viernes, 31 de diciembre de 2010

La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile

La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile (Debolsillo, 2006)
por Gabriel García Márquez
Colombia, 1986

"También los que se quedaron son exiliados".
(La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile, 47)

Qué agradable, qué absolutamente agradable, para poder despedirme del año de lecturas de 2010 con esta pequeña joya de un librito. El año es 1985.  Luego de una larga ausencia en exilio en el extranjero, el cineasta chileno Miguel Littín, "que figura en una lista de cinco mil exiliados con prohibición absoluta de volver a su tierra", se resuelve a regresar a Chile para rodar un documental sobre "la realidad de su país después de doce años de dictadura militar" (7).  Pretendiendo ser un hombre de negocios uruguayo con papeles falsos y un acento uruguayo poco convincente, Littín pasa seis semanas clandestinamente en Chile trabajando con tres equipos de cine europeos para poner "una larga cola de burro para Pinochet" (22).  ¡Cómo me encantó esta obra!  Aunque se lee como una novela de espionaje narrada en primera persona, los momentos culminantes de este reportaje de no ficción subrayan la opresión del régimen Pinochet y la voluntad del pueblo chileno para vivir con dignidad a pesar de las dificultades políticas.  Punto: las llamadas "flores eternas" en la Plaza Sebastián Acevedo, donde Littín nos cuenta del "ramo de flores perpetuas mantenidas por manos anónimas" en honor de Sebastián Acevedo, un minero que "se había prendido fuego en ese sitio, dos años antes" como una protesta pública contra la tortura de su hijo e hija (86-88).  Punto: la dueña de la casa donde "había una imagen de la Virgen del Carmen" (la patrona y "generala" del ejército chileno) que responde a la pregunta de si ella "había sido allendista" así: "No lo fui: lo soy".  Y lo prueba por quitar la imagen de la Virgen para mostrar un retrato de Allende escondido detrás (104-105).  Punto: los grafiti a la casa de Pablo Neruda en Isla Negra, donde además de los mensajes de amor esperados se encuentran otros mensajes menos esperados: "El amor nunca muere, generales; Allende y Neruda viven; un minuto de oscuridad no nos volverá ciegos" (111-112).  Conmevedora por completo, esta obra es redimida por un final feliz para Littín y por lo que parecería ser un excelente trabajo de redacción por García Márquez, la figura del "autor" en las sombras.  (Debolsillo)

Clandestine in Chile (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Gabriel García Márquez [translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz]
Colombia, 1986

"Those who stayed behind are also exiled."
(La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile, 47 [my translation])

How cool, how absolutely cool, to be able to close out my 2010 reading year with this little gem of a book.  The year is 1985.  After a long absence in exile abroad, Chilean film director Miguel Littín, "who figures among a list of 5,000 exiles absolutely forbidden to return to their country," resolves to return to Chile in order to shoot a documentary about "the reality of his country after twelve years of military dictatorship"  (7). Passing himself off as an Uruguayan businessman with false papers and an unconvincing Uruguayan accent, Littín spends six weeks undercover in Chile working with three European film crews to try and "pin the tale on the Pinochet donkey" (22).  My, how I loved this work!  Although it reads like a spy novel, the key moments in this first-person, non-fiction account poignantly underscore the Pinochet regime's oppressive nature and the will of the Chilean people to live with dignity in spite of the political difficulties.  Item: the so-called "eternal flowers" in the Plaza Sebastián Acevedo, where Littín tells us about the "bouquet of flowers perpetually maintained by anonymous hands" in honor of Sebastián Acevedo, a miner who "had set himself on fire on that site two years earlier" in public protest against the torture of his son and daughter (86-88).  Item: the homeowner with a statue of the Virgen del Carmen (the patron saint and "female general" of the Chilean army) who, when asked if she had been a Salvador Allende supporter, replied emphatically:  "Not I was; I am."  And then proved it by moving aside the Virgin's image to reveal a portrait of Allende hidden behind it (104-105).  Item: the graffiti at Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra, where alongside the expected messages having to do with proclamations of love could also be found messages of a less expected nature: "Love never dies, Generals; Allende y Neruda liveone minute of darkness won't turn us blind"  (111-112).  Devastating stuff all in all and yet redeemed by a happy ending for Littín and what appears to be an exquisite editing job by García Márquez, the reclusive "author" of the filmmaker's story  [note: all translations mine with page numbers based on the Spanish version of the work].  (  

 Gabo, Geraldine Chaplin y Miguel Littín, hacia 1980


Salvador (Vintage International, 1994)
by Joan Didion
USA, 1983

A slender volume of reporting on the civil war in El Salvador, seemingly composed at white heat after Didion's visit there in 1982, with writing that's raw in the very best sense of the term.  While some of Didion's detractors on Amazon rather curiously try and paint her as a war profiteer for having even published this work, at this remove in time Salvador clearly is/was a call to arms against American support of the corrupt Salvadoran government--prescient advice that unfortunately went unheeded.  "Terror is the given of the place," she writes early on, proving that the pronouncement is more than just war zone jitters with a few grisly examples from the local papers.  "A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight desconocidos, unknown men.  The same morning's paper: the unidentified body of a young man, strangled, found on the shoulder of a road.  Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men, found on another road, their faces partially destroyed by bayonets, one face carved to represent a cross" (14-15).  Unpleasant but undeniably powerful reading, not least for its you-are-there snapshot of one of the Reagan White House's most unlikable state terrorism-loving "allies."  (

Joan Didion

It was certainly possible to describe some members of the opposition, as [The Ambassador of the United States in El Salvador] Deane Hinton had, as "out-and-out Marxists," but it was equally possible to describe other members of the opposition, as the embassy had at the inception of the FDR in April of 1980, as "a broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups."  The right in El Salvador never made this distinction: to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic Church, and, as time went by, all Salvadoran citizens not of the right.  In other words there remained a certain ambiguity about political terms as they were understood in the United States and in El Salvador, where "left" may mean, in the beginning, only a resistance to seeing one's family killed or disappeared.  That it eventually comes to mean something else may be, to the extent that the United States has supported the increasing polarization in El Salvador, the Procrustean bed we made ourselves.
(Salvador, 94-95)

martes, 28 de diciembre de 2010


The Mummies, "Justine"

a little lo-fi r&r for my Cairo Trilogy peeps
(play loud)

lunes, 27 de diciembre de 2010

The Cairo Trilogy I: Palace Walk

Palace Walk [Bayn al-qasrayn] (Anchor Books, no date)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny)
Egypt, 1956

"There's no reason to be sad, darling.  Since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men."
(Palace Walk, 334)

While I prob. spent something like the first 100 pages of Palace Walk lamenting the fact that Naguib Mahfouz's early prose style was less conversational and more exposition-heavy than his later, lovely Miramar and the second 100 pages enjoying the domestic drama while still kind of wondering why the text was revered by quite so many, the last 300 pages of the novel completely sucked me into the storyteller's charisma vortex with its suddenly epic tale of one Egyptian family's daily life amid the trials and tribulations of Australian and English-occupied Cairo circa 1917-1919.  This sucker punch of a leisurely intro aside, though, one of the most disarming things about the first volume in The Cairo Trilogy is that Mahfouz doesn't exactly overwhelm you with any writing tricks--relying on deft characterization, a spotlight on the psychological effects of sexism, and delicious turns of phrase instead.  The plot pivots about the comings and goings of merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, a home where the hypocritical "family man" of a husband is king, the shut-in wife's a slave to her skirt-chasing spouse's every whim, and the five children also live in fear of their tyrannical father.  How much the novelist intended the symbol of a repressive home to mirror either the Egyptian male attitude toward women or the English presence in Cairo is up for debate, of course, but I was fascinated by the portrait of gender relations in the novel even as I was repulsed by what some of the artist's brushstrokes revealed (i.e. as just one of many potential examples, the idea that a husband could cheat on his wife and then blame her for complaining about it rather than remaining subservient to his philandering will in silence).  Ditto for how I felt about the characters' conflicted reactions to the British soldiers--hating them for being an occupying force while still looking up to them for otherwise representing some of the finer aspects in global civilization and culture--and for what their thoughts about black servants and Turks reveal about socioeconomic and ethnic prejudices of the time.  Not sure what Mahfouz has in store for the rest of his tryptich, but the vision that's beginning to emerge from this first canvas makes me guess that it's going to be monumental in scale.  For now, a very good but maybe not quite a great example of social commentary disguised as drama--and the new world record holder for similes likening pleasantly plump humans of both sexes to camels!  (

