those modern structures, the social institutions: the police, the law, the world of money and crime, the army, the State. In Balzac’s world, time no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot. It has set forth on the train called History. The train is easy to board, hard to leave. But it isn’t at all fearsome yet, it even has its appeal; it promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.
Later still, for Emma Bovary, the horizon shrinks to the point of seeming a barrier. Adventure lies beyond it, and the longing becomes intolerable. Within the monotony of the quotidian, dreams and daydreams take on importance. The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul. The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual – one of Europe’s finest illusions – blossoms forth. (p. 8)
It is in this shrinking horizon, where the imaginative yearnings have been directed inward until a point is reached where the fantastical has been internalized to where even fancy has become something “mental,” that Kundera explores in the middle sections of his essay. He notes that with these changes have come calls for the “death of the novel.” From the Futurists to the Surrealists and to all avant-gardes in-between, they have seen the novel, Kundera argues, as being a historical relic; it has “dropped off the road of progress.” But the novel is much more resilient than that. Whether it be the inner fragility of the movements, political and artistic alike, that have proclaimed the “death” of the novel (or of History or of Politics), the novel form has survived to the present day, albeit in a different form over the past two centuries’ span. How does Kundera explain the novel’s persistence?
But hasn’t the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic? Hasn’t it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms? I’ve heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted. But isn’t it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals? There are four appeals to which I am especially responsive. (p. 15)
Kundera discusses four appeals: the appeals of play, dream, thought, and time. Before novelists shackled themselves to the empty throne of Realism, there were more “light” and “playful” novels, novels such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste that contained possibilities that the later Realist novels failed to capitalize. Although Kundera does not discuss the separate “fantasy” offshoot that developed in reaction to this shift toward Realism, there could be a corollary to his first “appeal” referring to how a byproduct of this desire for “play” was the rise of settings in which both the author and reader alike have explicitly accepted to be irreal and impossible. The appeal of “dream” is also associated with this missed opportunity by some writers to combine the irreal and the real to create a state where reality and dream intermingle and influence each other.
The appeals of “thought” and “time” are harder to put into words. Kundera posits that if novelists were to “marshal around the story all the means – rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative – that could illuminate man’s being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis (p. 16).” What truly is revealed in most novels about our favorite topic, our own selves? As for “time,” Kundera argues that narrative “time” has become too constricted and that perhaps it would be for the best if “time” could be broadened or dilated out, to where it is not a weighty millstone tied around the narrative’s neck.
However, it is in the final two parts of Kundera’s essay where I find counterarguments to claims made that it is “impossible” to judge if a novel is “good” or bad.” Those who usually make this argument tend to note that so much depends upon the vantage point of the observer and how there are too many subjectives involved for there to be any true “objective” rationale for sorting through the qualities of each word. That is a facile argument. It is too easy to abdicate the ability to judge and measure, all in the name of fearing that one is “wrong” or that someone is “biased.” It is, as Kundera notes, a “reduction” in which “Husserl’s ‘world of life’ is fatally obscured and being is forgotten. (p. 17)” Kundera goes on to argue:
Now, if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep “the world of life” under a permanent light and to protect us from “the forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?
Yes, so it seems to me. But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art. Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet’s history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind.
This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.
The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless. (pp. 17-18)
This is a key point he makes here. Today, it is too easy to say it’s an “either and/or” situation and leave it at that. There is no wrestling that takes place; all is shrugged off with “well, it’s a good or bad book, depending upon how you look at it.” Such an attitude is meant to absolve the reader of any responsibility, but when responsibility on the part of the reader is abdicated, then the remaining two legs of the Author-Text-Reader tripod threaten to topple. Truth, whether it be some commonly-held universal or individual particles based on received fact and acquired analysis, is not the same as a truism that is passively and blithely passed around like a joint. Here, Kundera harkens back to Cervantes’ famous phrase on history in the first part of Don Quijote to make the counter-argument that truth (and by extension, the ability to discern good from bad, quality from crap), cumbersome and useless as it may be, is something that is worth wrestling with and fighting over. As for the issue of perspective, Kundera continues:
The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow. (pp. 18-19)
Too often, people want to made an immediate, snap decision. There is little confrontation with the idea that the novel says many things to many people at the same time. Sure, this multiplicity of viewpoints may be taken, upon first glance, as being ammunition for the notion that one cannot judge if a novel is “good” or “bad,” but a deeper delving reveals the opposite. It is through individuals’ processing of what is contained within the novel and the realization that there is more than just a single take on it that forces the Reader to realize that there are not just other Readers out there, but that the Text is a dynamic entity that can yield varying levels of information about itself, its world, the reader, and the reader’s world. A good text allows for more levels of interaction, with as few impediments as possible. A poor text, on the other hand, will either yield up all of its secrets upon a cursory glance or it will be so opaque in its mechanics as to prevent a diligent reader from being able to harvest its crop of knowledge.
