Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun (2014)

June 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The story of Oda Sotatsu begins with a confession that he signed.

He had fallen in with a man named Kakuzo and a girl named Jito Joo.  These were somewhat wild characters, particularly Sato Kakuzo.  He was in trouble, or had been.  People knew it.

Now this is what happened:  somehow Kakuzo met Oda Sotatsu, and somehow he convinced him to sign a confession for a crime that he had not committed.

That he should sign a confession for a crime that he did not commit is strange.  It is hard to believe.  Yet, he did in fact sign it.  When I learned of these events, and when I researched them, I found that there was a reason he did so, and that reason is – he was compelled to by a wager. (p. 12 iPad iBooks e-edition)

This quote, taken from the opening page of Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  Just who is Oda Sotatsu and why in the world would he ever agree to sign his name to a confession after losing a bet?  More importantly, to what did he actually confess?  It is with this little mystery that a fictional Jesse Ball begins his interrogation/interviewing with those who should have known Sotatsu and yet whose various accounts paint conflicting images of a man who became silent after his false confession led to his conviction.

Silence Once Begun could be described as a crime/procedural novel.  So too could Franz Kafka’s The Trial.  Although Silence Once Begun bears very little surface similarity to Kafka’s acclaimed “unfinished” novel, there certainly is the sense in both novels of reality coming to stand for something else.  Here in Ball’s novel, with its meticulous reproduction of a faux set of interviews and statements, the verisimilitude serves to underscore the very trappings of “reality” that the interview/deposition structure has created.  Just who is this silent guy and what has he confessed to?  Ball very skillfully teases us with snippets of answers, of events that lead to public outrage when Sotatsu is arrested for his (false) confession.  Just as K. is confronted with a stream of testimony against him for acts he himself does not understand, Sotatsu’s acquaintances provide all sorts of conflicting testimony as to the sort of person he may or may not have been.  These contrasting reports simultaneously muddy the composite image of Sotatsu that we may have formed and they sharpen our view of him and the reasons behind not just his signature to a flase confession, but also to his subsequent silence.  Below is an excerpt from an interview with one of the key people in this case:

I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it.  Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is.  I believe in trying to understand such love through other loves, other loves that have existed before.  Many people have made the records of these loves.  These records can be found.  They can be read.  Some are songs.  Some are just photographs.  Most are stories.  I have always sought after love, and longed for it.  I have looked for all the kinds that may be.  I am writing to you now to talk about Oda Sotatsu, who is a person I loved, and who loved me.  Although I know there are others who will say things about Oda Sotatsu, who may say things about me, who may know about this situation, although they are few, perhaps there are some who can speak about these things, yet what I know is what I felt and what I saw.  I am not writing this for any comparison or for any other sort of understanding, but as a record of love, for use by those who love and who hope to love.  I am not nimble and I cannot hide things well.  I will write what I felt and how.  You may see how I do. (p. 180 e-book)

Ball very carefully develops Sotatsu’s character through these character deposition/interviews.  While he himself may be silent, those around him are not, even if their comments may be at odds with one another.  This approach toward characterization takes a lot of work, as not only is the character himself largely absent from the actual narrative, if there is a single false note, a singular time where the words are not placed just so and the dialogue not pitch-perfect, then the entire enterprise would collapse like a deck of cards.  Ball, however, manages to weave his way through this narrative labyrinth, creating a fascinating character stuck in a nebulous yet increasingly dangerous situation (sometimes, what certain characters left unstated or edited out of their comments say much more than their actual words).

Not only does Ball manage to plot well, but the prose does several things.  Look at the passage quoted just above.  The way this character voices her feelings, there is the sense that she is saying something that may prove to be opposite of what she professes.  It is easy to accept the claim that she is “not nimble and I cannot hide things well” at face value, but there is that niggling sense that she may be covering up something, perhaps something very vital to understanding what has been transpiring ever since Sotatsu signed his name to that false confession.

Silence Once Begun is not a novel to be read quickly.  Its seeming forthrightness belies the layers of deception that are occurring underneath.  Due to Ball’s carefully constructed interviews, the plot is very intricate and requires some attention to detail from the reader in order for the mystery to be interpreted, if not completely solved.  Yet the effort more than amply rewards the careful, patient reader, as Silence Once Begun is one of those rare novels whose form and structure are so well executed that they, along with the narrative and plot, can be appreciated for just how well it all comes together by the end.  Highly recommended.

Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (2014)

June 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Another man, sitting to my right, fills out forms for his children.  He informs me that he recently had his passport reissued.  I ask him how long it took.

– Well, normally, it’s four weeks.

– Four weeks?  I am traveling in less than three.  The website assures applicants that passport processing takes only a week.

– It should, normally.  But it doesn’t.  Or I should say, it does, but only if you pay the fee for “expediting” it.  That’s a fifty-five-dollar money order.

– There’s nothing about that on the website.

– Of course not.  But that’s what I did, what I had to do.  And I got mine in a week.  Of course, the expediting fee is unofficial.  They are crooks, you see, these people.  They take the money order, which they don’t give you a receipt for, and they deposit it in the account and they take out cash from the account.  That’s for their own pockets. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Graft.  The greasing of hands.  The lining of pockets.  These are but a few of the euphemisms given to the system of paying bribes and various other “unofficial” fees in order to speed up government progress.  While it is far from foreign even in countries such as the United States that purportedly outlaw these practices, it is especially endemic in emerging economic states such as Nigeria.  In Teju Cole’s second novel (or rather, the revision of a story written before his debut novel Open City), Every Day is for the Thief, he shows how these practices have become woven into the fabric of quotidian Nigerian life.