Naguib Mahfouz

Sound bite: A mother and daughter, heredity and time
The juxtaposition of the two women appeared to illustrate the interplay of the amazing laws of heredity and the inflexible law of time.  The two women might have been a single person with her image reflected forward to the future or back into the past.  In either case, the difference between the original and its reflection revealed the terrible struggle raging between the laws of heredity, attempting to keep things the same, and the law of time, pushing for change and a finale.  The struggle usually results in a string of defeats for heredity, which plays at best a modest role within the framework of time...
(Palace Walk, 203)

Other Palace Walk Readalong Posts

lunes, 20 de diciembre de 2010

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart (Anchor Books, 2008)
by Chinua Achebe
Nigeria, 1958

Ever the cynic, I read most of Things Fall Apart constantly dreading the moment when the novel's rep as a crowd-pleaser would see it transform itself into the book equivalent of the mawkish Titanic.  To my delight and surprise, that moment never came.  A vivid sketch of village life in Nigeria at the historical turning point when the old tribal ways were just beginning to yield to the changes wrought by the late 19th century envoys of European colonialism, the first two-thirds of the work follows the old school, wife-beating Umuofia native Okonkwo as he attempts to better his station in life through personal merit and the manly pursuits esteemed by the clan.  My usual disdain for historical fiction notwithstanding, I freely admit that I enjoyed the proverb-ridden narration, which gave the story a mythic feel lacking in many other 20th century narratives, and the omniscient narrator's focus on the good and bad aspects of tribal life, which cast a spotlight on the problematic nature of Okonkwo's status as an exemplar of the good old days before Christianity replaced animism on the Lower Niger.  In the last third of the work, twin storylines devoted to the protagonist's personal journey and the Umuofia villagers' reaction to white encroachment swiftly and dramatically merge--concluding with a devastating final chapter that reads like a Flaubertian tightening of the noose for an entire society (top that, Madame Bovary).  Arresting, convincing, and not at all the pro forma "world literature classic" I'd half-expected.  (

Chinua Achebe

Another Take

martes, 7 de diciembre de 2010

A Mercy

A Mercy (Vintage International, 2009)
by Toni Morrison
USA, 2008

With all due respect to the friends who have raved about various Morrison titles to me, I'm not sure that the novelist and I are cut out for each other.  Dud historical fiction tearjerker that starts out with a provocative premise--a 17th century slave mother voluntarily abandons her daughter in the hopes that the act will save the child from a harsher life--before eventually bogging down in uninteresting storytelling and a surprising lack of subtlety.  While the novel's not without its merits (an early slave-buying scene, for example, is undeniably chilling with its spotlight on the participants' callous contempt for the human dimensions of the "merchandise" on sale), I found the narrative to be way less compelling than advertised.  First of all, there's the matter of point of view.  A Mercy is ambitiously narrated from the perspective of a number of characters--black and white, slave and free--but the resulting chorus was largely unconvincing to me.  In some cases, as in the Mistress' recollection of her journey from England to the Americas, I felt as if Morrison were committing the cardinal historical fiction mistake of dumping a lot of intrusive period details into the mix to make it seem more authentic in regard to time and place.  Just let the story flow.  In others, as in Florens' interior monologue about her love for the blacksmith, I was just annoyed by the exaggerated simplicity of the various characters' speech and thoughts: "With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging.  I can never not have you have me" (161).  Not exactly beguiling prose.  Although I get the idea that Morrison probably wrote the characters the way she did to reflect their otherness somehow, I doubt that her lack of subtlety can be explained away quite as easily.  When the character Sorrow gives birth to a baby daughter and utters, "I am your mother... My name is Complete" (158), for example, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the made-for-TV-movie level epiphany.  Are you fucking kidding me?  In any event, not really the book for me nor the best argument for reading a novel in lieu of a work of history when given a choice.  A disappointment. (

Toni Morrison

sábado, 4 de diciembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Italy

Given that there's a higher percentage of books I really want to read on this list than on any of the previous ones and that I'm still salivating over not yet purchased novels by Dino Buzzati and Elsa Morante not to mention countless Italian Renaissance works, I think Italian lit will probably join French lit and Spanish lit as some sort of reading project in 2011 lit for me.  More on that in a perennially vague while.  Until then, totals to date are as follows: Italy (12) + Spain (24) + Argentina (47) + France (32) = 115 books in the TBR.
1) Boccaccio, Giovanni.  The Decameron (Penguin Classics) [partially read].
2) Calvino, Italo.  If on a winter's night a traveler (Harvest) [partially read].
3) Castiglione, Baldesar.  The Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics).
4) Manzoni, Alessandro.  The Betrothed (Penguin Classics).
5) Massimo, Valerio.  Manfredi (Oscar Mondadori).
6) Mazzantini, Margaret.  Non ti muovere (Oscar Mondadori).
7) Moravia, Alberto.  Contempt (NYRB Classics).
8) Pirandello, Luigi.  The Late Mattia Pascal (NYRB Classics).
9) Sciascia, Leonardo.  To Each His Own (NYRB Classics).
10) Sorba, Pietro.  Bodegones de Buenos Aires (Planeta).
11) Svevo, Italo.  As a Man Grows Older (NYRB Classics).
12) Vasari, Giorgio.  The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World's Classics).

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (Penguin, 2007)
by Nathaniel Philbrick
USA, 2000

According to my receipt, I bought this book on May 19th, 2010, right about the time I was polishing off Moby-Dick, so keen on reading about the real-life incident that had inspired Melville's novel that I'd forgotten that I'd already read Philbrick's National Book Award winner years before.  Talk about a creaky memory!  In any event, revisiting In the Heart of the Sea this past week was a great pleasure.  Philbrick's a natural as a storyteller, and this nonfiction story of his--what happened to the crew of the Nantucket whaleship Essex in 1820 after it was deliberately rammed and sunk by an 85-foot bull sperm whale "with the vindictiveness and guile of a man" (xiii)--has no shortage of built-in drama with its tale of three months adrift at sea, survival cannibalism, and the like.  While Philbrick's reconstruction, largely based on an examination of the first-hand accounts of Essex survivors Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson, rightly stresses that the work's a tale of survival rather than a tale of adventure, it's more a riveting than a sobering affair as a reading experience.  If part of what makes it so compelling has to do with the nature of the story itself, another part of it has to do with the nature of the questions Philbrick asks of his sources: in specific, why were the African-American seamen the first to be eaten by their white shipmates and why did the Nantucket natives survive in greater numbers than the non-islanders?  While I have no explanation for how I could forget that I'd read such an, um, memorable piece of popular history writing before, at least I can now assure those of you who have yet to read this book that it holds up to multiple readings just fine.  (

