viernes, 31 de octubre de 2014

Juntacadáveres

Juntacadáveres (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2007)
por Juan Carlos Onetti
Uruguay, 1964

Nadie trata de la decadencia  --del alma, de la raza humana  --de forma exquisita como Onetti.  Al principio de Juntacadáveres, Larsen, también conocido como Junta o Juntacadáveres, llegue a Santa María en la compañía de tres "mujeres inverosímiles" (367) para establecer un prostíbulo en una casita en la costa.  Al final de la obra, Junta sale por el mismo tren, su sueño de "inaugurar el perfecto prostíbulo" (514) reducido a cenizas.  La historia del fracaso de Junta, un tipo describido en las primeras páginas del libro como un hombre "humillado y lacónico, pero demasiado ordinario" (364) y más tarde como un conocido "filatelista de putas pobres" (473), se cuenta por dos narradores (uno en primera persona y el otro en tercera) que también versan con la historia de Santa María con una prosa vital.  Resulta que esta ciudad, a pesar de la cruzada contra el prostíbulo organizado por el padre Bergner, está poblada por gente como el sobrino del cura que opina que "todos somos inmundos y la inmundicia que traemos desde el nacimiento, hombres y mujeres, se multiplica por la inmundicia del otro y el asco es insoportable" (532), otro personaje que se suicida, y un menor de edad que siente una gran necesidad de escapar de Santa María con Junta y sus "mujeres inverosímiles" antes de contagiarse con el "mundo normal y astuto" (578) que ha vivido en la ciudad hasta entonces.  A luz de esto, el lector se da cuenta que Larsen, un rufián que ha conocido "una vida definible o recordable por medio de olor a billetes y a mujer, por camisas de seda, biombos, abortos, churrasquerías junto al principio del campo, mejillas pulidas, nostalgia y la profesada indiferencia" (463) o sea una persona claramente corrumpida desde el punto de vista moral, en realidad no es mucho más "inmundo" que o cualquier de los otros habitantes de Santa María o, en cuanto a eso, nuestro amigo animoso Onetti:

Había que vivir y por eso inventó el patronazgo de las putas pobres, viejas, consumidas, desdeñadas.
Impasible en el centro de las miradas irónicas, en restaurantes que servían puchero en la madrugada, sonriendo a gordas cincuentonas y viejas huesosas con trajes de baile, paternal y tolerante, prodigando oídos y consejos, demostrando que para él continuaba siendo mujer toda aquella que lograra ganar billetes y tuviera la necesaria y desesperada confianza para regalárselos, conquistó el nombre de Junta Cadáveres, conquistó la beatitud adecuada para responder al apodo sin otra protesta que una pequeña sonrisa de astucia y conmiseración (514-515).

Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994)

Juntacadáveres se puede encontrar en las páginas 357-578 del libro Obras completas II.  Novelas II (1959-1993), de Juan Carlos Onetti (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2007).