Like Open City, Every Day is for the Thief utilizes an ambulatory plot device.  As the narrator travels, sometimes by foot, through his native land after fifteen years living in the United States, he narrates small encounters like witnessing police officers arguing where each should be stationed in order to best collect money from commercial vehicles or the “yahoo yahoo” who occupy Nigeria’s internet cafes in order to perpetuate their “419” advance money scams.  Each step of the way, it becomes readily apparent that in order for life to proceed without many interruptions, that the adage of “every day is for the thief” must become true:  without the “informal economy,” Nigeria’s official economy would suffer greatly as most of its civil servants would fall under the international poverty line.

Cole’s narrative captures well the differences between foreign and domestic perspectives.  His narrator straddles the line between the two, being a national who has lived for fifteen years in the US, and he notices things that natives would not think twice about while foreigners would be too quick to blast them as nefarious.  Take for instance this observation:

Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here.  It eases passage even as it maintains hierarchies.  Fifty naira for the man who helps you back out from a parking spot, two hundred naira for the police officer who stops for no good reason in the dead of night, ten thousand for the clearing agent who helps bring your imported crate through customs.  For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way.  No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK-47 is less a tip than a ransom.  I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford.  For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms.  It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity.  It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for. (p. 18)

This sanguine observation sets us other musings about daily life.  At one point, as the narrator talks about a fight he had witnessed, he makes an interesting connection between writing and social life:

Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road.  All the touts in the vicinity join in this one.  It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes.  End of brawl.  Everyone goes back to his normal business.  It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.  Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago.  I feel sure that his material hobbled him.  Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.  And sadder yet are those who haven’t even a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.  No such aridity here, but that doesn’t mean I can just move to Nigeria. (p. 49)

This quote I think strikes at the heart of why Every Day is for the Thief makes such a profound impression upon American readers.  We are familiar with Updike’s clones, those writers who try, often very artfully, to narrate the minutiae of American suburban life.  For many readers, however, the plethora of these type of stories has led to a sort of narrative fatigue, the sense of “great, another divorcing professor in a mid-life crisis hooking up with a nubile yet fragile co-ed,” with little in the way of actual life for the majority of readers being captured in prose.  So in reading tales set in other lands, with different social customs, there is that quality of the “exotic” that many readers expect.  But Cole’s narrative is not “exotic,” it is not written for those who want to read something just to experience something out of their ordinary experiences.  Instead, Every Day is for the Thief narrates a particular experience in a fashion that is not so different from what an Updikean narrator might observe, if only that narrator were transplanted in Lagos instead of Shillington, PA.

This keen, observant narrative style is what makes Every Day is for the Thief such an enjoyable read, not its depictions of graft and corruption.  Barely mentioned so far in this review is how native Nigerians interact with the narrator.  I have held back on this because the engrained societal graft is the part that non-Nigerian readers are going to notice first.  But as interesting as that plot element is, it is dependent upon how the narrator and those around him react, and more importantly, live in this society that makes this short novel a good read.  The Nigerian synthesis of (corrupt) capitalism and religiosity is illustrated in an understated yet ultimately profound fashion.  One powerful scene involves the narrator visiting one of Lagos’s museums and after noting its neglected state and musing on the sordid history of slavery in the region, he makes this observation:

This history is missing from Lagos.  There is no monument to the great wound.  There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum.  There are one or two houses in Badagry that display chains and leg-irons but, beyond that, nothing.  Faulkner said:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  But in Lagos we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents. (p. 81)

However disturbing this realization may be, it is but one facet of Nigerian life.  If the people can “forget” their past, or rather just shoulder it and bear it without comment, much less complaint, then there are those, like those living in the capital city of Abuja, who embrace the trappings of “modern life” in the midst of competing religious monuments, such as the National Mosque, described as “a gigantic sci-fi fantasy, like a newly landed alien mother ship” (p. 99) and the National Cathedral, “a spiky modernist confection” (p. 99).  But religious life, like other elements of Nigerian life, evokes some harsh comparisons between the apparent and the real, between aspirations and everyday life:

But it is as yet a borrowed progress and it is happening in the absence of the ideological commitments that can make it real.  The president of the Federation is unable to get away from constant God talk, and in this he is very much like his constituents.  President Obasanjo’s hobbyhorse is the “image” of the country.  He believes that the greatest damage to Nigeria is being done by critics.  These unpatriotic people are, in his opinion, the ones spoiling the country.  He insists that the only real flaw is in the pointing out of flaws.  One should only say good things.  After all, no society can claim perfection.

While the buildings and roads of the capital city suggest a rational, orderly society, the reality is the opposite.  Supernatural explanations are favored for the most ordinary events. (p. 100)

With each step, with each observation of Nigerian life and how it connects to the petty and brazen attempts to extort money, a country of contrasts arises.  Yet where another might use these observations to lambast the country and its citizens, Cole goes in another direction.  He notes and occasionally laments these elements, but he also focuses on the ability of its people to persevere, to find joy and happiness in life that often surpasses those of citizens from Western countries.  This quotable book, full of anecdotes that make it a powerful reads, contains one more that I would like to cite:

It is an uncanny place, this dockyard of Charon’s, but it also has an enlivening purity.  Enlivening, but not joyful exactly.  A wholeness, rather, a comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order, so strongly felt that when I come to the end of the street and see, off to my right, the path out of the labyrinth and into the city’s normal bustle, I do not really want to move on.  But I know, at the same time, that it is not possible for me to stay. (p. 115)

It is this sense of wholeness, of being able to integrate the good and bad of life into something complete, something to be celebrated, that makes Every Day is for the Thief more than a catalog of abuses and prejudices.  It is indeed a narration of life, and life is, I suppose, what you choose to make of it.  The lives described here feel real because their flaws and adaptive qualities are shown in such an illuminating fashion that the craft behind these scenes is lost within the spirit that readily shines throughout.  Truly a worthy companion to Open City.