Nathaniel Philbrick

*Note: Nicole at bibliographing has a way interesting page on the theme of Maritime Literature here.  Recommended.*

viernes, 3 de diciembre de 2010

The Dogs of Riga

The Dogs of Riga [Hundarna I Riga] (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2004)
by Henning Mankell [translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson]
Sweden, 1992

Entertaining but entirely preposterous second offering in the Inspector Wallander series.  List of clichés available upon request.  (

Henning Mankell

jueves, 25 de noviembre de 2010

Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1990)
by David Goodis
USA, 1956

Even if, like me, you've stupidly somehow never seen the famous 1960 Truffaut film that was based on this book, it doesn't exactly take a genius to figure out that something bad is going to happen to someone good early on in Shoot the Piano Player (originally published as Down There in its pre-movie tie-in incarnation).  That being said, I've got to give Goodis a lot of credit for at least making me hope I'd be wrong about who was going to get it by the end.  A gritty noir about what trouble walks into reclusive piano man Eddie's life the night a couple of mob goons chase his wayward brother into the Philly dive bar where he works, this slender novel also works in some affecting nods to family ties, the true cost of loyalty, and the unexpected kindness of strangers who can't be bought in the course of its 158 pages of bleary-eyed tragedy.  Although it doesn't all work--like in a lot of pulp fiction, characters would sometimes say and do things that just left me scratching my head in disbelief--enough does that I'd consider trying out another Goodis down the road.  In the meantime, two things really stood out for me here.  The first was Goodis' flair for characterization: in a Harriet's Hut full of carnivalesque barroom archetypes, the salty bar owner, the ex-professional wrestler turned bouncer, the waitress carrying a hatpin for protection against unwelcome advances, and even the house prostitute all seemed genuine as individuals.  The second was that Goodis was quite sympathetic toward his female characters, to the point that Lena the waitress could even be considered the most complex of all the leads in this otherwise high-testosterone genre workout dedicated to male criminality.  While the downward trajectory of Goodis' career as a writer--in specific, the flight home from Hollywood after the onetime bestselling author flopped out as a screenwriter and the subsequent return to an apartment above his parents' Philadelphia garage, where he's said to have spent the rest of his short life as an alcoholic churning out works that were largely ignored in this country--kind of makes him seem like a figure out of one of his very own novels, I halfway wonder whether his own experience with the heads or tails of "success" and "failure" accounts for the tender, almost sentimental treatment of his main characters here.  Of course, that doesn't keep any of them from dying.  (

David Goodis (1917-1967)

sábado, 20 de noviembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Spain

All the following are in Spanish with the exception of three titles in Catalan that are marked in red and three works about Spain but not written by Spanish authors at the end of the list.  With any luck, I'll be able to put together some kind of a Spanish literature reading project next year to complement my French literature reading project plans.  In the meantime, totals to date: Spain (24) + Argentina (47) + France (32) = 103 books in the TBR.
1) Anónimo.  Libro de Alexandre (Cátedra).
2) Anónimo.  Libro del Caballero Zifar (Cátedra).
3) Anónimo.  Poema de Fernán González (Editorial Castalia).
4) Alvar, Carlos y Alvar, Manuel (eds.).  Épica medieval española (Cátedra).
5) Berceo, Gonzalo de.  Milagros de Nuestra Señora (Crítica) [partially read].
6) Falcones, Ildefonso.  La catedral del mar (Grijalbo).
7) Goytisolo, Juan.  Don Julián (Cátedra) + Count Julian (Dalkey Archive).
8) Herralde, Jorge.  El optimismo de la voluntad: Experiencias editoriales en América Latina (Tezontle).
9) Laforet, Carmen.  Nada (Destino).
10) Lope de Vega.  El caballero de Olmedo (Clásicos Castalia).
11) López de Ayala, Pero.  Rimado de Palacio (Clásicos Castalia).
12) Marías, Javier.  Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Debolsillo).
13) Márquez Villanueva, Francisco.  El concepto cultural alfonsí (Edicions Bellaterra).
14) Martín-Santos, Luis.  Tiempo de silencio (Crítica).
15) Pérez-Reverte, Arturo.  El caballero del jubón amarillo (Alfaguara).
16) Riera, Carme.  La meitat de l'ànima (Proa) [partially read].
17) _____.  L'estiu de l'anglès (Proa).
18) Ruiz Zafón, Carlos.  El juego del ángel (Vintage Español).
19) Santa Teresa de Jesús.  Libro de la vida (Clásicos Castalia).
20) Somoza, José Carlos.  Clara y la penumbra (Debolsillo).
21) Teixidor, Emili.  El Llibre de les Mosques (Proa).
22) Fletcher, Richard.  Moorish Spain (University of California Press).
23) Kurlansky, Mark.  The Basque History of the World (Penguin).
24) Reilly, Bernard F.  The Medieval Spains (Cambridge University Press).

viernes, 19 de noviembre de 2010

Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers [Mördare utan ansikte] (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2003)
by Henning Mankell [translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray]
Sweden, 1991

For someone who's now read a grand total of all of one Henning Mankell titles in his entire life, I have to ask: Stieg who???  Hotshit Swede police procedural that's sort of like the reading equivalent of downing a 72-ounce Big Gulp and following it up with a couple of cups of coffee afterward.  Found myself rushing to plow through this book and am now finding myself impatiently waiting to get going on a second Mankell offering before the month is out.  Ironically, I'm not entirely sure why the book produced such an effect in me.  Inspector Kurt Wallander's an interesting enough lead character, to be sure: a flawed but sympathetic everyman trying to make some sense out of the senselessness he confronts in his personal and professional lives.  I also enjoyed seeing how the murder investigation itself--as in Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman, a lesser work Mankell discreetly tips his hat to at one point (144)--was portrayed as having been conducted and then solved collaboratively through a combination of routine policework and blind luck rather than by any superhuman feats of deductive prowess by a single individual.  And Wallander's sense that Sweden is changing for the worse, losing the battle to drug-related crime and gripped by an anti-immigrant fever that he in part understands, clearly adds some depth to the story as a whole.  But other than that, I'm afraid I'm at a loss to explain this whole Mankell thing yet.  Not my problem--any more room on that bandwagon?  (

Henning Mankell

lunes, 15 de noviembre de 2010

Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Germany, 2009

While I'd been meaning to read something by Hildegard von Bingen for about the past five or six years, German director Margarethe von Trotta basically rescued me from my lethargy with this fine film portrait about the 12th century Benedictine nun, woman of letters, and mystic.  One of the interesting things about the director's approach is that she doesn't attempt to explain away or oversell Hildegard's visions--they just happen, throughout the film as throughout her life, the point being that they eventually begin to seem as natural as the sickly Hildegard's propensity for being laid up with various physical afflictions.  Another thing I liked about the film was its attention to small day to day details and people rather than platitudes.  While I think that Von Trotta was quite wise to sidestep the question of whether Hildegard's visions were the product of mental illness or supernatural spirituality (we'll all have our own opinions on that one anyway), an unexpected bonus of her neutrality on the matter is that Hildegard's role as magistra, and later abbess of her own convent, is given more play here than it would have in sensationalistic hands.  Partly as a consequence of this and partly as a result of the acting, the relations between nuns and nuns and nuns and priests felt real to me--more so than in most movies in any event.  In short, if you were ever curious about what it must have been like to try and lead a normal life as an outstanding woman, maybe even a feminist avant la lettre,  in a culture where that brought about more detractors than admirers, I think you could do a whole lot worse than this for an answer.  Nice solid effort, with a compelling performance by Barbara Sukowa in the lead role, although the U.S. movie poster's soulless imitation of a perfume ad from Vanity Fair may rightly make you question my judgement (I'd understand, believe me).

