Discussion of three essays taken from Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1986)

September 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Below are three articles that I wrote in June 2010 in response to three essays in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.  In light of continuing discussions in social media on points related to these, I thought I would present all three together in order for them to serve as a meditation on these issues that continue to generate discussion as to what constitutes “art” and “the novel.”

“The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” and a refutation of “there are no good nor bad books”


At the suggestion of Zoran Živković, I have begun reading Milan Kundera’s collection of essays, The Art of the Novel.  I plan on writing seven essays [ended up being only three] based on something that I read within each of his essays.  First up is the opening essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes.”  It is fitting that I read this essay today, considering certain comments I’ve read on Twitter and various blogs, including one by author Mark Charan Newton, that have claimed that “there are no good nor bad books.”  This argument, misguided and wrong-headed as I believe it to be, actually fits in well with some of Kundera’s points about the “depreciated” role of the novel.

Kundera devotes much of his first essay to outlining the history of the European novel from Cervante’s seminal Don Quijote to the late 20th century.  In particular, he focuses on how the limns of adventure and wonder within the novel have shrunk over time, until the notion of “adventure” has come to contain almost as many pejorative aspects as it did wondrous ones.  Also, the issue of “time” has become more and more regulated due to the rise of History as this conjured agent of delimitation.  Here Kundera explains this:

Half a century after Diderot, in Balzac, the distant horizon has disappeared like a landscape behind those modern structures, the social institutions:  the police, the law, the world of money and crime, the army, the State.  In Balzac’s world, time no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot.  It has set forth on the train called History.  The train is easy to board, hard to leave.  But it isn’t at all fearsome yet, it even has its appeal; it promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.

Later still, for Emma Bovary, the horizon shrinks to the point of seeming a barrier.  Adventure lies beyond it, and the longing becomes intolerable.  Within the monotony of the quotidian, dreams and daydreams take on importance.  The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul.  The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual – one of Europe’s finest illusions – blossoms forth. (p. 8)

It is in this shrinking horizon, where the imaginative yearnings have been directed inward until a point is reached where the fantastical has been internalized to where even fancy has become something “mental,” that Kundera explores in the middle sections of his essay.  He notes that with these changes have come calls for the “death of the novel.”  From the Futurists to the Surrealists and to all avant-gardes in-between, they have seen the novel, Kundera argues, as being a historical relic; it has “dropped off the road of progress.”  But the novel is much more resilient than that.  Whether it be the inner fragility of the movements, political and artistic alike, that have proclaimed the “death” of the novel (or of History or of Politics), the novel form has survived to the present day, albeit in a different form over the past two centuries’ span.  How does Kundera explain the novel’s persistence?

But hasn’t the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic?  Hasn’t it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms?  I’ve heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted.  But isn’t it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?  There are four appeals to which I am especially responsive. (p. 15)

Kundera discusses four appeals:  the appeals of play, dream, thought, and time.  Before novelists shackled themselves to the empty throne of Realism, there were more “light” and “playful” novels, novels such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste that contained possibilities that the later Realist novels failed to capitalize.  Although Kundera does not discuss the separate “fantasy” offshoot that developed in reaction to this shift toward Realism, there could be a corollary to his first “appeal” referring to how a byproduct of this desire for “play” was the rise of settings in which both the author and reader alike have explicitly accepted to be irreal and impossible.  The appeal of “dream” is also associated with this missed opportunity by some writers to combine the irreal and the real to create a state where reality and dream intermingle and influence each other.

The appeals of “thought” and “time” are harder to put into words.  Kundera posits that if novelists were to “marshal around the story all the means – rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative – that could illuminate man’s being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis (p. 16).”  What truly is revealed in most novels about our favorite topic, our own selves?  As for “time,” Kundera argues that narrative “time” has become too constricted and that perhaps it would be for the best if “time” could be broadened or dilated out, to where it is not a weighty millstone tied around the narrative’s neck.

However, it is in the final two parts of Kundera’s essay where I find counterarguments to claims made that it is “impossible” to judge if a novel is “good” or bad.”  Those who usually make this argument tend to note that so much depends upon the vantage point of the observer and how there are too many subjectives involved for there to be any true “objective” rationale for sorting through the qualities of each word.  That is a facile argument.  It is too easy to abdicate the ability to judge and measure, all in the name of fearing that one is “wrong” or that someone is “biased.”  It is, as Kundera notes, a “reduction” in which “Husserl’s ‘world of life’ is fatally obscured and being is forgotten. (p. 17)”  Kundera goes on to argue:

Now, if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep “the world of life” under a permanent light and to protect us from “the forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?

Yes, so it seems to me.  But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art.  Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet’s history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind.


This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time.  And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity.  Every novel says to the reader:  “Things are not as simple as you think.”  That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.  In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless.  (pp. 17-18)

This is a key point he makes here.  Today, it is too easy to say it’s an “either and/or” situation and leave it at that.  There is no wrestling that takes place; all is shrugged off with “well, it’s a good or bad book, depending upon how you look at it.”  Such an attitude is meant to absolve the reader of any responsibility, but when responsibility on the part of the reader is abdicated, then the remaining two legs of the Author-Text-Reader tripod threaten to topple.  Truth, whether it be some commonly-held universal or individual particles based on received fact and acquired analysis, is not the same as a truism that is passively and blithely passed around like a joint.  Here, Kundera harkens back to Cervantes’ famous phrase on history in the first part of Don Quijote to make the counter-argument that truth (and by extension, the ability to discern good from bad, quality from crap), cumbersome and useless as it may be, is something that is worth wrestling with and fighting over.  As for the issue of perspective, Kundera continues:

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity:  each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel.  But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only.  Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow. (pp. 18-19)

Too often, people want to made an immediate, snap decision.  There is little confrontation with the idea that the novel says many things to many people at the same time.  Sure, this multiplicity of viewpoints may be taken, upon first glance, as being ammunition for the notion that one cannot judge if a novel is “good” or “bad,” but a deeper delving reveals the opposite.  It is through individuals’ processing of what is contained within the novel and the realization that there is more than just a single take on it that forces the Reader to realize that there are not just other Readers out there, but that the Text is a dynamic entity that can yield varying levels of information about itself, its world, the reader, and the reader’s world.  A good text allows for more levels of interaction, with as few impediments as possible.  A poor text, on the other hand, will either yield up all of its secrets upon a cursory glance or it will be so opaque in its mechanics as to prevent a diligent reader from being able to harvest its crop of knowledge.

Doubtless, there are those who are going to argue that works such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun might fall under this “poor novel” category because of the perceived difficulty in harvesting all of its treasure troves of theme and plot.  To that I would counter by noting that such a novel is constructed in a form upon which it can be interpreted on multiple levels; there is more for those who wish to delve deeper and to ask further questions of this text.  Instead of the text impeding the reader, perhaps the argument could be made that there are readers who are so inclined to take the surface for the bedrock that they have impeded themselves from considering further the novel’s purposes and potential meanings.

