A Lover’s Discourse – Xiaolu Guo – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

All the romantic stories are flawed.

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese born British novelist and filmmaker, her novel ‘ Village of Stone’  (translated by Cindy Carter) was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (an award that merged with the Booker International Prize and was disbanded after 2015), and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Awards, other books have been nominated or won awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Costa Book Award and the Baliey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her film ‘She, a Chinese’ premiered at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and it won the highest honour, the Golden Leopard.

Earlier works include ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, inspired by Roland Barthes work and it is no accident that this novel shares a title with one of Barthes’ works. The epigraph:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes)

There are a number of reviews of this work in the public domain that explain the linkages to Barthes work of the same name, so I won’t go into those details here, however I will point out one diversion from the novel’s structure that I found interesting.

Each chapter opens with a short one or two sentences of conversation, which is repeated in the chapter itself, discourse generally between the two lovers in the story. The repetition of language that we see referenced in the epigraph, however there is one chapter that uses a Barthes quote, not conversation, as the opening:

An Unknown Language

The murmuring mess of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection…Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. (Roland Barthes)

The unknown language around me. The murmuring mass around me. Except that this was not a murmuring mass in Japan, this was a loud mass in Italy. This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words, especially from the food menus. But it was foreign for me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty-six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the non-alphabetic. I came from ideograms. I came from 50,000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings.
Also, I didn’t feel this ‘delicious protection’ that Barthes felt. The only protection for me would be to really try to
understand the foreign language. So that I, a secondary citizen in a white European world, would not downgrade into a tertiary citizen. But I know that even if one day I could master a foreign language – one of the major European languages – I would still not become a primary citizen of the West.

This is a novel of language, a story of identity, alienation, community and exile. It is brought home by the very structure, in the West we say “North, South, East and West” in Chinese the sequence is “East, South, West and North” and in this novel the first four parts are “West, South, East, North”, displacement, sequentially awkward. The following four parts of the novel are “Down, Up, Left, Right” and whilst the parts roughly align geographically (eg. “Down” the lovers are in Australia), I feel these headings are used to highlight our protagonist’s’ inability to settle, find a home.

This is the story of a Chinese student in Britain, pre/post Brexit, completing her PhD in film, her “project” a documentary about a village and its inhabitants in southern China. A village of two-thousand uneducated workers who have transformed themselves into master copyists. (“They could now reproduce a Monet, Chagall, and da Vinci at the drop of a hat.”) She falls in love with an Australian/German, and the novel follows their journeys, discourses.

However it is not the simple love narrative that is at play here, you are immediately forced into facing the fact that, as Europeans (or in my case white colonial descendent) we have no concept of other’s lives, cultures:

‘Wednesday is a bit tight for me. But I can try,’ you said. ‘Hope the food isn’t too spicy.’
I paused for a second, and thought you must be one of those hypersensitive northern Europeans who couldn’t eat anything hot. You might even be a vegan, who eats tasteless food. No salt in your meals either, because of high blood pressure. I would find out.

This is also a novel of language, the emotional attachment we have to words, there’s numerous examples of looking at translations of words from German, or Chinese that have no similar words in English.

There has been this feeling of wu yu – wordlessness and loss of language – which had enveloped me. It reminded me of something I read in one of Barthes’s books. He described how he felt when he visited Japan. The strange signs and sounds. The miscommunication and the silence. The Japan of my world was London, and the strange signs and sounds were from Britain. In my flat, I had not spoken for some days. My flatmate had gone back to Italy to see her family. Four days, alone, in this enclosed place. I listened to the radio, there seemed to be only two types of news: Brexit and sports. Neither could I connect to, not could I participate.

Throughout there are metaphors and allegories about finding a connection to a place, here, in Italy, oak trees growing atop of Tuscan tower:

As we were leaving, I reached out my hand and touched one of the skinny oak trees, rooted on top of the tower. It trembled in the cruel wind as if it were trying to speak to me. I was disappointed by the sight of it. The tourist guide said these oaks were supposed to be old and even ancient, but in reality they were just skinny young oaks, struggling to stay rooted on top of a vicious tower. They needed real roots, real soil, real ground! I could hear their screaming and cries in the wind.

An interesting novel, where I found the concrete experiences of the protagonist struggling to understand concepts such as “referendum”, “Brexit” an enlightening exploration of displacement and alienation. The exploration of language “rubbing one language against the other” was subtle and moving. The lover’s tale? The heavy allegory? A tad overworked (allegory) or too shallow (relationship). An interesting exploration and structure for a novel, for mine one that is ultimately a disappointing whole, but then again “all romantic stories are flawed.”

Licorice – Bridget Penney

Halloween, a perfect time to review a novel about four people making a horror movie.

Bridget Penney’s ‘Licorice’, primarily, revolves around four characters; Licorice, a “Chinese lady”, middle-aged, overstayed her visa is the co-director of the film, Pete, who lives upstairs and is organized (and has the ability to claim VAT) is made co-director, then there’s Angela a friend of Licorice’s who is playing the lead role and Roy, Angela’s ex, who is playing the Angela’s partner.

The movie they are making, unscripted of course, is about local legend Nan Kemp (played by Angela), who allegedly killed her children and fed them to her husband (played by Roy). She was executed and is buried at the local crossroads

The novel swims in and out of each of the four main character’s thoughts, with no qualifying markers letting you know whose internal monologue you are eavesdropping on, as well as having no punctuation for conversations, you’re not sure who is talking, if they’re talking at all. An “experimental” mishmash of local lore, relationships, movie making and horror. The movie feel coming through as though you’re observing a bunch of rushes, unedited, what will end up as the final product?

The backstory of Licorice, her illegal immigrant status bleeds through the movie theme:

English horror roots itself in the land, celebrating its muck and grooving on the old ultraviolence. People cling dumbly to traditions because they are things they’ve always done not because there’s anything good about them. No one makes any attempt to understand why they act the way they do. They look on anything new, anyone from outside, with fear and suspicion. Any ‘different’ element entering an English horror film has to be consumed before it can threaten their ‘way of life’

The prose rambling and frenetic:

Small tortoiseshell meadow brown gatekeeper orange tip brimstone green hairstreak wall comma common blue Adonis blue chalkhill blue small blue ringlet dingy skipper small skipper grizzled skipper marbled white my favourite one of all painted ladies migrating in huge clouds peacock red admiral and very exceptionally the duke of burgundy might dark up from just in front of your feet.

A style that may disorient a number of readers, however I took the advice of one of the characters:

The most important thing you’ve taught me Licorice is how when your surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat.

Approach the novel with this philosophy in mind and there are riches galore, yes it’s not all comfortable, however persistence will bring forth a number of horror movie tropes, if you’ve watched English horror you find yourself entering into a dream like state, déjà vu as you are sure you’ve come across this scene before.

One of the other prominent “characters” in the novel is the mill, the wind powered structure that turns wheat into flour. There are many references to the multiple strains that are put on the mill’s structural timbers, causing the body of the mill to collapse. An allegory for the relationships between the characters perhaps?