Margarethe von Trotta

Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge
Reviewing a foreign film in November?  Let me know, and I'll add the link to it to here.  Big belated thanks to Emily and Stu, who contributed movie reviews below, back in September.  Cheers!

Stu from Winstonsdad's Blog: Wings of Desire

sábado, 13 de noviembre de 2010

La vida del Buscón, libro segundo y libro tercero y último

La vida del Buscón (Crítica, sin fecha)
por Francisco de Quevedo
España, 1626

Aunque tuve algunos problemas entiendo Quevedo en castellano (la mezcla de sus juegos de palabras con la germanía de sus personajes, aunque divertida, fue realmente difícil a veces) y después descubrí que la traducción de la obra en inglés era de poca confianza, tengo que subrayar que vale la pena de leer al Buscón en cualquier lenguaje.  Es escandolasamente chistoso.  Al pensar en esto, me gustaría concluir este mini ciclo sobre el clásico con una mirada dirgida a unos ejemplos de su humor provocador.  En libro II, capítulo 3, por ejemplo, el buscón Pablos casi blasfema al contar la historia de cómo, contra todas las expectativas, un ermitaño estafa a él y a un soldado en un juego de naipes: "Nuestras cartas eran como el Mesías, que nunca venían y las aguardábamos siempre" (83).  En libro III, capítulo 3, el aire sacrílego con la descripción de un impostor que se gana la viva por pretender ser un penitente en busca de limosna.  "No levantaba los ojos a las mujeres," escribe Pablos, "pero las faldas sí" (123).  En otra parte, Pablos amenaza la frontera entre el buen gusto y el mal gusto al opinar que la "conciencia en mercader es como virgo en cantonera, que se vende sin haberle" (85) y al decir que sabe que su madre, una presa de la Inquisición en Toledo, "hará humo" a la hoguera (95).  Aunque Quevedo ha sido criticado por los eruditos modernos a causa de los elementos antisemíticos y misoginistas en esta novela, yo pienso que es importante recordar que nadie escapa sin daño en esta vida de un criminal impenitente del siglo decimoséptimo listo para viajar al Nuevo Mundo.  Sumamente chistoso.
Even though I had some problems understanding La vida del Buscón in Spanish (the combination of Quevedo's frequent puns and the characters' criminal slang, while amusing, was truly difficult at times) and then felt swindled by Michael Alpert's unreliable English translation of the work, I'd like to second Amateur Reader in acknowledging that the experience of reading the Buscón [The Swindler] in any language is well worth the effort.  It's just scandalously funny.  With that in mind, I'd like to wrap up this little miniseries on the Spanish classic with a look at some examples of its edgy humor.  In Book II, Chapter 3, for example, the swindler Pablos comes awfully close to committing blasphemy in telling  the story of how, against all expectations, a hermit cheats him and a soldier out of all their money in a game of cards: "Our cards were like the Messiah--since they never turned up, and we were always waiting for them" (83).*  In Book III, Chapter 3, the sacrilegious tone continues with the description of an impostor who earns a living by pretending to be a penitent in search of alms: "He wouldn't raise his eyes to look at women", Pablos writes, "but their skirts were another matter" (123).**  Elsewhere, Pablos flirts with the boundaries of good taste by describing how a "good conscience in a merchant is like virginity in a streetwalker since it's peddled without being possessed" (85) and follows it up with a remark about how he's sure that his mother--imprisoned by the Inquisition in Toledo--will "make sparks fly" at the stake (95)!***  Although Quevedo has been criticized by some modern scholars for the anti-Semitic and misogynistic elements in this novel, I think it's important to remember that nobody gets off unscathed in Pablos' crude vita of an unrepentant 17th century criminal ready to ship off for the New World.  Hilarious.


*My more or less literal translation of the line, "Nuestras cartas eran como el Mesías, que nunca venían y las aguardábamos siempre" (83). This definitely anti-Jewish and possibly anti-Christian dig doesn't appear in Michael Alpert's English translation of the work.
**My loose translation of the line, "No levantaba los ojos a las mujeres, pero las faldas sí" (123).  Alpert translates this as follows on page 169 of The Swindler: "When it came to women he didn't raise his eyes, but that didn't apply to their skirts."
***My translations of the following: "Conciencia en mercader es como virgo en cantonera, que se vende sin haberle" (85) and "hará humo" (95).  Although the latter remark actually expresses the notion that Pablos' mother "will make or create smoke" at the implied stake, I've followed Alpert's lead on page 147 of his translation ["she will make sparks fly"] to bring you a more vigorous rendering of Quevedo's Castilian in English.

Más sobre el Buscón

Otras opiniones

lunes, 8 de noviembre de 2010

Wittgenstein's Nephew

Wittgenstein's Nephew [Wittgensteins Neffe] (Vintage, no date)
by Thomas Bernhard [translated from the German by David McLintock]
Austria, 1982

"Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science" (Wittgenstein's Nephew, 8).

Thomas Bernhard: where have you been all my life, you morose bastard?  An impressively sustained, mordantly observed 100-page monologue based on the author's real-life friendship with a relative of the famous philosopher, Wittgenstein's Nephew is yet another in a spate of works I've read of late where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are hopelessly blurred.  I loved it.  Taking on as his subject the equilateral triangle of a life-changing friendship, severe physical and mental illness, and two friends' awareness of their impending deaths, Bernhard somehow managed to have me laughing out loud at his frequent barbs at the same time as I found myself genuinely touched by the evocation of the friends' fragile and increasingly diseased relationship.  Although Bernhard isn't particularly kind to many people in this novel, preferring the loaded gun of the biting remark to the dishonesty of being diplomatic when it's not deserved, he reminded me a bit of Robert Walser in his ability to bring troubled souls to the printed page with unpredictability, vividness, and what seemed like genuine honesty.  A great--and even an exquisite--treat.  (

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989)

sábado, 6 de noviembre de 2010

A Void

A Void [La disparition] (David R. Godine, 2008)
by Georges Perec [translated from the French by Gilbert Adair]
France, 1969

I imagine that most of the people who wind up reading Perec's nearly 300-page long lipogram--in the original French as well as in the English adaptation, defiantly constructed without the use of the letter e--have heard the story about how the missing vowel has to do with the traumatic events in the author's childhood: writing a novel sans e (without [an] e), which sounds so close to sans eux (without them) in spoken French, could provide a way for the Jewish author to surreptitiously acknowledge the loss of his soldier father in World War II and the subsequent loss of his mother in the Holocaust--this, in a work in which the most basic words relating to his orphaned identity (mère [mother], père [father], the very name Perec) are expressly absent or "forbidden."  I also imagine that many readers of A Void go into it having heard that Gilbert Adair's English translation of La disparition [The Disappearance] is a highwire act on a par with Perec's own "untranslatable" original.  What I'm less certain about is how many are aware that this so-called metaphysical whodunit, rife with disappearing bodies in what is probably both a homage to and a send-up of the traditional murder mystery, is more absurdist than dramatic in tone.  In any event, imagine my surprise when I found myself loving the wacky linguistic hijinks but only mildly interested and occasionally even outright bored by the goofball narrative itself.  WTF?