martes, 28 de octubre de 2014

Morituri

Morituri (Gallimard, 2008)
by Yasmina Khadra
Algeria, 1997

When Tom from Wuthering Expectations kindly recommended Yasmina Khadra to me in response to this post for a "pure nightmare" evocation of Algeria in the 1990s, I wasn't worried that he was trying to dial things back when he later added "I'm not even sure Morituri is a good book, but who cares?"  And why should I have been?  I could see what Tom was talking about just from the novel's jolting opening line: "Saigné aux quatre veines, l'horizon accouche à la césarienne d'un jour qui, finalement, n'aura pas merité sa peine" ["Bled white, the skyline gives birth by C-section to a day, which, in the end, won't have been worth the trouble"] (459).  Morituri, nominally a vaguely Chandleresque policier having to do with a missing persons case but in reality just a pretext for Khadra (real name: Mohammed Moulessehoul; 1997 day job: officer in the Algerian army) to vent his spleen about the "olympiades terroristes" ["terrorist Olympics"] (571) that had descended upon his native country during Algeria's nasty civil war, delivers the mystery/thriller goods aplenty via a blistering, high octane pace--sort of a book version of the no-huddle offense--and a dark, plot-driven police procedural prominently featuring booby-trapped corpses, carbombings, and religiously motivated celebrity assassinations in addition to the usual mix of more civilized crimes.  Why would anybody want to "experience" Algeria in such a visceral realism way much less under the guise of entertainment?  Why not?  I missed the adrenaline rush provided by the novel when it was over, and even though Khadra's portrait of post-independence Algiers as a fear-filled Hell on the Mediterranean was just a little too grounded in the reality of its time and place for me to want to follow in Commissaire Llob's footsteps for tourism purposes in real life anytime soon, I did find it mightily refreshing to make the acquaintance of a "genre writer" whose hard-nosed prose, astonishingly enough, was often just as violent and corrosive and jittery as his subject matter: "Drôle d'époque!  Lorsqu'un collègue est tué par balle, on estime que c'est ce qui pouvait lui arriver de mieux - au vu des cadavres horriblement dépecés qui jalonnent la malheureuse terre d'Algérie" ["A funny thing about the era!  When a colleague dies from a bullet, we deem it to be the best thing that could have happened to him given the horribly carved up dead bodies strung out throughout the length of the wretched soil of Algeria"] (548).

Mohammed Moulessehoul

Morituri, Latin for "those who are about to die," appears on pp. 453-599 of Yasmina Khadra's Le quatuor algérien omnibus (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2008) alongside the 1997 Double blanc, the 1998 L'automne des chimères, and the 2004 La part du mort.  Thanks to Tom for bringing Khadra/Moulessehoul to my attention.

viernes, 24 de octubre de 2014

Abbés


Abbés (Éditions Verdier, 2002)
by Pierre Michon
France, 2002

Abbés [Abbots], a 71-page triptych of three "imaginary lives" dedicated to monastic figures from France's Vendée département around the year 1000 and hence at least outwardly concerned with colorfully antiquated things like furta sacra, the reading or misreading of portents, and the propagation of the faith in the still quasi-pagan marsh and swampland region of the old Vendée, etc., wasn't all that convincing to me from a historical fiction or a "medieval" or even a spiritual point of view even though I readily admit that it was rather satisfying from a post-Marcel Schwob/non-Sigrid Undset-like scandalous storytelling point of view.  Who needs historical fiction anyway?  In other words, the not entirely tame account of abbot Èble's struggles with the spirit and the flesh? A disappointing and played-out plot device, truth be told.  But the descriptions of abbot Èble's struggles with the spirit and the flesh?  Priceless!  Too bad my schoolboy French isn't good enough for me to know whether I was supposed to laugh out loud or be outraged whenever the talk of an adulterous liaison deteriorated into overheated lines about a proud monk's carnal enjoyment of a woman's "plaie de feu mouillé" ["wound of moist fire"] (22) or the like.  It's an odd and occasionally unsettling book in that regard.  In terms of coming to grips with Michon's rep as one of contemporary France's premier prose stylists, though, it's pretty easy to see why his fans get so geeked up over his writing.  In the matter of imagery alone, for example, the pages of Abbés are teeming with tactile audiovisual allusions to nature (cf. "Un jour de janvier, la mer pleure comme un petit enfant sous un ciel de craie" ["One day in January, the sea wails like a little baby under a chalky sky"]) (65) which did a number on me with their trimmings of poetry in prose.  Michon's also an able practitioner of the bookish practical joke, permitting his narrator to gloss on the conventional nature of the old secondhand chronicles he's supposedly borrowing his historical source material from ("La haute époque avec ses belles images, scribes appliqués et chevaux" ["The Middle Ages with its beautiful images, studious scribes and horses"]) before blindsiding you with an even more disparaging antiquarian aesthetic feint: "Je suis fatigué de ses images, de la fade Chronique de Pierre" ["I'm tired of these images, tired of Pierre's insipid History"] (50).  Of course, the practical joking gets even better--richer, more layered, more Borgesian--when you start to realize that Pierre de Maillezais the chronicler might bear more than a passing resemblance to Pierre de Châtelus-le-Marcheix the modern day "scribe" of Abbés and that a "chance" reference to medieval monk/historian/literary forger Adémar de Chabannes might have something meta to say about the underhanded creativity and inspiration at the heart of the reading, writing and rewriting processes themselves.  Like I said, who the hell needs historical fiction anyway?

