sábado, 30 de noviembre de 2013

The Radetzky March

The Radetzky March [Radetzkymarsch] (Everyman's Library, 1996)
by Joseph Roth [translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel]
Austria, 1932

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died.  If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased.  Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap.  If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time.  For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house.  That was how things were back then.  Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten.  But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.
(The Radetzky March, 112) 

Just as one of the worst possible things that could happen to you in your reading life is discovering for yourself that a super famous novel really isn't all that good, so one of the best things surely has to be finding out that a celebrated book is even better than expected.  On that note, I'm so, so glad I read Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March for this year's German Literature Month as it joins works like Bolaño's 2666, Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Grossman's Life and Fate, and Tolstoy's War and Peace on the list of things that almost make me proud to call myself a human or something.  I kid, of course, but only slightly.  In any event, for a novel in which Death with a capital "D" figures as one of the major recurring characters, one of Roth's most surprising achievements here is the way he generates concern for his mortal characters even when the reader knows what's in store for them.  From the outset, for example, you know that both civilian District Captain Trotta and his military son Carl Joseph are doomed despite their family relationship to the so-called Hero of Solferino (an ancestor who saved the Emperor's life in a battle during happier times); amid the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire and the imminent onset of World War I, the only mystery is how and when the novel's characters will march off to their unhappy ends.  So what's Roth's secret?  He is, among other things, expert at creating buy-in by telegraphing how war will mercilessly upend his characters' future lives: "Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling. They had been born in peacetime and become officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers," he writes of the hours before an unnecessary duel.  "They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death.  Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War" (91).  He's also great with the noncombatants' death scenes.  Jacques, the faithful servant to the district captain and a tie to the golden days of 1859 since he actually served the Hero of Solferino in the flesh, gets this star farewell turn when it momentarily looks like he might make a sudden recovery from illness: "Now he looked like an old rogue, and a thin giggling emerged from his throat.  He laughed.  He laughed nonstop.  The pillows trembled softly, and the bedstead even creaked a bit.  The district captain likewise smirked.  Yes, Death was coming to old Jacques like a vivacious girl in spring, and Jacques opened his old mouth and showed Death his sparse yellow teeth.  He lifted his hand, pointed to the window, and still giggling, shook his head.  'Nice day today,' the district captain observed" (146).  Politically, he's deft enough to take one character's concise but drunken explanation that "the Fatherland no longer exists!...This era no longer wants us!  This era wants to create independent nation-states!  People no longer believe in God.  The new religion is nationalism" (161-162, ellipses added) and humorously but convincingly turn it into another character's long-overdue wake-up call: "The old revolver that Herr von Trotta had taken along pressed in his back pocket.  What good was a revolver?  They saw no bears and no wolves in the borderland.  All they saw was the collapse of the world!" (164).  Above all perhaps, Roth is masterful at making you wonder whether he's a hopeless humanist or an optimistic cynic; at the very least, the tension between these two positions helps explain the "pedagogical" interest and the primal, Iliad-like feel of two scenes where Roth takes on the matter of human agency amid the build-up to the Great War.  The unspoken questions: What can we learn from ourselves?  What can we learn from fiction?  Here is how Roth answers.  In the first scene, Lieutenant von Trotta seems to have a rare face to face with his own failings as a gambler and an alcoholic but does not seem all that sincere about it in the moment: "It was obvious--it was, as they say, clear as the nose on his face--that Lieutenant Trotta, the grandson of the Hero of Solferino, in part caused the doom of others and in part was drawn along by the doomed, and that in any case he was one of those ill-fated persons on whom an evil power had cast an evil eye" (256).  In the second, the narrator steps away from Carl Joseph's rationalizations about his own agency to deliver this extended zinger (264):

The lieutenant remembered that autumn night in the cavalry garrison when he had heard Onufrij stamping behind him.  And he recalled the military humoresques he had read in the slim green-bound booklets at the military hospital.  They teemed with poignant orderlies, uncouth peasant boys with hearts of gold.  Now Lieutenant Trotta had no literary taste, and whenever he heard the word literature he could think of nothing but Theodor Körner's drama Zriny and that was all, but he had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters.  Lieutenant Trotta wasn't experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.
All in all, Lieutenant Trotta's experiences amounted to very little.

Cagey words, not least for the way they don't permit the reader to remain indifferent to Roth's characters or their flaws.  I look forward to a reread some day.