So while it is easy to make the argument that it just depends upon where one stands if a work is “good” or “bad,” in reality such assertions are a fallacy; discernment is not just an individual’s tool, but also a societal one.  After all, since individual members of a society are influenced by their relationships with their native cultures and to any other cultures to which they may have been exposed, how we value ideas, especially those expressed in novel form, is a much more critical issue than just “well, your mileage may vary on this book.”  It is through individuals wrestling with how to discern what is quality and what is not that a rough consensus is formed.  It is not a perfect, immutable consensus; people, after all, are too flighty for that.  Instead, it is a portrait of the Reader as a global unit that serves to illuminate just how that Reader (singular and group entity alike) has come to process and to sort which works will endure and which will be relegated to the dustbins.  To argue that relative judgment is absolute ignores the evidence that in the aggregate, there are works that are enduring and those that are not.  The issue of the novel, beyond that of its good/bad qualities, resides not in the future, but in our pasts and presents.  After all, as Kundera notes, the future can be a horrible judge.


“Sixty-three Words” and the transformative power of words in translations


Growing up, a traditional retort to namecalling was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”  Nearly thirty years later, it has become evident that there is something key being left unsaid in that ditty.  Whether or not words may “harm” someone, the fact is that words serve to transform people, or at least their surroundings and their relationships with those surroundings.  Words form bonds that shape our subjective existence and if a word is misapplied or misunderstood, great changes can occur.

Nowhere is the transformative power of words more evident than in translation.  In his sixth essay in The Art of the Novel and in his Author’s Note to The Joke, Czech author Milan Kundera discusses how translations can affect the reading and processing of a work.  Flaubert famously declared that he sought le seul mot juste when writing.  Translators (taking into account the Latin translatio, which roughly means “transference”) are expected to transfer or bring across (delving further into the semantics of the Latin original) into a new language as much of the syntax and semantics of the original as possible, to find that single just or good word.  It is a noble goal, but oh is it a Sisyphean task!

Kundera regales the reader (in French for this tale, despite the novels at hand originally being written in Czech) with horror stories of translators that reordered his novels’ chapters, of deleted scenes, of the style being made more ornate in the translated tongue than what Kundera had intended, and even of sentences being chopped up and puréed to suit the fancies of the translators rather than the aims of the author.  Traduttore tradittore indeed.

This is a very sensitive issue for writer, translator, and reader alike.  Personally, this topic has been weighing on my head more and more in recent months.  Although I have blogged about translations before and have provided samples of how I would have translated passages differently from the published translations, I no longer speak as an amateur translator, for I have already cashed a check in payment for a translation which is scheduled to be published later this year [that was my translation of Augusto Monterroso’s “Mister Taylor,” which appeared in the World Fantasy-winning anthology, The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer].  This is a very serious matter.  After all, Kundera says:

…translations are everything

The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep – a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. (pp. 121-122)

For the translator, the task is different but equally risible for those who have not undertaken such a task.  As flexible as English is in some aspect (look at all of the names we have for shades of color), in other aspects it is a rigid language, locked into a pattern where in declarative sentences the subject ought to come before the verb and that multiple layers of dependent clauses are frowned upon, if not actively discouraged.  But in other languages, nouns and adjectives can pile one atop the other, with direct and indirect objects indicated by case endings, with the verb packing its punch at the end, or sometimes the middle or even the beginning, depending upon the effect that the author aimed to achieve by the placement of one word after another in order to create an aural tapestry that pleases and instructs the reader as to the author’s intentions.

Now take that sentence and imagine how it might look like in another language.  Say, for example, Spanish.  Would I choose to have everything in the indicative mood, or could I alter the intent somewhat by recasting it as a contrary-to-fact subjective mood?  Would the ordering of the clauses be the same, or would there be the need to shift them around in order to create a different effect?  And if so, how much would the meanings change with the syntax?

This reordering in translation is very evident to me as I am currently re-reading (and yet reading anew) Serbian author Goran Petrović’s Ситничарница Код спрћне пуке in the Serbian original (for the first time) and re-reading the Spanish translation, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna.  Although my Serbian is very rudimentary to say the least, I understand enough now to see quite clearly that his translator, Dubravka Sužnjević, had to invert clauses and to reconstruct several multi-clausal sentences in order to approximate what Petrović had crafted in the original Serbian.  A reader of this story in Spanish would in no sense get the same story as would a Serbian writer – the emphasis on certain words would have shifted necessarily in order to accommodate what that Spanish-reading reader might expect.

The importance of a single word, placed just so, is even more apparent when a reader such as myself is reading two non-native languages and finds himself thinking about the passages in a third, remotely-related language.  We are often so careless with our expressions, barely regarding just how we say and why we say what we say.  Writers and translators have to hone their words, creating an artistic tapestry that a reader can interpret and translate as s/he sees fit.

Kundera became quite frustrated in having to pore through the various translations to see if his intent was borne across relatively intact.  At a French editor/friend’s urging, he undertook writing down a list of sixty-three words that encapsulated the semantic battles being fought in his novels.  While I will not list those sixty-three words or those “definitions” that Kundera supplied for them, I will pose this question:  When faced with the barely definable, how do you reach out and grasp it?  For example, how do you represent “being” and “beauty?”  Do you shade their meanings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the author intends for these to be examined, or do you, if you are a translator, try to capture as much of the essence and power of those words in a translation that reflects not on the translator’s understanding of the words, but on those of the original author?

Words have a great power.  The difference between “shit” and “manure” is not one of smell, but in how each is viewed in relation to other words surrounding them.  So too is the relationship between a faithful and unfaithful translation.  Something may be lost in all translations, but just what and how and why that is so important is what lies at the heart of the matter.  Words, especially those in translation, do transform how we view the situation, n’est-ce pas?


“Dialogue on the Art of the Novel” and other related dialogues


The dialogue perhaps is one of the most important forms of communication available to humans.  With it, differences in views, understandings of the world and its inhabitants, or strategies to approaching the wonders and mysteries of this planet are bridged.  This is not to say that those who engage in dialogue end up with a homogeneous viewpoint; this should never be the sole aim of the dialogue, even in those situations where viewpoints become aligned.  No, the dialogue allows its participants and those contemplating those participants the ability to converse about matters that otherwise might be outside the purview of any single person.

