lunes, 7 de abril de 2014

La Misa de Amor


Mañanita de San Juan,
mañanita de primor,
cuando damas y galanes
van a oír misa mayor.
Allá va la mi señora,
entre todas la mejor;
viste saya sobre saya,
mantellín de tornasol,
camisa con oro y perlas
bordada en el cabezón.
En la su boca muy linda
lleva un poco de dulzor;
en la su cara tan blanca,
un poquito de arrebol,
y en los sus ojuelos garzos
lleva un poco de alcohol;
así entraba por la iglesia
relumbrando como sol.
Las damas mueren de envidia,
y los galanes de amor.
El que cantaba en el coro,
en el credo se perdió;
el abad que dice misa,
ha trocado la lición;
monacillos que le ayudan,
no aciertan responder, non,
por decir amén, amén,
decían amor, amor.


Early in the morning on San Juan's,
early in the morning of beauty,
when young ladies and gentlemen
go to hear High Mass.
There goes my lady,
the best among them all,
wearing a two-piece skirt,
a mantilla with an iridescent sheen,
a blouse with gold and pearls
embroidered on the collar.
On her very beautiful mouth
she wears a little lipstick;
on her face so white,
a touch of rouge,
and about her big blue eyes,
a little eyeliner;
she entered the church like that,
dazzling like the sun.
The ladies are dying with envy,
the young gentlemen from love.
The singer in the choir
lost himself in the creed;
the abbot giving mass
got all mixed up during his sermon;
the altar boys who are there to help him don't manage to reply correctly, no,
for instead of saying "amen, amen,"
they were saying "amor, amor."]

Since Edith Grossman will be treating our April The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance group readers to a number of high end pro translations of some of the signature "learned" poetry from the Siglo de Oro era later in the month, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer up an amateur translation or two of some of the more popular romancero or songbook poetry being collected and published at the same time to balance things out somewhat.  A bad idea, I'm afraid--at the very least, I was quickly reminded of how insanely easy it is to wreak aesthetic destruction on even a simple poem just by attempting to provide a more or less literal translation of it without regard to rhyme or meter.  Ugh.  In any event, the anonymous romance "La Misa de Amor" ["The Mass of Love"] above--often presented as "La bella en misa" ["The Beauty at Mass"]--is one of the more frequently anthologized examples of romancero poetry that I've seen with lovely little variations available in Catalan, French, and Occitan as well as other ones in Spanish.  It's also supposedly a staple among the Sephardi Jewish community although I've yet to come across any translations of those variants that I can remember.  In this version, borrowed from Ramón Menéndez Pidal's Flor nueva de romances viejos, there's the usual playful interplay between the beauty of mass on a famous feast day such as San Juan's--the poem's "mañanita de primor" ["early in the morning of beauty"] in line 2--and the beauty at mass who disrupts the service by virtue of her show-stopping physical appearance.  Menéndez Pidal points out a further irony worth sharing here: the poem's composer gets so wrapped up in the "inocente irreverencia" ["innocent irreverence"] of the matter and in particular the detailed description of the beautiful lady's dress and make-up that "las gracias naturales de la hermosura" ["the natural graces of her beauty"] are almost completely forgotten (207)!  Note: the Spanish words I translated as "lipstick" and "eyeliner" could just as well have meant something more like "lip gloss" or "eye shadow" or whatever those 15th and 16th century Iberian Peninsula equivalents were.  It'd be nice if somebody from Elle or Ella España could step in and help a brother out with this.