The blurb at the publisher Book Works website points to the book using “Well-worn tropes lifted from films”, three are mentioned and I’ve thought of possibly two others, originally the blurb mentioned there were “more than 25 films”, it has recently had the number edited out. As an avid movie watcher, it would be great if other readers could point me to any films they believe have been included:

  1. Irma Vep (1996) – Licorice the Maggie Cheung character, dressed in black, displaced, lusted after by all
  2. The Mask of Satan (1960) – a witch is put to death by her own brother
  3. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – improvised, hand held footage, missing footage, camping
  4. The Shuttered Room (1967) – set in a mill in Norfolk
  5. The Wicker Man (1973) – I’m not sure the linkage here, even if there is one, but the scenes in the pub and the rural setting brought it to mind as I was reading

A book about a horror story, using horror story tropes, it is the first book in the Book Works “Interstices” series. As the accompanying bookmark explains:

Interstices are very small spaces ‘standing between’ solid objects. Sometimes so minute the eye passes straight over them, yet a beam of light directed through and interstice has the potential to illuminate in an unexpected way. Interstices simultaneously divide and connect what surrounds them. They can be places for distraction, experiment and potentially radical redefinition. An interstice can also be a tiny interval of time, unaccounted for and uncountable, the transitional space at the end of a breath. On the web, interstitials are those annoying pages overlaying the content page you were expecting to reach. On the map, a border or a nobody’s land could be visualized as an interstice; whether it’s safe or dangerous will depend on who you are.

A radical experimentation of a novel from Bridget Penney, who is also the author of ‘Honeymoon with Death and Other Stories’ (1991, Polygon), and ‘Index’, published by Book Workds in 2008, the opening entry in their Semina series of experimental novels. Another of her stories is scheduled to appear in Salt publications ‘ The Best British Stories 2020’. I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. As did ‘Mr Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths, and ‘New Passengers’ by Tine Høeg (translated by Misha Hoekstra) two other titles I’ve reviewed here recently. All books worthy contenders for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize an award for “the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees”.

Off-kilter, yes but when your “surroundings are brand new and strange you should treat everything as a gift rather than a threat”.

New Passengers – Tine Høeg (tr. Misha Hoekstra)

Whilst my book deliveries are severely delayed due to various COVID issues, my planned reading of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist has also been delayed. Fortunately, I have a house full of books and numerous stacks of recently released unread titles. Time to have a look a recent release from Lolli Editions, Danish writer Tine Høeg’s ‘New Passengers’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra).

I’ve come across Misha Hoekstra’s work before, more specifically his translation of ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors, a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in 2017 (the winner was David Grossman’s ‘A Horse Walks Into A Bar’ – translated by Jessica Cohen). Nors’ novel introducing us to Sonja, a loner in her forties, single and really wanting to get her driver’s license. The mirror, shoulder, signal theme not simply her driving, it was used as a prompt for looking at the past (mirror), the present (shoulder), and the future (signal).

And there are some parallels with Dorthe Nors’s novel and Tine Høeg’s book, specifically the loneliness, the uncertainty of the future, the reflections on the past but a story deeply rooted in the present.

‘New Passengers’ is a prose verse novel, covering about five months in our unnamed protagonist’s life (August to December). On her first day of work, as a teacher, our protagonist meets a married man on the train and they begin an affair, here’s the opening page:

*
I’ve bought a monthly pass

I’ve been assigned a new name

a teacher’s name

comprised of four letters
from my first and last names

I’ve been given the code to the high school network
which is changed every six months according to the principle

summer16winter16summer17winter17

I’ve been briefed
on the systems

it’s by chance
we fall to talking on the train
my first day of teaching

I’m nervous and our legs
graze each other
when we sit down

you’re a graphic designer at a travel agency

 you’re a commuter too

you’re ten years older than me

you’re married and father to a girl

It is only two pages later when we learn of the affair “the first time I see you naked”. Three pages and the narrative journey has been set, new job, an affair, and uncertainty about this move into adulthood.

There is not an entry for each day of the month (eg. September only has 27 entries) and some entries go for a number of pages, others a single word. It is through these sparse thoughts that we slowly learn of our protagonist’s unravelling, her feelings of inadequacy as a first year teacher, how she feels more connected to her students and their lives than to her fellow teachers, and how after any major event she crawls into her shell even further.

The fellow teachers are named by their four letter names “comprised of four letters/
from my first and last names” and the only people with full names are her students and the wife and daughter of her lover, Maria and Evy. An uneasy imagined relationship begins to form between her and her lover’s daughter Evy, mainly through dream sequences:

*
Evy lies on a red mattress

I kneel and look at her

she’s mumbling

then she reaches for me in her sleep

I don’t dare pick her up

there’s a mist around her skin

I pick her up anyway

she smells of you

then she bursts into flames

I try to put them out with my hands

my hands catch on fire

And a jealous relationship between her and Maria, there’s one page that simply says “Maria”.

It is through the use of space on the pages that I felt the isolation and our protagonists’ lack of a support network to share her emotions. Emptiness made concrete.

Her sexual encounters are in train bathrooms, in sheds, and occasionally at her home (until her lover is recognized near her home), and these are described matter-of-factly, “semen blood summer drizzle”, “I’ve never wanted/someone this way before”. Her relationship with her students brings back recent memories of herself at high school, a student sends a friend request on Facebook and it prompts recollection of a teacher she was in love with. And her lover is short in his communication a text message “you can’t write me/I’ll write you” adds to this sense of helplessness.

“New” passengers, there are the obvious references, our two lovers meet as passengers on the train and continue their daily commutes, there is also the passage to adulthood and us, as readers, are passengers watching our protagonist’s life unfold, we are helpless to offer any solace in her isolation.

A short novel, if you use word count for a definition rather than pages, there are 219 pages, but one that explores an uncertain move into adulthood. The blurb says it has “the immediacy of a text message”, where the deeper context is for you to decipher, whereas I saw these short illuminations and more of a snapshot into our protagonist’s uncertainty. Where shifts from larger events are immediately followed with periods of emptiness and confusion.

Another book that I received through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. And one that I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the International Booker Longlist for 2021, given the appearance of the prose poem novel Christoph Ransmayr’s ‘The Flying Mountain’ (translated by Simon Pare) in 2018 and through Misha Hoekstra’s previous listing with Dorthe Nors.

Mr Beethoven – Paul Griffiths – 2020 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, aged 56, however Paul Griffiths’ speculates that Beethoven lives into the 1830’s taking up a commission, made by the Boston Handel & Haydn Society, to compose a Biblical Oratorio based on the Book of Job.  Not only does Paul Griiffiths’ speculative work imagine that Beethoven lives longer, and he continues to compose more, the novel imagines the composer travelling to the US to fulfil these obligations. Due to his profound deafness he tees up with a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, a young girl named Thankful, who teaches him how to use sign language and who acts as his interpreter.