In regards to literature, dialogue is extremely important.  Not just within the plot of a story when characters are conversing back and forth, revealing information and thoughts for the reader to process, but on other, perhaps deeper levels.  In his dialogue with Christian Salmon, Czech writer Milan Kundera delves into the various dialogues one can have with the novel at hand.  It is important to note that this third essay is actually the first part of a two-part edited conversation (or rather, dialogue, as the author prefers) on matters of novel interpretation and understanding.  In another of his essays, “Sixty-three Words,” Kundera mentions how much he hates the tyranny that is the edited interview.  I withheld discussing that point in my second essay on his essays precisely because I wanted to shift it to discussing the second essay in Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

A dialogue is a two-way street; there is sharing and there is absorption of ideas and viewpoints.  Over the course of the past six years, I have come to know several authors.  But I have always wondered why it was that for those whom I conversed with more frequently via email before interviewing them, those interviews felt a bit “flat” to me and that the questions and answers felt a bit stiff and unnatural in places.  I do not believe it is due to the Q&A nature of email interviews; I suspect much the same would have occurred if it had been a magazine-style edited phone or in-person interview.  But the real issue, I suspect and which Kundera’s comments have reinforced, is that the traditional interview formats do not allow for much dialogue; the interviewer controls the pace and flow, as s/he asks the questions and the interviewee is mostly relegated to reacting to those questions.  There is little of the back-and-forth that is found in true conversations and dialogues.

The same could often be said of reviews.  The average reviewer, whether it be an online or print reviewer, often does not enter into a dialogue with his/her subject.  The Text is something to be drained of information and spat forth upon the printed/electronic page to be consumed by that review’s readers.  In the case of complex, multi-layered texts, such a review approach is tantamount to strip mining; the textual landscape of that novel is devastated by the ripping out of a few choice quotes or passages, with no integration of the whole into the review narrative.  There is no dialogue that occurs in those novels; the reviewer just plunders the surface of the Text and moves on.

But there is so much more to a Text than just the reading of it for content.  Salmon and Kundera delve deeper, exploring just how important dialogue is in the crafting of the art of the novel.  Below is one key element of this delving, beginning with Salmon’s questioning of Kundera’s concept of the novel:

C.S.:  Your conception of the novel, then, could be defined as a poetic meditation on existence.  Yet your novels have not always been understood in that way.  They contain many political events that have provoked sociological, historical, or ideological interpretations.  How do you reconcile your interest in social history with your conviction that a novel examines primarily the enigma of existence?
M.K.:  Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation:  in-der-Welt-sein, being-in-the-world.  Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set.  Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell:  the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well.  Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters’ lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates.  The novel can never rid itself of that legacy from Balzac.  Even Gombrowicz, who invents fantastical, improbable stories, who violates all the rules of verisimilitude, cannot escape it. His novels take place in a time that has a date and is thoroughly historical.  But two things should not be confused:  there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography.  You’re familiar with all those novels about the French Revolution, about Marie Antoinette, or about the year 1914, about collectivization in the USSR (for or against it), or about the year 1984; all those are popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel.  Well, I’ll never tire of repeating:  The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say. (pp. 35-36)

But there are other dialogues as well, namely that of Reader and Author, Author and Text, as well as Reader and Text.  Kundera’s view on dialogue with the novel is a very active one, almost too aggressively so.  In discussing his stories, he phrases the dialogues he has had with his texts in ways that almost seem to be that of declaring the dictatorship of the Author in determining the interactions with the Text.  But in this particular passage, I want to engage with Kundera’s words in a way perhaps different from what he intended or maybe what he believes.  While I do agree that verisimilitude has bound novel forms ever tighter to those constraints found in Histories, I cannot help but wonder if in this particular dialogue Kundera may have overlooked just how authors can free themselves from the expectations created by the received truths found in dates and time.

Some of the best writers I have read have overcome the strictures that Kundera notes that bound even the likes of Gombrowicz by simply eliminating the ties that bind.  Poe’s fictions never contained a single solid date; this allowed for more freedom in manipulating the time of fictional events.  Saramago’s fictions never contain character names, only descriptions assigned to characters, in addition to the unmooring of the narrative from a real or imagined date or “past.”  Readers confronting these narratives which are divorced from time/space/nomenclature either have to enter into a dialogue with that novel, trying to understand what the Text is saying, how it is saying it, and why the Author perhaps chose to construct that Text that way.

Authors perhaps view the primary dialogue as being between them and their Texts.  To some extent, there is some truth to it.  There may be allusions contained within the text to events which only the Author or those close to the Author may understand.  However vigorous Authors may claim that they conceived their Texts with themselves as being the principal Audience, once a Text is made visible to others, the Text then can be free to be entered into dialogues which may diminish or even exclude the Author. For example, take Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Whenever I re-read it, as I am currently doing for the first time in several years, I like to engage myself with the Text, taking not just Lee’s portrayals of Southern life in the mid-1930s as being a reflection of cruel, capricious realities then, but also as a narrative on elements in my own life that have largely disappeared in my lifetime.  Perhaps Lee wrote the novel in part to reflect these shifts that have taken place in Southern societies over the past century, but I would suspect that such a reading, complementary but not wholly subservient to the primary narrative on Race, might not jibe completely with her; she is, after all, two generations older than me, and our memories of vanishing youth contain different milestones.

But yet dialogues like mine are what make the Novel so important.  If the Author-Text dialogue were to be the only primary dialogue occurring, then there would not be as much conversation, as the Author would be dictating the Text to the Reader.  However, if a Reader enters into a dialogue with a Text and thus comes into fleeting contact with the Author and seeks to understand more about both Text and Author, this opens up possibilities for the Text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous, exciting, and illuminating fashions long after the Author is buried and the Text’s first edition is a relic.  For as long as there are readers seeking to find more than just content (the strip mining of the novel) and instead seek to open themselves up for possible change through the course of entering into a dialogue with a Text, the art of Reading (itself a component in the composition of the Art of the Novel) will flourish.

2014 Premio Strega longlist: Marco Magini, Come fossi solo

September 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Vorrei non dovermi ancora una volta svegliare in mia compagnia.

Mi alzo e mi faccio la barba.

Sono passate le undici e anche stamani non ho salutato i bambini prima che andassero all’asilo.  Mi gira la testa, avanzo incerto verso il bagno che ha un odore chimico di lavanda.


Ha affogato nel deodorante l’odore di vomito di ieri sera.  Potesse, darebbe una spruzzatina anche sul resto della nostra vita.  Più la vedo e più mi fa schifo.  Le canzoncine della buonanotte cantate ai bambini, il sup aggiungere caro, tesoro, alla fine di ogni frase, fanno sembrare tutto ancora più sfacciatamente patetico.

Mi gira la testa.  Mi siedo sulla tazza per pisciare in modo da non perdere di nuovo l’equilibrio.  Lo spazzolino, il dopobarba, la crema per il viso:  ogni singolo oggetto si trova esattamente dove si è sempre trovato e dove sempre si troverà.  Mi tiro su:  è solo l’immagine riflessa nello specchio a essere fuori posto in questo cazzo di bagno. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Wars are unsettling mass actions of violence.  They rend, they tear, they shred previously held social conventions.  Neighbors who might differ on how they say a hello or how they worship a divinity suddenly might find themselves taking up arms against each other, trying to annihilate each other in the name of some ideology or religion (or at least that’s what they tell each other; the ultimate truth might be more ghastly than these convenient excuses).  Civil wars are perhaps the most odious, because there is really no excuse about other polities threatening them; the violence comes from within and even families might be divided against each other.