Doubtless, there are those who are going to argue that works such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun might fall under this “poor novel” category because of the perceived difficulty in harvesting all of its treasure troves of theme and plot. To that I would counter by noting that such a novel is constructed in a form upon which it can be interpreted on multiple levels; there is more for those who wish to delve deeper and to ask further questions of this text. Instead of the text impeding the reader, perhaps the argument could be made that there are readers who are so inclined to take the surface for the bedrock that they have impeded themselves from considering further the novel’s purposes and potential meanings.
So while it is easy to make the argument that it just depends upon where one stands if a work is “good” or “bad,” in reality such assertions are a fallacy; discernment is not just an individual’s tool, but also a societal one. After all, since individual members of a society are influenced by their relationships with their native cultures and to any other cultures to which they may have been exposed, how we value ideas, especially those expressed in novel form, is a much more critical issue than just “well, your mileage may vary on this book.” It is through individuals wrestling with how to discern what is quality and what is not that a rough consensus is formed. It is not a perfect, immutable consensus; people, after all, are too flighty for that. Instead, it is a portrait of the Reader as a global unit that serves to illuminate just how that Reader (singular and group entity alike) has come to process and to sort which works will endure and which will be relegated to the dustbins. To argue that relative judgment is absolute ignores the evidence that in the aggregate, there are works that are enduring and those that are not. The issue of the novel, beyond that of its good/bad qualities, resides not in the future, but in our pasts and presents. After all, as Kundera notes, the future can be a horrible judge.
“Sixty-three Words” and the transformative power of words in translations
Growing up, a traditional retort to namecalling was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Nearly thirty years later, it has become evident that there is something key being left unsaid in that ditty. Whether or not words may “harm” someone, the fact is that words serve to transform people, or at least their surroundings and their relationships with those surroundings. Words form bonds that shape our subjective existence and if a word is misapplied or misunderstood, great changes can occur.
Nowhere is the transformative power of words more evident than in translation. In his sixth essay in The Art of the Novel and in his Author’s Note to The Joke, Czech author Milan Kundera discusses how translations can affect the reading and processing of a work. Flaubert famously declared that he sought le seul mot juste when writing. Translators (taking into account the Latin translatio, which roughly means “transference”) are expected to transfer or bring across (delving further into the semantics of the Latin original) into a new language as much of the syntax and semantics of the original as possible, to find that single just or good word. It is a noble goal, but oh is it a Sisyphean task!
Kundera regales the reader (in French for this tale, despite the novels at hand originally being written in Czech) with horror stories of translators that reordered his novels’ chapters, of deleted scenes, of the style being made more ornate in the translated tongue than what Kundera had intended, and even of sentences being chopped up and puréed to suit the fancies of the translators rather than the aims of the author. Traduttore tradittore indeed.
This is a very sensitive issue for writer, translator, and reader alike. Personally, this topic has been weighing on my head more and more in recent months. Although I have blogged about translations before and have provided samples of how I would have translated passages differently from the published translations, I no longer speak as an amateur translator, for I have already cashed a check in payment for a translation which is scheduled to be published later this year [that was my translation of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor," which appeared in the World Fantasy-winning anthology, The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer]. This is a very serious matter. After all, Kundera says:
…translations are everything…The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep – a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. (pp. 121-122)
For the translator, the task is different but equally risible for those who have not undertaken such a task. As flexible as English is in some aspect (look at all of the names we have for shades of color), in other aspects it is a rigid language, locked into a pattern where in declarative sentences the subject ought to come before the verb and that multiple layers of dependent clauses are frowned upon, if not actively discouraged. But in other languages, nouns and adjectives can pile one atop the other, with direct and indirect objects indicated by case endings, with the verb packing its punch at the end, or sometimes the middle or even the beginning, depending upon the effect that the author aimed to achieve by the placement of one word after another in order to create an aural tapestry that pleases and instructs the reader as to the author’s intentions.
