Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)

January 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

During the four years since his puppyhood he [Buck] had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.  But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog.  Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.  (p. 6, Library of America edition)

The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd dog, is Jack London’s most famous tale.  In less than a hundred pages, he explores the changes in Buck as he transforms from a symbol of civilized life to the epitome of “savagery.”  Yet this simple description does not hint at the wealth of social commentaries that London makes in this novella.

The Call of the Wild begins in the Santa Clara valley in California in 1897 with a description of Buck before he is stolen away and told to trainers seeking suitably large dogs to haul the dog sleds during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.  The depravities that Buck endures, learning the “law of club and fang,” are vividly described in the second chapter:

He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgetable lesson.  It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it.  Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, make advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she.  There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw. (p. 15)

In the span of less than ten pages, we witness Buck’s initial transformation.  Exposed rudely to the violent code of kill or be killed through the sudden killing of the friendly Curly, Buck is confronted with a dilemma:  does he try to resist the changes being forced upon him, or does he learn to adapt to this brutal code of life in which there are no such concepts as “fair play” or “equal treatment.”  London does an excellent job of using Buck’s situation to allow us greater insight into not only what the more “civilized” dogs had to face in the harsh Arctic clime, but also how humans themselves had to shed off layers of civilized behavior if they were to able to survive.

London’s prose mirrors the changes in Buck.  At first, there is almost a staid pomposity to Buck’s initial self-description, but as he becomes acclimated to the sled pack and learns how to fight back against the cruel, imperious Spitz for control of the pack, his observations and thoughts become sharper, more staccato in their bursts of activity.  There is lesser and lesser room for introspective thought as the pack makes their way toward Dawson City, the hub of activity during the gold rush.  The focus shifts more to the immediate, materialistic aspects:  will there be enough food to eat tonight?; how shall dominance be shown or rejected?; and how to make shelter against the blistering wintry winds?  This narrative shift occurs gradually, enabling readers to make connections between events and their subsequent effect on Buck’s behavior and thoughts.

It is tempting to describe what The Call of the Wild is about:  a staging of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” in the Klondike; a reverse “hero’s journey” through the shedding of layers of civilization to reach a pristine primordial state; or conflicts of an anthropomorphic dog against self, nature, and other dog-men.  There certainly are elements in the story that supports each point of view, especially in how Buck comes to relate to his succession of so-called masters and his increasing unwillingness to follow the “law of club” blindly.  This can be seen in how he subverts Spitz’s authority before dethroning him in a fight to the death that resembles that of Spitz’s savage treatment of Curly; but even more in how he refuses to follow the inept Hal down into certain death in a Yukon about to shed its icy mantle.

However, there is more to The Call of the Wild than these plausible themes.  Although it is rarely stated until the final chapters, there is the condition of affectionate love that is part and parcel of Buck’s transformation from civilized dog to one who ultimately answers “the call of the wild.”  This is most evident in his time spent with the outdoorsman John Thornton and how theirs is a bond that transcends normal civilized niceties (Thornton’s swearing at Buck and Buck’s leaving teeth imprints in Thornton’s hand both are signs of rebellion against “normal” polite signs of affection).  This is most readily apparent in a wager that Thornton makes that Buck, without any cracks of the whip from Thornton, could haul a half-ton sled 100 yards.  When Buck manages to achieve the seemingly impossible, winning Thornton $1600, Thornton is made a staggering offer for Buck:

Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson.  Hats and mittens were flying in the air.  Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.

But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck.  Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth.  Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.

“Gad, sir!  Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king.  “I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir – twelve hundred, sir.”

Thornton rose to his feet.  His eyes were wet.  The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks.  “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir.  You can go to hell, sir.  It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”

Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth.  Thornton shook him back and forth.  As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.” (p. 70)

It is here, and in two scenes at the very end of the novel, where the bonds of affection are shown to be both the last tie to civilization and the first bond to savage, pristine communion with the wild.  Here is the antidote to Buck’s first harsh treatment at the hands of the man in the red sweater, there is the rejection of absolute authority as seen in the futile attempts of Hal to drive Buck into mortal danger.  By building up Buck’s voluntary bond to Thornton, London provides a deeper answer to Buck’s series of internal conflicts:  the shedding of civilized values does not mean a rejection of communal ties but instead a truer reaffirmation of them.  This in turn makes the final scene in The Call of the Wild one of the most powerful moments in American literature and the novella one of the most moving works of American literature.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1941-1944; 1956 revision)

January 16th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Ficciones is Jorge Luis Borges’ most famous fiction collection.  It is the omnibus of two separate mini-collections, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, published in 1941, and Artificios, released in 1944.  Later, in the 1956 revision, three stories (“El fin,” “La secta del Fénix,” and my personal favorite, “El Sur”) were appended to this omnibus collection.