Pierre Michon

Cette époque, on le sait, aime les os.  Pas tous les os, ils ont grand soin de choisir, disputent et parfois s'entretuent sur ce choix: les os seulement qu'on peut revêtir d'un texte, le Texte écrit il y a mille ans ou les textes écrits il y a cent ans, ou le texte qu'on écrit à l'instant pour eux, les os que Cluny ou Saint-Denis a nommés et scellés, ceux qui à des signes patents pour nous illisibles, firent partie d'une carcasse d'oú s'évasait la parole de Dieu, la carcasse d'un saint.  Comment ils décident que tel os sera habillé et nommé, exhibé sous les yeux des hommes dans de l'or, et tel autre anonyme et nu, bon pour la terre aveugle, nous ne le comprenons pas, seuls les mots de cynisme ou de parfaite naïveté nous viennent à l'ésprit, mais sûrement pas les mots de savoir et de vérité.  Nous béons devant ces châsses au fond d'églises froides, il faut mettre une pièce de monnaie pour qu'elles sortent de l'ombre, nous béons devant le petit cartel qui résume la vie du saint, toujours la même en somme, les nuances nous échappent comme elles ont échappé au rédacteur du cartel, nous nous ennuyons bien avant que la loupiote s'éteigne, ces carbonates de calcium noirs entrevus sous une petite lucarne crasseuse nous dégoûtent - et les châsses, l'art n'en est pas bien compliqué, en dépit de l'épaisseur des catalogues qui entendent prouver que si, c'est compliqué.  Nous avons vu les signes, qui ne signifient plus rien.  Mais en sortant sous le soleil face au parking devant l'église, pour peu que cinq heures sonnent au clocher sur nos têtes, pour peu que des oiseaux s'envolent ou qu'un rétroviseur nous éblouisse, une exaltation mélangée nous reprend, parce que sur ce même parvis sous le soleil ce que nous ne comprenons pas, c'ést-à-dire l'os et l'or et le texte mêlés, cela a eté brandi par des prélats cyniques ou savants devant des foules naïves ou véridiques, bouleversées. Dans la voiture nous feuilletons le catalogue épais des Musées nationaux, auquel nous, nous croyons, cynisme ou crédulité.  Nous partons dans octobre ensoleillé, dans octobre noyé Théodelin et ses moines arrivent à Charroux.

[The era, as we know, loves bones.  Not all bones--they're careful to choose; they argue and sometimes kill one another over these choices: only the bones that can be arrayed in a text--the Text written a thousand years ago, or the texts written a hundred years previously, or the text that was written for them the minute before--the bones that Cluny or Saint-Denis have named and sealed, those that, according to patently visible signs which are now illegible to us, were once part of a human frame from which the word of God emanated, the human frame of a saint.  How they decided that one bone was to be dressed and named, displayed in gold before the eyes of men, and that another, anonymous and naked, was fit only for the blind earth we cannot understand, and only the words cynicism or utter credulity come to mind, but certainly not the words knowledge and truth.  We gawp at these reliquaries in the depths of cold churches (you have to place a coin in a slot for them to emerge from the shadows), we gawp at the little notice that summarizes the saint's life which is always fundamentally the same one; the nuances escape us as they have escaped the writer of the notice; we are bored long before the little bulb goes out, the black calcium carbonates glimpsed through the grimy little window revolt us--and the artistry of the reliquaries is not particularly complicated, despite the thickness of the catalogues intent on proving that it is.  We've seen the signs which no longer signify.  But as we step out into the sunshine and look toward the carpark in front of the church, if five o'clock is striking in the tower above our heads, or if a few birds fly up or a wing mirror dazzles us, a mixed elation takes hold of us because on this same portico in the sunshine the thing we cannot understand--the bone and the gold and the written words all mixed together--was brandished by cynical or knowledgeable prelates before credulous or genuine crowds who were deeply affected by it.  Inside the car we leaf through the thick catalogue of national museums which we do believe in, whether out of cynicism or credulity.  We drive off in the October sunshine, and in an October downpour Theodelin and his monks arrive at Charroux.]