Perec on a bad hair day

Since I won't be able to say how much the novelist or the translator deserves the blame for the choppy reading experience until after I have more time to compare La disparition with A Void, I'd like to turn to a happier question: how the hell did they come up with anything legible at all without the use of the e?  The answer: with a lot of style!  The novel seems to have six books and twenty-six chapters, for example, but both the second book and the fifth chapter have gone missing in recognition of e's place in the "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y" vowel sequence and the a-b-c-d-e beginning of the alphabet.  Even before lead character Anton Vowl (Anton Voyl in the French) disappears, both Perec and Adair seem to jump at every opportunity to draw attention to the corresponding missing vowels or voyelles.  Here is one of Adair's early efforts: "Probably nodding off for an instant or two, Vowl abruptly sits up straight.  'And now for a public announc-...'  Damn that static!  Vowl starts twiddling knobs again until his transistor radio booms out with clarity" (4).  Elsewhere, Adair uses a combination of simple substitutions ("auditory organs [as doctors say]" for ears on page 8), alternate spellings ("Oïdipos" for Oedipus on page 32), and archaisms ("grampus" for whale in one of the many references to Moby Dick) as part of his bag of tricks.  One of my favorite moments in this regard has to do with a "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" rewrite in Chapter 4 where a character named Dupin (hint, hint) exclaims in anger "I'm PO'd, truly PO'd" before Adair unnecessarily adds "PO was a contraction of 'piss off'" (39).

While amusing puns like that are to be found throughout the novel, so too are the less succesful moments where either Perec's or the translator's circumlocutions feel forced or stilted (I won't cite any examples because they aren't difficult to find at random).  In short, Life A User's Manual is an almost perfect affair; this one isn't.  More troublingly, I realized partway into A Void that Adair was seriously overstepping his bounds as the intermediary between the author and his English-dependent audience.  Here are two examples from Chapter 20 alone.  In the first sequence, a character named Amaury says that "I can't stop thinking that I'm in a sort of roman à tiroirs, a thick gothic work of fiction with lots of plot twists and a Russian doll construction, such as Mathurin's Monk, Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found at Saragossa and just about any story by Hoffman or Balzac (Balzac, that is, prior to Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac)..." (198).  Since Maturin wrote Melmoth the Wanderer and not The Monk, I took at look at Perec's original to see if I could decipher what reason might be behind the character's declaration that Mathurin [sic] and not amusing weirdo Matthew Lewis had written the monastic roman in question.  Was it all about the letter e?  To my horror, I saw that Perec doesn't mention The Monk at all nor does he mention the title of Potocki's work: just a "roman à tiroirs, un roman noir à l'instar d'un Mathurin, d'un Jan Potocki, d'un Hoffman, d'un Balzac avant Vautrin, Goriot, Pons ou Rastignac..." (217) ["an episodic novel, a Gothic novel in imitation of a Maturin, a Jan Potocki, a Hoffman, a Balzac before Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac..." in my translation].  Later in the chapter, Adair makes a similarly poor decision.  Listing an "amorphous mass of books and authors" that "bombards his brain," Amaury asks himself: "Moby Dick?  Malcolm Lowry?  Van Vogt's Saga of Non-A?  Or that work by Roubaud that Gallimard brought out, with a logo, so to say of a 3 as shown in a mirror?  Aragon's Blanc ou l'OubliUn Grand Cri VainLa Disparition?  Or Adair's translation of it?" (201).  In addition to including himself where Perec does not, Adair negligently fails to mention one "Christian Bourgois." So why does the guy think he has the right to rewrite Perec?

Perec on another bad hair day

To take a break from throwing the translator under the bus in back to back review posts, I ought to mention that the Roubaud reference above reminds me that Stephen Frug of Attempts blog recently pointed out that a Jacques Roubaud-penned poem called "La Disparition" appears in Perec's novel but not in Adair's translation.  Thanks to Stephen, you can find the English translation of the poem here and a really interesting post about other A Void related material here.  And although the translation let me down in many ways, I still look forward to reading the novel as Perec wrote it one of these days.  Why?  Just in skimming La disparition, I encountered multiple examples of wordplay that would probably be lost in any translation.  In Chapter 21 in the David R. Godine edition, for example, Adair forces the imitation is the sincerest form of flattery issue by making a lame-o joke about a chicken crossing the road.  While Perec isn't above such low humor on his own, note the extreme contrast in style between his original text and Adair's translation: he mentions a dindon dodu [a plump turkey] before adding in parenthesis, "dont Didon dîna dit-on du dos" (225).  Am I right in suggesting that you don't even need to know how to translate that line to appreciate the effort? An interesting and simultaneously uninteresting start to the French literature reading project that I hope to pursue over the coming year, A Void is probably a timely reminder that not all translations are created equal.   In other words, too bad my schoolboy French is so damn merde-y!  (

Other Bloggers on Perec's A Void
Bellezza (Dolce Bellezza) #1 & #2

viernes, 5 de noviembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Argentina

la sala de café de la librería Eterna Cadencia
Honduras 5582
Palermo, Bs.As.

OK, so maybe I need to slow down on buying books from Argentina for a while.  Or stop accepting them as gifts from my in-laws.  In the meantime, here's a found photo of what's probably my favorite bookstore in Buenos Aires, Eterna Cadencia, naturally located just a short distance away from both calle J.L. Borges and Plazoleta Cortázar.  As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions about the following authors or titles and/or if you care to share a comment about Argentinean literature in general.  Next TBR list: books I own from Spanish or Italian authors now waiting to be read.  Totals to date: Argentina (47) + France (32) = 79 books in the TBR.
1) Aguirre, Osvaldo.  Rocanrol (Beatriz Viterbo Editora).
2) Aguinis, Marcos.  El atroz encanto de ser argentinos (Booket).
3) _____.  La pasión según Carmela (Sudamericana).
4) Aira, César.  Las aventuras de Barbaverde (Mondadori).
5) Arlt, Roberto.  El paisaje en las nubes: Crónicas en El Mundo 1937-1942 (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
6) Barsky, Julián y Osvaldo.  La Buenos Aires de Gardel (Editorial Sudamericana).
7) Bioy Casares, Adolfo.  La invención de Morel (Booket).
8) Bonasso, Miguel.  Recuerdo de la muerte (Booket) [partially read].
9) Borges, Jorge Luis.  Ficciones (Biblioteca Borges/Alianza Editorial) [partially read].
10) _____.  Historia universal de la infamia (Biblioteca Borges/Alianza Editorial) [partially read].
11) _____.  Narraciones (Cátedra) [partially read].
12) Caparrós, Martín.  El interior (Planeta/Seix Barral) [partially read].
13) Chaves, Gonzalo Leonidas y Lewinger, Jorge Omar.  Los del 73: Memoria Montonero (De la Campana).
14) Conti, Haroldo.  Cuentos completos (Emecé).
15) Cortázar, Julio.  Bestiaro (Punto de Lectura).
16) _____.  Cuentos completos/3 (Punto de Lectura).
17) _____.  Rayuela (Cátedra) + Hopscotch (Pantheon) [partially read].
18) Eloy Martínez, Tomás.  La mano del amo (Alfaguara).
19) Fogwill.  Cuentos completos (Alfaguara).
20) Fontanarrosa, Roberto.  Te digo más...y otros cuentos (Ediciones De la Flor).
21) Fresán, Rodrigo.  Mantra (Mondadori) [partially read].
22) _____.  Vidas de santos (Debolsillo).
23) González, Betina.  Arte menor (Clarín/Alfaguara).
24) Hernández, José.  Martín Fierro (Kapelusz).
25) Lanata, Jorge.  ADN: Mapa genético de los defectos argentinos (Planeta).
26) Mancilla, Lucio V.  Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (Edicol).
27) Marechal, Leopoldo.  Adán Buenosayres (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
28) Martínez, Guillermo.  Borges y la matemática (Seix Barral).
29) Martínez Estrada, Ezequiel.  Radiografía de la pampa (Losada).
30) Morales, Bruno.  Bolivia Construcciones (La Nación/Editorial Sudamericana).
31) Olsorio, Elsa.  Cielo de tango (Planeta).
32) Pauls, Alan.  El pasado (Anagrama).
33) Piglia, Ricardo.  La invasión (Anagrama).
34) Premat, Julio.  Héroes sin atributos: Figuras de autor en la literatura argentina (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
35) Rolón, Gabriel.  Historias de diván: Ocho relatos de vida (Planeta).
36) Rosendo González, Pablo.  La Argentimna fuera de sí (Editorial Sudamericana).
37) Sabato, Ernesto.  España en los diarios de mi vejez (Seix Barral).
38) Saer, Juan José.  Glosa (Seix Barral).
39) _____.  Trabajos (Seix Barral).
40) Saítta, Sylvia.  El escritor en el bosque de ladrillos: una biografía de Roberto Arlt (Debolsillo) [bought at Eterna Cadencia!].
41) Santucho, Julio.  Los últimos guevaristas: La guerilla marxista en la Argentina (Byblos).
42) Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino.  Facundo (Cátedra).
43) Sorensesn, Diana.  A Turbulent Decade Remembered: Scenes from the Latin American Sixties (Stanford University Press).
44) Strafacce, Ricardo.  La banda del Dr. Mandrile contra los corazones solitarios seguido de La conversación (Beatriz Viterbo Editora).
45) Walsh, Rodolfo.  El violento oficio de escribir: Obra periodística (1953-1977) (Ediciones De la Flor).
46)  _____. Variaciones en rojo (Ediciones De la Flor).
47) Nouzeilles, Gabriela and Montaldo, Graciela, eds.  The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press).