Now take that sentence and imagine how it might look like in another language. Say, for example, Spanish. Would I choose to have everything in the indicative mood, or could I alter the intent somewhat by recasting it as a contrary-to-fact subjective mood? Would the ordering of the clauses be the same, or would there be the need to shift them around in order to create a different effect? And if so, how much would the meanings change with the syntax?
This reordering in translation is very evident to me as I am currently re-reading (and yet reading anew) Serbian author Goran Petrović’s Ситничарница Код спрћне пуке in the Serbian original (for the first time) and re-reading the Spanish translation, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna. Although my Serbian is very rudimentary to say the least, I understand enough now to see quite clearly that his translator, Dubravka Sužnjević, had to invert clauses and to reconstruct several multi-clausal sentences in order to approximate what Petrović had crafted in the original Serbian. A reader of this story in Spanish would in no sense get the same story as would a Serbian writer – the emphasis on certain words would have shifted necessarily in order to accommodate what that Spanish-reading reader might expect.
The importance of a single word, placed just so, is even more apparent when a reader such as myself is reading two non-native languages and finds himself thinking about the passages in a third, remotely-related language. We are often so careless with our expressions, barely regarding just how we say and why we say what we say. Writers and translators have to hone their words, creating an artistic tapestry that a reader can interpret and translate as s/he sees fit.
Kundera became quite frustrated in having to pore through the various translations to see if his intent was borne across relatively intact. At a French editor/friend’s urging, he undertook writing down a list of sixty-three words that encapsulated the semantic battles being fought in his novels. While I will not list those sixty-three words or those “definitions” that Kundera supplied for them, I will pose this question: When faced with the barely definable, how do you reach out and grasp it? For example, how do you represent “being” and “beauty?” Do you shade their meanings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the author intends for these to be examined, or do you, if you are a translator, try to capture as much of the essence and power of those words in a translation that reflects not on the translator’s understanding of the words, but on those of the original author?
Words have a great power. The difference between “shit” and “manure” is not one of smell, but in how each is viewed in relation to other words surrounding them. So too is the relationship between a faithful and unfaithful translation. Something may be lost in all translations, but just what and how and why that is so important is what lies at the heart of the matter. Words, especially those in translation, do transform how we view the situation, n’est-ce pas?
“Dialogue on the Art of the Novel” and other related dialogues
The dialogue perhaps is one of the most important forms of communication available to humans. With it, differences in views, understandings of the world and its inhabitants, or strategies to approaching the wonders and mysteries of this planet are bridged. This is not to say that those who engage in dialogue end up with a homogeneous viewpoint; this should never be the sole aim of the dialogue, even in those situations where viewpoints become aligned. No, the dialogue allows its participants and those contemplating those participants the ability to converse about matters that otherwise might be outside the purview of any single person.
In regards to literature, dialogue is extremely important. Not just within the plot of a story when characters are conversing back and forth, revealing information and thoughts for the reader to process, but on other, perhaps deeper levels. In his dialogue with Christian Salmon, Czech writer Milan Kundera delves into the various dialogues one can have with the novel at hand. It is important to note that this third essay is actually the first part of a two-part edited conversation (or rather, dialogue, as the author prefers) on matters of novel interpretation and understanding. In another of his essays, “Sixty-three Words,” Kundera mentions how much he hates the tyranny that is the edited interview. I withheld discussing that point in my second essay on his essays precisely because I wanted to shift it to discussing the second essay in Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.
A dialogue is a two-way street; there is sharing and there is absorption of ideas and viewpoints. Over the course of the past six years, I have come to know several authors. But I have always wondered why it was that for those whom I conversed with more frequently via email before interviewing them, those interviews felt a bit “flat” to me and that the questions and answers felt a bit stiff and unnatural in places. I do not believe it is due to the Q&A nature of email interviews; I suspect much the same would have occurred if it had been a magazine-style edited phone or in-person interview. But the real issue, I suspect and which Kundera’s comments have reinforced, is that the traditional interview formats do not allow for much dialogue; the interviewer controls the pace and flow, as s/he asks the questions and the interviewee is mostly relegated to reacting to those questions. There is little of the back-and-forth that is found in true conversations and dialogues.
