domingo, 14 de septiembre de 2014


Rabia (Interzona, 2005)
by Sergio Bizzio
Argentina, 2005

Sergio Bizzio's aptly-titled Rabia [or Rage in its English incarnation from translator Amanda Hopkinson] was an edgy and entertaining if maybe overly frothy first course taste treat for this year's Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom line-up, which is to say that I enjoyed Bizzio's tale dedicated to a working class homicidal maniac on the loose in upscale Buenos Aires more than I'm likely to remember the misanthropic meringue after having savored and ingested it.  Still, frothy doom?!?  It wasn't entirely filling if you catch my drift, but enough about you, let's talk about me.  In what's something of a provocation-minded cross between a Buñuelesque black comedy and a Río de la Plata novel of manners set in the Buenos Aires de hoy en día, disgruntled 40-year old construction worker and loner José María meets and then falls head over heels in love with good-natured 25-year old live-in maid Rosa before eventually holing up in Rosa's employers' mansion unbeknownst to her and her high society bosses the Blinders for years when our hero's anger management issues bring him into trouble with the law.  Much of what follows once María (the character usually goes by his second name) goes into hiding and effectively drops out of society is farfetched but narrated with generous dollops of humor and brio, my favorite moments having to do with the zesty class war zingers that the protagonist occasionally lets loose with when his stealthy close quarters living arrangements as an intruder in the Blinder household lead him to make various anthropological observations about the vapid reading (Dr. Wayne Dyer, Reader's Digest) and viewing habits of his moneyed but generally soulless "hosts" in the embassy-sized home of theirs that he's occupied.  On that note, although it occurs to me that I could prob. alter the recipe for this Rabia review into something more appetizing-sounding to a couple of you by merely changing "Buñuelesque" to "Aira-esque" in that sentence above, by talking about the transformation that María undergoes once he becomes "part of the family" so to speak, or even by maybe just beefing up the post with another good Bizzio quip or two, the following description concerning the living room TV watching habits of the man in the family is prob. much more typical of the novel's true charms and appeal (the quote in question is taken from page 154 in the 2005 original and from page 149 in Amanda Hopkinson's 2009 translation available from Bitter Lemon Press):

Allí sólo excepcionalmente el señor Blinder miraba otra cosa que fútbol.  En una de esas ocasiones María se enteró de que los Estados Unidos habían atacado Irak y que en un country de la Provincia de Buenos Aires una mujer de clase alta había sido asesinada, quizá por uno de sus familiares, sin que los investigadores consiguieran descubrir al asesino.  La guerra y el crimen del country --con las interminables discusiones y conjeturas que despertó-- eran los únicos asuntos que para el señor Blinder habían tenido en mucho tiempo más atractivo que el fútbol.

[There Señor Blinder watched almost nothing but football matches.  On one occasion, María gathered that the United States had attacked Iraq, and that a woman in a country house somewhere in Buenos Aires province, an upper-class woman, had been murdered, possibly by a family member, although an extensive investigation had thus far failed to find the assassin.  The war and the rural crime - with all the interminable discussions and conjectures they elicited - were the only subjects which, in the course of many years, had proved substantially more attractive than football.]

Sergio Bizzio

For a more appreciative take on Bizzio's Rabia, which--don't get me wrong--I did in fact enjoy, Spanish readers are encouraged to check out Ever from barcoborracho's high-energy post on the novel here (gracias a Ever por la recomendación).
Also, on an unrelated note, anybody interested in joining me for a group read of Macedonio Fernández's Museo de la novela de la Eterna [a/k/a The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)] is invited to check back here somewhere around the end of the month or the beginning of the next month--a bit behind on the group reads these days alas.