This is the basic premise of Paul Griffiths’ novel; however it is not only in the speculative tale that the riches prevail here. Griffiths is a former music critic of ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The New York Times’ and, author of ‘Let Me Tell You’ a first-person narration using only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. He also contributed to the 2019 collection ‘The Penguin Book of Oulipo’, the literary constraints applied in this book are rich and varied, it is through the Oulipean constraints and musical knowledge where Griffiths’ book excels.

The novel opens with a past tense chapter, Beethoven is aboard a vessel travelling to the USA, we then move to research of possible vessels, “one sailing for Boston in 1833 from continental Europe, and from a port that would have been accessible at the time from Vienna without quite some difficulty.” Griffith lands on the brig Florida and using the “Familysearch website” comes up with a list of fellow passengers.

Throughout the novel there are signs of meticulous research, I assume it is all correct as I am not going to check it, Beethoven moving to a country estate owned by the Quincy’s to continue his work allows for rich research of the homestead, the extended family and more and when this research is mixed with playful constraints the book becomes an entertaining and unexpected read.

As advised in the ‘Notes’, “Words attributed to Beethoven, throughout; are taken as complete clauses – and, in most cases, complete sentences – from his (translated) letters”. We have chapters, longer than usual, that are a single sentence (Chapter 38) and we even have the readers interrupting the author;

Sorry, but we have to stop you there. You keep teasing us with this “great work” while offering as little information about it as you can get away with. Like these characters who are presumably from the Handel and Haydn Society, perhaps Richardson, Chickering and some other, we are being left in the dark. We know, yes, that this is an oratorio his is supposed to be writing, the “great composer,” as you archly call him, or “distinguished visitor,” or whatever else to avoid giving him his name, which of course we all know, which you had to divulge here and there, for the purposes of your story. Yes, what exactly are the purposes of your story? Do you want to tell us that? Or is that not part of your plan? If there is a plan.

There are chapters where the oratorio’s text is presented on the left-hand page and the action in the crowd appears on the right-hand page. There are letters and cryptic relations, a widow muse? Monologues revealing the detailed research (for example, a walk where the composer, although tone deaf, is addressed about the history and the surrounds)

You fill this book with information. As if to taunt us, you tell us all things of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet – oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the “great composer” to Boston. Remember that one? And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details. You even admit as much: on the Internet. So what?

There are cameo appearances by numerous well-known literary greats, Longfellow appears and there is speculation that Beethoven’s possible composition of an Indian operetta, a cross over and potential inspiration for ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Herman Melville makes an appearance as a young boy interviewing the maestro;

Q.: (if I had employed my better judgement, it may very well be that I would not have broached this topic, but I include the question here for the sake of the composer’s response, which startled me by its force, as by its unexpected metaphor.) How did you react to the controversial article adverting to your music that appeared recently in one of the German musical periodicals?

A.: I have not read the article. I no longer receive the paper, which is a shabby proceeding. If the editor does not rectify the statement, I shall cause him and his consumptive chief to be harpooned in the northern waters among the whales!

Could Beethoven have sown the seeds for the creation of ‘Moby Dick’ AND ‘The Song of Hiawatha’? Wonderful, controversial (impossible) speculation.

There are a few chapters where I felt a peripheral character was created simply so a line from Beethoven’s letters could be used, for example a discussion takes place over the family breakfast table where Daniel Gregory reveals he is unable to sing the solo in the oratorio and has passed the part to Lowell Junior. Beethoven says; “I was indeed, not a little surprised when I found the boy in a distant room practicing all alone, and neither disturbing not being disturbed by others.” However, there are counterpoints to this, The Composer’s address to the Chorus before the first concert, the interview by Herman Melville are but two examples of using pre-existing material to create a new tale.

Add to all the playfulness the fact that Griffiths has created part of Beethoven’s imagined oratorio and you know you are reading a very skilled writer, one who seems to be having a great time playing with his readers, leading us one way, then the next, throwing in other characters of the era, you never know what the next chapter will throw up.

The book closes with a future tense chapter, the Composer, the members of the Boston Handel & Haydn Society and Thankful are on the dock.

Opening with past tense, closing with future tense, although a linear narrative, gives this an off-kilter unreal, speculative world feel. A very enjoyable and playful read.

Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…

David Hebblethwaite has a very interesting approach to this novel, the element of communication, you can read his take here .

The book itself is a stunning production by Henningham Family Press (“a microbrewery for books”), litho printed in lilac-grey. French-fold red Takeo Tant cover, debossed with a gloss black and gold design (thanks Paul Fulcher). The paper using recycled coffee cup technology!! I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. More information on this subscription offer can be found here.

Goldsmiths Prize

2019 winner

In the 2013 the Booker Prize changed their rules, previously only books by English-language authors from the Commonwealth, including the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible for the Prize. The rules were changed to accept any novels originally published in English by a UK publisher. They also restricted the number of books that a publisher could submit. Previously, any publisher could submit two novels for consideration. Under the new rules, only one could be submitted, unless a publisher who has had one or two longlisted books in the past half-decade, they will be allowed two submissions; a publisher with three or four longlistings three; and a publisher with five or more longlistings will be permitted four submissions.

As Anne Meadows, assistant editor at Granta said at the time, “It means the prize will be dominated by big publishing houses who maybe aren’t taking as many risks. It could make it incredibly elitist.” (BBC)

There was also controversy about the new inclusion of US authors, previously ineligible. As Jackie Kaiser, an agent at Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto who represents Yann Martel, winner in 2002 with Life of Pi (Canongate) said, “I suppose that this move will give the selected books greater publicity and better sales traction in the US, and these aren’t bad things, but while America is clearly the biggest and arguably the most important book market in the world, it isn’t the only one, and with publisher lists in the other English-language territories already allocating valuable fiction slots to US writers, it is hard not to fear that this move may lead to a further Americanisation of literary culture.” (Bookseller)

In the same year, 2013, The Goldsmiths Prize was established by the University of London, “to celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. The annual prize of £10,000 is awarded to a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.

Launched in the tercentenary year of the births of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, the Goldsmiths Prize champions fiction that shares something of the exuberant inventiveness and restlessness with conventions manifest in Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist. The modern equivalents of Sterne and Diderot are often labelled ‘experimental,’ with the implication that their fiction is an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms. A long view of the novel’s history, however, suggests that it is the most flexible and varied of genres, and the Goldsmiths Prize seeks to encourage and reward writers who make best use of its many resources and possibilities.” (Goldsmiths)

I originally established this blog, many many years ago, to track the Booker Prize, previous winners and shortlisted novels and to read, review longlisted works as they were announced each year. When the rules changed in 2013, I stopped reading the Booker Prize nominees, and although I returned to read the longlists in 2018 and 2019, I never posted my thoughts as I felt too many titles were bland, or downright awful (ie. ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, unreadable after one paragraph!!). There are of course exceptions, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns has been rightfully lauded, earlier this week also picking up the Dublin Literary Award, an award where the longlisted novels are nominated by world libraries.

A week before the announcement of the 2020 Dublin Literary Award , the judges of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize, Frances Wilson (Chair), Will Eaves, Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Chris Power, announced their shortlist.