David Grossman, Falling Out of Time (2011; English translation 2014)

June 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Some of the most powerful writing can be born out of suffering and deep personal grief and anguish. In 2006, Israeli writer/poet David Grossman learned that his son had died while fighting in the Second Lebanon War. In response, he wrote a book, Falling Out of Time, that combines elements of drama and poetry to tell of a father’s grief and his journey to discover his fallen son yet once more.

Falling Out of Time possesses a central narrative, that of the grieving father’s search for something, anything, that will bring at least some semblance of his dead son to life again, and through the media of poetry and drama, lines, beautiful as they may be, that otherwise might be lost in a more traditional series of meditative poems gain a greater poignancy in this more unified verse-prose-drama. Below is a scene taken from early in the story, as the father and mother realize that their son’s death may have driven a stake through their own relationship:

MAN:

I can remember
you without
his noneness – your innocent,
hopeful smile – and I can remember
myself without his noneness. But not
him. Strange: him
without his noneness, I can no longer
remember. And as time goes by
it starts to seem as though
even when he was,
there were signs
of his noneness.

WOMAN:

Sometimes, you know,
I miss
that ravaged,
bloody
she.
Sometimes I believe her
more than I believe
myself.

MAN:

She is the reason I take
my life
in your hands and ask
you a question
I myself
do not understand:
Will you go with me?
There –
to him?

WOMAN:

That night I thought:
Now we will separate: We cannot live
together any longer. When I tell you
yes,
you will embrace
the no, embrace
the empty space
of him. (pp. 20-21 iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Jessica Cohen)

Grossman’s distillation of grief into such short, sharp lines benefits greatly from the recasting of the Man’s grief into dramatic poetry. There are no wasted lines, nothing but raw, visceral emotion behind his confession of his loss of his son to “noneness.” Equally, the Woman’s realization that their son’s death has driven a wedge between them is said succinctly and yet with great emotion behind those few words.

And yet Falling Out of Time is much more than the separations caused by death. As the father/Man sets out to discover answers, he becomes in his walking a symbol of the peripatetic traveler, that stock character of so many classical tales. But wanderers are not always alone and his particular case, he finds gathered around them other grief-driven pilgrims to places to which they do not comprehend. One such companion is a centaur who has tried to capture his grief in words and has found those words to fail:

CENTAUR: You’re back. Finally. I was beginning to think you’d never…that I’d scared you off. Look, I was thinking: You and I, we’re an odd couple, aren’t we? Think about it: I’ve been unable to write for years, haven’t produced even one word, and you – it turns out – can write, or rather transcribe, as much as you feel like. Whole notebooks, scrolls! But only what other people tell you, apparently. Only quotes, right? Other people’s chewed-up cud. All you do is jot it down with a pen stroke here, a scribble there…Am I right? Not even a single word that’s really yours? Yeah? Not even one letter? That’s what I thought. What can I say, we’re quite a pair. Write this down then, please. Quickly, before it gets away:

And inside my head there’s a constant war comma the wasps
keep humming colon what good would it do if you wrote
question mark what would you add
to the world if you imagined question
mark and if you really
must comma then just write
facts comma what
else is there to say
question mark write them
down and shut up
forever colon at
such and such time comma in
this and that place comma my son
comma my old child comma aged
eleven and a half
period the boy
is gone period (pp. 67-68 iBooks e-edition)

In this passage, Grossman expands the grief, makes it more universal without ever reducing its intimate, personal pain. And as the wandering man/father continues his journey, he comes upon a profound realization, one that does not lessen his sorrow but it does at least provide an understanding he did not realize he was seeking among the other understandings he has partially grasped by story’s end.

Falling Out of Time moves the reader because Grossman’s dialogues within the poetic stanzas feels both realistic and something more profound than the banalities we often utter when expressing our (sometimes half-hearted) words of condolence. The imagery evoked is simple, but its directness cuts away at our protective layers that shield us from strong emotion, leaving the reader bare and receptive for the raw power of the dramatic poetry. The result is one of those narrative poems that show that even today, long after many have presumed the poem to have lost its power to move souls, that poetry can tell a story even more effectively than prose and that in its imagery and expressions, meanings can be found that do not require anything more than empathy for them to work their wonders upon our hearts and souls.

Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems 1964-2013 (2014)

June 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The fact of our lives,
full of achievements
vilification, praise
or contempt from those
who surely do not measure
eternity becomes a quotation
posted on the billboard of a single life.
Passions are exhausted
love, renewed again
and again
to satisfy a basic longing,
journeys made, departures recorded
deaths foretold again
and again
– from “What More Can I Give?”, p. 23

The late Ghanian poet Kofi Awoonor, who died at the hands of terrorists in Kenya in September 2013, is perhaps one of Africa’s most celebrated poets. This collection of a half-century of verse, The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems 1964-2013, was planned before his murder and yet there is a sense of death lurking in his most-recent poems. But it would be a mistake to construe this as being a wholly negative affair, as Awoonor’s poems here address a wide spectrum of human emotions and reactions to that nebulous thing called hope.