 Joseph Roth (1894-1939), c. 1914

domingo, 24 de noviembre de 2013

Silvina Ocampo x 3

"Autobiografía de Irene," "La furia" & "Las invitadas" (Emecé Editores, 2009)
by Silvina Ocampo
Argentina, 1948, 1959 & 1961

En la puerta de un almacén tuve que presenciar la pelea de dos hombres.  No quise ver el cuchillo secreto, no quise ver la sangre.  La lucha parecía un abrazo desesperado.  Se me antojó que la agonía de uno de ellos y el terror anhelante del otro eran la final reconcilación.  Sin poder borrar un instante la imagen atroz, tuve que presenciar la nítida muerte, la sangre que a los pocos días se mezcló con la tierra de la calle.

[In the doorway of a store, I had to witness a fight between two men.  I didn't want to see the hidden knife, I didn't want to see the blood.  The struggle resembled a desperate embrace.  I fancied that the agony of one of them and the longed for terror of the other was the final reconciliation.  Without being able to erase that dreadful image for one instant, I had to witness the spotless death, the blood which in a few days would be mixed with the street's earth.]
(Autobiografía de Irene, 158, w/my translation)

Given Silvina Ocampo's impeccable Buenos Aires cultural pedigree--she was, after all, the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, the close friend of Borges and J.R. Wilcock, and the youngest sister of Sur founder Victoria Ocampo--should she really be considered as an Argentinean Literature of Doomster alongside all those full-on freaks like Osvaldo Lamborghini and Néstor Perlongher?  That is, does she have the requisite street cred?  Judging by the three title tales from her 1948, 1959 and 1961 short story collections, I'd say that the answers are probably, a resounding yes, and maybe, just maybe respectively.  You, of course, are free to decide for yourself, hipster. "Autobiografía de Irene" ["Autobiography of Irene"] is prob. the most conventional of the three stories under consideration here, but it's really only conventional from a literature of the fantastic point of view: like a reverse Ireneo Funes from Borges' "Funes el memorioso," its weary 25-year old narrator Irene Andrade is afflicted with a strange condition in which she can see the future but can't remember the past (Irene/Ireneo, get it?).  Knowing that her memories will only return as the anticipated hour of her death approaches, Irene takes advantage of the fateful day to reflect on how she predicted and mourned her father's death a full three months in advance, witnessed a knife fight that she knew would end fatally, watched kids pass by her balcony on the way to school bearing the faces of the adults they would eventually become, and even avoided trying to meet her future boyfriend because she foresaw how his life would end as a result of a date with destiny with an oncoming train.  Wouldn't having clairvoyant powers have its compensations, though?  Not in Irene's world where, paper rose in hand, redolent of loss, she says that she was happy before her father's death--"si es que existe la felicidad" ["if, that is, happiness exists"] (157).  Feeling guilty for having caused or at least not having been able to do anything to prevent the death of her loved ones, she later adds how she fervently wished for "la muerte, única depositaria de mis recuerdos" ["death, sole repository of my memories"] (160).  A circular narrative structure (the story ends with the same words with which it begins) and the arrival of an unknown woman (Irene's doppelganger?) may lead the reader to question whether the narrator has finally died or is just stuck in a metaphysical endless loop with or without a double in tow.  Ocampo's gruesome but vividly written "La furia" (translatable as either "The Fury" or just "Fury" as the story plays off both the mythological and the non-mythological significance of the word in its tale of a young child's murder), on the other hand, is surely an undeniable Doom urtext in the sense that it's almost as disturbing as, say, Marcel Schwob's "Blanche la sanglante" ["Bloody Blanche"] or Alejandra Pizarnik's "La condesa sangriente" ["The Bloody Countess"] from a thematic point of view. Even if the confession of a madman style resolution of the story is less structurally inventive than the one provided by the earlier "Autobiografía de Irene," its wild writing and lurid, nightmarish imagery help make up for that deficiency.  