domingo, 31 de agosto de 2014

Rosie Carpe

Rosie Carpe (Les Éditions de Minuit, 2001)
by Marie NDiaye
France, 2001

Rosie Carpe, the 2001 Prix Femina winner that's sort of a fucked-up distant cousin cousine to Pedro Páramo in some respects, was pretty much half gripping and half grating during the time I was reading it.  So while I try to sort out just how much I "liked" the book, I'll try to give you a couple of ideas as to why this wasn't/isn't immediately clear to me despite the fact that I found it a rewarding read for plenty of other reasons.  In the opening sequence, the title character is introduced to us as a 20-something white Frenchwoman who arrives in Guadeloupe looking for her trouble-prone older brother, Lazare, whom she hasn't seen in the five years since he bummed money off her to start a shady sex toy business in the Antilles.  At the airport, she's met by a friendly but somewhat reserved black man sent by Lazare, Lagrand, whom she momentarily mistakes for her pale white brother for some reason or other that's initially unclear.  Nonsensical and annoying?  Totally!  At least until you realize that something's really, really wrong with Rosie, the unwed mother of a five year old boy who's also pregnant with another child on the way, and the text is only, ahem, faithfully replicating the character's fragmented, traumatized point(s) of view.  As luck would have it, the supposed island paradise of Guadeloupe--like Juan Preciado's phantasmal Mexican town of Comala in the Rulfo novel--turns out to be sort of an otherworldly destination point for Rosie with the important distinction that, unlike in Pedro Páramo, the protagonist here is only surrounded by the living dead--i.e. emotional vampires who feed off others--rather than the actual dead throughout most of her odyssey and eventual metamorphosis.  Although the symbolic undead/vampirism connections in the novel are so strong that at one point a hummingbird lands on one particularly evil character's feet and almost immediately keels over dead and at another point the increasingly distressed Lagrand responds to the specter of dozens of rats running loose under the guava trees with the assumption that they will naturally follow in another character's footsteps as familiars or minions, NDiaye sees to it that a sleazy, post-milennial realism usually keeps the more hallucinatory, nightmarish moments in check in the form of several powerful scenes involving amateur porn filmmakers, the death by machete of an innocent tourist, the bizarre discovery that the uncaring parents who'd abandoned Rosie and Lazare to their fates back home in metropolitan France had followed Lazare to Guadeloupe and are now happier than ever as the result of a rather incestuous mate-swapping arrangement, and--in a top that child endangerment coda--the prostitution of a beautiful young girl by her parents.  With all that as a backdrop, is it any surprise that the troubled Rosie will eventually decide that her happiness as a woman may come at the expense of the loss of one her children as a mother in something resembling the biblical sacrifice of the slaughter of the lambs?  NDiaye obviously gives you a lot to think about in Rosie Carpe, but as I've already touched on not all of it worked for me.  My major complaint has to do with the handling of the POV of the various characters.  In the long third chapter dedicated to Lagrand, for example, the fact that his perspective was related in the same claustrophobic way as Rosie's earlier on in the work was frustrating to me since it came without any apparent explanation for the similarities in style.  Had Lagrand's feelings for Rosie miraculously transformed this apparent innocent into "le réceptacle de toutes les tristesses et les vilenies" ["the receptacle for all the sorrows and all the baseness"] (235) that the freak magnet of a title character had suffered as for all her life?  Or was Lagrand merely suddenly going mad without warning like the mother who had abandoned him when he was a ten year old?  Whatever, I found this part unconvincing and tiring in stretches at the expense of some otherwise top notch, aggressively risky storytelling.  A related but much more minor complaint stems from the fact that with an entire cast full of madwomen in the attic so to speak, the grist of the novel was way over the top at times.  Perhaps this was unavoidable given the scope of the novelist's ambitions and her attempt to breathe life into a lonely, damaged title character self-described as "ne se sentant plus être que l'insignifiante enveloppe charnelle de Rosie Carpe" ["not feeling herself to be anything other than the insignificant carnal shell of Rosie Carpe"] (149) rather than a fully realized person.  On the positive side of things, though, I was endlessly fascinated by NDiaye's Gérard de Nerval-like use of colors, her utter unpredictability as a writer, and the often sensuous appeal of her prose despite the brutality and the squalor that are also present.  Probably the best single example of this in the entire novel is the lovely, even fragrant extended description of "une toute jeune fille" ["a very young girl"] who is perceived rather than actually seen by Lagrand as akin to "une longue flamme échappée du jardin" ["a long flame which had escaped from the garden"] and the bearer of a perfume reminiscent of the "tièdeur profonde de terre ou de sable au soleil" ["profound warmth of earth or sand in the sun"]--well, at least you might think it's lovely until you realize that "cette forme lumineuse, vibrante" ["this luminous, vibrant form"] and "cette incandescence en mouvement" ["this incandescence in motion"] (331), so appealing to both children and adults alike in the scene, is the very same girl who will later be put to work as a prostitute by her loving parents.  Ladies and gentlemen, je vous présente Marie NDiaye.