"La Misa de Amor" appears on pp. 206-207 of Ramón Menéndez Pidal's Flor nueva de romances viejos (Madrid: Espasa, 2001) sans my primitive prose translation.  Menéndez Pidal defines the romance genre as "poemas épico-líricos breves que se cantan al son de un instrumento" ["brief epic/lyrical poems that are sung to the sound of an instrument"] (9), a convenient enough description for our purposes here and one which explains the obvious musicality of this poem when it's read in the original Spanish.  The image of the two juglares (French: jongleurs) is from an artist/work as yet unknown to me.

miércoles, 2 de abril de 2014

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance Group Read

April's Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong group read selection is the Edith Grossman-curated The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2007 with a facing page English translation of poems also appearing in their original Castilian, which presents an all-star lineup of Spain and New Spain verse talent from about the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 17th century: Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, Luis de Góngora, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Household names all, dig?  But if those names alone aren't enough to whet your poetic appetite to the point where you're practically salivating to join me for the group read, here's a juicy six year old post from our friend Tom of Wuthering Expectations in which he notes that "this is really an admirable book" and "my only actual complaint is that the book is much too short."  What he said!  Anyway, thanks to Tom for the push to add this collection to the syllabus for this year since it includes some of the most famous and the most dazzling Spanish poetry of the Siglo de Oro era, it's still in print and it's available for less than a $15 cover price in the U.S.  N.B. Those who'd like to read along with me should plan on coming back for the discussions somewhere around April 28th thru 30th; those who'd just like to see me fall on my face wrestling with a rare poetry offering in public can come back around the same time.  No harm either way.

Other Readers

martes, 1 de abril de 2014

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis [O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis] (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991)
by José Saramago [translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero]
Portugal, 1984

"Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world" is one of three epigraphs appended to this phenomenal novel--part "political fiction" in the manner of Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares, part star-crossed love story, part literary travelogue set in an increasingly ominous 1935-1936 Lisbon just as the storm clouds of fascism were beginning to blanket all of Europe--a tremendous irony since much of what passes for plot in Saramago's soulful metaphysical character study has to do with what happens when a man of culture seeks to live apart from the world for and through his art but finds that a far more difficult task than he'd anticipated.  Far, far more difficult.  That man of culture is of course none other than the 48-year old bachelor Ricardo Reis, a doctor by trade but a poet by calling, who has returned to his native Portugal from Brazil after learning that his good friend Fernando Pessoa has just died--a curious friendship, is it not, given that the history books all tell us that Reis himself was only a product of Pessoa's imagination?  (The imagination: "that mistress of great power and generosity"! [3089/5585])  Although it's a measure of Saramago's storytelling brio that his title character seems to spend an awful lot of time not examining Herbert Quain's work The God of the Labyrinth, the parts of the novel that really got to me had less to do with the Borgesian (meta)ficciones and more to do with the Dante/Virgil-like conversations that Reis carries on with the shade of Pessoa, who has been allowed approximately nine months after his death to spend time with the living.  Does the novel at all propose that being a man of action is more important than being a man of words at a time when scores are being settled by the thousands inside the Plaza de Toros following the Battle of Badajoz?  In a manner of speaking.  But beyond that, it's also an affecting memento mori in which the fragility of life, words, remembrance, everything suggests that the love of a chambermaid maybe ought not be taken for granted in the book of disquiet of one's inner life.  Time, as opposed to loneliness or solitude, is the sleepwalking dreamer's real enemy:

Ricardo Reis crossed the Bairro Alto, descending by the Rua do Norte, and when he reached the Rua de Camoes he felt as if he were trapped in a labyrinth that always led him back to the same spot, to this bronze statue ennobled and armed with a sword, another D'Artagnan.  Decorated with a crown of laurels for having rescued the queen's diamonds at the eleventh hour from the machinations of the cardinal, whom, however, with a change of times and politics he will end up serving, this musketeer standing here, who is dead and cannot reenlist, ought to be told that he is used, in turn or or at random, by heads of state and even by cardinals, when it serves their interests.  The hours have passed quickly during these explorations on foot, and it is time for lunch. This man appears to have nothing else to do, he sleeps, eats, strolls, and composes poetry line by line with much effort, agonizing over rhyme and meter.  It is nothing compared to the endless dueling of the musketeer D'Artagnan, and the Lusiads run to more than eight thousand lines, and yet Ricardo Reis too is a poet, not that he boasts of that on the hotel register, but one day people will remember him not as a doctor, just as they do not think of Alvaro de Campos as a naval engineer, or of Fernando Pessoa as a foreign correspondent.  Our profession may earn us our living but not fame, which is more likely to come from having once written Nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita or Menina e moga me levaram da casa de metis pais or En un lugar de la Mancha, of which I do not wish to remember the name, so as not to fall once again into the temptation of saying, however appropriately, As armas e os barões assinalados, may we be forgiven those borrowings, Arma virumque cano.  Man must always make an effort, so that he may deserve to be called man, but he is much less master of his own person and destiny than he imagines.  Time, not his time, will make him prosper or decline, sometimes for different merits, or because they are judged differently.  What will you be when you discover it is night and you find yourself at the end of the road (865/5585).