Although I could devote hundreds of words (if not thousands) to each individual story in this collection, what I am going to do is briefly note a few characteristics associated with this collection, followed by more detailed explorations of a few personal favorites.  I will not do any translations for this; in part because English versions are widely available and anything I do on the fly may differ in subtle ways from the available ones from the past 50 years or so.  I will note, however, that Borges’ Spanish is very Anglo-American in style, though, as there is not as much ornateness to it as would be found in the majority of Latin American fictions from this time period.  In fact, that deceptive simplicity in the prose (something that I remember the English translations capturing for the most part, although it’s been years since I’ve read any Borges in translation outside of an odd story or two included in an anthology) is what makes these stories all the more memorable.

Several readers might remember Ficciones for stories such as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where through a look at language of a fictitious place/culture leads to a haunting conclusion, or perhaps “The Circular Ruins,” where Time itself seems to bend and twist.  Maybe stories such as “The Library of Babel,” with its infinite qualities are what appeal to readers most (it certainly seemed to appeal to Gene Wolfe and Umberto Eco, who each wrote novels that reference this quality), or possibly “The Babylon Lottery,” where Chance and Fate are revealed in lottery form.  Or could it be “The Garden of Bifucating Paths” that grabs someone’s attention most?

There are so many choices here for stories to examine.  But I am going to limit myself to three:  “Pierre Menard,” “Funes the Memorable,” and “The South.”  Each of these three differs significantly in form, content, and theme from one another, but all are personal favorites of mine because of what Borges accomplishes in each story.  Hopefully, these are favorites of those reading this as well.

“Pierre Menard” reads as a satire of literary criticism.  At first, the pages devoted to outlining a curious list of fake research, conmingled with actual writers and philosophers, may seem to be too much of a conceit.  However, it sets the stage perfectly for Borges to mock those writers, historians as well as literary critics, who desire to discover everything new under the sun, hoping to draw attention to themselves by devising a new way of discussing old matters.  His Pierre Menard, who sets out not just to recreate Cervantes’ Don Quixote but rather to create anew this classic, not only succeeds as a satire, but it also broadens its target.  Each generation has a tendency to reinterpret the old, taking words and expressions from past generations and imbuing them with context and meanings specific to our own.  When Menard creates anew that famous passage from Ch. 9 of Don Quixote talking about History, the interpretative twist given to how the two identical passages now supposedly have two separate and very different intents and interpretations creates a situation where the reader may realize that not only is s/he involved in reading a satire of literary critics who want to reinvent the interpretative wheel every generation, but that this extends to readers as well who choose to reinterpret passages to fit their own time-specific needs.

“Funes the Memorable” is one of the most chilling fictions that Borges has ever written.  In re-reading it, I could not help but to think of H.P. Lovecraft and Horacio Quiroga in how Borges constructed this story of a man injured in a fall and condemned to remember everything in his life.  There is a slow, creeping horror in that tale, as Funes outlines just what it means to have an infallible memory.  Perfect recall, Borges posits through Funes, perhaps is not an ideal situation, considering how much healing can take place in oblivion.  Funes’ tragic end still stick with me, eight years after I first read this story.

“The South” is a multi-layered story.  At first, it reads as a man who wishes to die in a knife knight, gaucho style.  This story references several elements of early 20th century Argentine (and especially gaucho) culture, with the knife fights and machismo.  But there is a second layer, one that isn’t apparent at first, but when read closely, can change the perspective of this story into something more illusory and dreamlike.  The character of Juan Dahlmann (incidentally, I chose this name for the title of my mirror blog, Vaguely Borgesian, because of how much I identified with parts of this character’s personality) adds poignancy to this tale.  Why is he wanting (or dreaming) of going South, away from the City, to fight and die?  What motivates him to push on, to change who he was?  It is this central mystery about the character and if what I read should be taken at face value or questioned immediately that made “El Sur” my favorite Borges story.