‘Mr. Beethoven’ by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

‘A Lover’s Discourse’ by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus)

‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

‘Meanwhile in Dopamine City’ by DBC Pierre (Faber)

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield (Fleet)

As a reader who enjoys fiction “that is deemed genuinely novel“ and books that are “an eccentric deviation from the novel’s natural concerns, structures and idioms”, and having enjoyed past winners such as ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride (2013), ‘H(A)PPY’ by Nicola Barker (2017), and ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann (2019),  I have decided that a reading of the 2020 shortlist is right up my alley . Expect some thoughts from me on the 2020 shortlisted titles in the coming weeks.

The winner will be announced on 11 November 2020, too early for me to have read all six titles, but I do intend to read all six.

Melancholy, Minutiae and Trauma

Dutch writer Merieke Lucas Rijneveld grew up in a Reformed farming family and their brother died when the author was three years old. They continue to juggle a writing practice with working on a dairy farm and adopted the name Lucas, alongside Marieke, to represent their identity as non-binary, stating in a February 2020 interview “When you’re a young girl you can be boyish. I didn’t experience it as a problem until secondary school, when on my first day two girls came up and asked, ‘Well, what are you?’ After that I knew if I acted more girly, I wouldn’t get bullied.” (Dazed)

Romanian writer Max Blecher contracted tuberculosis of the spine aged nineteen and died at the age of twenty-eight. As the introduction to his ‘Adventures in Immediate Irreality’ (translated by Michael Henry Heim) states, “Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence.” As Herta Müller points out in an essay included in the New Directions publication of his book, “an impressive book that no one read when it first came out in Romania in 1936 or later when it was reissued in 1970…and when the first German edition appeared… no one read that either…”

Merieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel, ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ (translated by Michele Hutchison), was a huge success upon release in the original Dutch and after a bidding war for the translation into English Faber released their first Dutch novel since 2001, and five months later the prestigious Booker International Prize was won. Merieke Lucas Rijneveld having a lot more success than Max Blecher.

Reading both Merieke Lucas Rijneveld and Max Blecher back to back I was struck by several similarities, primarily in dealing with death, grief and trauma.

‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is written through the eyes and thoughts of Jas, whose elder brother, Matthies, goes skating one day, falls through the ice and dies. Through a childhood lens we are immersed in the shattering of the family unit, where grief is not mentioned, where the work on the farm continues, where hugs disappear, and where Jas becomes increasingly insular retreating further and further inside her coat.

Mum doesn’t touch me once while portioning out the omelette, not even by accident. I take a step back and then another. Sadness ends up in your spine. Mum’s back is getting more and more bent. This time there are two plates missing, once for Mum and one for Matthies. She has stopped eating with us, even though she keeps up appearances by making herself a sandwich, and she still sits at the head of the table opposite Dad, watching us with the eyes of Argus, bringing our forks to our mouths. For a moment I picture a dead baby and the Big Bad Wolf Granny used to tell us about when we stayed at her house and she tucked us in beneath an itchy horse blanket. One day they cut open the Big Bad Wolf’s belly to rescue the seven goats and put stones in instead and sewed his belly up again. They must have put a stone back in my Mum’s belly, I realize, which is why she’s so hard and cold sometimes.

It is not only Matthies’ death that permeates the novel, the arrival of foot-and-mouth disease sees the animals, who receive more attention that the remaining children, all have to be destroyed;

‘The first cow is going down now,’ Mum says. She’s standing next to the cowshed door with a thermos flask in each and – one of them has got TEA written on it is waterproof marker, the other COFFEE. As though she can keep her balance this way/ A packet of pink-glazed cakes in clamped under her arm. Her voice sounds hoarse. I follow her into the cowshed, and tat that very moment the first cows fall down dead on the gratings, and their unwieldly bodies are pulled along the ground by their back legs to the grab loader, which picks them up like cuddly toys at the fair and drops them into the truck. Two bovines stand under the rotating cattle brush chewing idly, their noses covered in thick scabs. They stare feverishly at their fellows whose legs are giving way, or who are slipping and smacking down onto the floor blocks in the stalls. Some of the calves are still alive as they go into the carcass-disposal truck, others get a stud shot into their foreheads with a bolt stunner. The moaning and the sound of banging against the side of the truck causes small cracks under my skin, and my body begins to feel feverish. It’s no longer enough to pull my collar up to my nose and chew on my coat cords. Even Maxima, Jewel and Blaze are killed without remorse. They collapse and are gone, folded up like empty milk cartons and thrown in the container.

This matter-of-fact childlike innocent voice mixed with the horror of the everyday, the brutal reality blended with childhood metaphors (“pulled along the ground by their back legs to the grab loader, which picks them up like cuddly toys at the fair”) continues throughout the novel. Sexual experimentation, masturbation, exploring other’s bodies are suddenly interrupted with stories of the ageing of eels or chickens that will explode due to too large eggs. These are not extraordinary events, they take place in the every day and have similar weighting in Jas’ mind as stripped pyjamas, mating toads, her pet rabbit.

Through these descriptions of the minutiae, the periphery, the insular world becomes more focused and the reader is drawn into the sense of loss, the struggles in dealing with a traumatic event when there is nobody to help you through, a place where prayers to God seems to have more weight than discussing a taboo subject.

Max Blecher’s book, instead of using a child internal monolgue, reflects back to memories of childhood and how these events shaped him, it is a questioning by the author as to what made him, what experiences created who he is today, even though that all seems too unreal, it is an irreality.

Staring at a fixed point on the wall, I occasionally have the feeling I no longer know who or where I am. At such times, I experience the loss of my identity from a distance: I feel for a moment that I have become a complete stranger, this abstract personage and my real self vying for authenticity with equal strength.
In the following moment my identity returns. It is like a stereoscopic slide in which the two images, separated by mistake, suddenly give the illusion of three dimensionality once the projectionist brings them back together. My room seems fresher than ever. It reverts to its former consistency, its objects finding their proper places, as when a crushed lump of earth in a glass of water settles in layers of various well-defined and parti-colored elements. The elements of the room take back their own contours and the colors of the old memory I have of them.

There are similar experiences with death:

One day I attended the funeral of the child of one of the itinerant photographers. The door of the booth was ajar to reveal an open coffin resting on two chairs before the cloth backdrop. The backdrop showed a magnificent park with an Italian-style terrace and marble columns. In this dreamlike setting the tiny corpse, dressed in Sunday suit with sliver-threaded button holes, hands folded over chest, seemed submerged in ineffable bliss. The child’s parents and assorted women surrounded the coffin weeping disconsolately, which the circus band, lent free of charge by the ringmaster, played the serendade from “intermezzo,” the saddest piece in its repertory. During moments such as these – in the intimacy of the profound peace, in the infinite silence of the plane trees – the corpse was doubtless happy and serene. Before long, however, it was snatched from the solemnity in which it lay and loaded onto a cart to be taken to the cemetery and the cold, wet grave that was its destiny. Thereafter the park was all desolation and void.