The same could often be said of reviews. The average reviewer, whether it be an online or print reviewer, often does not enter into a dialogue with his/her subject. The Text is something to be drained of information and spat forth upon the printed/electronic page to be consumed by that review’s readers. In the case of complex, multi-layered texts, such a review approach is tantamount to strip mining; the textual landscape of that novel is devastated by the ripping out of a few choice quotes or passages, with no integration of the whole into the review narrative. There is no dialogue that occurs in those novels; the reviewer just plunders the surface of the Text and moves on.
But there is so much more to a Text than just the reading of it for content. Salmon and Kundera delve deeper, exploring just how important dialogue is in the crafting of the art of the novel. Below is one key element of this delving, beginning with Salmon’s questioning of Kundera’s concept of the novel:
C.S.: Your conception of the novel, then, could be defined as a poetic meditation on existence. Yet your novels have not always been understood in that way. They contain many political events that have provoked sociological, historical, or ideological interpretations. How do you reconcile your interest in social history with your conviction that a novel examines primarily the enigma of existence?M.K.: Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation: in-der-Welt-sein, being-in-the-world. Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set. Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell: the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well. Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters’ lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates. The novel can never rid itself of that legacy from Balzac. Even Gombrowicz, who invents fantastical, improbable stories, who violates all the rules of verisimilitude, cannot escape it. His novels take place in a time that has a date and is thoroughly historical. But two things should not be confused: there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography. You’re familiar with all those novels about the French Revolution, about Marie Antoinette, or about the year 1914, about collectivization in the USSR (for or against it), or about the year 1984; all those are popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel. Well, I’ll never tire of repeating: The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say. (pp. 35-36)
But there are other dialogues as well, namely that of Reader and Author, Author and Text, as well as Reader and Text. Kundera’s view on dialogue with the novel is a very active one, almost too aggressively so. In discussing his stories, he phrases the dialogues he has had with his texts in ways that almost seem to be that of declaring the dictatorship of the Author in determining the interactions with the Text. But in this particular passage, I want to engage with Kundera’s words in a way perhaps different from what he intended or maybe what he believes. While I do agree that verisimilitude has bound novel forms ever tighter to those constraints found in Histories, I cannot help but wonder if in this particular dialogue Kundera may have overlooked just how authors can free themselves from the expectations created by the received truths found in dates and time.
Some of the best writers I have read have overcome the strictures that Kundera notes that bound even the likes of Gombrowicz by simply eliminating the ties that bind. Poe’s fictions never contained a single solid date; this allowed for more freedom in manipulating the time of fictional events. Saramago’s fictions never contain character names, only descriptions assigned to characters, in addition to the unmooring of the narrative from a real or imagined date or “past.” Readers confronting these narratives which are divorced from time/space/nomenclature either have to enter into a dialogue with that novel, trying to understand what the Text is saying, how it is saying it, and why the Author perhaps chose to construct that Text that way.
Authors perhaps view the primary dialogue as being between them and their Texts. To some extent, there is some truth to it. There may be allusions contained within the text to events which only the Author or those close to the Author may understand. However vigorous Authors may claim that they conceived their Texts with themselves as being the principal Audience, once a Text is made visible to others, the Text then can be free to be entered into dialogues which may diminish or even exclude the Author. For example, take Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Whenever I re-read it, as I am currently doing for the first time in several years, I like to engage myself with the Text, taking not just Lee’s portrayals of Southern life in the mid-1930s as being a reflection of cruel, capricious realities then, but also as a narrative on elements in my own life that have largely disappeared in my lifetime. Perhaps Lee wrote the novel in part to reflect these shifts that have taken place in Southern societies over the past century, but I would suspect that such a reading, complementary but not wholly subservient to the primary narrative on Race, might not jibe completely with her; she is, after all, two generations older than me, and our memories of vanishing youth contain different milestones.