But as I noted above, I could have easily discussed each and every one of these stories with individual paragraph(s).  Ficciones is one of the rare few anthologies where even the more relatively obscure stories are stronger than those that would appear in most authors’ “best of” collections.  There is not a single story in here that I did not enjoy greatly.  Borges’ stories made me think, made me puzzle out what is going on, made me question matters of Space and Time, and made me ponder how I read and interpret the stories that I read.  I have re-read this collection probably close to a dozen times and each time I find myself marveling over what Borges has created here.  Ficciones simply is among the handful of books that I would hold up as being wonders of human literary invention.

William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940)

January 15th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition)

One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.

Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer (1998)

January 9th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Uključio sam kompjuter.

Prethodno sam, naravno, spustio roletnu.  Bio je to deo jutarnjeg rituala, koji je imao praktičnog smisla za vedrih dana, kakav je bio ovaj, ali ne i onda kada bi bilo oblačno.  Svejedno, ja sam je i tada spuštao, sujeverno težeći jedinstvu ambijenta.  Moja radna soba gleda na istok, a ja sedim za stolom naspram velikog prozora, tako da bi me, bez roletne, sunce zaslepljivalo sve tamo negde do podneva, nagoneći me da čkiljim u ekran.  Ovako nisam čkiljio, ali sam zato, zarad ambijenta, naprezao oči  u nepotrebnoj polutami za oblačnih dana.

Roletna, doduše, nije bila sasvim spuštena.  Zaustavio bih je na petnaestak centimetara od donje ivice okvira, kako bi sunce ipak moglo da dopre tamo gde je svakako bilo dobrodošlo:  do osmostranog staklenog suda, smeštenog u prozoru, joji je nekada bio mali akvarijum, a sada je služio kao saksija za skupinu minijaturnih kaktusa, sa belim i ružičastim cvetićima.  Svetlost je, pored toga, dopirala i kroz tanke proreze ismeđu plastičnih rebara zategnute roletne, gradeći u polumraku sobe titrave arabeske.  Čak i da sam sedeo leđima okrenut prozoru, mislim da bih samo radi ove nestalne igre svetlihi tamnih pruga po površinama stvari držao roletnu stalno spuštenu.  Čudnovatom utisku nestvarnosti, koji je tu nastajao i koji je, ko zna zbog čega, veoma podsticajno delovao na mene, doprinosilo je i lelujanje zrnaca prašine u kosim zracima.  Znam da ima pisaca kojima je sasvim svejedno u kakvom okružju stvaraju, ali ja zasigurno ne spadam među takve.  Za mene je ambijent bezmalo sve. (pp. 5-6)

I switched on the computer.

First I pulled down the Venetian blind, of course.  That was part of my morning ritual, and on sunny days like this one it had a practical function.  Nevertheless, I also pull it down on cloudy days, superstitiously striving to maintain the ambiance.  My study looks to the east, and my desk faces a large window, so that, without the blind, I would have to squint and scowl until noon to see anything on the screen.  This way there’s no need to squint, but on cloudy days, for the sake of maintaining the ambiance, I strain my eyes in unnecessary semidarkness.

Not that I pull it all the way down.  I leave a gap of about fifteen centimeters above the windowsill, so that sunshine reaches the area where it is definitely welcome:  an eight-sided glass vessel, set in the window.  That vessel, formerly a small aquarium, has been converted to serve as a flowerpot for a group of miniature cactuses, the kind with very small pink and white flowers.  Light also slants through the narrow slits between the horizontal plastic bars, creating shimmering arabesques in the dusky air of the room.  Even if I sat with my back to the window, I think I would keep the blind down at such times of the day just to enjoy the transient play of bright and dark stripes on objects in the room.  The peculiar impression of unreality thus created, one which (for reasons unknown to me) I find very stimulating, is enhanced by dust motes floating in the air, caught by diagonal beams of light.  I know that some writers are not at all influenced by their immediate surroundings.  For me, the ambient mood is almost everything. (pp. 3-4, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)

The beginning to Zoran Živković’s 1998 novella, Pisac (The Writer), is in many ways typical of his writing.  There rarely are flashy, attention-grabbing moments in these introductory paragraphs.  Rather, almost the inverse is true, as he frequently begins with the most mundane of events (here, the simple powering up of a computer) before some peculiar trait of the narrator sends the narrative careening off into something remarkable.  Ambiance, as the anonymous narrator notes, is almost everything when it comes to Živković’s stories and this is especially true for The Writer, the first of a triptych of stories that involves the writer-text-reader semantic triangle.