Marie NDiaye

Thanks to Victoria/Litlove from Tales from the Reading Room for recommending Marie NDiaye to me earlier in the year.  For those interested in Victoria's take on Rosie Carpe and its place within a personal canon of French literature c. 2006, please see Victoria's inviting words here.  The novel is also available in an English translation under the same name prepared by Tamsin Black for the University of Nebraska Press' European Women Writers series.

lunes, 25 de agosto de 2014

Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu

Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (Da Capo Press, 2002)
by Bernard B. Fall
USA, 1966

While I probably should have known better given all the raves I've heard about it over the years from reliable people as close to me as my dad, Bernard B. Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, the classic account of the punishing 56-day 1954 battle between the French and the Viet-Minh that effectively ended France's control over French Indochina forever, marked "the end of France as a colonial power" (414), and paved the way for the U.S. entanglement in Vietnam less than a decade later, still managed to sneak up on me.  Surprised me with its narrative intensity.  Surprised me with Fall's smarts as an analyst.  Surprised me with its ability to suss out the heroism and bedrock humanity of men engaged in the most inhumane of human activities without ever once glamorizing war or demonizing the enemy.  Fall, an Austrian-born, French-raised Jew who lost both his parents to the Nazis before moving to the U.S. to become a history professor at Howard University and a war reporter for publications as elite as The New York Times and The Washington Post, himself died less than a year after publication of Hell in a Very Small Place while out on patrol with U.S. Marines near Huê in central Vietnam, which for this reader lent an additional, retrospective element of solemnity to the reading of his requiem in prose.  But for others perhaps less readily swayed by the parallels between Fall's fate and his subjects', what can his history offer?  For starters, for all its harrowing moments involving artillery barrages, trench warfare and the like, this book is also so full of "novelistic" twists and turns that it's just mindboggling.  In terms of the "characters" alone, for example, there's the great unexpected vignette dedicated to one Sgt. Rouzic, who "in civilian life had been the driver of the getaway car of France's most famous postwar gangster, Pierrot-le-Fou (Pierre the Crazy One) and had decided to join the French army in Indochina when the French police began to close in on his employer" (147) and then there's the more down to earth but equally compelling story of the Algerian Legion of Honor medalist Lt. Belabiche, accused of being "just another 'lackey of the imperialists'" by his Viet Minh captor but of whom we learn, in a patriotic twist of fate, "eight years later, Belabiche was a captain in the Algerian National Liberation army, training young Algerian officers at what had been the French officers candidate school at Cherchell, west of Algiers" (420).  In terms of analysis, Hell in a Very Small Place shines for both its soundbites--Fall's retort to a hypocritical publicity memorandum that the inadequately supplied "defenders of Dien Bien Phu have up to now covered themselves with glory and are an object of admiration for the Free World" is derisory: "The price of that unsullied glory," he writes, "came to 5,000 dead, 10,000 prisoners, and a lost war" (361)--and for the far more complicated work spent shedding light on matters previously left in the dark.  For example, two weeks into the battle in a matter that Fall states "has never been fully explained," a Lt. Col. Langlais apparently took over responsibility for the defense of Dien Bien Phu from a withdrawn Gen. de Castries when "according to senior officers who were eyewitnesses to part of the drama, Lt. Col. Langlais, flanked by the fully armed commanders of the paratroop battalions at Dien Bien Phu, entered de Castries' office and bluntly told him that henceforth the effective command of the fortress would be in his own hands, but that as far as the outside world was concerned de Castries would retain the appearance of command and would serve as an intermediary between the paratroop commanders and Hanoi" (177).  Whether this smacks of decisiveness or desperation on the part of the besieged garrison's top defenders is beyond my ability to say.  However, I found Fall's explanation thoroughly convincing and typical of his own calm under pressure as a historian of the battle: "In view of the subsequently excellent personal relations between Langlais and de Castries, it is difficult to describe what happened on March 24 as a 'mutiny' or a Putsch by what some staff officers called the 'paratroop Mafia' or 'Langlais' Brain Trust.'....  To paraphrase a senior officer who was there, GAP 2 logically took the place of a command organization that no longer existed, and exercised prerogatives whose effective usage the commander of the fortress had ceased to exercise" (177, ellipses added).  Finally, the work offers up any number of tributes to the fighting spirit and the arguably futile sacrifices on display at Dien Bien Phu as in this one, regarding the French Foreign Legion members who cried when their friends prepared to attempt a breakout, "not for fear of their fate, for it was known by then that the Communists did not massacre prisoners, but out of shame that they would have to surrender to the enemy" (398), and in this one, regarding the dead who were left to rot on the battlefield when it was all over: "Most of the French dead are, like royalty, swathed in silk shrouds.  Parachute nylon, like courage, was one of the common items at Dien Bien Phu, and on both sides" (449).  As I probably should have expected, a tour de force.