jueves, 4 de noviembre de 2010

Lost in Mistranslation: Penguin's Underwhelming and Unreliable "The Swindler"

Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón) (Penguin, 1975)
by Anonymous (Lazarillo de Tormes) and Francisco de Quevedo (El Buscón) [translated from the Spanish by Michael Alpert]
Spain, 1545 & 1626

On Tuesday, I promised you all a post about why I thought Michael Alpert's Penguin translation of Francisco de Quevedo's 1626 La vida del Buscón--along with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, commonly regarded as one of the three greatest picaresque novels to come out of Spain--was such a dud in its English incarnation as The Swindler.  While I realize that the vast majority of you won't be bothered by the idea of a bad translation of a book you were never going to read anyway, I hope those of you interested in translation matters in general will bear with me for a couple of moments while I relate this "cautionary tale."  Although I actually have a lot of complaints about the translation, I'll try to keep things relatively brief and non-technical as regards the language issues.

At the beginning of Chapter Twelve in Alpert's translation of The Swindler, we find the rascally narrator Pablos on the road to Madrid in the Castilla-La Mancha region in Spain.  "But to get back to my journey," he writes, "I was riding on a grey donkey like Sancho Panza and the last thing I wanted was to meet anybody when, in the distance, I saw a gentleman walking along with his cloak on and his sword by his side, wearing light breeches and high boots" (147).  This gentleman, whose appearance, manners, and hard luck may superficially remind some of Don Quixote, will then fall in with Pablos for a spell in what looks like it could be a send-up of an adventure from Cervantes' recent runaway best-seller.  So what's the problem with such a tantalizing metafictional scene? It doesn't appear this way at all in my Spanish version!  At least, there's no mention of Sancho Panza in my Quevedo--just the detail that Pablos was riding on a "rucio de la Mancha" [gray horse from La Mancha] (II, 5, 95 in the Spanish text).  Is Alpert trying to embellish the Don Quixote-like "cameo" for English readers, using a variant text, or just making shit up?  It's hard to say.  While there are at least three Buscón manuscripts known to scholars in addition to various printed versions of the novel, Alpert never once mentions which version of Quevedo's text he's used as the source for his translation.  Kind of a big problem there, no?

While I wouldn't expect Alpert's "popular" Penguin translation of The Swindler to have the full critical apparatus of Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza's academic Crítica edition of La vida del Buscón given that they were probably put together with different audiences in mind, my concerns with not knowing Alpert's source text are compounded by disputes with his translation itself.  I've already mentioned elsewhere how his mistranslation of a raunchy joke about priests and prostitutes misses a wicked anti-clerical jab by Quevedo.  In addition, he muffs up simple translations often enough that I'm not sure whether he's just sloppy or whether he's actively trying to rewrite Quevedo.  Sloppy: Translating "four" years (120) instead of the correct "forty" years (Quevedo, 55) in the description of how long Pablos' uncle had worked as a hangman.  Actively rewriting: Substituting "man of leisure" (86) for "caballero" [gentleman or nobleman] (Quevedo, 12) when translating Pablos' stated goal for what he wants to become in life.  Granted, some of these quibbles are minor--but some are not.  In any event, they all tend to erode my confidence in the English version of the work.

As does Alpert himself.  If I can step away from the nitty gritty of the translation for a moment, I have to say that the personal side of himself he reveals in his introduction makes me less forgiving of his miscues as a translator.  He would almost certainly make a dud tour guide as well.  Check out these three asides: "The pícaro's goal is respectability, which means money, and of course he is keen to make the best showing he can in the world; Spaniards traditionally are" (7).  "The author satirizes at the same time the traditional Spanish preoccupation, quedar bien: to impress, to make a brave showing in the world.  No one can have failed to notice it who has been to Spain and seen how apparently poor people dress impeccably and spend their money freely" (9).  "Besides, that Spaniards are proud is a truism" (10). These comments, while they may not be as "racist" as many of the barbs in Quevedo's 17th century text, rub me the wrong way with their 20th century cultural stereotyping...and this from a British translator who discusses Spanish currency in terms of the "farthing" on page 85!  Maybe translators should just be seen and not heard, I don't know.  In any event, the sad thing is that Alpert's translation of The Swindler--as underwhelming and unreliable as it is in my estimation--is one of the few ways for English readers to experience a Spanish classic so wrongly comic that it almost landed its "anonymous" author in hot water with the Inquisition.  More on that in a day or two perhaps along with a quick look at some of the other targets of Quevedo's humor.

miércoles, 3 de noviembre de 2010

The Cairo Trilogy Readalong

After test-driving Naguib Mahfouz's sporty little Miramar over the summer, I knew I was ready to slide behind the wheel of his 1,360 page The Cairo Trilogy before the end of the year (please pardon the comparison, but I think the "manly man" in me is undoubtedly reacting to all the Persephone catalog love that I've been seeing around the blogosphere of late!).  As luck would have it, a few of my dearest blogging friends said they'd also be interested in reading this 1956-57 classic with me. Would you, too, care to join us?  If so, let me know and I'll add you to the list below.  In the meantime, the schedule is as follows:

December 26-27th: Palace Walk posts and discussions
January 30th-31st: Palace of Desire posts and discussions
February 27th-28th: Sugar Street posts and discussions

The dates above correspond to the last Sunday and Monday of each month, but feel free to post whenever you like (I'll collect links to your posts after mine are up to make the blog visiting easier).  Have you read part of The Cairo Trilogy already or just aren't sure that you want to commit to a three months-long group read with a bunch of strangers?  No problem!  Join us for a single book if you'd like.  You can also just join us for the discussions if that makes thing easier for you.  Anyway, hope some of you out there will consider reading along with us.  Cheers!

Which edition of The Cairo Trilogy should you read?
Alas, I have no idea as yet!  I've been eyeing the Everyman's Library omnibus edition up top because I like carrying unnecessarily heavy books around with me.  However, the Anchor three-pack above also looks pretty nifty and the volumes are sold separately for easier portability.  To complicate matters, Emily has a post here where she displays two more spiffy covers (from the UK's Transworld Publishers, Ltd., if I'm not mistaken).  Anybody have any advice on the best translation?