Plot may not seem to be a primary emphasis, yet The Writer depends heavily upon the intricate placing of narrative developments.  As the writer tries to compose a tale, his dependency upon shades of light and darkness takes on several forms throughout the novella.  His musings about his difficulties (a theme that Živković would revisit in several other stories, each time with a different permutation) are stacked upon each other, creating a catalog of issues that somehow, in their seemingly digressive fashion, manages to suck the reader into considering them at hand.  This meticulous assembly of the conundrums the writer faces may not appear at first to be akin to a crime novelist’s revelations of clues, yet there is a certain familial relationship in how each is presented to the reader.  Živković’s carefulness in parsing out of information related to the writer and his attempts to write pays dividends by story’s end.

Characterization is also surprisingly well-done, considering the paucity of characters (two) and the amount of time devoted to exploring the narrator/writer’s internal thoughts and actions.  With precise wording (the English translation does a good job of capturing the essence of the Serbian original, although at several points the sentence structure had to be broken in order to preserve more of the narrative’s “ambiance”), Živković creates quirky, obsessive characters whose occasional single-mindedness leads to some amusing scenes, such as the pseudo-Freudian interrogation of the writer’s childhood by the writer’s so-called friend (himself a writer of sorts, albeit a possibly deluded one).  These oddball moments add a levity to the narrative that makes it as much a story about humanity as it is about the addictive art of literary composition.

As hinted at above, Živković’s prose, in both the original and in translation, is nearly pitch-perfect.  He is a writer who creates “atmospheric” settings that feel simultaneously plausible and utterly strange.  He never rushes the development of setting, events, or characters, yet his narratives (and this is especially true here, as The Writer is around 30 pages in the omnibus The Writer/The Book/The Reader translation published by PS Publishing) are very compact, with almost no wasted space or energy.  Yet there is a sense of grandness behind this intimate story that belies its brevity.  The result is a story that is simple in its presentation and yet very nuanced in its details.

The Writer, as one of Živković’s earlier works, can almost be seen as an ur-text of sorts for his later writings.  The structure of the narrative, beginning and ending with simple, mundane actions, along with the character type of the narrator, is seen, at least in glimpses, multiple times in his latter works.  Yet here (as well as in most of his other tales), these familiar elements do not equate to staid stories, as there is always some unique element (perhaps a different mental train of thoughts from a common point, or a more or less fantastical component) that makes each story different from each other.  Certainly The Writer is a well-written story in its own right; it is merely a bonus to see certain connections between it and Živković’s latter works that enrich both.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

January 5th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Highgate, London, November 1985

This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer.  He didn’t look like a liar.  My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps.  The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.

On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting.  It was the last picture that had been taken of my father.  He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble.  He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today. (pp. 7-8, e-ARC edition)

Every once in a while, there will be a news item about the abduction of a child by a relative.  Sometimes, the reasons are as mundane as anger over a divorce/custody settlement, but occasionally there is something much more bizarre about it.  Perhaps the relative (often a father or uncle, but occasionally a mother) is involved in a cult, or possibly there is a doomsday survivalist angle to it.  Regardless of the specific details, the stranger stories are the ones that capture the public’s attention, especially when the child escapes or is returned to the wider world after years in seclusion.

In Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, she narrates this abduction story from the viewpoint of a then-eight-year-old girl, Peggy, whose father, James, has taken her from her English home while her German-born mother, Ute, is off on a concert tour.  Moving back and forth in time from the late 1970s to 1985, when she is returned to civilization, Fuller explores just how a young child might adapt to being thrust into a primitive world in which she is told her mother and all of civilization has been destroyed in a cataclysm and that she must learn how to survive with the help of her father.

Fuller does an excellent job in developing Peggy’s character and the situation in which she finds herself, both in her initial exposure to the wild and later in the flash-forward chapters where she is trying to reintegrate herself into modern society.  Fuller utilizes detailed, vivid descriptions to great effect, such as this scene near the middle of the novel in which Peggy’s father takes her out of their “die Hütte” into the greater, snow-covered wilderness deep in a German forest:

I clung to him with my arms and legs and we went outside.  It made me feel strange to think there was no one left to see us emerge from die Hütte into the snow; no one to wonder at this new double creature – a PapaPunzel.  Our two-legged, two-headed body lumbered into the clearing.