But yet dialogues like mine are what make the Novel so important. If the Author-Text dialogue were to be the only primary dialogue occurring, then there would not be as much conversation, as the Author would be dictating the Text to the Reader. However, if a Reader enters into a dialogue with a Text and thus comes into fleeting contact with the Author and seeks to understand more about both Text and Author, this opens up possibilities for the Text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous, exciting, and illuminating fashions long after the Author is buried and the Text’s first edition is a relic. For as long as there are readers seeking to find more than just content (the strip mining of the novel) and instead seek to open themselves up for possible change through the course of entering into a dialogue with a Text, the art of Reading (itself a component in the composition of the Art of the Novel) will flourish.
Vorrei non dovermi ancora una volta svegliare in mia compagnia.
Mi alzo e mi faccio la barba.
Sono passate le undici e anche stamani non ho salutato i bambini prima che andassero all’asilo. Mi gira la testa, avanzo incerto verso il bagno che ha un odore chimico di lavanda.
Ha affogato nel deodorante l’odore di vomito di ieri sera. Potesse, darebbe una spruzzatina anche sul resto della nostra vita. Più la vedo e più mi fa schifo. Le canzoncine della buonanotte cantate ai bambini, il sup aggiungere caro, tesoro, alla fine di ogni frase, fanno sembrare tutto ancora più sfacciatamente patetico.
Mi gira la testa. Mi siedo sulla tazza per pisciare in modo da non perdere di nuovo l’equilibrio. Lo spazzolino, il dopobarba, la crema per il viso: ogni singolo oggetto si trova esattamente dove si è sempre trovato e dove sempre si troverà. Mi tiro su: è solo l’immagine riflessa nello specchio a essere fuori posto in questo cazzo di bagno. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Wars are unsettling mass actions of violence. They rend, they tear, they shred previously held social conventions. Neighbors who might differ on how they say a hello or how they worship a divinity suddenly might find themselves taking up arms against each other, trying to annihilate each other in the name of some ideology or religion (or at least that’s what they tell each other; the ultimate truth might be more ghastly than these convenient excuses). Civil wars are perhaps the most odious, because there is really no excuse about other polities threatening them; the violence comes from within and even families might be divided against each other.
Atrocities are the hallmark of war. They are perhaps its apotheosis. Massacres and rapes, plundering and pillaging, each of these is a sign and symptom of war’s disgusting trail of violence. It is easy to make the excuse, if one were present, that s/he were powerless to stop it, helpless in the wake of destructive frenzy unleashed upon a populace. The Endlösung, My Lai, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Rwanda, Gaza – each of these have had some try to whitewash what has happened, claiming that if an event occurred (therefore trying to remove the indelible violence of hatred’s reality), then it was something structural, something that those present could step away from and pretend that it wasn’t they themselves, but those others who perpetuated it. Do not blame them, for they were helpless, these “witnesses” of carnage claim. We, after all, are not our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.
One particularly sobering example of this denial in the face of genocidal frenzy is Srebenica, where in July 1995, during the height of the Yugoslav wars, an entire Bosniak village of 8-10,000 men and boys was massacred while the UN observers failed to ensure their safety. It was the worst atrocity of those wars and yet hardly anyone was ever convicted for their roles in this genocide. Despite the relative silence of the subsequent two decades, Srebenica is a testimony to how people lose their voices when it comes to standing up or even questioning what drives peoples to “cleanse” their regions of others. In his 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted novel, Come fossi solo (As I was Alone is a possible English translation), Marco Magini explores this issue of silence and almost-involuntary compliance with genocide. He utilizes three characters, two of whom were present at the time of the massacre, to examine closely the antecedents for the massacre and how its aftermath affected two of the characters.
Dirk is a Dutch soldier present as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. He struggles to deal with the situation, trying to piece together how it all fell apart there in July 1995. Dražen is a soldier of mixed ancestry who joins the Bosnian Serb militia and despite his own ambivalence, he is an active participant in the massacre. Romeo is a Spanish judge who hears Dražen’s case at The Hague years later and he has to weigh the largely circumstantial evidence against him with other events that took place. In each of the three men, the complex issues of responsibility and helplessness are examined in great detail. Magini does an excellent job in developing internal tension in each of his three PoV characters, and by alternating between each of them (Dirk, Romeo, and Dražen in that order), we experience what was seen, what was judged, and why it may have been enacted in the first place.