As well as sexual awakenings, infatuations with older women, and the descriptions of the minutiae associated with a prior traumatic event:

I can picture myself as a small child wearing a nightshirt that comes down to my heels. I am weeping desperately, sitting on a doorstep that leads into a sun-drenched courtyard with an open gate and an empty square beyond, a hot, sad noon-day square with dogs sleeping on their stomachs and men stretched out in the shade of their vegetable stalls. The air is rife with the stench of rotten produce, and large purple flies are buzzing loudly in my vicinity, alighting on my hands to sip the tears that have fallen there, then circling frenetically in the dense, scorching light of the courtyard. I stand and urinate in the dust. I watch the earth avidly drink up the liquid. It leaves a dark spot, like the shadow of a non-existent object. I wipe my face with the nightshirt and lick the tears from the corner of my lips, savoring their salty flavor. I resume my seat on the threshold, feeling very unhappy. I have been spanked.

Two novels of introspection, loneliness in dealing with grief or impending death, two books where the first-person narrator explores the natural world around them and two wonderful examples of the quality literature in translation that is available. Both highly recommended reads.

‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Merieke Lucas Rijneveld (translated by Michele Hutchison) was published by Faber & Faber earlier this year and ‘Adventures in Immediate Irreality’ by Max Blecher (translated by Michael Henry Heim) was published by New Directions in 2015. Both titles are personal copies.

Seven writers who took their own lives and who you may not have read.

NOTE this post deals with the subject of suicide, if you need someone to talk to, I urge you to call your local support networks.

We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling. When someone ends their own life, whether a friend, a family member or even a celebrity who we identify with – think about the confused reactions to the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in recent times (although I suspect we could identify stories exerting a similar effect in any year) – one of two reactions habitually follow. We either quietly think that they were being foolish, selfish and irresponsible, or we decide their actions were caused by factors outside of their control (severe depression, chronic addiction, and so on). That is, if they acted freely in killing themselves, we implicitly condemn them: but if we declare that their actions were constrained by uncontrollable behavioural factors like depression, we remove their freedom.

Against this tendency, I want to open up a space for thinking about suicide as a free act that should not be morally reproached or quietly condemned. Suicide needs to be understood and we desperately need a more grown-up, forgiving and reflective discussion of the topic. Too often, the entire debate about suicide is dominated by rage. The surviving spouses, families and friends of someone who committed suicide meet any attempt to discuss suicide with an understandable anger. But we have to dare. We have to speak.

  • Simon Critchley ‘Notes on Suicide’ p13 Fitzcarraldo Editions 2015

Lists, internet click bait, the weekend’s article by Time Out “the best book set in (almost) every country in the world”, the yearly best of’s. Don’t get me wrong, I love lists, but over the weekend I was thinking, is there a list of suicide literature?

Sylvia Path, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson, this list goes on and on, famous writers who took their own lives. Compiling a list of suicides and related works could extend to the 100’s, Wikipedia has that many entries of “writers who committed suicide” it has broken it down by country, and alphabetically (eg. Here’s a list of Brazilian male writers whose who have committed suicide”). I’ve restricted my list to translated writers, whose works I’ve read.

Édouard Levé (1965-2007). French writer whose last book was titled ‘Suicide’, translated into English by Jan Steyn. A novel that is meant to be an homage to the narrator’s friend who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, however given Levé took his own life ten days after delivering the novel to his publisher, you cannot avoid the constant alignment to the tale of Leve’s own death. Written in the second person, the short novel consists of Levé addressing his departed friend

If each event consisted of its beginning, its becoming real, and its completion, you would prefer the beginning because there desire wins out over pleasure. In their beginnings, events preserve the potential that they lose in the completion. Desire prolongs itself so long as it is not achieved. As for pleasure, it signals the death of desire, and soon of pleasure itself. It’s strange that while loving beginnings, you terminated yourself: suicide is an end. Did you consider it a beginning?

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). Dazai’s novel ‘Ningen Shikkaku’ (人間失格, No Longer Human, 1948), translated by Donald Keene, tells the story of a young self-destructive man who drinks excessive amounts, visits prostitutes, generally lives beyond his means and does not show any sense of emotion or connection with fellow humans. All of these acts lead to a love suicide pact with a woman, by drowning. Just prior to writing this novel Dazai abandoned his family, moved in with a beautician, Tomie Yamazaki. On June 13, 1948, Dazai and Tomie drowned themselves in the rain-swollen Tamagawa Canal, near his house.

I have always shook with fright before human beings. Unable as I was to feel the least particle of confidence in my ability to speak and act like a human being, I kept my solitary agonies locked in my breast. I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed. I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.

Qiu Miaojin (1969-1995). Having Osamu Dazai on this list means I must include Qiu Miaojin. In her book, ‘Last Words From Montmatre,  translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich, Miaojin mentions Osamu Dazai a number of times, referencing his book “No Longer Human”:

If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He didn’t reach his potential, he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?

The ”novel” takes the form of twenty one letters and introduction and conclusion, as our author points out “If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” In fact, the “letters” do not follow a strict numerical sequence with “letter five” appearing after “letter seventeen”, which in itself is repeated twice (as a heading) and appears after “letter ten”.

As the translator points out in the ‘Afterword’:

Although Qiu was celebrated in Taiwan as a national prodigy, she saw herself as part of an international community of writers and artists both living and dead and, crucially, as part of a community unconstrained by conventional labels and categories such as “lesbian,” “Chinese,” or even “woman.” Like the Japanese and French writers she revered, Qiu saw herself in dialogue with “classic, albeit mostly avant-garde, world art and literature.

A book that did not receive the recognition it deserved when released in English back in 2015.

Yes, this time I’ve decided to kill myself not because I can’t live with suffering and not because I don’t enjoy being alive. I love life passionately, and my wish to die is a wish to live…

Stig Saeterbakken (1966-2012). Saeterbakken’s last novel, ‘Through The Night’, translated by Sean Kinsella, deals with suicide, through the eyes of Karl Meyer, a dentist, who is struggling to come to terms with his teenage son’s suicide. The book opens with a powerful set of vignettes, with Karl attempting to deal with his grief, make sense of his wife’s grief (who has just put an axe through the television) and wondering how he can reconnect with his daughter.

The novel then tracks back, through a long series of short memories, recalling the events that Karl shared with his son Ole-Jacob, and all the actions that may have led to this tragic suicide.

The thought of losing her left me cold and made me feel faint. I didn’t understand why it had to be this way, why one life was so completely destructive in relation to the other. I wanted to live together with Eva, and I wanted to drown together with Mona. So why couldn’t it be done? Was it just down to all the ideas we’d pledged allegiance to, keeping these states mutually exclusive? But what were our real thoughts, aside from what we’d been instructed to think? Why should you have to stop living just because you were drowning?

The novel is broken into two distinct sections – the lead up to Ole-Jacob’s death and the events that may have pushed him to take his own life; and then the post death grieving and attempts at reconciling with oneself that final act.

Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951). Iranian writer Hedayat left Tehran in 1951, travelled to Paris, rented and apartment, tore up all his unpublished work, plugged the doors and windows with cotton and turned on the gas. His novel ‘The Blind Owl’,  translated by Naveed Noori, opens with a frontispiece “The printing and sale (of this work) in Iran is forbidden” which has apparently resulted in a black market for Hedayat’s book in Iran.