“This whole wonderful world is yours and mine, Punzel.  Everything you can see is ours.  Beyond the Fluss, over the hill” – he pointed in that direction – “there’s nothing.  If you carried on over the top, you’d fall off the edge into a never-ending blackness.  Ptarrr!”  He loosened his grip on me.

I shrieked as I felt a lurch with the drop of my body, before he caught me again.

He laughed at my fright and then became serious.  “And the same with the mountain.”  He turned, running his outstretched arm in a semicircle, taking in all the places I knew:  the forest, the clearing, the cabin, and the rocky slope up to the summit.  We both looked up to the sharp line slicing through the white sky.  “On the other side there is only emptiness, an awful place that has eaten everything except our own little kingdom.”

“What’s it called?”  I asked in an awed whisper.

He paused, and I thought it was because even the name must be too terrible to speak.  At last he said, “The Great Divide.  And you must promise never to go there.  I couldn’t survive without you.  We’re a team, you and I, aren’t we?”(p. 187-188 e-ARC edition)

Here can be seen both the daughter’s credulous wonder at this wintry expedition and her father’s manipulations.  Although there are places where the reader can anticipate later plot developments, Fuller does such a good job in laying out Peggy’s inner emotions that even when situations occur much as what one might expect based on the narrative, there really is not an urge to skim through to the “present” sections because the prose is so well-developed that it makes the reader want to linger over certain passages, re-reading them again for the full effect.

There are few weaknesses evident.  Perhaps at times too much is described or, conversely, a few moments that could have used a little more exposition.  These, however, are few in number and they do not affect the overall narrative flow.  As stated above, Fuller excels at writing descriptive prose through the eyes of a child, one who is not aware at first just how traumatized she has become, both by the initial abduction and her eventual return to society.  Peggy’s deceptively complex character provides a perspective to the narrated events that readers might not have anticipated, based on their familiarity with abduction/rescue tales.  Our Endless Numbered Days is a very strong debut, one that readers of various genres should appreciate reading.

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (2015)

January 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Kelly Link has been one of my favorite short fiction writers ever since I read her debut collection, Stranger Things Happen, back in 2003.  There is something about her fiction that is hard to describe as a common thread, yet when reading individual stories, so frequently there comes a moment, often a twist of scene or turn of phrase, that makes that story easily identifiable as “a Kelly Link story.”  Certainly there is a continuation of theme and narrative style across her three previous collection and it does crop up in her latest collection, Get in Trouble (due to be released in February).

Get in Trouble‘s nine stories (oddly, the ninth, “The Lesson,” was left off of my e-ARC) often begin with a sentence that seems so outlandish, so off-center, that the reader is compelled to pay closer attention to what is transpiring.  For example, here is the beginning to “The Summer People”:

Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister.  “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant.  “Fran, honey.  Wakey wakey.”

It is an interesting simile, which is immediately contrasted with descriptions of Fran’s suffering from the flu (“head was stuffed with boiled wool and snot”).  There is a deceptively simple narrative style, one that at times feels as though it were being narrated by a precocious child, in which the mundane and the weird are conflated, with no discernible boundaries between the twain.  This certainly is played up to great effect in “The Summer People,” in which a seemingly ordinary, albeit slightly off-beat, father and daughter interaction ends up careening in a new, unexpected direction.  From a child’s perspective, matters of heaven and hell might be as frightening as a thunderstorm or a lightning burst, but for adults reading this story, there are some startlingly frightful moments that seem to have been lurking just beneath the narrative surface before they quickly pop up.  However, what is really striking about “The Summer People,” and by extension the majority of the other stories, is that Link elects to leave several narrative mysteries intact.  On occasion, these lack of narrative resolutions can be a bit frustrating, but in this story and the majority of the tales, these messy conclusions add to the narrative impact rather than detract from them.

A similar pattern can be seen with the second story, “I Can See Right Through You,” which begins with this memorable paragraph:

When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did.  He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder.  Girls like Fawn came and went, but Meggie would always be there.  Him and Meggie.  It was the talisman you kept in your pocket.  The one you couldn’t lose.