José Saramago (1922-2010)

Other The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis Readers (Past and Present)
Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Shea's Zibaldone

Tom, Wuthering Expectations
History is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition - Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Note: I read this wonderful novel, my first by Saramago, in a poorly-formatted and typo-ridden Kindle version that will likely keep me from buying other such works from the publisher (I prefer real books anyway).

viernes, 28 de marzo de 2014

Días de combate

Días de combate (Lecturas Mexicanas, 1986)
por Paco Ignacio Taibo II
México, 1976

Días de combate, la primera de nueve novelas policíacas que presenta al detective mexicano Héctor Belascoarán Shayne en el papel principal, no es innovador en cuanto a su material gráfico ni a su argumento: como de costumbre, hay una especie de juego de ajedrez entre un detective y un asesino en serie, un desenlace que se puede prever de lejos, etcétera.  Por otra parte, lo que practicamente garantiza que yo voy a leer otra novela de Taibo II en el futuro es 1) la pulsación anárquica de la prosa del novelista y 2) la calidad artística de la imagen del DF pintada dentro de sus páginas.  Por lo que se refiere a éste, este mini retrato es típico del estilo afiebrado de la obra: "En los últimos minutos, los ruidos del tránsito habían comenzado a crecer; el torrente de la jodida fiesta de humo y claxonazos, escapes aullando y semáforos en rojo: la sinfonía de las siete de la noche" (11).  Y algunos buenos ejemplos de la mirada mordaz del protagonista incluyen las descripciones de la Ciudad de México como un "pozo sin fondo" (25), "la olla de agua sucia de siempre" (29) y "el monstruo urbano" (144).  Aunque PIT también tiene el alcance descriptivo a tomar las medidas a una chilanga guapa de manera memorable ("A la luz de la mañana lucía como esas apariciones de película francesa que dejan al espectador envidiando al actor durante un minuto", [142]), estoy seguro de que lo que verdaderamente no vaya a olvidar hasta que haya transcurrido mucho tiempo son las descripciones de México como una metrópoli monstruosa --"como el vientre fétido de una ballena, o el interior de una lata de conservas estropeada" (25)-- y como el escenario del crimen politizado de modo inequívoco --"La policía utilizaba sus métodos tradicionales: la mexicana alegría (torturar a cuarenta lúmpenes, soltar 100 pesos a cien chivatos del hampa policiaco y aumentar el número de patrulleros nocturnos)" (20).  ¿La tapa?  Fea, de pacotilla.  ¿El libro?  Jodidamente divertido.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II

martes, 18 de marzo de 2014

Los Fantasmas

Los Fantasmas (Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1990)
by César Aira
Argentina, 1990