Atrocities are the hallmark of war.  They are perhaps its apotheosis.  Massacres and rapes, plundering and pillaging, each of these is a sign and symptom of war’s disgusting trail of violence.  It is easy to make the excuse, if one were present, that s/he were powerless to stop it, helpless in the wake of destructive frenzy unleashed upon a populace.  The Endlösung, My Lai, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, Rwanda, Gaza – each of these have had some try to whitewash what has happened, claiming that if an event occurred (therefore trying to remove the indelible violence of hatred’s reality), then it was something structural, something that those present could step away from and pretend that it wasn’t they themselves, but those others who perpetuated it.  Do not blame them, for they were helpless, these “witnesses” of carnage claim.  We, after all, are not our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.

One particularly sobering example of this denial in the face of genocidal frenzy is Srebenica, where in July 1995, during the height of the Yugoslav wars, an entire Bosniak village of 8-10,000 men and boys was massacred while the UN observers failed to ensure their safety.  It was the worst atrocity of those wars and yet hardly anyone was ever convicted for their roles in this genocide.  Despite the relative silence of the subsequent two decades, Srebenica is a testimony to how people lose their voices when it comes to standing up or even questioning what drives peoples to “cleanse” their regions of others.  In his 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted novel, Come fossi solo (As I was Alone is a possible English translation), Marco Magini explores this issue of silence and almost-involuntary compliance with genocide.  He utilizes three characters, two of whom were present at the time of the massacre, to examine closely the antecedents for the massacre and how its aftermath affected two of the characters.

Dirk is a Dutch soldier present as part of the UN peacekeeping mission.  He struggles to deal with the situation, trying to piece together how it all fell apart there in July 1995.   Dražen is a soldier of mixed ancestry who joins the Bosnian Serb militia and despite his own ambivalence, he is an active participant in the massacre.  Romeo is a Spanish judge who hears  Dražen’s case at The Hague years later and he has to weigh the largely circumstantial evidence against him with other events that took place.  In each of the three men, the complex issues of responsibility and helplessness are examined in great detail.  Magini does an excellent job in developing internal tension in each of his three PoV characters, and by alternating between each of them (Dirk, Romeo, and Dražen in that order), we experience what was seen, what was judged, and why it may have been enacted in the first place.

However, this does not lead to settled conclusions.  Rather, the fuzziness surrounding individual understandings of this atrocity creates a growing sense of unease, as things turn out to be not as simple as one might presume.  Why did Dražen participate in the slaughter?  Not even he himself truly understands.  Magini is very careful to leave doubt open, not to exculpate anyone, but rather to force the reader to consider the true blindness of war rage and how it consumes even its enablers.

The prose for the most part is sharp and penetrating.  Magini often utilizes olfactory descriptors, such as the description of vomit’s “deodorant,” in order to convey the sickness of the situation.  This leads to a very concrete sort of prose, one that wastes little time in establishing the setting and the character viewpoints.  While there were a few occasions where more exposition could have been employed in order to make the impact even greater, on the whole Come fossi solo was a very good novel that I had hoped would have made the Premio Strega shortlist.  Hopefully there will be an English translation in the near future, as this debut novel appears to herald a new literary talent.

2014 Premio Strega longlist: Elisa Ruotolo, Ovunque, proteggici

September 24th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Lo chiamavano Blacmàn e immediatamente tutti capivano chi fosse.  Prima ancora del nome o di una fama qualsiasi, veniva quell’aspetto da zingaro quale in fondo era, da prestigiatore da quattro soldi:  un uomo con mani grandi abbastanza solo per suonartele, ma non per prendere la vita come si deve.  Blacmàn era lui senza possibilità d’errore, e avrebbe messo quasi paura se non fosse stato anche il tipo ridicolo che sapevo io:  per i suoi centimetri scarsi quanto quelli d’un ragazzo senza sviluppo, i vestiti attillati e a strisce di colore buoni a dare impaccio piú che allegria, i baffi a manubrio tenuti lisci e rigidi come quelli d’un sovrano senza terra, e i capelli a cespuglio, uguali al pelo degli animali che in calore se lo caricano di lappole nei giardini.  Ridicolo, come forse tutti avevano il diritto di credere tranne io, anche se piú di tutti lo pensavo cosí, vergognandomi d’averne preso il sangue e le ossa.

Blacmàn era mio padre.  E da quando ho cominciato a capire, non ho fatto altro che cercare prove e controprove di un’orfanezza, prima nei centimetri che mettevo, poi nella moralità di mia madre. (p. 12, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Italian writer Elisa Ruotolo’s 2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title, Ovunque, proteggici (Everywhere, Protect is the translated title), is on its surface a family history/mystery.  Set in the aftermath of World War II, the novel details the search of an man, Lorenzo, for clues into his family’s past, especially for his father, who disappeared one day.  While this plot device is rather familiar to readers, Ruotolo does add other elements to it to make it an interesting, worthwhile read.

One strength of Ovunque, proteggici is its ability to take interesting characters and to weave them in and out of the main plot in order to create a fascinating backdrop.  The Girosa family for five generations have striven to make their way in a world that seems to be set against them.  As Lorenzo explores his family’s past in order to understand why his father Blacmàn disappeared during World War II, we begin to see how his ancestors’ pasts have shaped his life.  From a grandfather who went to America to try to ply a trade and to send remittances home to his father becoming a jester of sorts and his mother a runaway, Lorenzo’s family is full of characters who have failed and then started anew, with each permutation of failure and meager success adding to the tale.

With so many fascinating characters, Ruotolo easily could have overwhelmed the plot with flashbacks and backstories.  Yet for the most part, these interesting characters enrich the plot, making Lorenzo’s investigation into his father’s past more than just another bog standard missing father/family history procedural.  By the time the novel concluded, it felt as though Ruotolo had achieved two seemingly divergent things at once:  an intimate novel that also manages to contain universal appeal to those who did not grow up under the oppressive weight of family history.

Although my Italian is a bit rudimentary, I did find Ruotolo’s prose to be relatively easy to follow.  Lorenzo’s first-person account of his investigations is concise, never feeling too distant or grandiose for the narrative.  This results in a narrative that flowed smoothly, telling a fascinating story without ever seeming to get in the way of the unfolding tale.  Ovunque, proteggici is a novel that I will likely revisit in years to come, as I am curious to see what else might be revealed on a re-read, as it seems there are depths to it that I failed to explore on my initial read.