Winifred, the supposed love interest of the unnamed narrator, is introduced to us as the Filipina nanny of a young Buenos Aires child: "La conocí en Palermo.  Sus ojos brillaban, ahora me doy cuenta, como los de las hienas.  Me recordaba a una de las Furias" ["I met her in Palermo.  Her eyes were shining, I now realize, like those of a hyena's.  She reminded me of one of the Furies"] (230).  During her Saturday afternoon trysts with the narrator, Winifred cops to how she accidentally killed her best friend Lavinia as a child in the Phillipines by setting her angel wings on fire when they were both dressed up for a feast day of the Virgin Mary celebration.  Shades of the Lavinia from The Aeneid, "ripe for marriage," whose hair catches on fire during a sacrifice at the altar?  Perhaps.  But suffice it to say that the little angelic friend met her end "carbonizada" ["carbonized"] (232), a revelation that eventually leads our schoolboy narrator to suspect that Winifred only "quería redimirse para Lavinia, cometiendo mayores crueldades con las demás personas.  Redimirse a través de la maldad" ["wanted to redeem herself for Lavinia, committing greater cruelties against other people.  Redeeming herself through evil" (234).  Sounds heavy and yet, how I do explain the humor of the scene where Winifred wants to etch the narrator's name and hers boyfriend/girlfriend style on the most pornographic graffiti-ridden surface in a public park?  Or the surrealistic strangeness of the scenes involving little plates of milk left outside Winifred's home to ward off vipers or her accounts of the dead rats and live spiders placed in loved ones' beds by the presumably kinder, gentler childhood Fury?  Since "Autobiografía de Irene" and "La furia" both touch on the notion of childhood trauma in their own dramatically different ways--the earlier story with its pensive and world-weary tone and its suggestion that there's nothing that can be done to thwart fate, the latter with its figurative aesthetic representation of a cracked fairy tale-like kingdom where a minotaur stalks the perfectly manicured and otherwise opulent prose grounds--I suppose it's only fitting that "Las invitadas" ["The Guests"] offers yet another approach to the same general topic (Ocampo is both imaginative and obsessive, you see).  However, this particular offering showcases a much more humorous side of the writer via a story in which young female personifications of the seven deadly sins mysteriously show up at a young boy's birthday party to initiate him into the world of adulthood.  While the laughs here are largely situational--as in the case of the batty old maid who, left alone to take care of the boy while his parents are on vacation in Brazil, wants to serve the young boy his birthday cake for breakfast because "por la tarde la torta cae pesada el estómago, como la naranja que por la mañana es de oro, por la tarde de plata y por la noche mata" ["just like oranges are gold in the mornings, silver in the afternoon, and kill you at night, cake is too heavy on the stomach in the afternoon"] (473)--the larger, lost in translation irony is that nobody but the birthday boy Lucio is expecting any guests because he's home sick with the measles.  That is, all the invitados (male and female guests) have said they would stay away from the party for fear of contagion; only Lucio foresees the arrival of las invitadas (female-only guests) when they knock on the door and he smoothes down his hair in the mirror in preparation.  "Ningún varón entre todos estos invitados" ["No male among all these guests"] exclaims the maid.  "¡Qué extraño!" ["How strange!"].  The upshot of all this?  According to the maid, Lucio ends up developing a crush on the scheming girl who "supo conquistarlo sin ser bonita.  Las mujeres son peores que los varones" ["knew how to conquer him without being good-looking.  Women are worse than men"] (476).  And the punchline that immediately follows?