Thanks to Victoria for recommending Michon's Abbés to me.  The excerpt above comes from pp. 56-58 in the original, and the lovely translation accompanying it comes from pp. 103-104 of Ann Jefferson's Michon translation twofer Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is available from Yale University Press.

lunes, 13 de octubre de 2014

Delta Wedding

Delta Wedding (The Library of America, 1998)
by Eudora Welty
USA, 1946

So a mere one post after having made a semi-big deal about the group protagonist thing and the amazing sense of place to be found in Ousmane Sembene's 1960 Les bouts de bois de Dieu, I find I can say nearly the same thing about Eudora Welty's 1946 Delta Wedding (in her Complete Novels [New York: The Library of America, 1998, 89-336]), another ensemble affair but one set not in Senegal but in the American South, sans any speculation about Welty's Marxist politics and/or her filmmaking interests possibly informing her storytelling style of course.  In fact, it's a shame that Welty's novel mostly takes place on a Mississippi plantation because it would have been awfully convenient for me to recycle parts of that previous review.  In any event, I guess I should start by noting that Welty's moving drama about finding a place in the world--in marriage or out of it, among family, at peace with yourself--is framed by the arrival of nine year old Laura McRaven at her cousins' house the week that young, coltish Dabney is set to marry young, racist Troy.  Little Laura, who has recently lost her mother to an early death, looks for and eventually finds a measure of solace during the time she spends among her exuberant relatives, and the narrative payoff of that particular story thread was way worth it to me by the end even though there were a couple of moments in the middle where I had to roll my eyes with impatience at the manic theatrics of one too many batshit old maid aunts or the marital dramz between George Fairchild and his annoyingly high maintenance runaway wife Robbie, etc.  From a stylistic rather than a plot perspective, though, Welty does several things here that make me look forward to reading more by her in the future.  For starters, I'm pleased to concur with Emily of the late, great and sorely missed Evening All Afternoon blog that one of the strengths of Delta Wedding is Welty's Woolf-like ability to get inside her characters' heads--or as Emily put it in her fine piece on the novel, "Like Virginia Woolf (of whom Welty strongly reminds me), Welty astounds with her ability to communicate the unexpected yet crucial importance of certain crystallized moments in time - the tiny catalysts that prompt a blaze of emotion or insight out of all proportion to the initial tiny spark - and the deep, quiet pools of reflection that unfurl within her characters at the oddest moments."  This point shouldn't and really can't be overstated in my opinion, in particular in light of the various characters young and old whose POV are being juggled at any given point in time.  Another of the novel's strengths is the way its author balances the interiority touched on above with frisky wordsmith descriptions of characters who are the possessors of "shrimp-pink toes" (217) or one who's said to be "wrinkled in her soul" (244).  Finally, to return to Delta Wedding's sense of place and its intersection with that part of the story having to do with finding a place in the world and Emily's point about Welty's skill in communicating "the unexpected yet crucial importance of certain crystallized moments in time," I was very much impressed by the stealth with which the novelist ultimately produced a chiaroscuro effect on the canvas of her wedding story by applying a few lightning flash references to drowning pools, fatal accidents on the train tracks, a knife fight among field hands, and having a child parrot a school lesson explaining that "Yazoo means River of Death" (283).  A novel of more than usual warmth and overflowing with ebullience but an ebullience profoundly haunted and hounded by death.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