2014 Prix Medicis finalist: Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès

September 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Pendant tout le repas je jouai avec les pages de mon cernet que j’avais déballé.  C’était un bon papier lisse, un peu jaune.  Comme dessert je choisis une crêpe aux fruits rouges.  Et quand le serveur l’eut déposée devant moi, tout se passa à nouveau en dépit de moi-même.  Mes yeux fixèrent le serveur, ses petits boutons, son fin duvet au-dessus de la lèvre, mes doigts caressaient la couverture de mon carnet, agréable au toucher, ma peau sentait un rayon de soleil sur mon avant-bras et ma bouche demanda au serveur s’il me permettait de lui poser une question:  connaissait-il par hasard Roberto Bolaño?  Le serveur fronça les sourcils et demanda s’il travaillait au Can Martí ou s’il était censé le connaisse, c’était un écrivain, il avait écrit des romans et il avait dix ou quinze ans de cela.  Le serveur dessina dans l’air un geste d’impuissance de sa seule main libre (l’autre main tenant mon assiette vide):  c’était il y a longtemps, à l’époque il vivait encore chez ses parents dans le Sud, à Rincón de la Victoria, il n’avait pas encore déménagé à Blanès, donc non, il était désolé de ne pas pouvoir m’aider, il ne connaissait pas Roberto Boliño.  Bolaño, rectifiai-je.  Le serveur s’éloigna.  L’air devint saturé.  Pourquoi m’avait-il regardée ainsi, si intensément, au moment de parler de ses parents et de Rincón de la Victoria?  D’ailleurs où diable cela pouvait-il se trouver et surtout qu’est-ce que cela pouvait me faire?  Il fallait payer et partir au plus vite, j’étais affreusement gênée.  Soudain prise d’un doute, je me retournai:  dans ma nuque, ce n’étaient pas des géraniums mais des hortensias.  Cela m’avait titillée depuis le début. (pp. 65-66, PDF e-edition)

For the past decade, the Spanish/Catalan coastal town of Blanes has become renowned for being the home of the peripatetic Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño during the last twenty years of his life.  Bolaño’s reputation was mostly made, however, after his 2003 death, with a slew of posthumous translations into the major European languages.  One novel, however, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives in English), was published to some acclaim in 1998.  That tale, containing among other elements an odyssey undertaken to find two missing poets in 1970s Mexico, is perhaps Bolaño’s best-executed work (2666 I would argue was left in an unfinished state at the time of Bolaño’s death).  That mystery of what happened to Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (characters who appear, often fleetingly, in several of Bolaño’s works) is tied in to literary movements and commentaries on the fluctuating relationships between “art” and “reality.”

Therefore, it was with great curiosity that I read Belgian writer Hedwige Jeanmart’s debut novel, the 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted Blanès.  Set in the town itself, it is a mystery that unfolds on at least two levels.  The first involves a couple, Eva and Samuel, who are vacationing there when Samuel suddenly disappears.  As Eva undertakes a search for him, she begins to discover the elements of another mystery, that of a beloved author, and the various connections and relationships between him, his stories, and the people of Blanes.

Blanès is a relatively short novel, roughly 190 pages in my PDF e-edition, and Jeanmart wastes little time in establishing character, setting, and mood.  In the passage quoted above, Eva comes in contact with a server at a restaurant.  Jeanmart describes the setting with great detail, going from Eva’s choices for a meal to her inquiries about Bolaño.  The server’s reactions to her somewhat odd questions is shown in vivid detail.  In reading it, I was reminded of the hyperrealist, almost surrealist, quality of The Savage Detectives and while Jeanmart is not aping Bolaño’s literary mannerisms, there certainly are enough touchstones here for readers familiar with that tale to see the connections.

Yet for those readers who are not familiar with Bolaño or his work, Blanès also succeeds on its own due to Jeanmart’s ability to create a plausible, gripping mystery that absorbs the reader’s attention.  I spent several minutes reading and re-reading certain paragraphs, not because my French is rudimentary compared to my English or Spanish, but because of the richness of the prose and the fineness of the dialogues.  It was simply a delectable reading experience, one that I do not often encounter when reading contemporary prose in any language.  Yet the plot does not suffer due to the attention to style.  In fact, Jeanmart’s mixture of beautiful and stark imagery enriches the plot, making the mystery more palpable for the reader.

The characterizations are also well-rendered.  Scenes such as the one quoted above are commonplace and the people that Eva meets during her search for solving two mysteries (the disappearance of her lover and that of Bolaño’s life in Blanes) are fascinating in their own right.  There are very few longeurs present here; everything flows quickly and smoothly toward a satisfying denouement.  While the other Prix Medicis-longlisted titles I’ve read have also been excellent, Blanès would be one that I hope would make the shortlist coming out shortly.  It certainly is one of the better books that I’ve read in any language so far this year.

2014 National Book Award Poetry longlist: Linda Bierds, Roget’s Illusion

September 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I will never contain the whole of it, he said,
the mirror too small for the long-necked lamp
floating swanlike near the angle of incidence.
Never, he said, stepping back from the lectern

and long-necked lamp, the mirror he held too small
for the swan.  To reflect the object entirely,
he said, stepping back to the lectern,
the glass must be half the source’s height.

To reflect the object entirely – the lamp,
or a swan, or my figure before you –
the glass must be half the source’s height.
Unlike thought, which easily triples the whole.

– from “On Reflection,” p. 60

Although for generations of benighted English/literature students he is most well-known for his thesaurus, Peter Mark Roget was a multi-talented person of science who also invented the slide rule and who wrote an 1824 paper on the illusion of forward-moving wheel spokes seeming to spin backwards.  It is this illusion of backwards forwardness that is both the title and major theme of Linda Bierds’ 2014 National Book Award-longlisted poetry collection, Roget’s Illusion.

Divided into three parts, each prefaced with a “Roget’s Illusion,” the majority of the poems in Roget’s Illusion are akin to that found in the excerpt from “On Reflection” quoted above.  Breaking down the beginning half to “On Reflection,” we encounter a narrator who is convinced that he is unable to position things just so in order to capture an image of the whole in a reflection.  The mirror, apparently “too small” for the swan-like lamp casting light, is itself a reflection, as seen in the second stanza, where the lamp has apparently become the swan, and the reflection/mirror has to be half the source’s height in order for it to work.  But then there is another element, thought, that comes into play and which destroys and amplifies the reflection/illusion through its treple quality.  If the mirror, as the narrator goes on to claim, is “bound by harmony,” then what is thought but a transformative quality that reflects back perceptions and appearances, until it is lost in the impossibility of never quite being able to “contain the whole of it.”