A book narrated, in two parts, by an opium smoking painter of pencases, the slow spiralling thoughts of a man wracked with drugs, is a measured destructive piece. Peppered with dashes, as our narrator pauses, switches of thought, it is reminiscent of a work by Edgar Allen Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. The story itself is quite simple, our reclusive narrator writes the tale we are reading, for his own shadow, a story where he sees, through a non-existent hole in his wall, “a Hindu yogi, wearing a cloak with a turban wrapped around his head, squatting underneath a cypress tree, who, with an astonished look, placed the index finger of his left hand to his lips – In front of him a damsel in a long black dress, bent over was offering him a morning glory flower – for between them there was a small stream” –  the same image he paints on his pen case covers. The “damsel in a long black dress” then becomes the focus of our narrator’s tale, his adoration of her, and her grizzly end. The second half of the work is the same narrator writing his story – yes spiralling, labyrinthine, Borges…

From where must I begin? For all the thoughts that are presently boiling in my head are from this moment, they are without hour, minute or history – an incident from yesterday may be older and less moving than an incident from a thousand years ago.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Japan’s premier literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the “father of the Japanese short story”, he took an overdose of barbiturates aged 35. Akutagawa’s most well-known story is Rashomon , primarily due to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 successful movie of the same name, the film is in fact based on two of Akutagawa ‘s stories, “Rashomon” (for the setting) and “In A Bamboo Grove” (for the characters and the plot). Both of these stories as well as later works by Akutagawa, where his fear of madness comes to the fore, can be read in the Penguin Classics “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories”, translated by Jay Rubin. His short story collection ‘Mandarins’, translated by  Charles De Wolf, contains fifteen stories as well as a detailed notes section, which explains the connection to the traditional Japanese tales as well as giving detail on the text.

Akutagawa was raised by his uncle as his mother had gone mad only a few months after his birth, in 1892. This event was to haunt him throughout his life, the fear of insanity.

The passing of time is evidenced through two stories “Autumn” and “Winter” – Autumn the story of a promising young female writer who gives up her work to marry, a tale of tranquillity, of desolation, of the end of an era. Winter telling a story of a cousin visit to prison and the long wait, the non-understanding of the charges, the future, again desolation.

I was, naturally, beginning to feel hungry, but what was truly unendurable was the cold, for the room was quite without any sign of heating. As I continually stamped my feet, trying to keep my annoyance in check, I was surprised to observe that no one else in the crowd seemed perturbed. There was, for example, an apparent gambler, wearing two cotton-padded kimonos, who, instead of whiling away the time with a newspaper, slowly ate mandarins, one after another.

Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Another Japanese writer, Mishima’s commited ritual suicide after a failed “coup”. He and four members of his self-styled militia, the Tatenokai, entered a military base in central Tokyo, took the commandant hostage, and attempted to inspire the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s 1947 Constitution. This event is well known and captured in Paul Schrader’s 1985 film ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, ‘Spring Snow’ (tr by Michael Gallagher), ‘Runaway Horses’ (tr. Michael Gallagher), ‘The Temple of Dawn’ (tr. E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle) and ‘The Decay of the Angel’ (tr. by Edward G. Seidensticker), four novels that follow the life of Shigekuni Honda and his interactions with Kiyoaki Matsugae, Isao Iinuma, Ying Chan and Tōru Yasunaga, supposedly reincarnations. Covering the period October 1912 to November 1970 it is a collection moving through significant historical periods in Japanese history.

The final novel in the tetralogy is dated 25 November 1970, the same date of the failed coup d’état.

I will leave you with a closing quote from Simon Critchley’s ‘Notes on Suicide’:

Perhaps the closest we come to dying is through writing, in a sense that writing is a leave-taking from life, a temporary abandonment of the world and one’s petty preoccupations in order to see things more clearly. In writing, one steps back and steps outside life in order to view it more dispassionately, both more distantly and more proximately. With a steadier eye. One can lay things to rest in writing: ghosts, hauntings, regrets, and the memories that flay us alive.

Eight novels of the Mexican Revolution

The impact of Mexico’s revolution (1910-20), the last of the great peasant revolts and the first major revolution of the twentieth century was felt on much of the literary production of the country throughout the first two-thirds of the last century.

              –  ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns

The Mexican Revolution, a field rich with characters, narrative, metaphors, and stories. Not only a political turning point but a pivot in Mexican literature’s history. Whilst there are numerous titles using the Revolution as a setting or indirectly referring to the fallout and subsequent events, I have chosen eight books, written by Mexican writers, that have been translated into English and although some may be obscure, they are available as I have only recently filled my shelves with a number of these titles.

The numbering here is not a ranking, I’m simply presenting eight fiction titles you could read to understand the Mexican Revolution and its impact on the political and literary scene of Mexico.

  1. The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)

Even the cover gives this one away “A Novel of the Mexican Revolution”. Mariano Azuela himself served as a medical officer for Pancho Villa’s Northern Division where his experiences led to this work. Set firmly in the Revolution this short novel primarily covers the fates of two protagonists, Demetrio Macías, the leader of a band of disaffected peasants that become a feared revolutionary fighting force, and Luis Cervantes, a city aristocrat, or curro, whose disgust with the injustice of his country’s society has led him to embrace the growing Mexican revolution. Cervantes, a well-read medical student, attempts to give the illiterate Macías an education in political idealism, and for a time they appear to share a vision of a new and better Mexico.

Cervantes being Azuela’s alter ego this book has been available in English translation since the 1920’s and is widely available. The Penguin Classics edition including an “Introduction” by Carlos Fuentes.

2.The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)

In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.

Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.

3.The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton)

A novel that reflects on this central event in Mexico’s history by presenting the eighteen odd months prior to the revolution, we are on the edge of the storm. As Augustín Yañez explains in a short note at the start of the book:

The Spanish title of this book, Al Filo del Agua, is a farmer’s phrase for the beginning of the rainy season and is often used figuratively to mean the imminence or beginning of an event.

Those who wish to do so may call the book In a Village of the Archdiocese, The Old Order, or something of the sort. Its pages tell no preconceived story; it deals with lives – “marbles,” one of the characters calls them – which roll round, which are allowed to roll round in a narrow stretch of time and space, in a village, any village, of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara.

Here is a novel of transition, where the revolution only occurs very very late in the piece, not only a revolution of the peasants but a revolution against the church, and the ingrained way of life.