However, this does not lead to settled conclusions. Rather, the fuzziness surrounding individual understandings of this atrocity creates a growing sense of unease, as things turn out to be not as simple as one might presume. Why did Dražen participate in the slaughter? Not even he himself truly understands. Magini is very careful to leave doubt open, not to exculpate anyone, but rather to force the reader to consider the true blindness of war rage and how it consumes even its enablers.
The prose for the most part is sharp and penetrating. Magini often utilizes olfactory descriptors, such as the description of vomit’s “deodorant,” in order to convey the sickness of the situation. This leads to a very concrete sort of prose, one that wastes little time in establishing the setting and the character viewpoints. While there were a few occasions where more exposition could have been employed in order to make the impact even greater, on the whole Come fossi solo was a very good novel that I had hoped would have made the Premio Strega shortlist. Hopefully there will be an English translation in the near future, as this debut novel appears to herald a new literary talent.
Lo chiamavano Blacmàn e immediatamente tutti capivano chi fosse. Prima ancora del nome o di una fama qualsiasi, veniva quell’aspetto da zingaro quale in fondo era, da prestigiatore da quattro soldi: un uomo con mani grandi abbastanza solo per suonartele, ma non per prendere la vita come si deve. Blacmàn era lui senza possibilità d’errore, e avrebbe messo quasi paura se non fosse stato anche il tipo ridicolo che sapevo io: per i suoi centimetri scarsi quanto quelli d’un ragazzo senza sviluppo, i vestiti attillati e a strisce di colore buoni a dare impaccio piú che allegria, i baffi a manubrio tenuti lisci e rigidi come quelli d’un sovrano senza terra, e i capelli a cespuglio, uguali al pelo degli animali che in calore se lo caricano di lappole nei giardini. Ridicolo, come forse tutti avevano il diritto di credere tranne io, anche se piú di tutti lo pensavo cosí, vergognandomi d’averne preso il sangue e le ossa.
Blacmàn era mio padre. E da quando ho cominciato a capire, non ho fatto altro che cercare prove e controprove di un’orfanezza, prima nei centimetri che mettevo, poi nella moralità di mia madre. (p. 12, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Italian writer Elisa Ruotolo’s 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title, Ovunque, proteggici (Everywhere, Protect is the translated title), is on its surface a family history/mystery. Set in the aftermath of World War II, the novel details the search of an man, Lorenzo, for clues into his family’s past, especially for his father, who disappeared one day. While this plot device is rather familiar to readers, Ruotolo does add other elements to it to make it an interesting, worthwhile read.
One strength of Ovunque, proteggici is its ability to take interesting characters and to weave them in and out of the main plot in order to create a fascinating backdrop. The Girosa family for five generations have striven to make their way in a world that seems to be set against them. As Lorenzo explores his family’s past in order to understand why his father Blacmàn disappeared during World War II, we begin to see how his ancestors’ pasts have shaped his life. From a grandfather who went to America to try to ply a trade and to send remittances home to his father becoming a jester of sorts and his mother a runaway, Lorenzo’s family is full of characters who have failed and then started anew, with each permutation of failure and meager success adding to the tale.
With so many fascinating characters, Ruotolo easily could have overwhelmed the plot with flashbacks and backstories. Yet for the most part, these interesting characters enrich the plot, making Lorenzo’s investigation into his father’s past more than just another bog standard missing father/family history procedural. By the time the novel concluded, it felt as though Ruotolo had achieved two seemingly divergent things at once: an intimate novel that also manages to contain universal appeal to those who did not grow up under the oppressive weight of family history.
Although my Italian is a bit rudimentary, I did find Ruotolo’s prose to be relatively easy to follow. Lorenzo’s first-person account of his investigations is concise, never feeling too distant or grandiose for the narrative. This results in a narrative that flowed smoothly, telling a fascinating story without ever seeming to get in the way of the unfolding tale. Ovunque, proteggici is a novel that I will likely revisit in years to come, as I am curious to see what else might be revealed on a re-read, as it seems there are depths to it that I failed to explore on my initial read.