This is a deceptively complex series of metaphors transpiring within the simplicity of a lamp, an image, and a source.  Utilizing Roget’s theorems on distance and light casting illusive images, Bierds here has made that disorienting sense of backwards forwardness palpable, eloquently presenting the artifice before the trick, catching us thinking of it all, only for us to complete the illusion in its totality in our minds.  Yet despite seeing just how it all unfolds, despite it all being explained to us, there is still magic in the event.  There is a similar quality to discussing Bierds’ mechanics here, as she lays out her approach for the reader to discern, yet in considering the wires and framework, the reader still gets caught up in the thrill of the unfolding image, seeming spinning backwards as it moves forward in poetic space.

Although this seemingly paradoxical quality is explored in several of Bierds’ other poems, they are not refracted in the same fashion.  Take for instance “Details Depicted:  Insect and Hair,” which begins with these lines:

In the prison of an unnamed century,
on paper coarse as sackcloth,
someone has written No reason exists
and the innocency of my actings
in the midst of the late revolutions.
Then stopped – and circled two perfect artifacts,
caught years before in the damp plup:
in the margin beside his curving s,
a single fly wing, dried to a gauze,
and far down the page, an arc of amber beard hair. (p. 73)

Here is another natural object, a single fly wing, to serve as a point of comparison to another intruder, a strand of amber beard hair.  As the narrator continues to write his political tract, he circles back to that singular wing and that solitary hair, seeing in their placement a sort of transcendence of order.  It is this illusion of placement, of how chance is turned into an engine of order, that creates the illusory effect here.  There is a slight echo of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” here, at least in the sense of how choice’s tryanny comes to hold sway over us all and how we often wish it were not so, but Bierds’ take centers more on the illusion of that control, as the political screeds embedded here serve as a reminder of how ethereal it all really is if we were but to provide a Johnsonian kick to this metaphorical rock.

These two poems serve as exemplars of Bierds’ concerns and her ability to manipulate image and rhetoric to create these illusions.  The rest of the collection is largely on par with these two and it was a delight to consider each of them at length.  Roget’s Illusion is a powerful collection, one that can surprise readers with its depth and artifice, and it certainly is well-deserving of its place on this year’s Poetry longlist.

2014 National Book Award Poetry winner: Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014)

September 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers:

– From “Parable,” p. 6 iPad iBooks e-edition

There is a silencing quality to night that dims the day’s bright nights and muffles its outlandish roars.  The night is for lovers, or for the inconsolable, or those feverish saints and melancholy sinners.  It is where we lose ourselves and find ourselves again.  In Louise Glück’s newest collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, all of these nocturnal attributes and more are explored in wry, sometimes detached, poems that combine to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In the opening poem, “Parable,” the narrator muses on the Franciscan call to “divest[ing] ourselves of worldly goods.”  As we meditate on this, she goes on, the “word” becomes “translated as a dream,” something desired and yet not quite obtainable, while through it all, the weather shifts, with snow (and its blanketing quality) and rain (with its purifying quality) washes over these erstwhile pilgrims, changing them, making for them a purpose they had sought after, albeit one they had not expected.

This mingling of the natural and the mental, of image and desire, continues in the next poem, an adventure, where the night takes on yet another quality, that of passions and of death:

I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,
thought why this landscape was so conventional
I could not say.

– from “An Adventure,” (p. 7)

The visions of this poem, with flesh evaporating into mist, of objects fading into insubstantial shadows, are haunting, yet here, like in other poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night, it is a sense of things lurking on the edges of our personal horizons rather than anything that can be perceived directly.  Silence lies at the heart of Glück’s poems, and at the end of the eponymous “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” she lays out one of the principal themes of this collection:

I think here I will leave you.  It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings. (p. 16)

This theme of indefinite, perhaps infinite, endings to stories is played out over and over again in various iterations.  In one, it is likened to a religious ceremony in which the congregation’s standing about waiting is the entire point of the ceremony, that beholding is the key, not any of the ancillary activities surrounding this.  In another, through the guise of a writer whose many lauded novels were much alike each other, the complacency that surrounds disguised suffering is the key to understanding the reflection of nature in art, of suffering encapsulated in formalized artifice.  And so it goes until this chilling question is raised in “The Story of a Day”:

But if the essence of time is change,
how can anything become nothing?
This was the question I asked myself. (p. 54)

The overall effect of these images, carefully embedded throughout the collection, is to create a sense of space, where answers die and contemplation of inscrutable life begins.  Night is the perfect metaphor for this and Faithful and Virtuous Night shows Glück in full mastery of image and metaphor.  It certainly is a poetry well worth reading for any who have any love at all for the poetic genre.

2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013 UK; 2014 US release)

September 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Picture how she comes.  Our Lady in white, when you’re not looking.  She beckons you to Christ.  Pray to be chosen.  To bear her secrets for the world.  A dying world.  Please don’t to me or catch her floating on the stairway.  Reaching out.  Howabout stigmata instead?  Worse though you’d never go to school again or look at my hands in case I see it.  The Holy Spirit’s in me.  Not a punishment.  It’s a gift.  No not like the violin.  Any eejit can do that.  I feel it aching in my palm but when will the blood burst?  Now please Jesus or not at all.  Lickety lips of the praying wouldn’t mind if I was one.  But they’d all like it for their children.  A visionary born from me?  You’ll only be able to tell the seasons by the trees Malachi prophesied or Colmcille.  And they say the last secret of Fatima is destruction of the church.  The Vatican won’t say either way because that’ll be the end of days.  Gulp this.  But we’ll know anyway from Medjugorje the day before.  Shiver I purple terror high in my throat.  The dead will knock your window.  Deadly bony spirit hands.  They’ll beg for you to save their souls.  Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.  You must turn from them.  Away.  Shut the curtains.  Light a candle and pray for your salvation while the apocalypse blows your door.  And if they plead they love you, so much the worse for their souls.  Those poor souls howling.  Sucked into the forever night.  Will you save us Mammy?  I’ll say easy children close your eyes for this world is coming to an end.  But Mammy it scares me.  Well better behave yourself then. (p. 24 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Some stories are not meant to be told in “easy” language.  Some tales deserve, no, need, a more “challenging” narrative structure in order to contain the necessary depth of character, plot, and theme.  In Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which recently won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, her prose is not “easy,” it is very “challenging” indeed.  But what sort of challenges does it entail for the reader?

The basic contours of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing are relatively straightforward and familiar to readers:  a young Irish girl dealing with multiple family issues, ranging from her brother’s losing battle against brain cancer to her mother’s perhaps too-staunch Catholicism to her creepy uncle.  Yet what McBride does with this basic setup is what differentiates it from most contemporary Irish family fictions.  The nameless narrator’s use of “broken” grammar, where the comma disappears in favor of the full-stop, punctuates the fissures and fault lines in this narrative.

At first glance, paragraphs like the one quoted above might be difficult to parse.  But listen to the rhythms that develops within these staccato bursts.  “Open the latch they cry.  You will not.  Can not.”  In this comes a call and non-response, an urge and a resistance.  The narrator, addressing her now-dead brother throughout as “you,” she is constantly battling, fighting to establish some semblance of self amongst the tugs and pulls of others.  She wants to be good, she wants to be herself, but she is degraded by those around her.  This is what comes through in this carefully-crafted prose, where the images and sounds of anguished indecision are codified within this non-conventional prose style.