Yet despite this similarly strange beginning, “I Can See Right Through You” differs in certain key respects from “The Summer People.”  The tale is more risque, slightly erotic, yet this tale of faded fame feels more introspective than anything else.  It could almost be a tale of a woman or man in a mid-life crisis, if it weren’t for the ghosts and demon lover.  Their presence alters the narrative, making it both a reflective tale and a social commentary that references both Perez Hilton and the supernatural.  Link manages to strike a fine balance between the whimsical and the serious here, as each time it seems the story might be getting too silly, there is a sobering reference to addictions or suicide to restore a morose balance.

This mixture of playfulness and direct, forthright accounts of lives altered is present, more or less, in the other stories.  At times, such as in the Wizard of Oz-related “Origin Story,” it almost becomes a bit too odd, although seeing a reference to a superhero called “Mann Man,” with all the powers of Thomas Mann, did crack me up a bit.  The only real shortcomings of Get in Trouble, besides the over familiarity that some readers might have with the narrative arcs, concern the collection’s length.  It just feels like there should have been even more delightfully weird tales here and that perhaps there could have been an even greater variety in narrative styles.  However, this is akin to complaining that a bowl of delicious butter pecan ice cream is lacking because there is no chocolate present and that it isn’t a gallon-full of churned ice cream.  For its relatively short size, Get in Trouble is a testimony to just how reliably good Link is as a writer, as the vast majority of these stories deliver on the promises made with their opening lines.  The year is young, but it may be one of the better collections released in a year that already is full of promising writers’ debut collections.

2007 Premio Alfaguara winner: Luis Leante, Mira si yo te querré

December 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Desde el barracón que hacía las veces de calabozo, el cabo Santiago San Román llevaba todo el día observando un movimiento anormal de tropas.  Cuatro metros de anchos por seis de largo, un colchón sobre un somier con cuatro patas, una mesa, una silla, una letrina muy sucia y un grifo.

Querida Montse:  pronto hará un año que no sé nada de ti.

Había tardado casi una hora en decidirse a escribir la primera frase y ahora le parecía afectada, poco natural.  El sonido de los aviones que tomaban tierra en el aeródromo de El Aaiún lo devolvió a la realidad.  Miró la cuartilla y ni siquiera reconoció su propia letra.  Desde la ventana del barracón no alcanzaba a ver más que la zona de seguridad de la pista y una parte del hangar.  Lo único que distinguía con claridad eran las cocheras y los Land-Rover entrando y saliendo sin parar, camiones cargados de lejías novatos y coches oficiales en un extraño ir y venir.  Por primera vez en siete días no le habían traído la comida, ni le habían abierto la puerta a media tarde para que pudiera estirar las piernas en uno de los extremos de la pista del aeródromo.  Llevaba una semana sin cruzar apenas palabra con nadie, comiendo un chusco duro y una sopa sosa, sin apartar la vista de la puerta ni de la ventana, esperando a que vinieran en cualquier momento para montarlo en una aeronave y sacarlo de África para siempre.  Le habían asegurado, en tono amenazador, que sería cuestión de un día o dos, y que luego tendría toda la vida para añorar se Sáhara. (pp. 23-24)

Tales involving lovers separated by time and space by all rights should be trite and clichéd affairs.  How many ways can a writer express “true love” without it becoming hackneyed and devoid of anything resembling originality?  Yet every now and then, there emerges a writer who manages to rework this age-old formula just enough to create something that is both familiar and yet differs in some key ways from the norm.

This is certainly the case in Luis Leante’s 2007 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Mira si yo te querré (See if I Will Love You).  It is a tale of two young lovers, one fated to become a Barcelona doctor, the other a soldier in Spain’s foreign legion during the last years of General Franco’s regime in the mid-1970s.  Yet Mira si yo te querré is more than just a love story.  It is as much a tale of Spain’s ill-fated retreat from its Western Sahara colony in 1975 and the invasion and annexation of this nascent country by Morocco.