Probable Participants
Claire of kiss a cloud

martes, 2 de noviembre de 2010

La vida del Buscón, libro primero

La vida del Buscón (Crítica, sin fecha)
por Francisco de Quevedo
España, 1626

Hace seis meses, escribí un post dedicado a mi aprecio por el principio del Buscón y mi decepción con la traducción de la obra (abajo).  Después de un enorme intervalo, por fin lo terminé hoy y puedo decir que era un verdadero encanto aunque la traducción era malísima.  En el Libro Primero de la novela, el narrador se nos introduce como el hijo de una familia segoviana en cual el padre trabaja como barbero y ladrón y la madre trabaja como bruja y puta.  Aunque sus padres naturalmente quieren que el joven Pablos siga en sus propios pasos, él quiere convertirse en un "caballero" y por eso sale de Segovia en busca de un futuro mejor.  Escrito como el bildungsroman de un vago profesional, la primera parte de la obra incluye un sinnúmero de escenas cómicas como aquellas donde Pablos sufre a las manos de un avaro (del hambre) y de los estudiantes crueles (casi se ahorca durante una tormenta de saliva) antes de ponerse al tanto y convertirse en un buscón en Alcalá.  "Confieso que nunca me supo cosa tan bien", declara luego de su epifanía (52).   Sin obstante, al final del séptimo capítulo Pablos recibe noticias de un tío que su padre ha muerto y que su madre está una presa con la Inquisición a causa de su brujería.  Mientras tanto, Pablos regresa a Segovia para recoger la herencia.

Six months ago, I wrote a post about how jazzed I was by the beginning of the Buscón [The Swindler] and about how disappointed I was by Michael Alpert's English translation of the work (below).  After a long break, I finally finished the book today and am happy to report that it was a sheer delight even though the translation was a dud.*  In Book I of the novel, the narrator introduces himself to us as the son of a Segovian family in which the dad works as a barber and a thief and the mom works as a witch and a part-time prostitute.  Although his parents naturally want young Pablos to follow in their respective criminal footsteps, he wants to become a "gentleman" or a "nobleman" and thus leaves Segovia in search of a better future.  Written as the bildungsroman of a professional ne'er-do-well, the first part of the work includes an endless variety of comic scenes such as the ones where Pablos suffers at the hands of a miser (from starvation) and cruel students (he almost drowns under a hailstorm of spit and phlegm) before wising up and becoming a swindler in Alcalá.  "I must confess I never felt better in my life," he declares after his wake-up call (117).  At the end of the seventh chapter, though, Pablos receives news from an uncle that his father has died and that his mother is in danger of following suit since she's become a prisoner of the Inquisition for practicing witchcraft.  At this point, Pablos returns to Segovia to collect his inheritance.

Aunque he dicho más acerca del argumento de lo que intentaba, tengo que subrayar que lo mejor de la novela tenga que ver con el malévolo sentido de humor y los juegos verbales de Quevedo.  La madre de Pablos, por ejemplo, se introduce en una escena donde se enoja tanto que por descuido rompe "un rosario compuesto de los dientes de los muertos que siempre lleva consiga" (mi traducción, véase la nota**). Y mientras que el autor es capaz de hacer los juegos de palabras inocentes ("Dicen que era de muy buena cepa", el narrador dice de su padre al principio, "y, según él bebía, es cosa para creer" [9]), parece preferir el humor más arriesgado.  Mira, por ejemplo, a la escena en el capítulo VII donde una descripción del tío de Pablos es seguido con la descripción de la muerte del padre de Pablos por parte del tío:

"En este tiempo, vino a don Diego [el amigo y "maestro" de Pablos] una carta de su padre, en cuyo pliego venía otra de un tío mío llamado Alonso Ramplón, hombre allegado a la justicia, pues cuantas allí se habían hecho de cuarenta años a esta parte han pasado por sus manos.  Verdugo era, si va a decir la verdad, pero una águila en el oficio; vérsele hacer daba gana a uno de dejarse ahorcar" (55).

Hasta este punto, ningún problema. No obstante, en el próximo párrafo, el tío de Pablos dice con aire de naturalidad que "vuestro padre murió ocho días ha con el mayor valor que ha muerto hombre en el mundo; dígolo como quien lo guindó" (56).  Y después le coup de grâce: "Yo lo hice así.  Cayó sin encoger las piernas ni hacer gesto; quedó con una gravedad que no había más que pedir.  Hícele cuartos y dile por sepoltura los caminos.  Dios sabe lo que a mí me pesa de verle en ellos, haciendo mesa franca a los grajos.  Pero yo entiendo que los pasteleros desta tierra nos consolarán, acomodándole en los de a cuatro" (57).*** Para un blogger, es difícil superar una secuencia donde el humor negro se sigue de el humor canibalístico.  Por eso, voy a parar para el momento y regresaré más tarde en la semana con más reflexiones sobre el re-divertido Buscón.

Although I've said more about the plot than I'd intended to, I should stress that the best part of the novel has to do with Quevedo's wicked sense of humor and wordplay.  Pablos' mom, for example, is introduced in a scene where she gets so angry that she inadvertently smashes "a rosary of dead people's teeth that she always carried around with her" (86).**  And while the author's capable of making an innocent pun from time to time ("They say he came from very good stock," Pablos says about his father at the outset, "and that's not hard to believe considering how much liquid he consumed!" [85]), he usually seems to prefer a more devilish approach.  Note, for example, how Pablos' description of his uncle in Chapter 7 is mercilessly followed by the uncle's description of Pablos' father's death afterward here:

"About this time Don Diego [Pablos' friend and "master"] had a letter from his father and in the same envelope one from an uncle of mine named Alonso Yobb, a very virtuous man and well-known in Segovia for his passion for justice, especially final justice, because he'd been responsible for all those who had experienced it in the last four years.  In other words, he was a hangman, and a very able one too.  Seeing him at work made you feel like being hanged yourself" (120).

So far, so good.  In the next paragraph, though, Pablos' uncle casually reveals that "your father died a week ago as bravely as any man ever did.  That I can guarantee as I topped him myself" (120).  And then the coup de grâce: "One could not have asked for a more dignified death.  I quartered him and buried his remains along the roads.  God knows I can't bear to see the crows getting a free meal from him.  Still, I reckon the pastry-cooks will cheer us up by putting his bits in their four-real cakes" (121).***  For a blogger, it's awfully tough to top a sequence initiated with gallows humor and then followed up by cannibalistic humor.  With this in mind, I'll stop here for now and then return later in the week with more thoughts on the über-entertaining Buscón.

Don Francisco de Quevedo

*Los defectos de la traducción en inglés será un tema de uno de los otros post./The English translation's shortcomings will be a topic of one of the other posts (unless otherwise noted, all translations above are Alpert's) .
**No se puede encontrar esta descripción del rosario en mi edición de La vida del Buscón, basada en el manuscrito B según Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza.  Es posible que es un variante que se puede encontrar en uno de los otros dos manuscritos, pero el traductor británico nunca (Michael Alpert) nunca menciona sus "fuentes"./This description of the rosary isn't to be found in my edition of La vida del Buscón, which is based on manuscript B according to Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza.  It's possible that it's a variant that can be found in one of the other two manuscripts, but British translator Michael Alpert never mentions his "sources."
***Cabo Aseguinolaza tiene una nota informativa sobre este punto: "Esto es, en los pasteles de a cuatro: 'especie de empanadillas, hojaldradas y, por lo general, rellenas de carne, que costaban cuatro maravedís'.  Eran los pasteles más baratos; por ello, en la literatura de la época abundan las insinuaciones, o bien acusaciones directas, sobre la dudosa calidad y naturaleza del relleno."/Cabo Aseguinolaza has an enlightening footnote on this point: "This means, in the case of the pasteles [pastry] de a cuatro, 'a type of little empanada, or puff pastry, generally filled with meat, that cost 4 maravedís.'  They were the cheapest pastries; because of this, insinuations or even direct accusations about the questionable quality and nature of the filling abound in the literature of the era" [my translation].
  • Francisco de Quevedo (edición de Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza).  La vida del Buscón.  Barcelona: Crítica, n.d.
  • Michael Alpert, ed.  Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón).  London: Penguin, 1975.