For some, style is an afterthought, a mere window dressing that could cover up somehow “the story.”  This is certainly far from the case here, as the style is integral to the unfolding story.  McBride’s narrator is a girl who has entered puberty and has suffered from an incestuous, sometimes non-consensual relationship with an uncle.  This affects her views of sex.  It becomes not an enjoyable act or a positive part of the girl’s self-identity, but instead a weapon, a means of self-annihilation through non-loving relationships that reinforce the sense of self-loathing rising within the girl’s narrative.  And through it all, the language of this suffering, this cry for release, is seen in passages such as this:

These journeys.  These train journeys they are always going on.  What I.  Am I doing?  Rolling over the country.  I’ll give up going soon.  Where?  Here or back or.  Enough.  Thankless pointless things I’ll learn.  To.  But.  Like it matters now who inspired who and who.  Fuck that I don’t.  Care.  I.  And your other one.  Stupid cow out running friend.  Drive my head round the bend with all the oh my life has troubles too.  But I better do, have got to.  Just stop see and cut the cord the thread with this life and I’ll be alright.  Give it up, uncle up, that’s the way.  No.  And it sounds easy.  It sounds not.  But what I want.  Not to be this.  Ripped.  Ah I see.  Not.  To.  Do.  This.  Any.  More.  What.  Nothing I don’t do a thing.

Few fucks here and then and who’s that to do with?  No one but myself.  See.  See.  In the future I’ll decide.  If I must go home.  For good.  If I.  But now.  But now.  I’m doing fine.  Like you.  I’m.  Doing.  Fine.  (p. 97)

There is a primeval quality to this, this fractured stream of consciousness.  It is not something we may readily wish to dip into to experience, but it is still there, seething.  McBride’s story works so well because of how easily she taps into this raging maelstrom, allowing readers who are willing enough to “lose” themselves in the narrative to experience the narrator’s emotional conflicts on a deeper, less verbalized level than what a more “traditional” narrative might have accomplished.  McBride breaks syntax and, by extension, word context in order to create new lexical shades of meanings.  In doing so, her work resembles in this particular fashion those of Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!.  Like them, McBride’s story works not just only on the surface level of plot and character, but also on the level of word/signifer contextual relationships.  It may not always be “easy” to follow, but as far as it being a “challenge” for readers, it certainly does force readers to evaluate the story in fashions they might not have been prepared to do.  That the result is a moving, poignant tale of an identity being forged is a bonus that makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing worthy of the awards that it has already won.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

September 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

He has begged all morning outside the landlord’s house for one cup of rice.  His three children haven’t eaten for five days.  Their last meal had been a handful of hay stolen from the landlord’s cowshed and boiled in the cloudy yellow water from the well.  Even the well is running dry.  For the past three years they have been eating once every five or six or seven days.  The last few times he had gone to beg had yielded nothing, except abuse and forcible ejection from the grounds of the landlord’s house.  In the beginning, when he had first started to beg for food, they shut and bolted all the doors and windows against him while he sat outside the house, for hours and hours, day rolling into evening into night, until they discovered his resilience and changed that tactic.  Today they had set their guards on him.  One of them had brought his stick down on Nitai’s back, his shoulders, his legs, while the other one had joked, ‘Where are you going to hit this dog?  He is nothing but bones, we don’t even have to hit him.  Blow on him and he’ll fall back.’ (pp. 1-2)

Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, the Booker-longlisted The Lives of Others, is not a typical family/state drama.  From its opening prologue, from whence the quote above comes, Mukherjee makes it quite clear that he is going to explore, sometimes in graphic, violent detail, the inequalities in mid-20th century Calcuttan/Kolkatan society.  It certainly is a bold choice, as the story gains much from this unflinching portrayal of the hypocrisies and sufferings of Bengalis in this region of India.

The Lives of Others (a title derived from an epigraph taken from James Salter’s Light Years) opens with an explicit depiction of suffering and casual cruelty, as a starving tenant farmer, Nitai, after being denied the food necessary to keep his family alive, goes home and decapitates his wife and son, strangles his daughters, before committing suicide by drinking pesticide.  Mukhejee displays the farmer’s human frailty in this last, violent act of desperation and it is that sense of gross injustice, of people starving and committing mercy murders, that carries over into the main narrative as a lingering ghost, reminding readers that behind the depictions of the various lives of the well-to-do Ghosh family there lurks a specter of famine and deprivation much worse than what these family members manage to do to one another.

However, this is not to downplay the intricate relationships that Mukherjee explores within the Ghosh family.  On the contrary, this fictitious family encapsulates well many of the divisions present in Indian (and in particular, Bengali) society in the first generation after independence.  While the character types might be of stock appearance (the self-made wealthy patriarch, the divisions among sons, the favored and ill-favored daughters, the black sheep revolutionary), he manages to enliven them with personalities that are vivid and which serve to draw the reader closer to the unfolding narrative.

The novel’s structure supports Mukherjee’s exploration of societal injustices.  In addition to traditional chapters detailing the lives of the Ghosh children living in their Kolkata compound, there are short commentaries, presented in a different font, that we later learn were composed by the rebellious son, Supratik, who has renounced his social station and has become a Maoist rebel.  Mukherjee utilizes these different narrative threads to great effect, as he shows through each Ghosh son and daughter the intricate web of responsibilities and privileges, of petty power struggles and denials of affection due to differences in appearance and social grace.  These characters, including the waspish Chhaya, whose stinging spiteful remarks serve as a goad to drive others away (or toward what she desires), drive the action of The Lives of Others and make for quick page turning.

The prose for the most part is striking for its simple yet vivid quality.  Mukherjee describes his characters and scenes in such a fashion that it is easy to imagine certain sights, sounds, and smells.  There is little wasted space; the descriptions are lashed to the plot so tightly that everything seems to be subordinate to outlining just what is happening to the Ghosh family during the time of famine and social upheaval in West Bengal.  This results in a novel that manages to create a series of contrasts between characters and their social counterparts without feeling either too spartan or too lush with extraneous detail.  In addition, these clashes are set up in such a fashion that Mukherjee is able to make several pointed comments on contemporary socio-political issues (mostly through Supratik’s changes in perspective during his years as a rebel) through the Ghosh family dynamics without reducing their conflicts to mere analogies for the greater conflict.

If there were a difficulty to point out, it would be a very minor one:  an Anglo-American reader might find herself needing to rely more on the helpful family chart at the beginning of the book and the glossary at the end, due to the different nature of Bengali familial relationships.  Yet this was no real hindrance to enjoying the novel, which might be one of the best Indian family/societal dramas that I’ve read in years.  The Lives of Others certainly is worthy of consideration for the Booker Prize and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see it make the shortlist later this week.