Pendant tout le repas je jouai avec les pages de mon cernet que j’avais déballé. C’était un bon papier lisse, un peu jaune. Comme dessert je choisis une crêpe aux fruits rouges. Et quand le serveur l’eut déposée devant moi, tout se passa à nouveau en dépit de moi-même. Mes yeux fixèrent le serveur, ses petits boutons, son fin duvet au-dessus de la lèvre, mes doigts caressaient la couverture de mon carnet, agréable au toucher, ma peau sentait un rayon de soleil sur mon avant-bras et ma bouche demanda au serveur s’il me permettait de lui poser une question: connaissait-il par hasard Roberto Bolaño? Le serveur fronça les sourcils et demanda s’il travaillait au Can Martí ou s’il était censé le connaisse, c’était un écrivain, il avait écrit des romans et il avait dix ou quinze ans de cela. Le serveur dessina dans l’air un geste d’impuissance de sa seule main libre (l’autre main tenant mon assiette vide): c’était il y a longtemps, à l’époque il vivait encore chez ses parents dans le Sud, à Rincón de la Victoria, il n’avait pas encore déménagé à Blanès, donc non, il était désolé de ne pas pouvoir m’aider, il ne connaissait pas Roberto Boliño. Bolaño, rectifiai-je. Le serveur s’éloigna. L’air devint saturé. Pourquoi m’avait-il regardée ainsi, si intensément, au moment de parler de ses parents et de Rincón de la Victoria? D’ailleurs où diable cela pouvait-il se trouver et surtout qu’est-ce que cela pouvait me faire? Il fallait payer et partir au plus vite, j’étais affreusement gênée. Soudain prise d’un doute, je me retournai: dans ma nuque, ce n’étaient pas des géraniums mais des hortensias. Cela m’avait titillée depuis le début. (pp. 65-66, PDF e-edition)
For the past decade, the Spanish/Catalan coastal town of Blanes has become renowned for being the home of the peripatetic Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the last twenty years of his life. Bolaño’s reputation was mostly made, however, after his 2003 death, with a slew of posthumous translations into the major European languages. One novel, however, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives in English), was published to some acclaim in 1998. That tale, containing among other elements an odyssey undertaken to find two missing poets in 1970s Mexico, is perhaps Bolaño’s best-executed work (2666 I would argue was left in an unfinished state at the time of Bolaño’s death). That mystery of what happened to Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (characters who appear, often fleetingly, in several of Bolaño’s works) is tied in to literary movements and commentaries on the fluctuating relationships between “art” and “reality.”
Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I read Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart’s debut novel, the 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted Blanès. Set in the town itself, it is a mystery that unfolds on at least two levels. The first involves a couple, Eva and Samuel, who are vacationing there when Samuel suddenly disappears. As Eva undertakes a search for him, she begins to discover the elements of another mystery, that of a beloved author, and the various connections and relationships between him, his stories, and the people of Blanes.
Blanès is a relatively short novel, roughly 190 pages in my PDF e-edition, and Jeanmart wastes little time in establishing character, setting, and mood. In the passage quoted above, Eva comes in contact with a server at a restaurant. Jeanmart describes the setting with great detail, going from Eva’s choices for a meal to her inquiries about Bolaño. The server’s reactions to her somewhat odd questions is shown in vivid detail. In reading it, I was reminded of the hyperrealist, almost surrealist, quality of The Savage Detectives and while Jeanmart is not aping Bolaño’s literary mannerisms, there certainly are enough touchstones here for readers familiar with that tale to see the connections.
Yet for those readers who are not familiar with Bolaño or his work, Blanès also succeeds on its own due to Jeanmart’s ability to create a plausible, gripping mystery that absorbs the reader’s attention. I spent several minutes reading and re-reading certain paragraphs, not because my French is rudimentary compared to my English or Spanish, but because of the richness of the prose and the fineness of the dialogues. It was simply a delectable reading experience, one that I do not often encounter when reading contemporary prose in any language. Yet the plot does not suffer due to the attention to style. In fact, Jeanmart’s mixture of beautiful and stark imagery enriches the plot, making the mystery more palpable for the reader.
The characterizations are also well-rendered. Scenes such as the one quoted above are commonplace and the people that Eva meets during her search for solving two mysteries (the disappearance of her lover and that of Bolaño’s life in Blanes) are fascinating in their own right. There are very few longeurs present here; everything flows quickly and smoothly toward a satisfying denouement. While the other Prix Medicis-longlisted titles I’ve read have also been excellent, Blanès would be one that I hope would make the shortlist coming out shortly. It certainly is one of the better books that I’ve read in any language so far this year.