Cuando volvieron de su viaje los padres de Lucio, no supieron quiénes fueron las niñas que lo habían visitado para el día de su cumpleaños y pensaron que su hijo tenía relaciones clandestinas, lo que era, y probablemente seguiría siendo, cierto.
Pero Lucio ya era un hombrecito.

[When Lucio's parents returned from their trip, they didn't learn who the girls were who had visited him on his birthday and they thought that their son had clandestine relationships, which was, and probably continues being, true.
But Lucio was already a little man, un hombrecito.]

Note: according to the number of candles on his birthday cake, a six year old hombrecito at that!

These three stories appear in Silvina Ocampo's Cuentos completos I (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1999) on pp. 153-165 ("Autobiografía de Irene"), 230-236 ("La furia") and 473-476 ("Las invitadas").  On a related note, Rise of in lieu of a field guide reviewed Ocampo's "The Golden Hare" ["La liebre dorada"], one of the few stories from La furia to be translated into English to date, as part of last year's ALoD.  Check out his post here.

miércoles, 20 de noviembre de 2013

Evita vive

"Evita vive"
by Néstor Perlongher
Argentina, 1975

"All the machos in this country ought to envy you, kid; you just gone done fucking Eva Perón" ["Todos los machos del país te envidirían, chiquito; te acabás de coger a Eva Perón"] (32).  In the event that it isn't yet clear, Néstor Perlongher's 1975 short story "Evita vive" ["Evita Lives"], a sordid and way pre-"God Save the Queen" triptych in which Eva Perón, or an all too lifelike ghostly revenant, makes three successive three-page appearances blowing a sailor, interrupting a drug bust on behalf of some transvestite dopers, and getting fucked by a male hustler in a seedy hotel when not actively fingering herself or being fingered by others, could have been tailor made for the Argentinean Literature of Doom.  So what makes the text "transgressive" and not just an exercise in dubious taste?  For one thing, it's written with real brio: the conversational tone, the slang, even the characters' senses of humor and petty jealousies all read as if somebody were telling you the story over beers in a bar or something.  For another, the evocation of Evita isn't at all predictable or one-sided despite the reverse mythification process her character's subjected to.  Walking a fine line between edgy black humor and elegy, for example, Perlongher has one character describe his first run in with the former first lady, in real life a victim of cancer at the age of 33 in 1952, as follows: "Y era ella nomás, inconfundible, con esa piel brillosa, brillosa, y las manchitas del cáncer por abajo, que  --la verdad-- no le quedaban nada mal" ["And it was really her, unmistakable, with that lustrous, lustrous skin and the cancer splotches down below, which--in truth--didn't look bad on her at all"]  (24).  Pushing the envelope after recounting his encounter with Evita, the hotel room hustler adds: "En la pieza había como un olor a muerta que no me gustó nada" ["There was something like the smell of a dead woman in the room, which I didn't care for at all"] (32).  Too over the top for you?  I understand.  On the other hand, it's hard not to sympathize with either the fictional Evita when one character tells her that sailors can't be counted on ("Con los generales tampoco, me acuerdo que dijo ella, y estaba un poco triste" ["'Neither can generals,' I remember her saying, and she was a little sad"]) (25) or with Perlongher himself when he lines up "la yegua" ["the old bag"] (28) in his more politically-oriented satire sights.  A messianic Evita at the drug pad: "Grasitas, mis grasitas, Evita lo vigila todo, Evita va a volver por este barrio y por todos los barrios para que no les hagan nada a sus descamisados...  