1965 Premio Alfaguara winner: Jesus Torbado, Las corrupciones

September 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It is now a trite and often misleading thing to label an artist “the voice of a generation.”  Too frequently, this praise thrusts the artist and his/her work into a glaring spotlight that happens to accentuate any imperfections there might be in the work.  Yet sometimes, despite the ridiculousness of such encomiums, there are those works and those writers, even if it is only a singular work that does not affect subsequent generations as much, that do capture much of the essence of the espirit du temps in which the work was conceived.  For those born after the Spanish Civil War and who grew up in Franco’s Spain, the gradual liberalization of the 1960s was a memorable time, in some ways comparable to other 1960s movements yet with some key differences.  In the inaugural Premio Alfaguara, awarded in late 1965 for his debut novel Las corrupciones, Jesus Torbado eloquently tells a tripartite corruption of a seminarian, as he loses faith in God, others, and ultimately himself.

In telling José Antonio’s story, Torbado does not resort to tried and moldy-true moralistic panderings.  Instead, as the reader witnesses these changes in his life, we come to see that his experiences are typical, expressions of the Zeitgeist then in which the pillars of Spanish society, most notably the Church, have come under closer scrutiny for failing to provide comfort for the rising generation that knew of no other ruler but General Franco and no other faith but that of the conservative Church.  These “corruptions,” are in some sense ironic, in that pleasure and comfort is found beyond the abandonment of old principles and faith.  As José Antonio goes on his prodigal tour from the seminary to the wine bottles and women of Paris, Torbado provides great insight into José Antonio’s character and how his new experiences are a liberating one for him.

This story largely succeeds because Torbado’s prose is to the point and yet has a hidden grandness to it.  The characterizations are fleshed out very well and the changes in José Antonio’s life are plausible not just in detail and description, but also in how they are reflected in his own mental state.  Divided into three parts in order to accentuate the three main “corruptions,” Las corrupciones‘s detailed focus on each of these three (loss of faith in God, others, self) works because developments that occur in one part are manifested in a subsequent part, without there being a sense of abruptness or lack of transition.

Yet if there were a weakness to the novel, it might be that its themes, so fresh and vibrant in the 1960s, have been played out in the following half-century.  While Torbado does a good job in developing character and scene, both the character type and setting felt a bit dated, at least to this reader who wasn’t born until nearly a decade after the book was published.  This is not a criticism of the book as much as it is a passing commentary on how readers and their own life experiences can affect the enjoyment of a story.  Despite this sense that the story was a bit “historical” due to the lapse of time between publication and personal reading, Las corrupciones is still a very strong novel that was worthy of being the inaugural Premio Alfaguara winner.

1957 Premio Strega winner: Elsa Morante, L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island, 1959 English translation)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Quite apart from endearments, I lived entirely without kisses and caresses, and out of pride, I had to approve of this.  But sometimes, especially in the evening, when I was alone in a room and started to miss my mother, mother came to mean precisely caresses.  I longed for her large, her holy body, for her small silken hands, for her breath.  In winter my bed was freezing cold, but to warm me there was only Immacolatella to sleep with, cuddled close.

As I didn’t believe in God or in religion, I didn’t even believe in a future life and in the spirits of the dead.  If I listened to reason, I knew that all that remained of my mother was shut underground in the cemetery.  But reason retreated before her, and without realizing it, I actually believed in heaven, because of her.  What else was that kind of Oriental tent floating on air between the sky and the earth, where she dwelled alone, idly contemplating the sky with upturned eyes like one transfigured?  There, every time I thought of her, my mother came quite naturally to mind.  Later, the day came when I no longer looked for her; she had vanished.  Someone had folded up the rich Oriental tent and taken it away. (p. 41)

Elsa Morante’s 1957 Premio Strega-winning novel, L’isola di Arturo (released in English in 1959 as Arturo’s Island, translated by Isabel Quigly), differs in many regards from her 1974 opus, History, which I reviewed earlier today.  It is a tauter, less sprawling novel, but this relatively slightness in page numbers does not mean that it is a lighter or less substantial novel.  It is a story of a feral youth, left to fend for himself on an island in the Bay of Naples that housed criminals in its old castle complex while his father, a prison official, spent ten months of the year away.  It’s an interesting take on the nurture vs. nature argument, but it is also much more than just simply a tale of an abandoned youth raised without any women in his life.

Arturo’s Island is set sometime during the mid-20th century.  Arturo, the first-person narrator, is a young teen who lost his mother when she died giving birth to him.  His father largely abandoned him to the all-male island staff, only seeing him in brief spells.  These meetings, which fill Arturo with a mixture of hope and dread, typically ended with another abrupt departure, with little sentimentality getting in the way of his father.  Then one day, as Arturo is nearing sixteen, his father brings a girl scarcely older than him to the island, declaring that she, Nunziata, is his new wife.  This event, taking place roughly a quarter into the novel, shifts the focus away from Arturo’s developing personality (in particular the giant holes in his life caused by the absence of women) toward a more typical Oedipus father/lover/son triangle.

This shift, while understandable, does throw Arturo’s narrative out of kilter for several pages, as it takes time for the reader to reconcile the rather naïve Arturo’s worldviews with the more lust-centered youth of the middle sections.  However, Morante does largely manage to integrate this new development and its attendant action (attempted seduction, regretful rejection, proxy seduction to make a larger point) does serve to reinforce Morante’s earlier arguments regarding the deleterious effect Arturo’s neglected upbringing has had on his personality and his ability to relate to women.

But it is in the final sections where the plot turns in a surprising and yet fitting fashion.  Arturo witnesses a clandestine meeting, one that reveals to him for once and for all that things he had felt he had in common with someone close to him were in fact yet another level of subterfuge, one that was designed to keep Arturo in the dark.  This event encapsulates many of the conflicted emotions and bitter cynicism that Arturo had developed and it causes the novel to end on a rather dark yet not completely hopeless concluding note.

Although the paragraphs above might seem to give away much of the novel’s plot, there are many levels to Arturo’s Island for readers to enjoy.  Morante’s prose is wonderful here (I read it first in Italian, but Quigly’s translation captures much of the original’s spirit), as Arturo’s personality is revealed through his introspective, sometimes self-damning monologues.  In the passage quoted above, his conflicted emotions are revealed with such a clarity as to make subsequent passages all the more revealing.  The plotting is well-done, as the love triangle (complicated by the birth of Arturo’s half-brother) develops at a steady pace, never feeling extraneous or tedious.  The themes are also well-developed, especially Morante’s exploration of how nurture and nature both might come to shape a person’s world-views, especially male attitudes toward women.  It is not a perfect novel, as sometimes these themes are not as subtle as they could have been, but on the whole, Arturo’s Island was a deep yet very enjoyable read.

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