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

December 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2003 Premio Alfaguara winner: Xavier Velasco, Diablo Guardián

December 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Premio Alfaguara winner: Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche

December 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 11th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

 – Mamá, ¿allá atrás se acaba el mundo?

– No, no se acaba.

– Demuéstramelo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for December, 2014 at Gogol's Overcoat.