The quote above captures this multifaceted quality excellently. From the “facts of our lives” being vilified or praised by those who do not merit the poet’s consideration to the renewal of exhausted passions, all leading to deaths foretold again, quite a lot of emotional ground is covered in one stanza of a poem that concludes:

I did not know it will return
this crushing urge to sing
only sorrow songs;
the urge to visit again
the last recesses of pain
pluck that lingering hair with a wince.
how long shall my God
linger in a brass pan
the offertory unreceived? (p. 24)

This sorrowful conclusion, however it might represent the dominant theme of his 2013 era poetry, does not capture the width or breadth of Awoonor’s poetry. The interesting thing about The Promise of Hope is that unlike most anthologies of a single poet’s work, it does not begin in 1964 and conclude with the 2013 poems. Instead, it operates in reverse, as we see the poet through younger, more fiery selves, concluding with a poet beginning to find his voice. It is an unusual choice, but it works very well here, as the downbeat quality of his last poems is offset by the outraged optimism of the younger Awoonor. Below is a sample from the second-presented section, 1992’s “Latin American & Caribbean Cookbook,” the last two stanzas from “Of Home and Sea I Already Sang”:

Let the dream not die, master;
Let the dove coo at dawn again,
Let the masthead rear its head
out of the storm
and share the night with me on this sea.
Let me sing the song you gave me.

Before death comes, master,
Let me dance to the drums you gave me.
Let me sit in the warmth of the fire
of the only native land you gave me. (pp. 43-44)

While the death element is still present (the poem references an 1980s American military shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane), there is more of a pleading tone, of not letting a dream not, of permitting a song given to be sung. It is more plaintive than the latter poems, but even within this somewhat-begging note, there is a sense of hope burning under the surface, a sense that the other poems in the 1992 collection provide, mostly through the guise of outrage over socio-political injustices, many of them perpetrated by the United States.

From 1978’s “The House by the Sea” comes this poem written in memory of Henoga Vinoko Akpalu, called appropriately enough “For Henoga Vinoko Akpalu”:

You said once
You said the tear
was the pear of the soul
food for gods at sacrifice
Huge now the platter
like the music of crumbling walls
fools and poets
are the same mother’s children.

I fled to America
in blonde pleasures
reliving my cosmopolitan
nay international dreams
new, new man, my voice
my manners
so I lost the faculty
of defecation
with the miracle of the wild lily

I sailed my own ship
to Byzantium to see the youth
for elders in the reversal
A young man Hasidic to his skull-cap
eyed me nervously
mistaking me I hope for my beard
for a panther. So I march now
with the armies of Caesar on Rome
a companion now of Hannibal
freshly out of Africa ex Africa aliquid
semper elephantes
for the alps the alps
Europe the Sartrean negritude
and Dantesque lower region
My Africa the bullshit concentric
circle
For a song please vomit Blood
in Capetown, murder me Vorster
and Allende in Santiago
For a dance give me Christ Castro’s
head since the Baptist died
of American bullet in Bolivia

Who said the work of man is not done (pp. 151-152)

Here the post-colonialist voice is strongest, here comparison of the US to Byzantium, with its decadent, hollow nod to multi-lingual gatherings, is constructed. Awoonor mixes in ancient Roman, medieval Italian, and modern 20th century events to create an arresting image of a middle-aged man seeing that in order for a dream to be achieved, a lot of work and suffering lay ahead. This is perhaps one of the more biting poems in the collection, but it does represent a way station along Awoonor’s journey, via verse, from a frustrated man to an elder who has come to accept his mortality even before it was violently taken from him at a Nairobi shopping mall. It is fitting to stop here and let the reader ponder just how this “promise of hope” has driven the poet over his last fifty years of life. For myself, it was a very moving and excellently-constructed collection, full of memorable stanzas and poems.

2010 Premio Alfaguara winner: Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección

June 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The past century is littered with examples of men who considered themselves to be either the reincarnation of the Christ or the prophet of apocalypse. Jim Jones. David Koresh. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Marshall Applewhite. Each of these men, some more than others, managed to gain large followings, with only the Moonies managing to gain even a smidgen of mass popularity. Yet there was something in their doom-laden messages that attracted attention. What was it in them that convinced them (or at least their followers) that they were the reincarnation of the Messiah or a prophet meant to fulfill Jesus’s mission?

To this list can be added an early 20th century Chilean, Domingo Zárate Vega, who in the 1930s and 1940s in the region of Elqui went around proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Christ. This Cristo de Elqui, as he became known, attracted a numerous following and in particular his attempts to find his “Magalena,” led to several newspaper accounts of his carnal message. In his 2010 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, El arte de la resurrección, Chilean writer Hernán Rivera Letelier takes a moment from el Cristo de Elqui’s wild career and examines his singular message in a humorous yet occasionally quite serious novel on the types of personalities associated with such an act.

El arte de la resurrección depends heavily upon its characters in order to drive the story. Fortunately, Vega/el Cristo de Elqui is such a complex, fascinating personality that the narrative needs in order for it to be effective. A purveyor of carnal delights who is also an ardent supporter of worker’s rights, el Cristo de Elqui easily could be portrayed as a buffoon, a charlatan whose bumbling mistakes should have quickly made his socio-religious movement an easily-dismissed sham. Rivera Letelier, however, plays up the historical el Cristo de Elqui’s complexities in a way that is both satirical of religious duplicities and sympathetic toward those who seek redemption for their flawed lives.