Ahora debo irme, debo volver al cielo" ["People, my people, Evita watches over everything, Evita's going to return to this neighborhood and to all the neighborhoods so that nothing bad happens to her poor, Peronist children...  But now I should go, I ought to return to heaven"] (29).  Ironically for such a scandalous, sexually in your face tale, though, Perlongher--"militante trotskista, delegado estudiantil y uno de los fundadores del Frente de Liberación Homosexual en la Argentina" ["a militant Trotskyist, student delegate, and one of the founders of the Homosexual Liberation Front in Argentina"] (biographical info lifted from the inside front cover flap of this edition)--chose to leave an explanatory note appended to the original work stating that "estos textos juegan en torno a la literalidad de esa consigna, haciendo aparecer a Evita 'viviendo' situaciones conflictivas y marginales" ["these texts play on the notion of the literality of that slogan (i.e 'Evita Lives,' which was employed by the Peronists), making Evita appear 'living out' tense and marginal situations"] (33).  In other words, I await your lack of comments in response to this post.
Néstor Perlongher (1949-1992)
Perlongher, Néstor.  Evita vive y otros relatos.  Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos editor, 2009, 21-33.
Image at top
"Dios salve a Evita" ["God Save Evita']
artist unknown

domingo, 17 de noviembre de 2013

Bahía Blanca

Bahía Blanca (Anagrama, 2012)
por Martín Kohan
Argentina, 2012

Un narrador obsesivo, una historia de amor y un crimen pasional + dos viajes de Buenos Aires a Bahía Blanca = una suerte de policial o thriller argentino que para mí era, si no exactamente mediocre, sí nada de este mundo.  ¿Por qué Bahía Blanca?  Pues, no estoy seguro.  Aunque el narrador nos dice al principio que él se fugó a la ciudad portuaria porque "ninguna persona que yo conozca ha dicho nada bueno de Bahía Blanca, y fue por eso que la elegí como destino" (7), no es menos cierto que, aparte de unos pasajes no particularmente importantes dedicados al color local, con más tiempo para los viajes la novela bien podría haber sido llamada BarilocheUshuaia o algo por el estilo (bueno, me doy cuenta que Bariloche, de Andrés Neuman, ya existe, pero me entendés, ¿no?).  Otra cosa que me dejó perplejo: el narrador, un tal Mario Novoa, se encuentra con un viejo amigo en algún momento por pura casualidad y casi en seguida decide confesarse culpable por un delito violento.  Entendible en un libro que tiene ecos de Crimen y castigo --a veces ecos sardónicos-- pero poco creíble a la vez.  Por otra parte, varios aspectos del estilo y del sentido de humor de Kohan me gustaron mucho.  Por ejemplo, hay un episodio cerca del final escrito como una serie de descripciones de alta velocidad que me acordó de lo mejor de Manuel Puig: "Los dos insultos que profiere el motociclista al que encierra al arrancar el viejo del Toyota Corolla son: forro y boludo" (228).  Aún mejor, hay dos escenas largas sobre el boxeo, "boxeo de verdad" como dice un personaje (203), que pulsan con una intensidad palpable.  ¡Cómo me gustaría si Kohan escribiera un libro de crónicas sobre el deporte!  Lo compraría sin pensarlo, sin vacilar un momento.  ¿Qué tiene que ver el boxeo con el argumento de Bahía Blanca?  Para Novoa, una lección que tiene que ver con su historia sentimental es ésta: el nocaut milagroso al final de una lucha histórica famosa demuestra que "no hay nada que no pueda revertirse, ningún hecho que no pueda deshacerse, cosa alguna que impida del todo que alguien logre volver atrás" (211).  ¿La pelea?  La inolvidable victoria de Galíndez sobre Kates de 1976.  Si vos estés de acuerdo con el personaje o no, para mí lo importante es algo mucho más sencillo: la escritura de Kohan sobre el boxeo es cargada de electricidad, como si en afirmación de lo que dijo Cortázar al opinar que "un buen 'match' de box es tan hermoso como un cisne".  Vos, ¿qué decís?