Bernard B. Fall (1926-1967)

martes, 19 de agosto de 2014

The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom

With Spanish Lit Month 2014 finally winding down, I suppose now is as good a time as any to announce that I'll be hosting one of the most unpopular events in all of blogging--the Argentinean Literature of Doom--for the third year in a row this fall and winter.  Please consider reading along with me and becoming wildly unpopular too!  For those new to the event, the ALoD was originally inspired by two great posts from Tom of Wuthering Expectations that you can read all about here and here and was at least partly dedicated to testing Roberto Bolaño's thesis that a "strain of doom" evident in post-Borges Argentinean belles-lettres was due to the noxious influence of one Osvaldo Lamborghini and his art terrorist pals and successors (César Aira, take a bow).  Last year, however, I think it's fair to say that all of the other ALoD participants and I mostly used the event as a pretext to read or reread some of our favorite Argentinean authors in "like-minded company" (César Aira fans, take a bow).  Hopefully, that'll be a big enough draw to lure discriminating returning doomsters back for one more year. But where exactly do you, the prospective ALoD newcomer, fit in with all this doom business?  Should you decide to participate, you may join as easily as reading and then writing about at least one piece of Argentinean or Uruguayan literature sometime between September 1st and December 31st.  More intrepid souls can also "challenge" me to read a specific work from the vast corpus of Argentinean or Uruguayan literature with you sometime during the same time period although to be honest this hasn't been a very popular option so far.  In either case, your choice of reading material for the event doesn't have to be "doom-laden" at all; the only criterion is that the work must have been written by an Argentinean or a Uruguayan author--please, none of that reading challenge nonsense about submitting novels written by non-Argentineans and non-Uruguayans which are only set in Argentina or Uruguay.  Weak!  Uruguayan literature, in case anybody's curious, was added as an option this year both because of the strong cultural ties linking Río de la Plata men and women of letters on both sides of the river and because of Uruguayan writers' propensity for punching above their weight class relative to the population of their country.  Of course, it didn't hurt that I have a bunch of books by Mario Levrero, Onetti, and Horacio Quiroga calling my name either.  In any event, hope you can join us (below, a mini-Doom bibliography from the two previous events).