The core plot revolves around el Cristo de Elqui’s attempts in 1942 to woo a prostitute, soon named by him Magalena (Magdalene), to become his disciple and lover, and united the two would proclaim the eminent end of the world. This would-be Christ and his ridiculous behavior toward his would-be Magdalene makes for several amusing episodes in El arte de la resurrección and it serves to carry the plot through several weaker moments. If it weren’t for these two well-developed characters, it would be easy to dismiss this novel as a failed exercise in portraying the dichotomies present in charismatic/possibly mentally unhinged messianic leaders. The humor, which is amusing for parts of the novel, fails to amuse for roughly equal stretches. El Cristo de Elqui and Magalena, who have had well-developed characters for the majority of the novel, falter near the novel’s end.

Yet despite this unevenness in characterization and plot development, on the whole El arte de la resurrección was an enjoyable read. There were moments in which I wanted to laugh from the absurdity of this would-be Christ’s message and actions, but the times in which the comic qualities were played up too much dampened those reactions. Nevertheless, El arte de la resurrección had more good moments than bad and while I do believe it is one of the weakest Premio Alfaguara winners, it at least was a flawed but mostly solid work.

2004 Premio Alfaguara Winner: Laura Restrepo, Delirio (Delirium, 2007 English Translation)

June 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

For multiple generations of Colombian writers, the country’s violent past and uncertain present has had a strong influence on the world-views presented in their novels. As I noted in my review of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s El ruido de las cosas al caer, the 1960s-1980s in particular, with the rise of kidnappings and assassinations in the wake of the burgeoning drug trade, has served as a catalyst for several memorable Colombian novels. In the past decade alone, three Colombian novels, the above-reviewed Vásquez, Jorge Franco’s El mundo de afuera, and Laura Restrepo’s 2004 novel, Delirio, have won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara prize. In each of them, there are references, oblique and direct alike, to these violent decades and their effects on those Colombians who never were directly (or in many cases, even indirectly) involved in the drug trade.

Restrepo’s Delirio, some might argue, could be as much an allegory for Colombia’s past as it is a fascinating mystery. Told in alternating PoVs that are not divided into discrete chapters, Delirio delves into the questions surrounding the seemingly-sudden descent of a young Colombian wife into nearly inchoate madness. Seen through the eyes of her middle-aged husband, Aguilar, an ex-lover, Midas, and a third-person look into the lives of her grandparents, Agustina’s madness and its causes and manifestations becomes central to the novel’s plot. What was her life like before her marriage to Aguilar? What childhood experiences did she have that may have triggered this mental breakdown over the four days that Aguilar was gone and before he received a phone call telling him where his wife was and her condition?

Restrepo does an excellent job in switching between the narrators, as their revelations about Agustina’s past and current medical condition are given in piecemeal fashion, hinting at larger secrets without the entire affair feeling too contrived or maudlin. The moments in which Agustina herself appears “on-screen” are doubly touching because of these tidbits of information shared by the other narrators. For most of the first half of the novel, the narrative tension rises at a steady pace, leaving the reader to read faster in hopes that more information will be divulged shortly.

However, the second half of the novel is weaker by comparison. Perhaps it is due to the rush of information that in this particular case serves to dilute rather than deepen the plot. Maybe it is simply that the structure that arises here feels so familiar that the element of narrative surprise is largely lost. Whatever the main culprit may be, the conclusion feels weaker than the initial buildup.

This is not to say that Delirio/Delirum (the English translation’s title) is a weak novel. Rather, it is a strong story that falters slightly toward the end, decreasing its potential impact on readers. However, its mixture of personal and social deliriums makes this a worthwhile reading experience, especially for those who are at least somewhat acquainted with what was occurring in 1980s Colombia.

Carlos Labbé, Navidad & Matanza (2007; English translation 2014)

June 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

No trace of me will remain. For that reason, I’ve written all of this in code. My password isn’t really Domingo. Also, I’ll probably insert pieces of pure, hard reality into the story I’m going to tell you. Does that sound okay?
Let this be the beginning: we were seven. Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, Viernes, Sabado, and Domingo. We met in 1996, in the Biology Department at Universidad de Chile. We weren’t all taking the same classes, but we got acquainted in a creative writing workshop, which was offered as an elective. In a way, our friendship was based in literature. We were the only students in the department interested in what is beyond science. Juan Carlos Montes – you already know that I won’t be using real names – is my father. Although that wasn’t the only reason he chose us. We were among the best students in the whole School of Sciences. We got the best grades in molecular biology, neuroscience, and genetics. And all of us enjoyed writing stories. (p. 4, translated by Will Vanderhyden)

Chilean writer Carlos Labbé’s first novel to be translated into English, Navidad & Matanza, is one of those novels that defies an easy description. It is a journalist’s account of his search for information about the disappearance of the two teenaged children of a wealthy local businessman. It is a narrative game in which the participants/writers are fed a paranoia-inducing drug called hadón (which almost mimics the sound of “hate on,” a descriptor for the drug in the 2007 Spanish original being “el éxtasis del odio,” or “the ecstasy of hate”) while they are being secretly observed as they compose at their leisure a group tale in which the participants write, alter, and re-create elements of the others’ stories when it is their turn to write.