Al salir de los respectivos rincones para disputar el último round, todo el mundo parece haberlo comprendido.  Por eso en el estadio colmado brota espontáneo un rugido unánime: Galíndez destrozado ha llegado ya casi al final, perderá como un valiente, hay gritos de admiración.  Él mismo tal vez lo entiende también, porque en mitad del agotamiento que lo acaba y de las lesiones visibles que lo aquejan, se planta con relativa vitalidad a mantenerse allí por tres minutos más, los tres últimos que aún le quedan.  ¿Y Richie Kates?  Richie Kates parece darse por vencido a su vez ante la conmovedora capacidad de ese coloso para sufrir y sufrir y sufrir sin por eso doblegarse del todo.  Le seguiría pegando a mansalva a lo largo de todo este decimoquinto round; seguirá tallando en su cara las facciones grotescas de un monstruo consumado; abrirá por enésima vez de una trompada la herida de la ceja derecha; salpicará y se salpicará con sangre golpeando esa cara nuevamente empapada; aflojará costillas, arruinará una boca, se lucirá, será campeón.  Pero, al parecer, ya no conseguirá voltearlo (210).

Martín Kohan

N.B. Mario de QUADERNO RIBADABIA ha escrito una reseña de Bahía Blanca que se puede encontrar aquí.

viernes, 15 de noviembre de 2013

El limonero real

El limonero real (Seix Barral, 2010)
por Juan José Saer
Francia, 1974

Si El limonero real sea o no sea la mejor de todas las novelas que he leído en este año, qué lástima que esta obra estupenda y profundamente introspectiva escrita por el argentino Juan José Saer todavía no esté disponible en traducción en inglés.  Por lo que se refiere al mundo de la publicación de libros, eso significa nada menos que un fracaso.  En todo caso, dentro de una novela en que el argumento se parece a un viaje hizo sobre un río de tiempo como si narrado a cámara lenta, es el último día del año para las familias de pobladores que viven entre las islas cerca de la costa santafesina en el interior de la Argentina.  El pescador jubilado Wenceslao asiste a una fiesta de casi todo el día a la casa de su cuñado y mejor amigo Rogelio junto con varios otros parientes y amigos, pero él es un poco pobre de espíritu al banquete a causa de la doble ausencia de su mujer, que todavía mantiene el luto por su hijo único unos seis años después de su muerte, y del hijo muerto mismo, que vive en los pensamientos y recuerdos preocupados de Wenceslao: ambos Wenceslao y su mujer piensan que todo hubiera sido mejor si el padre había muerto en vez del hijo.  Aunque Saer sea demasiado astuto para subrayar repetidas veces lo patético del argumento, debo probablemente notar que el epígrafe de Góngora que se puede encontrar abajo, él mismo parte de un "poem about redemption and communion...drawn from the parable of the Good Shepherd" ["un poema sobre la redención y la comunión...sacado de la parábola del buen pastor"] (Diane Chaffee-Sorace, Gongora's Shorter Poetic Masterpieces in Translation, 189, mi traducción), enfatiza algunas de las grandes preocupaciones emotivas de la novela.  ¿Cómo se puede aguantar un dolor de esta enormidad?  ¿Es el amor y apoyo de los parientes y los amigos un bálsamo suficiente?  ¿Debe uno poner todas sus esperanzas en la vida futura para deshacer los agravios de este mundo?  Aunque la novela reflexiona en la natura estilo Jano de "el tiempo y su depósito, la memoria" (27) como una respuesta posible a todas estas cuestiones, basta decir que el texto se desarrolla de manera tan meticulosamente observado e incluso mundana que algunos de sus aspectos más conmovedores entran a hurtadillas.  Quizá mundana no sea el verbo correcto.  A veces propuso como la novela la más exigente y la más experimental de Saer, El limonero real es en realidad una lectura interesantísima y vigorizante que ostenta de los trucos saerianos acostumbrados como los juegos de puntos de perspectiva narrativos, saltos temporales, el equivalente literario de un tracking shot dilatado, et cétera, narrado en un capítulo único con flashbacks y flashforwarding, una mezcla de narración en primera y tercera persona, y  --para la primera vez en mi historia con Saer--  incluso una sección de diez páginas cerca del desenlace escrita como un cuento de hadas.  Esa última sección, te lo aseguro, se me puso la piel de gallina.  ¡Qué bárbaro!
Whether or not El limonero real (France, 1974) will turn out to be the single best novel I'll read all year, what a shame that this terrific, intensely introspective work from the Argentine Juan José Saer isn't yet available in English translation.  In publishing terms, that's just an epic fail.  In any case, in a novel that's likely too lacking in plot for anybody in a really big hurry to paddle against Saer's slow motion river of time, it's the last day of the year for the humble working families living among the hardscrabble islands near the coast in Argentina's Santa Fe province.  Retired fisherman Wenceslao attends a nearly full day long New Year's Eve gathering at the home of his best friend and brother-in-law Rogelio alongside various other family members and friends, but the festive mood at the get together is dampened because of the dual absences of Wenceslao's wife, still in mourning for the death of their only son some six years earlier and now a stay at home recluse, and the departed son himself, who maintains a looming, phantasmal presence in Wenceslao's mind via the guilt-ridden thoughts that surround his memory--both Wenceslao and his wife agree that things would have turned out so much better had the father only perished in place of the son.  Even though Saer's way too smart a writer to hammer you over the head with appeals to pathos, I should probably note that the Góngora epigraph that can be found below, itself a fragment from a "poem about redemption and communion...drawn from the parable of the Good Shepherd" (Chaffee-Sorace, 189), really drives home some of the novel's wrenching emotional concerns.  How does one cope with grief of this magnitude?  Is the love of family and friends enough of a balm?  Must one look to an afterlife for the wrongs of this world to be righted in another? Although the novel meditates on the Janus-like nature of "el tiempo y su depósito, la memoria" ["time and its deposit, memory"] (27) as one possible response to these questions, the text itself is delivered in such a meticulously observed, almost mundane way that some of its more poignant aspects kind of sneak up on you.  But maybe mundane really isn't the right choice of words.  Sometimes referred to as Saer's most demanding and most experimental novel, El limonero real is actually a bracing, absorbing read that sports the writer's usual assortment of emphases on narrative points of view, Faulknerian shifts in time, the literary equivalent of the extended tracking shot, etc., all told in one continuous "chapter" replete with a prolific use of flashbacks and fastforwarding, a mix of third person and one extended piece of first person narration, and even--the first time I've ever seen this from the novelist--a 10 page section near the end delivered in the form of a fairy tale.  That last section, I don't mind telling you, fairly gave me the chills, but I guess you'll have to take my word for it unless you're ready, willing, and able to take Saer on in Spanish.  It'd be totally worth it, trust me, for a dip into these tonic metaphysical waters.  Phenomenal stuff.