How would you write a ghost story that's "realistic" and yet a fucking ghost story at one and the same time?  I'm glad you asked because that's just one of the trick questions that César Aira has up his dapper, impish, conjurer's sleeves in the improbably mesmerizing 1990 Los Fantasmas [Ghosts].  To help explain, it's the last day of the year at the construction site at la calle José Bonifacio 2161 in the barrio of Flores in Buenos Aires.  Various families who will own new homes in the building once the work is finally finished are gathered together with the construction workers to help usher in the new year with the usual assortment of roast meats, wine, friendly ribbing of one another, and fireworks.  As early as the second page in the novel, though, the narrator casually lets slip that "el calor era sobrenatural" ["the heat was supernatural"] (8).  Later, the reader will learn that the building is filled with what one character irritably describes as "esos payasos enharinados" ["those flour-dusted clowns"] (57)--dozens of seemingly harmless (if predominantly nudist and extremely well-endowed specimens of male) ghosts who float around mostly doing what ghosts will do while not drawing any undue attention from the humans who cross their path.  However, things take a dramatic turn once a couple of the ghosts start speaking to teenaged Patricia Vicuña and invite her to a New Year's Eve blowout of their own.  The only catch for young "la Patri"?  In the words of one of the spirits, "Claro que tendrás que estar muerta" ["Of course, you'll have to be dead"] (82).  Dead?!?  The unpredictable Aira, who disappointed me twice last year with the boring cartoonish violence of La prueba and the boring cartoonish sci-fi of El congreso de literatura [The Literary Conference], does everything but saw a body in half here to redeem himself with Los Fantasmas.  A dream that la Patri has about the unfinished building she's sleeping in, for example, leads to a fairly unhinged "analogía arquitectónica" ["architectural analogy"] of a digression on "lo no-construido" ["the unconstructed"] in the arts (47-48)--part of which wryly equates the written word's construction of reality with the scaffolding of an empty building.  What does that have to do with our ghost story?  The narrator proposes conceiving of a form of art in which "las limitaciones de la realidad" ["the limitations of reality"] are minimized to the extent that "un arte instantánamente real y sin fantasmas" ["an art instantaneously real and without show-offs"] is created as if out of thin air: "Quizás existe, y es la literatura" ["Perhaps it exists, and it's called literature"], he (or she) waggishly adds (the analogy is aided and abetted by an apparent play on words insofar as fantasma can mean both the usual "ghost" and "show-off" in Spanish).  Elsewhere, the intrusive narrator judiciously picks his/her spots for editorial asides to the audience.  Right before la Patri gets invited to "El Gran Reveillon de las doce" ["the midnight New Year's Eve blowout"], for example, the reader learns that the teenager perceives an "insinuación de temor, de lo desconocido" ["an insinuation of dread, of the unknown"] emanating from one of the uninhabited rooms.  Still, she hesitantly goes to investigate what's going on, which elicits this ironically pained reaction from the narrator: "Eso es típico.  El miedo no cuenta cuando una mujer, en una película por ejemplo, va hacia un cuarto misterioso que no se atrevería a hollar el más osado de los espectadores" ["That's typical.  Fear doesn't come into play when a woman, in a movie for example, heads toward a mysterious room in which not even the bravest of spectators would dare to tread"] (77).  As you might imagine, la Patri's decision on whether or not to attend the party with the ghosts hinges on how much she can bear to say goodbye to her family in order to accept the once in a lifetime invitation offered by the fantasmas.  What you might not be able to imagine is the perverse glee with which the novel compares "los hombres de verdad" ["the real men"] in the character's life with the virile-seeming ghosts--and what distress la Patri's mom causes her when she says that "los fantasmas son maricas" ["the ghosts are queers"] (99)!  Should this untoward comment matter to the young girl?  I won't give away the secret.  However, in one of the closing sequences, the narrator draws a great comedic parallel between the knowledge absorbed by the young girl from her surroundings and the knowledge obtained by a typical reader of fiction: "Supóngase una de esas personas que no piensan, alguien cuya única actividad sea la de leer novelas, actividad para él muy placentera y en la que no pone ni una sola gota de esfuerzo intelectual, sólo el dejarse llevar por el placer de la lectura" ["Imagine one of those people who don't think, whose only activity is reading novels, a very pleasurable activity but one in which he doesn't expend a single drop of intellectual effort, only allowing himself to be carried away by the pleasure of reading"], he/she begins.  "De pronto, en algún gesto, en alguna frase, por no decir 'en algún pensamiento', muestra que es un filósofo malgré-lui.  ¿De dónde le ha venido el saber?" ["Suddenly, in some gesture, in some phrase, if not to say 'in some thought,' he demonstrates that he's a philosopher in spite of himself.  Where does the awareness come from?"] (103).  After explaining that it would be absurd to expect that type of novel, as opposed to those of say Thomas Mann's, to offer any such enrichment, the narrator moves in for the satirical coup de grâce and embeds it in a well-placed parenthesis: "Con la televisión, el ejemplo se habría hecho un poco abusivo" ["In the case of television, the example would have been a little abusive"] (104).  In short, both a fearless and a funny demonstration of Aira's literary sleight of hand--or, as one character says about an unrelated realist plot twist contained in Zola's L'Assommoir, "¡Qué rudo golpe para el lector burgués!" ["What a terrible blow for the bourgeois reader!"] (13).