For those accustomed to linear narratives, this labyrinthine approach to reading, where the reader is required to go far down into the rabbit hole and follow its twists and turns in order to make heads from tails, may be bewildering. Yet for those willing to put for the mental effort to follow just what Labbé is doing here, Navidad & Matanza will reward amply that effort. But effort must be made in order to wring this potential out from the text.

Labbé’s chapter numbering system, going from 1 to 2 to 7 to 14 to 20 and up to 100, along with the abruptness of those chapter beginnings, gives the appearance that certain key information/chapters have been deleted. Certainly Domingo’s (we’ll use this name, although “he” may have others) chapters on the disappearances of the siblings Bruno and Alicia Vivar jar with those narrating the biologist/narrative game chapters. Yet there are certain elements in common with them: the playing with imagery and language to create new connotations; the divorcing of name and character to create “new” personages from seemingly recycled material; and the quest to find something beyond the reality that the narrator(s) seem to be experiencing.

This sort of narrative is not easily executed. If the characters are stilted or the narrative doesn’t contain enough “hooks,” then reader attention will be quickly lost and the entire text may be given up as a narrative failure. This fortunately is not the case with Navidad & Matanza. The two siblings and their mysterious, possibly nefarious chance companion, Boris Real (who may have other names in these sections), possess a thrilling plot quality to them because while their motivations (or even their reality) may be in question, there is a vitality to them that persists even as the language of their scenes shifts like sands with each passing chapter.

There are moments in which the situations do feel a bit drawn out for the sake of the “game,” but outside of these momentary longueurs, the deeper games Labbé plays here in Navidad & Matanza work out brilliantly. By book’s end, the perceived gaps are filled in, not so much by the writer but by the reader who chooses his or her own fashion of interpreting just what Domingo has presented us. It may not be what we expected when beginning the book, but by its end, it certainly is fitting for the tale (re)interpreted for us.

Hilda Hilst, With My Dog-Eyes (Brazilian edition 1983; US translation 2014)

June 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Pity for Amanda washes over me. She has, looking at me, a stupid and childish look on her face. Some seminary man will say that a child can’t have a stupid look. I have always been afraid of children (I think my father was too, deep down), afraid they’ll spit in my face my eye my chest. For instance, the kid of one of Amanda’s friends spit in my glass of whiskey during one of those tedious parties, a birthday party for somebody’s little Junior, come on Amanda, come, afterward we’ll play a little game, well okay, he spit, and another little twerp let out a drawn-out fart that really set me off, and he just wandered away, a little cardboard party hat on his head. Amanda tersely screeching: Amós, I’m thirty years old, you get it? thirty. I say I don’t get it. She explains: I’m trying to say I’m young, Amós, and living with you it’s like I was dead, get it? Sheesh, Amanda, why would you say that? Every day you look older to me, more closed up, you don’t say a word to my friends, not even to that mathematician who seems to adore you. Who? Isaiah. Well that’s because we understand each other. How can you understand each other without even talking? I understand Isaiah, I do, Amanda. I don’t tell her that Isaiah lives with a pig in his house. Isaiah: I took a shine, Amós, to that little animal, she’d friendly, very nice, she makes great company. And mathematics? Ah, it helps me a lot to have hilde around the house, she doesn’t annoy me, doesn’t shed, she’s gentle, patient, quiet. A few grunts at times, but that gets me a bit excited, you know? I know. Amanda continues: Amós, you’re acting strange. She leans over me. I’m seated. I see the groove between her breasts and the pendants on her neck. She says: you stink. I say: it was that little twerp that farted. Ah. You’re being very strange. You always knew that I was a bit confused. Confused how, Amós? You were never confused, you’re a professor of pure mathematics, you’re a university professor, you did a thesis and all that, remember? You were simply adorable. Adorable, huh? And they said you were brilliant. Brilliant, huh? Please, Amós, tell me what’s going on. I don’t even drink my whiskey. I couldn’t do it. I go home. (pp. 32-33, iPad iBooks e-edition. Translated by Adam Morris)

After reading that singular wall-of-words paragraph taken from nearly halfway into the late Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s recently-translated With My Dog-Eyes, it might take a bit of parsing to explain (if explaining is even the point of considering this passage or the book as a whole) just what you read. Some books are easily summarized. This is a book about loss and rediscovered one. That is a book about suffering and redemption. But this, this particular book is not just merely “about” insanity, it takes on some of madness’s contours in order to show a breakdown in the lines between perception and reality, sense and insensibility.

It is trite, perhaps, to say such tales require an expert hand in order to make sense of the senseless, to allow the sane a window into insanity. It might also be the sort of canard that makes it even more difficult for the reader to gain a foothold in this vertiginous narrative. With My Dog-Eyes, written sometime around 1983, is perhaps Hilst’s most challenging yet potentially rewarding prose works. In his introduction, translator Adam Morris notes that her short tale (the print edition contains only 59 pages) on the unraveling life and sanity of the mathematician Amós Kéres perhaps should be viewed as a nexus that Hilst believed existed between genius and madness, poetry and mathematics.

Certainly there are elements within this novella that seem to support this assertion. Let’s consider the paragraph quoted above. Showing a merging conversation between Amós and a woman, Amanda, the purposeful confusion of voice serves to conflate not just voice but personality into a seamless entity that manages to achieve a unity of character despite everything else seemingly being inane or opposed to this illusive unity. Amós/Amanda switch readily between the picayune and the profound, between the fears of fading youth and the stench of a kid’s fart, between expressing what is acceptable and what is out-of-bounds for “polite” conversation. This paragraph, which is merely but one of a few dozen similar paragraphs I could have quoted here, serves to mark yet another shift from an orderly, sequential mind to a person whose thoughts and perceptions are becoming decidedly non-linear.