sábado, 11 de octubre de 2014

Les bouts de bois de Dieu

Les bouts de bois de Dieu (Pocket, 2012)
by Ousmane Sembene
Senegal, 1960

Les bouts de bois de Dieu [God's Bits of Wood], my first but hopefully not my last Francophone selection for the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge, is an eminently worthy, particularly hard-hitting rival to Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North for the title of the best African novel I've read in the last five years.  Based on the real life 1947-48 Dakar-Niger railroad strike in which hundreds of African workers shut down the French-owned line for almost half a year in an effort to wrest some hard-fought concessions from the colonial management, Sembene's novel is a gritty social realism curiosity in the sense that the railway men and their families--rather than a single protagonist--serve as the main narrative center of attention throughout.  Is this ensemble dramatic focus an example of Sembene's Marxist politics and/or his filmmaking interests informing his storytelling style?  Perhaps.  However, what's more self-evident is that the vignette-laden panoramic approach perfectly suits the epic sweep of a story of a people gradually being driven to either sell out to or to stand up against their colonial oppressors as the toubabs [whites] try to break the strike by cutting off food sales to strikers and by committing shameful acts of violence against women and children and the elderly.  Ah, civilization and progress.  So what makes the novel so compelling apart from the novelty of the group protagonist thing?  For one thing, I can't think of the last novel I read that conveyed a more convincing sense of place.  Although Sembene stops short of demonizing the French colonials or idealizing the Senegalese and other Africans supporting the strike, his depiction of local color and politics is so surehanded that even a drunken Frenchman's acid characterization of the white quarters in the city of Thiès-- "Savez-vous ce que nous sommes ici, jeune homme?  un poste avancé en pays ennemi!" ["Do you know what we are here, young man?  A forward operating post in enemy territory!"] (259)--is more than enough to delineate the confrontational state of race relations in the land.  On a related note, having casually mentioned "social realism" and "colonial oppressors" in passing above, I should probably clarify that thematically Les bouts de bois de Dieu is less about heroic resistance than about the trickier matter strike leader Ibrahima Bakayoko is forced to ponder as the bodies of the strike supporters start to pile up during the course of events: "Comment se dresser sans haine contre l'injustice?" ["How do you rise up against injustice without hate?"] (368).  A thorny issue given its due complexity here in powerfully rendered scenes with unpredictable outcomes in which a Frenchwoman patronizingly refers to the African workers on strike as "demi-civilisés...enfants" ["half-civilized children"] (257) and a Senegalese woman tearfully asks "Est-ce qu'on ne pourrait pas tuer tous les Blancs?" ["Can't we kill all the whites?"] (295).  Finally, in addition to the expected examples of powerful storytelling to be found here such as the vignette about the old man who keels over weak from hunger and then becomes food for rats or the extended passage on the women's protest march to Dakar that takes place to the insistent accompaniment of loud tam-tams, Sembene leaves the reader two unexpected ironies to mull over having to do with the intersection between language and culture and politics: 1) Who would have ever thought that the novelization of a railroad strike could be so fascinating?  2) In a work which persistently alludes to the everyday use of various indigenous languages/dialects such as Bambara, Fula, Songhay, Toucouleur, and the novelist's own native Wolof in opposition to the colonial language that one Bambara-speaking character refers to as "ce langage de sauvages" ["this language of savages"] (20), what did Sembene have in mind by using French, the language of the oppressors, rather than Wolof, which Bakayoko claims "est notre langue" ["is our language"] (271), to tell this story?  Who, in short, is the target audience for the novel which, as luck would have it, was published in Marseille the same year Senegal gained its independence from France?  Whatever, a fucking knockout.

 Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007)

miércoles, 1 de octubre de 2014

The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom: September Links & October Mayhem

With apologies to anybody expecting to read about some Argentinean or Uruguayan literature of doom here in Caravanalandia last month, I only read one book that qualified because I got a little sidetracked with some French and Francophone history and lit.  Of course, since only one person could be bothered to discuss Sergio Bizzio's Rabia with me, perhaps no apologies are necessary!  In any event, here are a few links to some tasty Doom morsels cooked up by other 2014 A(&U)LoD participants in case you missed the soirée.