The story shifts back and forth between the two lovers, Montse Cambra and Santiago San Román, from their initial relationship in the early 1970s (leading to Montse becoming pregnant) and Santiago’s embarking for the Western Sahara to Montse’s discovery, nearly three decades later, that Santiago did not die in the fighting there, as she had long presumed, but may have somehow survived and had stayed in the region after the Moroccan invasion.  Leante shifts back and forth in narrative time, building up Montse and Santiago’s original relationship in order to ratchet up the tension leading to her arrival in the occupied region.  Questions are raised about how each has or might have changed over the years, all over a backdrop whose own recent, tortured past serves as a counter to any possible tendency toward treacliness.

Leante does a very good job in establishing setting and narrative flow.  Things move smoothly from event to event, never feeling forced or underdeveloped.  The characterizations, however, are a bit more uneven, perhaps due to Santiago’s necessary lengthy absences from the “present” PoVs in order to further Montse’s character arc.  The concluding scenes, however, more than make up for this relative character underdevelopment, as they serve to reinforce not only what had been developed earlier between the two characters, but also to tie in the Western Sahara conflict with the characters’ lives.  The result is an entertaining love story that contains more depth than usual for lost lover narratives.

2003 Premio Alfaguara winner: Xavier Velasco, Diablo Guardián

December 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

No lo puedo creer.  La última ve que hice esto tenía un sacerdote enfrente.  Y tenía una maleta llenísima de dólares, lista para salvarme del Infierno.  ¿Sabes, Diablo Guardián?  Te sobra cola para sacerdote, y aun así tendría que mentirte para que me absolvieras.  Tú, que eres un tramposo, ¿nunca sentiste como que se te agotaban las reservas de patrañas?  Ya sé que me detestas por decirte mentiras, y más por esconderte las verdades.  Por eso ahora me toca contarte la verdad.  Enterita, ¿me entiendes?  Escríbela, revuélvela, llénala de calumnias, hazle lo que tú quieras.  No es más que la verdad, y verdades ya ves que siempre sobran.  Señorita Violetta, ¿podría usted contarnos qué tanto hay de verdad en su cochina vida de mentiras?  ¿Qué hay de cierto en la witch disfrazada de bitch, come on sugar darling let me scratch your itch?  Puta madre, qué horror, no quiero confesarme. (p. 11)

Tales of prodigals, men and women alike, appeal to us not only because some of us reader sympathize with their lack of restraint and their giving in to total hedonism, but also because for some readers, seeing such characters get their comeuppance serves as a justification by proxy of their own decisions to refrain from any indulging of the senses.  The story of the “pretty woman,” the hooker with the heart of gold, has been told in many guises, but what about a tale of a girl who descends, through spendthrift actions, from the upper middle-class to prostitution and yet who does not see herself as a victim in any real shape or form whatsoever?

It is this latter premise that makes Xavier Velasco’s 2003 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Diablo Guardián, such an intriguing story.  It traces the life of a fifteen year-old girl, who now goes by the pseudonym of Violetta, from the time she stole $100,000 from her parents (who in turn had embezzled that money from fraudulent Red Cross transactions) to her flight to New York and her subsequent blowing of that money over the course of lavish parties and blow until she turns to hotel “encounters” in order to maintain even a semblance of her party life.  Accompanying her in her descent into hedonistic excess is a frustrated, egotistical writer known as “Pig,” who watches, somewhat helplessly, as he finds himself following along with this girl with whom he has developed some feelings.  All the while, there is this vague sense of a metaphorical Mephistopheles, a guardian devil of sorts, guiding and sheltering Violetta.

If this premise alone does not sound enticing, Velasco manages to imbue the narrative with an almost effortless vibrancy.  Although it is difficult to claim that Velasco is an accomplished stylist (if anything, the prose has a roughness to it that somehow manages to fit the story being told), the narrative certainly has a casualness to it that dovetails nicely with the tale of excess and (mostly) unrepentant attitude toward misfortunes.  The characters of Violetta and Pig are well-rendered and their plights feel real and not overly contrived.

However, there are a few weaknesses.  At times, the narrative gets bogged down in detailing the minutiae of Violetta’s extravagant lifestyle.  This in turn led to a loss of narrative impact for much of the novel’s middle portions.  The final scenes, however, manage to recapture much of the novel’s earlier energy.  Although the conclusion is a bit surprising in some regards, for the most part it ties together the narrative nicely.  Diablo Guardián might not be a technically perfect novel, but even despite its warts and all, it is one of the more original and powerfully told stories to win the Premio Alfaguara.

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.