The Argentinean Literature of Doom: Año 2 (2013)
Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Help a él by Fogwill
El limonero real by Juan José Saer
Bahía Blanca by Martín Kohan
"Evita vive" by Néstor Perlongher
"Torito" by Julio Cortázar
"El uruguayo" by Copi
El sueño de los héroes by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Autobiografía de Irene by Silvina Ocampo
Las armas secretas by Julio Cortázar
Los Fantasmas by César Aira
La última de César Aira by Ariel Idez

Rise, in lieu of a field guide

Scott, seraillon

The Argentinean Literature of Doom (2012)
Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Siete noches by Jorge Luis Borges
Boquitas pintadas by Manuel Puig
Cómo me hice monja by César Aira
La Vida Nueva by César Aira
"El Fiord" by Osvaldo Lamborghini

Rise, in lieu of a field guide
This Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges
"The Golden Hare" by Silvina Ocampo

Séamus, Vapour Trails
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

domingo, 17 de agosto de 2014

Spanish Lit Month(s) 2014: 8/3-8/16 Links

"We" interrupt this busy/slothful reading weekend to announce the latest set of Spanish Lit Month links now available at a blog near you.  A final SLM 2014 round-up post should appear next weekend or thereabouts.  For further information, yadda yadda yadda & etc....

Grant, 1streading's Blog
The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo

JacquiWine, JacquiWine's Journal
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

Miguel, St. Orberose
Yo no soy yo, evidentemente by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
El temps de les cireres by Montserrat Roig

miércoles, 13 de agosto de 2014

El temps de les cireres

El temps de les cireres (Edicions 62, 1977)
by Montserrat Roig
Spain, 1977

Given its garish cover, it's more than a little ironic that Montserrat Roig's Premi Sant Jordi-winning El temps de les cireres [English approximation: The Time of the Cherries], celebrated in Catalunya but apparently only the recipient of a lone translation into another Iberian Peninsula language after all these years [Spanish title: Tiempo de cerezas], often reminded me of a matte, politically-charged, photojournalism reverse image of Carmen Laforet's Nada in its representation of Barcelona at the tail end of the Franco era as framed through female eyes.  At the beginning of the novel, 30-something Natàlia Miralpeix returns home to Barcelona's l'Eixample district after twelve years "d'exili voluntari" ["of voluntary exile"] in Paris and London (14).  While the reader soon learns that the character's move into exile took place for personal rather than political reasons, her return home is almost simultaneous with the real life 1974 execution of Barcelona anarchist Salvador Puig Antich who was garroted to death in a nearby prison.  The execution naturally colors later events in the novel in that, for much of what follows, Natàlia's observations of the changes that have taken place in her native city during her absence and her account of the family dynamics that drove her away in the first place merge with a none too flattering portrait of some of the distressing continuities: the fear and repression constituting daily life under Franco's rule.  Stylistically, El temps de les cireres--while a fairly strong work overall--is clearly second tier when compared with the storytelling delights to be found in the likes of other more famous Barcelona novels like Laforet's Nada, Juan Marsé's Si te dicen que caí or Mercè Rodoreda's La plaça del diamant.  Thematically, Roig is on much more of an equal footing as many of the strengths of her novel have to do with the convincingly gray, day to day depictions of life in BCN from Natàlia's parents' time up to the character's own return in 1974.  As just one example of the hard-hitting complexities with which Natàlia's personal odyssey ties in with the city's historical trajectory during the time(s) in question, El temps de les cireres (the name comes from the Paris Commune canço composed by J.B. Clément and is described by the protagonist on p. 122 as a sense of longing for "la primavera de la felicitat" ["the Spring of happiness"]) is the sort of novel in which a description of Barcelona as "un immens cadàver esventrat" ["an immense, gutted cadavaver"] can be found side by side with more lively appraisals of the Barri Gòtic and the Barri Xinès and the sort of novel in which one man's attempt to "salvat la pell" ["save his skin"] during the Spanish Civil War by playing the apolitical card while his friends are dying in Nazi concentration camps as suspected reds (143) later turns into a despotic conformism so strong that he threatens to report his daughter to the authorities for having undergone an illegal abortion.  OK, so maybe that's two examples, but you get the picture.