This effect can disorient readers accustomed to more orderly narratives. Yet for the most part, With My Dog-Eyes manages to create a detailed simulation of madness through its own disjointed, crazed patchwork of dialogues and reflections. It is point to use the usual critical tools to assess the effectiveness of Hilst’s story. Her characters do not depend upon plausibility in order to be effective, unless one wants to judge “plausibility” on the ways that it diverges from how a “normal” person would think and act. As a corollary, the same applies to her prose, particularly her dialogues. As seen above, taken at surface level, the quoted conversation would induce eye-widening and a head shake before the narrator/s would be dismissed. But when viewed as a window into the mind of a possibly unbalanced individual, passages such as this capture well this sense of difference and flattening of typical perception/interpretation patterns.

With My Dog-Eyes is by no stretch an “easy” fiction to read, nor is it intended for most readers. It is a piece of avant-garde, Modernist fiction and while it is easy to see connects, as Morris does in his introduction, between Joyce, Beckett, and Russell, I also noticed several similarities between Hilst’s story and some of the works, prose and poetry alike, of early-to-mid 20th century Argentine writer Oliverio Girondo, particularly in his use of “mad” narrators in order to dissolve narrative expect ions in the search for something truly experiential, if not always experimental in nature. Hilst is perhaps more successful than Girondo in her use of “mad” characters in order to create complex but fascinating tales, but her style is certainly an acquired taste, albeit one that I have had for several years. With this in mind, I give a qualified recommendation for readers who do enjoy reading similarly challenging works to read With My Dog-Eyes. It “may not be for everyone,” but for those for whom it “may be for,” it certainly packs a semantical wallop.

Daša Drndić, Trieste (2014 English translation; Croatian edition 2007, Sonnenschein)

June 12th, 2014 § 7 comments § permalink

She is wildly calm. She listens to a sermon for dirty ears and drapes herself in the histories of others, here in the spacious room in the old building at Via APrica 47, in Gorica, known as Gorizia in Italian, Görz in German, and Gurize in the Friulian dialect, in a miniature cosmos at the foot of the Alps, where the River Isonzo, or Soča, joins the River Vipava, at the borders of fallen empires.

Her story is a small one, one of innumerable stories about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact. She knows this, just as she knows that Earth can slumber until all these stories of the world are arranged in a vast cosmic patchwork which will wrap around it. And until then history, reality’s phantom, will continue to unravel, chop, take to pieces, snatch patches of the universe and sew them into its own death shroud. She knows that without her story the job will be incomplete, just as she knows that there is no end, that the end reaches on to eternity, beyond existence. She knows that the end is madness, as Umberto Saba once told her while he was in hospital here, in Gorizia, in Dr Basaglia’s ward perhaps, or maybe it was in Trieste with Dr Weiss. She knows that the end is a dream from which there is no waking. And the shortcuts she takes, the quickest ways to get from one place to the next, are often nearly impassable, truly goats’ paths. These shortcuts may stir her nostalgia for those long, straight, rectilinear, provincial roads, also something Umberto Saba told her then, so she sweeps away the underbrush of her memory now, memories for which she cannot say whether they even sank to the threshold of memory, or are still in the present, set aside, stored, tucked away. It is along these overgrown shortcuts that she walks. She knows there is no such thing as coincidence; there is no such thing as the famous brick which falls on a person’s head; there are links – and resolve – of which we seem to be unaware, for which we search.
She sits and rocks, her silence is unbearable.

It is Monday, 3 July, 2006.

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. (pp. 7-8 iPad e-book edition, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

When one talks about reading a story that deals with the Holocaust, there likely springs first to the mind images of gas chambers, of trains that disappear into the night and fog, of cruel commandants and crueler experiments. Perhaps images of frightened men, women, and children flicker in one’s mental eye, or maybe there’s that short staccato burst, rat-a-tat-tat, of bullets thudding into human meat, or possibly the rending tearing of human flesh as canines sink their teeth into fleeing bodies. No, it is very difficult not to think of violence of some sort when that ghastly word, “Holocaust” (or Shoah, or Endlösung), is uttered. But there are more terrors and more violence than those visited upon human flesh. In Croatian novelist Daša Drndić’s recently-translated novel, Trieste, the graphic horrors give way to something more subtle and much more insidious, creating a work that makes its readers want to flinch, if only because we might just see part of ourselves in its characters.

Trieste opens in July 2006, as an aged Jewish woman, Haya Tedeschi, is preparing to meet her long-lost son. She reminisces on her youth and her experiences in the then-Italian alpine town of Gorizia during World War II. At first, her dry, almost clinical reflection on the changes of fortunes and empires in her border town seem too close to the actual meanderings of a woman who might be on the edge of senility. However, as her story progresses, what we witness is something unsettling in just how preternaturally calm Haya appears to be.

The heart of the tale deals with Haya’s meeting with a young German officer and the love affair that they have in the last two full years of World War II. It is only later that we learn just who the German officer really is and that their tryst near Trieste, the site of the worst Italian-specific concentration camps, takes on new levels of ugliness. Drndić carefully develops juxtapositions of lust and fear, of life and death, of individual emotion and industrial-scale depravation throughout Haya’s narration. There are some surprises, however, that punctuate the narrative and make it even unsettling for readers. The appearance of her son and his point of view provides such a contrast to what Haya has narrated that the reader is forced to reassess her previous opinions of the primary narrator and consider her “lost” son’s take on his parents’ affair in a light that shines harshly on all it touches.