JacquiWine, JacquiWine's Journal
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Rabia by Sergio Bizzio

Rise, in lieu of a field guide
Shantytown by César Aira
Conversations by César Aira

Stu, Winstonsdad's Blog

Tony, Tony's Reading List
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman

October Mayhem I.  After some inadvertent slacking re: the last three months of group reads I was supposed to be hosting, I'll try and get back on track--hopefully with Tom from Wuthering Expectations as company--with a late October reading of the 100-year old Chilean Nicanor Parra's 1954 Poemas y antipoemas [Poems and Antipoems].  October Mayhem II.  Tom from Wuthering Expectations, Séamus from Vapour Trails and I will also be reading a Scandinavian Literature of Doom selection together in the form of 155-year old Norwegian Knut Hamsum's 1892 Mysteries.  Please consider joining us for one or the other of the two choices: the Parra discussion's slated for the last three days of the month, the Hamsun more flexibly "at the end of October" per Tom (details here).

martes, 30 de septiembre de 2014

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Alistair Horne
England, 1977 & 2006

Having owned this fat 500+ page history for almost a full five years now according to the remaindered sticker on the front cover of my copy of it, I was genuinely relieved when I finally got around to finishing it both because it will never glare at me unloved from my TBR shelves again and, more to the point, Horne was just a little too good at documenting the widespread targeting of innocents in terrorist bombing campaigns and machine gun attacks, the many massacres, and all the atrocities that took place on both sides of the struggle during Algeria's war for independence.  That latter point is of course no knock on Horne or on his otherwise engrossing work informed by interviews with many of the winners and the losers of the war.  In any event, as somebody with virtually no prior knowledge of this moment in French/Algerian/French Algerian history, I thought A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 was more or less a model introduction to the subject of the death throes of what was once referred to as Algérie française.  In Part One's "Prelude 1830-1954," for example, Horne gets things started in setting up the backdrop to why mainland France would find achieving an Algerian compromise so difficult in the ensuing years by explaining that "in order to understand events from 1954 onward it is necessary to accept the existence of three totally distinct peoples - the French of France, the French of Algeria, and the Muslims of Algeria" (53-54).  In Part Two's "The War 1954-1958," Horne jumps right into the nitty gritty of the endless cycle of Muslim on white and white on Muslim violence and reprisals that will occupy his attention throughout the rest of the book, introducing the reader to such unpleasant terminology as the ratonnade (literally a "rat hunt" but here used as a euphemism for the vigilante violence entailing the rounding up and killing of Arabs as a form of blood sport revenge for violence suffered at the hands of Muslims by the pieds noirs or colonial Algerian white community) and to such topics as the Battle of Algiers and a blow by blow of the terror and torture tactics and extrajudicial killings employed by all sides during France's war with the F.L.N. (Front de Libération Nationale).  Part Three's "The Hardest of All Victories 1958-1962," primarily concerned with the end of the war in Algeria, the proliferation of pro-French Algeria right-wing extremist groups in Algeria opposed to both fellow Frenchmen and Muslim Algerians, and the eventual response of rebel French military factions so dismayed with de Gaulle's Algeria policy that they planned to take the war to the mainland and carry out a putsch on French soil, offers up more of the same but with a little more emphasis on political as opposed to military history; one French politico succinctly summarizes the mood among non-F.L.N. members with his dejected comment that "the relations between Algeria and France are a graveyard of missed opportunities" (528).  While aware that this rather bare bones outline of A Savage War of Peace doesn't really do justice to the amount of ground Horne covers in the book, I'd still like to shift gears and talk about the author as a writer rather than a historian for a moment.  Stylistically, Horne's work benefits from both the occasional well-turned phrase ("Revolt, and revenge in the Corsican fashion, were honored occupations from time immemorial," he writes about one sector of Algerian society early on [49]) and from the selection of memorable quotes ("Of the F.A.F. demonstrations, Mouloud Feraoun wrote contemptuously, 'they resemble senile beggars who masturbate in a corner to make people believe that they are virile'" [430]) that serve as a brief respite from all the neverending violence on display under the historian's microscope.  While Horne's a bit repetitive and maybe a tad old-fashioned in his biases at times--he makes several references to some variation of the description of "the blood-curdling you-you-you ululations" (431) of Muslim women, for example--perhaps that's a small price to pay given his predominantly bias-free account of years of butchery and torture and the sad but affecting way an Algerian moderate like Albert Camus gets written into and out of Horne's history as the violence escalates.  A monumental but a monumentally depressing piece of work.

Alistair Horne