Montserrat Roig (1946-1991)

El temps de les cireres was read with Biblibio's Women in Translation Month 2014 and Stu's and my Spanish Lit Month 2014 in mind (note: although the novel's written almost entirely in Catalan, there's frequent code-switching into Spanish during dialogue as befits the linguistic reality of its time and place).

domingo, 10 de agosto de 2014

Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein

Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (Gallimard, 2011)
por Marguerite Duras
Francia, 1964

Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein [publicada en castellano como El arrebato de Lol V. Stein], de Marguerite Duras, ha fortalecido la posición de la francesa dentro de mi panteón de escritores favoritos al costado de cracks ríoplatenses como Juan Carlos Onetti y Juan José Saer entre otros.  A la edad de 19 años, la protagonista Lol/Lola Valérie Stein supuestamente perdió la razón cuando su prometido la dejó plantada a un baile al casino municipal de T. Beach en vísperas de sus desposorios.  Se encerró en su cuarto.  Dejó de hablar.  Luego de llorar y llorar, sufrió en silencio.  Diez años más tarde, casada con otro hombre, madre de tres niños y, al parecer, recuperada de la locura transitoria de su juventud, Lol regresa a la ciudad vecina de S. Tahla para enfrentar a los fantasmas del pasado.  ¿Va a sufrir otra derrota en el pueblo en que todo el mundo ya conoce la historia de su ruina?  Al igual que Onetti y Saer, Duras explota todas las posibilidades de la trama y juega con una variedad de perspectivas narrativas con toda la destreza de un cirujano con una navaja en la mano.  Por ejemplo, ambos el estado afectivo de Stein y su subjetividad como el eje central de la novela se establecen mediante la escritura de un narrador, un tal Jacques Hold, que admite ser un mentiroso y que además está involucrado en una suerte de triángulo de amor con Lol y con otra mujer casada, Tatiana Karl, una amiga de la infancia de Lol.  Esto implica que la historia personal del trauma de Lol pertenece menos a ella y más a los otros personajes en el entorno de S. Tahla: una ironía terrible dada que los dolores de Stein, en el pasado y en el presente, se describen en un momento clave como un infierno personal en cuanto a "l'eternité du bal dans le cinéma de Lol V. Stein" ["la eternidad del baile dentro del cinema de Lol V. Stein"] (309).  En otra parte, el marido de Tatiana Karl opina que "Lol V. Stein est encore c'est sans doute ça qui intéresse Jacques Hold" ["Lol V. Stein todavía está enferma...y esto probablemente sea lo que interesa a Jacques Hold"] (368).  Llegado a este punto, el lector puede preguntarse a sí mismo si el problema en lo que se refiere al tema general de la novela queda con el amor fracasado o con el amor ello mismo en el sentido en que el amor pueda ser una especie de enfermedad.  Por su parte, Duras es más bien ambigua.  La casada Lol V. Stein dice en algún momento que "le meilleur de tous les hommes est mort pour moi" ["el mejor de todos los hombres está muerto para mí"] (336), y este comentario tristísimo está acompañado por descripciones llamativas de ella como un "être incendié" ["ser incinerado"] de una "nature détruite" ["natura destruida"] (344) llena de "une joie barbare, folle, dont tout son être devait être enfiévré" ["una alegría bárbara, loca, de que todo su ser debía ser enfiebrado"] (353).  Al mismo tiempo, Jacques Hold parece estar enamorado de Lol V. Stein de verdad y habla de su sonrisa y de "la mortelle fadeur de la mémoire de Lol V. Stein" ["la insipidez mortal de la memoria de Lol V. Stein"] (384) con la misma convicción.  Por supuesto, pensar en la memoria del personaje es pensar en la susodicha imagen de "la eternidad del baile dentro del cinema de Lol V. Stein" y por eso no es de sorprender que hayan numerosas alusiones al voyerismo dentro de la trama que no voy a mencionar aquí por falta de tiempo.  Lo que sí voy a mencionar es que el argumento a veces está narrado con un estilo visual mimético: Lol mira a los otros, Jacques mira a Lol, y los eventos narrados ganan la partida con una objetividad cruel sino asombroso.  Requetebueno el libro.

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

La Ravissement de Lol V. Stein se puede encontrar en el tomo II de las Oeuvres complètes de Duras (París: Éditions Gallimard, 2011, 285-388).  Espero poder seguir con su Le Vice-consul (1966) dentro de poco.