4. Cartucho – Nellie Campobello (tr. Doris Meyer)

Born in April 1900, Nellie Campobello is possibly the lone female voice of the Revolution. Living in the North and experiencing the Revolution first-hand, her book ‘Cartucho’ is a collection of fifty-six short vignettes, characters studies of the players in the Revolution. Broken into three sections, “Men of the North”, “The Executed”, and “Under Fire” these images are childlike in their innocence (Nellie Campobello was a child observing the Revolution). As our Translator’s Note points out:

Cactucho, first published in 1931, is a vivid evocation of war seen through a young girl’s eyes. Often called a novel, it is in face a blend of autobiography, history, and poetry. In fifty-six rapid sketches that have the quality of cinematic vision – “children’s lives, if no one emprisons them, are an uncut film”, wrote Campobello – Cartucho is both a tribute to the common soldier and a denunciation of war. The language of the child narrator is direct, unadorned, and authentically Mexican. But Campobello has said elsewhere that what seems so naïve was in fact a deliberate technique or “discipline.” Choosing a child’s voice and viewpoint, born of her own experience and knowledge, allowed her “to use its apparent unconsciousness to convey what I knew had to be said sincerely and directly.” The result is so convincing that many readers have overlooked the artistry that llies behind it.

5. Recollections of Things to Come – Elena Garro (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

Elena Garro’s (1920-1998) debut novel, ‘Recollections of Things to Come’, depicts life in a small Mexican village, Ixtepec, during the Cristero rebellion. The Cristero rebellion (1926-1929) was a widespread struggle in central and western Mexico in response to the imposition of secularist and anticlerical articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico. These were perceived by opponents as anti-Catholic measures aimed at imposing state atheism. Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles sought to eliminate the power of the Catholic Church and all organizations which were affiliated with it and to suppress popular religious celebrations in local communities.

Elena Garro’s novel uses a unique style, the village is the omniscient narrator, the players floating in and out of the action, the village reflecting on the history of Ixepec. As the ‘Itroduction” advises, This “is a book of episodes, one that leaves with the reader a series of vivid impressions. The colors are bright, the smells are pungent, the many characters clearly drawn in a few bold strokes.” The village survives, humans are fleeting. This is obvious from the opening paragraph:

Here I sit on what looks like a stone. Only my memory knows what it holds. I see it and I remember, and as water flows into water, so I, melancholically, come to find myself in its image, covered with dust, surrounded by grass, self-contained and condemned to memory and its variegated mirror. I see it, I see myself, and I am transfigured into a multitude of colors and times. I am and I was in many eyes. I am only memory and the memory that one has of me.

6. Here’s To You, Jesusa – Elena Poniatowska (tr. Deanna Heikkinen)

Another female writer, along with Nellie Campobello and Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska born in 1932 and winner of the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 2013, specialises in the disenfranchised, women and the poor. Her novel, Here’s To You, Jesua, opens with an Introduction, Jesua is eighty-seven and close to the end of her days:

Over there where Mexico City starts getting smaller, where the streets get lost and are deserted, that’s where Jesua lives. It’s so warm there’s no ice left in the freezers, just water, and the Victoria and Superior beers just float around. The women’s hair sticks against the nape of their necks, beaten down by sweat. Sweat dampens the air, clothes, armpits, foreheads. The heat bizzes, like the flies. The air in those parts is greasy, dirty; the people live in the very frying pans where they cook garnachas, those thick, filled tortillas covered in chile sauce, and potato or pumpkin-flower quesadillas, the daily bread that the women heap on tables with uneven legs along the street. The dust is the only dry thing, that and a few gourds.

As the cover blurb explains;

Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, Jesua finds herself at the Revolution’s end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa’s long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.

Another work that reflects on the impact of the Revolution on women and those on the fringes.

7. Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

From a narrative point of view, Susan Sontag sums up this novel perfectly in her ‘Afterword’:

The novel’s premise – a dead mother sending her son out into the world, a son’s quest for his father [Pedro Páramo] – mutates into a multi voiced sojourn in hell. The narrative takes place in two worlds: the Comala of the present, to which Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences, is journeying; and the Comala of the past, the village of his mother’s memories and of Pedro Páramo’s youth. The narrative switches back and forth between first person and third person, present and past. (The great stories are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past.) the Comala of the past is a village of the living. The Comala of the present is inhabited only by the dead, and the encounters that Juan Preciado will have when he reaches Comala are with ghosts. Páramo means in Spanish barren plain, wasteland. Not only is the father he seeks dead, but so is everyone else in the village. Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence.

And this is a haunting tale of essences mingling, pieces of human existence slowly dissolving and becoming scarce. Although in some circles this is considered a canonical work, it is not for the narrative style that I visited this novel, it was for its references to the Revolution and to understand the development of Mexican literary production in the 40/50 years after the revolution. It takes quite some time before the historical placement of this work is revealed.

8. Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred MacAdam)

Two works by Fuentes featuring on this list, ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ as opposed to ‘The Old Gringo” is less specifically focused on the Revolution covering the full life of Artemio Cuz.

The novel opens with Artemio Cruz on his death bed. The work is constructed through flashbacks and the present-day musing of his relationships with his family at his bedside, or the church. It is not long into the novel before we discover Artemio is a corrupt and vile man, (similar to Pedro Páramo, “pure bile”). His life is full of manipulations, for example landowners so he can seduce the daughter.

Mixing first, second and third person, it is at times a confusing work. Artemio reflecting, in the second person:

You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, their will, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.

Late in the Revolution, May 1919, Artemio manipulates a landowner:

“It’s important to know how to make distinctions,” murmured the old man as he wiped his lips with his napkin. “For example, business is one thing, and religion is something completely different.”

“See him there so nice and pious, taking Communion every day with his little girl? Well, that same mane stole everything he has from priests, back when Juárez auctioned off Church property and anybody with a little cash could buy huge tracts of land…”

This later period of the Revolution allows Fuentes to present the outcomes, the land grabbing and the change in ownership, power.

9. The Labyrinth of Solitude – Octavio Paz (various translators)

How could any list referring to Mexican literature not include Octavio Paz’s masterwork? I’ve included this as title nine on a list of top eight as it is non-fiction but it is an important key work when looking at Mexican history.

Not a book specifically about the Mexican Revolution but a monumental work, that addresses Mexican identity, culture and character, obviously touching upon the events of 1910-20 due to their significant contribution to  Paz’s opinions. As he says himself

I need hardly warn readers that my opinions are a series of reflection, not a consistent theory. (P 381)

Consistently referred to as a canonical text when discussing Mexico, this needs to be included on the list simply because it will enlighten your views on Mexican society and culture.

There are many more examples that could feature on this list, Elena Poniatowska in her ‘Introduction’ to Nellie Campobello’s ‘Cartucho” says:

From Azuela (‘The Underdogs’) on, the novel of the Revolution takes off at a gallop: Martin Luis Guzmán produces La sombra del caudillo and El águila y la serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent), giving Mexico the best prose it had known to date. Guzmán is followed by Gregoria López y Feuntes, Rafael F. Muñoz, José Ruben Romero, José Vasconcelos, Fransisco L. Urquizo, José Mancisidor, Mauricio Magdelano, Agustin Yáñez, and José Revueltas.

Unfortunately, not a lot of these works have been translated or are very hard to acquire. Are there any novels you think I should have added?

Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred MacAdam)

ArtemioA continuation of my deep dive into Mexican literature, more specifically books that directly reference or are associated with the Mexican Revolution. Today a look at Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ (translated by Alfred MacAdam). Similar to Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo’ (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden) in that it is a novel with a non-linear style.