Juan José Saer (1937-2005)

Oveja perdida ven
sobre mis hombros que hoy
no sólo tu pastor soy
sino tu pasto también.

[Lost sheep, climb
Upon my shoulders, since today
Not only am I your Shepherd,
But I am also your sustenance.]
[This English translation of the opening four lines of Góngora's letrilla "Oveja perdida, ven" was borrowed from Diane Chaffee-Sorace's dual language Góngora's Shorter Poetic Masterpieces in Translation, Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010, 178.]

lunes, 4 de noviembre de 2013

Help a él

Help a él (Alfaguara, 2009)
by Fogwill
Argentina, 1983

One of the more curious things I've seen Borges taken to task for over the years is the idea that his oeuvre is so lacking in sex and romance that it might almost be classified as asexual as a whole.  Fortunately for Borges and his admirers, in the Argentinean Literature of Doom: Año 2 year of 1983, Fogwill came to JLB's rescue so to speak with this graphic sex-ridden, scatological, and drug use-filled parody of Borges' "El aleph" in which a vibrator referred to as "el concejal" ["the Town Councillor"] plays an all too prominent role.  Shall I continue?  Although I'm not sure how many other people could have even dreamed up a Borges meets Osvaldo Lamborghini hallucination of this nature, Fogwill mostly pulls it off with a pair of nifty Borgesian anagrams (Help a él = "El aleph," of course, and the narrator's suicide muse Vera Ortiz Beti is a not so subtle re-scrambling of "The Aleph"'s Beatriz Viterbo sans the second "B" for Borges, who's never mentioned by name in the novella), a frisky sense of humor, a series of Buenos Aires in-jokes, and a surprisingly tender ending given all the bodily fluid excesses and occasional sadomasochism that precede it.  Those sex scenes are something else, though, and I don't mean that in a good way!  Thankfully, the humor is both verbal and visual: in one instance, the uncle of the narrator's writer friend Laiseca calls his nephew a great writer before quickly adding: "--... Lo que quiere decir --agregó-- que será un perfecto fracasado.  ¡Lástima que la prima no viva para apreciar el éxito de su fracaso...!" ["'Which means,' he added, 'that he'll be a perfect failure.  What a  shame that his aunt isn't alive to witness the success of his failure!'"] (246); in another, the narrator notes how the photos of Evita and Perón on the wall of Laiseca's bedroom are accompanied by others of Mao, Mussolini, Hitler and Oliveira Salazar (249).  The in-jokes, too, are both literary and political.  Adolfo B. Laiseca, the narrator's "perfect failure" of an acquaintance, bears a name that pays homage to both Borges' well-known writer friend Adolfo Bioy Casares and Fogwill's lesser-known writer friend Alberto Laiseca, for example, and there's another reference to an "inédito de Leonor Acevedo, que atesora Piglia" ["an unpublished work by Leonor Acevedo which Piglia possesses"] (261) which would seem to be an approving wink at the stunt that Ricardo Piglia pulled off in 1975 when he published an original novella titled Homenaje a Roberto Arlt [Homage to Roberto Arlt] and passed it off as the critical edition of a lost Arlt manuscript that had just been discovered.  It may help you appreciate Fogwill's literary joke more if you realize that his Arlt, Leonor Acevedo, just happens to share the same maiden name as Borges' mother; similarly, it may help you appreciate Fogwill's edgy political game more if you realize that the name of Vera Ortiz Beti's friend, Idische Zeitung, was the name of a Buenos Aires Yiddish weekly that was once closed down by the military government in the 1940s and that another minor character is an arms importer who likes to play cards at the nearby naval base.  Considering that Fogwill's previous claims to fame for me were the writing of "Muchacha punk" (one of my all-time favorite short stories), the penning of Los pichiciegos (one of my all-time favorite Spanish-language novels), and the nicknaming of García Márquez as García Marketing (one of my all-time favorite dismissive nicknames), I'd have to say that even though Help a él doesn't quite resonate for me at those same sorts of levels, it's still quite the one-stop shopping experience for anyone desiring a late Dirty War era read that insults "turistas argentinoides" ["Argentinoid tourists"] playing Beatles songs  in Uruguay (242) and riffs on the concepts of Buenos Aires as a "puerta falsa en el tiempo" ["trap door in time"] (Ibid.)) and the way that the dead live on in "las memorias y las fabulaciones de los vivos" ["the memories and the inventions of the living"] (284) all while--hmm, how can I put this delicately?--sexing Borges' cherry.

Help a él appears on pages 235-284 of the Fogwill anthology Cuentos completos (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 2009).  Naturally, this novella (and hardly anything else for that matter by the mighty Fogwill [1941-2010]) isn't yet available in English translation.

viernes, 1 de noviembre de 2013

German Literature Month, the Argentinean Literature of Doom: Año 2, and the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong

With Novemberfest suddenly upon us, I'd like to put in a belated plug for the German Literature Month festivities being hosted by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.  Still not sure what I'm going to read for the event this time around, but I'm guessing that this is probably a good excuse to indulge in some more vitriol from our good friend Karl Kraus in between the more civilized Fausts and the Magic Mountains and the Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbiers and whatnot.
Speaking of civilization and barbarism, I'd rudely almost forgotten that the motorcade for the 2013 expedition to the lands of the Argentinean Literature of Doom was almost two months behind schedule.  What a boludo!  That said, the 2012 ALoD intro post should still explain the concept well enough for anybody with too much time on their hands.  But for you, the impatiently clock-watching and coffee-swilling bloghopping aesthete, here's an even shorter explanation: you either read and write about any piece of Argentinean literature in November or December and then tell me about it so I can include a link in a monthly wrap-up post or you challenge me to read and write about any piece of Argentinean literature with you at a mutually agreeable time in November or December and then we both blog about it and I include the links in a monthly wrap-up post.  Not sure what to read?  Of course, everybody who is somebody needs to read Roberto Arlt's mad, iconic doom bible Los siete locos [The Seven Madmen] at some point in their reading lives.  But here are some other worthwhile ideas from last year's intrepid ALoD participants:

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Miguel, St. Orberose

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

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

Séamus, Vapour Trails
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
Too pressed for time to participate in the Argentinean Literature of Doom: Año 2 in November or December on such short notice?  No worries because the ALoD: A2 will unofficially morph into the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong in January (clarification: for our purposes, "Ibero-American" will be defined as having to do with all literature produced on the Iberian Peninsula--i.e. in addition to works written in the Romance languages, also including those composed in Arabic, Basque, Hebrew, and Latin--and all literature from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in the Americas).  In other words, you have a full 14 months to read at least one measly Argentinean short story, poem, novel, or screed with me and only two months less than that to read something from one of the other countries' bodies of work.  So although what follows is a full year of structured group reads planned for 2014, I foolishly remain open to being challenged to read any other Ibero-American work of literature of your choice not penned by obvious losers.  More details on all this in a moment, but without further ado here are the titles I invite you to read along with me:

Roberto Bolaño's 2666 [2666]
Spain/Chile, 2004

Ibn Hazm de Córdoba's Tawq al-Hamamah [Spanish: El collar de la paloma; English: The Ring of the Dove]
Al-Andalus, c. 1022

José Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis]
Portugal, 1984
w/Richard of Shea's Zibaldone
& Rise of in lieu of a field guide

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance
Spain/New Spain, Middle Ages & Siglo de Oro
[translated by Edith Grossman in 2007]

Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo [I, the Supreme]
Paraguay, 1974
w/Séamus of Vapour Trails

Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla [The Trickster of Seville]
Spain, c. 1630

Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres [Three Trapped Tigers]
Cuba, 1967
w/Richard of Shea's Zibaldone

Jose Hernández's Martín Fierro [The Gaucho Martín Fierro]
Argentina, 1872 & 1879

Macedonio Fernández's Museo de la novela de la Eterna [The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)]
Argentina, 1967 [posthumous]

Nicanor Parra's Poemas y antipoemas [Poems and Antipoems]
Chile, 1954

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quijote de la Mancha [Don Quixote]
Spain, 1605 & 1615
w/Richard of Shea's Zibaldone
& Scott of seraillon

Juan Rulfo's El Llano en llamas [The Plain in Flames and/or The Burning Plain and Other Stories]
Mexico, 1953
Although I respect you all too much to shill for these books too shrilly (i.e. it's getting late, and it's time to put this post to bed), I thought I'd say a couple of words about why I decided on these particular titles for the poorly-named Ibero-American Readalong.  The Bolaño, the Ibn Hazm, and the Cervantes are all favorites that I've been meaning to reread for a while.  I'd imagine that the Ibn-Hazm is the least well known of the three to most Caravana readers, so I'll just mention that it's a "treatise on love" originally written in Arabic poetry and prose that I really enjoyed the first time around.  Naturally, it's doing double duty here as a work from "medieval Spain" [sic] and as a representative of the various non-Spanish language literatures of the Iberian Peninsula.  The Saramago, Roa Bastos, Cabrera Infante, and Macedonio Fernández novels, on the other hand, are just works that I've long wanted to read--with the exception of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which is more of a recent obsession thanks to Miguel of St. Orberose's Saramago writing rampage a while back.  I'd initially thought about including Machado de Assis' 1891 Quincas Borba to add a Brazilian and a 19th century novel to the list, but in the end I couldn't resist the idea of substituting Borges acquaintance Macedonio Fernández's Museo de la novela de la Eterna instead because the idea of a "novel" full of some 50 prologues seemed too good a provocation to pass up on (of course, I realize that if my provocation is successful enough, I might end up reading Macedonio alone).  The poetry choices, all highly recommended by Tom of Wuthering Expectations by the way, are mostly dehumiliations years in the making.  The exception here is the Grossman anthology, much of which I believe I've read before, but that should make a nice intro to Siglo de Oro poetry newcomers and a nice refresher for me--especially since I usually dodge poetry on the blog. I also hope to add another short Sor Juana piece or two to the mix if things work out. Finally, El burlador de Sevilla (frequently attributed to Tirso de Molina) and Juan Rulfo's El Llano en llamas are here to represent Spain's Golden Age theater and the Latin American short story respectively.  Having read many if not most of the Rulfo stories before, I thought that the writer's lean, austere writing style might make a nice epilogue to the showy pyrotechnics of Don Quijote.  In any event, that was the plan.

If you're interested in reading any of these with me, please note that I intend to post on most of them within the last three days of the month in question.  Barring the occasional procrastination,  I'll round up links at that time and include them on my review posts for discussion.  A few exceptions: 2666 will be split up into parts 1-3 in January (ending with "The Part about Fate") and parts 4-5 in February (beginning with "The Part about the Crimes").  Since I'll also be reading Ibn Hazm in February, I might post on one or the other work during the last week of the month rather than just the last three days.  By all means, post whenever you want to throughout the readalong, though.  Similarly, Don Quijote will be split up into Book I (the 1605 work) in November and Book II (the 1615 work) in December.  I'll likely post on Rulfo's stories after I finish the Cervantes, but do whatever works for you if you're joining for both.  If you're not interested in any of these titles but you're interested in challenging me to something not on the menu, just get in touch by e-mail or with a comment so we can work something out.  I would have loved to have included something by Onetti or Saer or a Catalan author, for example, but there just weren't enough months in the year.  Any takers?