The phantasmal César Aira
(photo: Javi Martínez)

lunes, 10 de marzo de 2014

El rufián moldavo

El rufián moldavo (Emecé, 2004)
por Edgardo Cozarinsky
Argentina, 2004

Una muy buena novela, narrada con reserva y sin sensacionalismo alguno a pesar de su título y materia, relacionada con la inmigración judía a la Argentina del temprano siglo XX.  El argumento se centra en un joven investigador sin nombre, cuya búsqueda de información en cuanto a una obra de teatro de los años treinta llamada El rufián moldavo lo conduce a descubrir que muchas de las mujeres judías que llegaron al país desde la Europa Oriental al principio del siglo pasado fueron patrocinadas por la sociedad Zwi Migdal  -- una organización tenebrosa supuestamente dedicada al "socorro mutuo" de la comunidad ídish-hablante pero en realidad dedicada a la explotación de mujeres a través de la prostitución forzada.  ¿Cómo podía haber sido un éxito una obra como El rufián moldavo en un tiempo cuando según se afirma Roberto Arlt se presenció "la resistencia" de la comunidad judía en carteles bonaerenses que decían "no se atiende a rufianes" en los negocios y "prohibida la entrada a rufianes" en los teatros?  (Las citas vienen de la página 47, pero no sé si ellas constan de hechos.)  La respuesta dada por el narrador, que en algún momento dice que su pesquisa fue guiada por su "temperamento detectivesco" (143), se encuentra menos en los archivos dedicados al teatro en ídish y más en una serie de historias familiares presentaba por "personajes y ambientes para mí más novelescos que cualquier ficción impresa" (46).  Por ejemplo, la hija del dramaturgo de El rufián moldavo explica que "la colectividad estaba en pie de guerra contra [los de Zwi Migdal]: después de la Semana Trágica del '19, cuando grupos nacionalistas salieron a matar judíos por las calles del Once y de Almagro mientras la policía miraba hacia otro lado".  ¿La razón?  "Era urgente mantener limpia la reputación de la paisanada: ni comunistas que querían repetir la revolución rusa a orillas del Plata, ni proxenetas" (119).   Lo irónico de todo esto es que, en manos de Cozarinsky, la novela, en vez de parecer como una obra de ficción cualquiera, se parece más a o una crónica narrada por su "detective" archivesco o una obra híbrida en cuanto a su mezcla de ficción e historia.  Por lo menos, la obra de Cozarinsky me recuerda a W.G. Sebald por lo que se refiere a los fantasmas de la historia del siglo XX aunque la siguiente descripción, sobre una muchacha que llegó a la Argentina sabiendo cómo "escribir una sola palabra: Zsuzsa, su nombre" (53), sea más directa que el alemán en cuanto a la vida de "un cuento de hadas malignas" (91) de algunos entre el elenco de la oleada migratoria: "Está enferma, tose y no sabe el nombre del mal que pocas semanas más tarde acabará con su vida" (62).  Recomendada.