Trieste takes no prisoners in its story of the Italian/Slovenian Holocaust wrapped around Haya’s fictional tryst and subsequent pregnancy. Drndić peppers her narrative with a plethora of actual data of the lives lost in the Italian Holocaust, devoting over 40 pages of text to reproducing the names of each of the 9000+ lives lost. She shows the suffering of some and the complicity of others like Haya in the genocide. The result is a story that feels like the infamous Part IV of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where the matter-of-fact narration of the dead adds an ominous layer to an already powerful narrative.

Drndić’s prose is excellent and the translation captures the spirit of her writing pitch-perfectly. The characterizations are well-rendered and the slow, methodical buildup from Haya’s youth to her meeting of her son is executed very well. The result is a novel that may be one of the best Holocaust-based fictions written in the past two decades. Very highly recommended.

Kyung-sook Shin, I’ll Be Right There (2014)

June 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“So let me ask you this.  Are those of you here today Christopher?  Or are you the child he carries on his back?”


Professor Yoon’s story had started out like a single drop of rain amid the hustle and bustle of students preparing for class to end but turned into a sudden midday shower beating down on us.  A clear ray of light from the last of the summer sun slipped in through a classroom window that someone had shut tight.


Professor Yoon studied us expectantly, but nobody offered an answer to his question.  The slogans of student demonstrators outside followed the ray of sunlight through the window and pushed their way again into our midst.  Over his glasses, Professor Yoon’s keen and gentle eyes stopped on each of us in turn before moving on. (p. 50)

South Korea for most of the second half of the 20th century was ruled by US-friendly dictators who only slowed eased their grip on the military and police forces.  The 1980s and early 1990s in particular were a time of frequent student protests against the dictatorship and occasionally in the US there would be brief footage of a particularly violent protest or a self-immolated student who would sacrifice his or her life to make a political statement.  As a teenager then, I vaguely recall hearing about these events on the evening “world news” reports, but I do not claim any real familiarity with the causes of these uprisings or their results.

Therefore, it was with keen interest that I read Kyung-sook Shin’s second novel to be translated into English, I’ll Be Right There, translated capably by Sora Kim-Russell.  Her first translated novel, Please Look After Mom, was an international bestseller, making the New York Times Bestseller List and winning the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.  I’ll Be Right There differs from its predecessor in its more direct social commentary, but it is much more than just simply a “coming of age” story amidst socio-political turbulence.  There is a very real love for literature as a medium of change, as evidenced in passages such as the one quoted above, taken from a time when the first person PoV narrator, Jung Yoon (no relation to the professor Yoon), has just begun taking a literature class with her future ex-boyfriend and two other peers who play important roles in the novel.  In reading it, I was reminded of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, especially in the sense of how the socio-political can pervade (if not actually invade) the “reading spaces” readers like to set up for themselves.

I’ll Be Right There goes back and forth from the literary present to the initial events of eight years prior that establish the characters and their life journeys.  In the prologue, Jung Yoon receives a call from her ex-boyfriend, Yi Myungsuh, informing her that Professor Yoon is dying.  This call, the first contact she’s had with him in eight years, triggers a series of reflective flashbacks that serve as the basis of the novel.  In expansive chapters punctuated with short, punchy excerpts from Myungsuh’s notebook, Shin deftly develops these young adults’ characters, utilizing the social unrest at their school to create a contrast to the bookish world of the writers and poets from West and East.  As the story develops, this uneasy confluence of the literary and the real-world leads to unsettling realizations and tragic events.

In the hands of a lesser author, this story could too readily have become didactic, turgid with its own self-references to both South Korean politics and to literature as a “guiding light.”  Yet for the most part, Shin manages to avoid these pitfalls.  Yes, there are heart-wrenching events, especially striking at one of the four core people in Jung Yoon’s life, but there is also the realization that transformation, even if it involves moments of acute pain and sadness, may not be such a bad thing after all.  Shin’s eloquent yet direct style allows a deeper insight into her characters, creating connections that make it easier for non-Korean readers to understand the import of what is transpiring around the characters.  While there are moments where the narrative tension perhaps eases too much and necessary friction is not present to make certain scenes as vivid as they otherwise could have been, on the whole, Shin manages to build gradually but steadily toward a memorable conclusion.  This can be seen in an early foreshadowing, again from Professor Yoon’s comments on St. Christopher to his new students:

“Each of you is both Christopher and the child he carries on his back.  You are all forging your way through adversity in this difficult world on your way to the other side of the river.  I did not tell you this story in order to talk about religion.  We are all travelers crossing from this bank to that bank, from this world to nirvana.  But the waters are rough.  We must rely on something in order to make it over.  That something could be the art or literature that you aspire to create.  You will think that the thing you choose will serve as your boat or raft to carry you to that other bank.  But if you think deeply about it, you may find that it does not carry you but rather you carry it.  Perhaps only the student who truly savors this paradox will make it safely across.  Literature and art are not simply what will carry you; they are also what you must lay down your life for, what you must labor over and shoulder for the rest of your life.” (pp. 50-51)

It is in this passage that the germ for the story’s ultimate revelations lies.  I’ll Be Right Here may take its sweet time in getting to that crucial point where literature, art, and life converge to create something poignant, but when it does, the reader knows that she has read something powerful and moving.  This may prove to be a work that lingers in my mind long after the final words of this review are typed.  If only all stories could prove to be so.

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