sábado, 30 de octubre de 2010

Old School

Old School (Vintage, 2003)
by Tobias Wolff
USA, 2003

With apologies to those of you tired about hearing about Madame Bovary already, I'm quite certain that the occasionally uninvolving Old School suffered from being read in such close proximity to Flaubert's absolutely riveting classic.  In addition, Wolff's fake memoir also suffers in comparison with Robert Walser's 1909 Jakob von Gunten, which I read and loved last year, and Robert Musil's 1906 The Confusions of Young Törless, which I often wished I were reading in place of Old School, in terms of that whole boarding school setting thing.  Mostly, though, I think it suffered because I didn't always buy the narrator's voice when he was talking about his school days and his formation as a Hemingway-loving teen writer troubled by his half-Jewish identity. That being said, I suppose this was an OK read overall.  Wolff's a fine craftsman with a knack for the unexpected gem of a line ("She had a soft fleshy prettiness like girls in silent films," on page 159, was one of my descriptive favorites), and a few of the chapters--particularly the two where the narrator talks about a plagiarism incident that gets him kicked out of school--sucked me in with the writing.  What a shame then that one of the few female characters in the novel, the ex-writer Susan Friedman, gets so little face time in this "memoir" given that she's a far more compelling creation than the male narrator who plagiarizes her story.  I think Wolff's work, which tends to play it a little safe from my perspective, could have used more of the Friedman character's energy and unpredictability.  (

Tobias Wolff

Old School was Sarah's October pick for the Wolves in Winter/Non-Structured Reading group (name change, and reading list for 2011, pending).  Next month, the ladies and I will be putting Emily's selection, Ricardas Gavelis' Vilnius Poker, to the test on or around the last Friday of the month.  Please join us if interested!

viernes, 29 de octubre de 2010

Balzac Loses a Book

Tuesday, 30 March [1875]
Paul Lacroix confirmed in conversation with me today what Gavarni had told me about Balzac's thriftiness in the expenditure of his sperm.  He was perfectly happy playing the love game up to the point of ejaculation, but he was unwilling to go any further.  Sperm for him was an emission of cerebral matter and as it were a waste of creative power; and after one unfortunate incident, in the course of which he had forgotten his theories, he arrived at Latouche's exclaiming: 'I lost a book this morning.'
(Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Pages from the Goncourt Journals [translated by Robert Baldick], New York: NYRB Classics, 2007, 215-216)
Unofficial coup d'envoi of my 2010-2011 French literature reading project!

jueves, 28 de octubre de 2010

Madame Bovary, troisième partie

Madame Bovary (GF Flammarion, 2006)
by Gustave Flaubert
France, 1857

"Madame Bovary itself neither praises adultery in order to condemn marriage nor attacks adultery in order to defend marriage.  It creates instead a drastically unstable social and ethical universe in which as fundamental an opposition as that between adultery and marriage threatens to become a distinction without a difference.  Emma's real tragedy is that little of substance differentiates her husband from her lovers, her ordinary reality from her imagined one.  Seeming opposites become deadly repetitions of one another, and the despised husband seems in the end to be the only one who loves her.  Not only does he keep an adoring vigil at her coffin while others sleep or are absent; he ends his life imitating hers as he establishes Emma as an undefiled romantic idol despite all evidence to the contrary."  --Dominick LaCapra, "Two Trials," 729, in Denis Hollier, ed., A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

True story.  I was so shaken when I finished Madame Bovary the other night that I almost immediately e-mailed Frances thanking her for recommending the book but warning her that I might not have my emotions in check in time for this post.  A slight exaggeration, of course, but really, what a stupendous read!  In any event, the Dominick LaCapra quotation above (part of a short but incisive article dealing with the twin obscenity trials brought against Flaubert and Baudelaire in 1857) calmly touches on a couple of things I thought were key to the novel's success.  First, there's that whole business about the "unstable social and ethical universe" created by Flaubert.  This, in conjunction with a lack of moralizing in the novel, made the characterizations feel richer, more unpredictable, more lifelike to me.  Secondly, I think LaCapra is right on target in pointing out that the "real tragedy" in Madame Bovary isn't the fact that Emma feels trapped in an unfulfilling marriage but that Charles--for all his flaws as the despised husband--is also the one "true" love in Emma's life.  At the very least, this notion, just as much as the disturbing scene where the title character calmly ingests a mouthful of arsenic to achieve peace with the universe, is one of the things that really, really got to me as the novel wound down to its unforgiving end.

Madame Bovary rough draft

The unique qualities of Flaubert's EpiPen style prose and storytelling notwithstanding, I'm not sure he could have gotten under my skin with such a misanthropic tale about adultery and unrequited love on technique alone.  I think I finally sensed a hint of the soul behind the ruthless wordsmith.  That having been said, there's no denying that the writing did another number on me here.  I loved, for example, how the "moral" instability alluded to above also extended to the style of writing itself--for, like the scenes late in Part II where Emma's imagination or POV seemed to either merge with or actively be at war with nature by turns, the one in III, 8 where she's leaving Rodolphe's estate after he's rejected her plea for financial assistance seems to go beyond mere "realism":

"La nuit tombait, des corneilles volaient.

Il lui sembla tout à coup que des globules couleur de feu éclataient dans l'air comme des balles fulminantes en s'aplatissant, et tournaient, tournaient, pour aller se fondre dans la neige, entre les branches des arbres.  Au milieu de chacun d'eux, la figure de Rodolphe apparaissait.  Ils se multiplièrent, et ils se rapprochaient, la pénétraient; tout disparut.  Elle reconnut les lumières des maisons, qui rayonnaient de loin dans le brouillard" (388).

["Night was falling, rooks were flying overhead.

It seemed to her suddenly that little flame-colored globes were exploding in the air like bullets bursting and flattening, and spinning over and over, then melting on the snow, among the branches of the trees.  In the center of each, Rodolphe's face appeared.  They were multiplying, coming together, penetrating her; everything vanished.  She recognized the lights of the houses, shining from a distance through the mist" (Lydia Davis' translation, 278).]

In addition to these wonderful set-pieces, I was also impressed by Flaubert's often biting use of one-liners for dramatic "miniaturizations" and Tacitean summations of character.  Three in particular struck a chord with me:  "Ce furent trois jours pleins, exquis, splendides, une vraie lune de miel" ["They were three full, exquisite, splendid, days, a real honeymoon"] we read in III, 3, on the subject of one of Emma's and Léon's adulterous trysts (328 in Flaubert, 227 in Davis); "Mais le dénigrement de ceux que nous aimons toujours nous en détache quelque peu.  Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains" ["But vilifying those we love always detaches us from them a little.  We should not touch our idols: their gilding will remain on our hands"], we're warned in III, 6, after a lovers' quarrel (355, 250 in Davis); "Et il la regardait avec des yeux d'une tendresse comme elle n'en avait jamais vu" ["And he looked at her with a love in his eyes that she had never seen before"], we read in III, 8, finally encountering a scene where Charles is at last appreciated in a way by his spouse--on her deathbed (391, 281 in Davis).  Whilst I'm still not entirely sure what Flaubert's treatment of his characters reveals about his worldview as a person, I have to say that this quintessentially depressing novel of his maintained my interest down to the very last line (itself a master stroke of bleakness, by the way).  Génial!  (