Edgardo Cozarinsky

Sobre todo empezó, poco a poco, a hablar.  Al principio, de las casas donde tocaba, en Bahía Blanca, en Coronel Pringles, en Ingeniero White.  De él mismo, más tarde.  A veces ella no entiende todo lo que dice, pero se da cuenta de que esas confidencias no las regala a cualquiera.  Así se ha enterado de que Samuel nació en Buenos Aires: fueron sus padres los que llegaron desde el otro lado del mar; tienen una colchonería en Paternal y lo echaron de casa cuando aprendió a tocar el bandoneón en vez de seguir las clases de violín que el padre le pagaba.  "El bandoneón es tango y el tango es mala vida."  Samuel se ríe, pero Zsuzsa le ve en los ojos mucha tristeza cuando cita la frase de ese padre tan respetuoso de la música a pesar de ser medio sordo, sobre todo de un violín que, aunque apenas pueda oírlo, sabe que es el único instrumento para un chico judío decente...  (En Tarnopol, aprendiz en el taller del abuelo, se había perforado con una aguja de colchonero el oído derecho para escapar a la conscripción obligatoria en el ejército imperial.)
(El rufián moldavo, 57-58)

sábado, 8 de marzo de 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (The Library of America, 2010)
by Shirley Jackson
USA, 1962

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is fairly tasty, more or less satisfying aesthethically and yet still puzzlingly popular fare--the reading equivalent of being promised an old school hearty meal along the lines of a juicy steak and a Caesar salad and then having to settle for a high end chicken pot pie "with an incredibly flaky crust" and no salad whatsoever.  Whatever, why I'm not bummed that I read the book: 1) Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, the 18-year old narrator who spends much of her time fantasizing about taking her loved ones on a ride to the moon, is an undeniably fascinating creation: at once adorable--you may even want to protect her--a bit of a kook, and a sick puppy.  For example, a revenge-minded line like "I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies" (429) might seem like typical teenage sass when taken out of context except that Merricat has already confided that "I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead" (421) and "I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully.  I wished it on the village" (426).  Get the picture?  2) For a dark fable that can be read as a somewhat cynical anti-bullying but pro-poisoning attack on our notions about the nuclear family, conformity, and the idea of small town community, the loving relationships between Merricat, her older sister Constance, their sickly Uncle Julian, and even Merricat's pet cat Jonas are warmly and not at all cynically observed.  Humorously, too: crazy old Uncle Julian's loaded remark to Constance--"You have been a good niece to me, although there are grounds for supposing you an undutiful daughter" (465)--is exactly the sort of thing I would have wanted to hear from the eccentric uncle who survived the arsenic poisoning that killed off most of the rest of his family and for which his niece was accused but acquitted of committing. Why the book isn't anywhere near as big a deal as its legions of admirers maintain: 1) Cousin Charles Blackwood, the money-hungry (and would-be romantic) threat to the Blackwood sisters' family dynamics, and almost all of the town villagers are mostly caricaturish types as villains.  2) In a novel in which the narrator's fairy tale-like interior life requires more than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief from the reader but offers such extravagant joys in return, how disappointingly ironic that the act of "realistic" violence that turns the Blackwood home into a castle in ruins near the end of the novel is so totally unconvincing and lacking and pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint.  It completely breaks the narrative spell.  Why so many bloggers are willing to bestow their highest Zagat ratings on books that have little more than an incredibly flaky crust to offer: you tell me, comfort food readers!  Chicken pot pie for the soul?  Yes, that must certainly be the answer to the We Have Always Lived in the Castle popularity question for, as one emo Amazon reviewer has so earnestly put it, "Anyone who reads this novel and is not deeply affected emotionally is simply not human."

 Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

The edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle referred to here appears on pp. 419-559 of the LOA Shirley Jackson anthology, Novels and Stories (New York: The Library of America, 2010).