Our novel opens with the protagonist, Artemio Cruz, on his death bed. The work is constructed through flashbacks and the present-day musing of his relationships with his family at his bedside, or the church. It is not long into the novel before we discover Artemio is a corrupt and vile man, (similar to Pedro Páramo, “pure bile”). His life is full of manipulations, for example landowners so he can seduce the daughter.

Mixing first, second and third person, it is at times a confusing work. Artemio reflecting, in the second person:

You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, their will, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.

Late in the Revolution, May 1919, Artemio manipulates a landowner:

“It’s important to know how to make distinctions,” murmured the old man as he wiped his lips with his napkin. “For example, business is one thing, and religion is something completely different.”
“see him there so nice and pious, taking Communion every day with his little girl? Well, that same mane stole everything he has from priests, back when Ju
árez auctioned off Church property and anybody with a little cash could buy huge tracts of land…”

This later period of the Revolution allows Fuentes to present the outcomes, the land grabbing and the change in ownership, power:

Artemio Cruz. So that was the name of the new world rising out of the civil war; that was the name of those who had come to take his place. Unfortunate land – the old man said, as he returned, slowly once again, to the library and that undesired but fascinating presence – unfortunate land that has to destroy its old possessors with each new generation and put in their place new owners just as rapacious and ambitious as the old ones. The old man imagined himself the final product of a peculiarly Creole civilization, a civilization of enlightened despots. He took pleasure in thinking of himself as a father, sometimes a hard father but always a provider and always the repository of a tradition of good taste, courtesy, and culture.

Later in the novel we flash back to an earlier period during the Revolution, December 1913. I will not reveal our protagonist’s involvement or heroics (or lack thereof, although the quoted paragraph gives some hint), but there is battle:

Again he felt as he’d felt before. The confused sounds of war were all around him, but between those near and the far rumble that reached his ears, there was an unbridgeable gap: here the slight trembling of the branches, the slithering of the lizards could be heard quite distinctly. Alone, leaning against the tree trunk, he again felt a sweet, serene life languidly flowing through his veins: a well-being of the body that dispelled any rebellious attempt at thought. His men? His heart beat evenly, without a throb. Would they be looking for him? His arms and legs felt happy, clean, tired. What would they do without him to give them orders? His eyes searched through the roof of leaves for the hidden flight of some bird. Would they lose all sense of discipline? Would they, too, run and hide in this providential forest? But he couldn’t go back over the mountain on foot. He would have to wait here. And what if he was taken prisoner? He couldn’t go on thinking: a moan parted the leaves near the lieutenant’s face, and a man collapsed in his arms. His arms rejected him for an instant and then held on to that body from which hung a red, limp rag of torn flesh.

The novel, whilst visiting the Revolution, addresses more the fallout and subsequent events rather than the Revolution itself, all through the adventures of Artemio Cruz. Reading this back to back with Juan Rulfo’s novel I struggled with the style and the unlikeable protagonist. I have struggled with some other books by Carlos Fuentes, whereas others I’ve become besotted, I’m not sure if it is the translation or the non-linear, multi voiced style, however there was no sympathy for Artemio from me and I questioned the other characters who came into his realm and their motivations interacting with such a beast. Not my favourite from the reading to date, maybe one I need to revisit when I draw this expedition to a close.

For the next month I am going to focus on female writers who used the Revolution as their subject matter, as it is Women In Translation Month and I have quite a few titles on my shelves.

Mexican Masks – Carlos Fuentes & Octavio Paz

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More Mexican literature from the 1960’s, today something a little different again. Carlos Fuentes’ novel ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’, translated by Alfred MacAdam, covers, in non-linear fashion, the period 1889 to 1960, by joining Artemio Cruz on his deathbed, where various prompts that cause him to recall his past are presented to the reader.

At some later stage I will present my thoughts on the novel as a whole, however early in the book there is a passage that aligns wonderfully with Octavio Paz’s ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, more specifically the Spanish and Aztec history. Artemio Cruz, on his death bed, is thinking and addressing himself in the second person:

Because you will have created the night with your closed eyes, and from the depth of that ocean of ink, a stone boat – which the hot and sleepy midday sun will cheer in vain – will sail toward you: thick blackened walls raised to protect the Church from Indian attacks and also to link the religious conquest to the military conquest. The rough soldiers, Spanish, the troops of Queen Isabella the Catholic, advance toward your closed eyes with the swelling din of their fifes and drums, and in sunlight you will traverse the wide esplanade with a stone cross at its center and with exterior chapels, the prolongation of the native religion, theatrical and open-air, at its corners. At the top of the church built at the end of the esplanade, the vaults made of tenzontle stone will rest on forgotten Moorish scimitars, sign of yet one more bloodline imposed on that of the conquistadors. You will advance toward the portal of the early, still Castilian, baroque, already rich in columns wound with profuse vines and aquiline keystones; the portal of the Conquest, severe and playful, with one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea: the new world arrived with them, with a redoubt of austere walls to protect their sensual, happy, greedy hearts. You will go further and will penetrate into the nave of the ship, its Castilian exterior conquered by the macabre, smiling plenitude of this Indian heaven of saints, angels, and indigenous gods. A single, enormous nave will run toward the altar of gilt foliage, somber opulence of masked faces, lugubrious and festive prayer, always urgent, for this freedom, the only one granted, to decorate a temple and fill it with tranquil astonishment, with sculpted resignation, with the horror of emptiness, the terror of the dead times, of those who prolonged the slow deliberateness of free labor, the unique instants of autonomy in color and form, far from that exterior world of whips and branding irons and smallpox. You will walk to the conquest of your new world through a nave devoid of blank spaces: angel heads, luxuriant vines, polychrome flowers, red, round fruits captured in trellises of gold, white saints in chains, saints with astonished faces, saints in a heaven invented by Indians in their own image and likeness: angels and saints wearing the face of the sun and the moon, with the hand to protect harvests, with the index finger of the hounds, with the cruel, unnecessary, alien eyes of the idol, with the rigorous face of the cycles. The faces of stone behind the pink, kindly, ingenious masks, masks that are, however, impassive and dead: create the night, fill the black sails with wind, close your eyes, Artemio Cruz…

Octavio Paz writes extensively on the image of the mask, Chapter Two of ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, translated by Lysander Kemp, is titled “Mexican Masks”. It opens;

The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo [Criollo: a person of pure Spanish blood living in the Americans, Mestizo: a person of mixed Spanish and Indian blood.], general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbor, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits. He passes through life like a man who has been flayed; everything can hurt him, including words and the very suspicion of words. His language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats. Even in a quarrel he prefers veiled expressions to outright insults: “A word to the wise is sufficient.” He builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.

I also love Carlos Fuentes’, ”one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea” a beautifully simple explanation of the Mexican psyche.

There are extensive chapters in Fuentes’s novel that address the Mexican Revolution, my starting point for this reading project, however the breadth of his work is possibly better to be explored at a broader level, but more on that when I finish the novel and check in again.