August – Romina Paula (translated by Jennifer Croft)

August

Since 2014 I have actively participated in “Women In Translation Month” an event set up and pursued in earnest by Meytal Radzinski at http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk – since 2014 I have seen a massive increase in interest in the month, an understanding of the limited amount of translated fiction by female writers but interestingly enough there hasn’t been a shift in the number of books being published, it still hovers around the poor 30% of all translated fiction.

Given August is “Women In Translation Month” I thought it was a good idea to read and review two translated books titled “August” written by women.

First up today is Romina Paula’s book, from Argentina, originally titled “Agusto”, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Feminist Press.

This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.

The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;

Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.

Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.

During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.

As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?

And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.

The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.

It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…

As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.

Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity,  grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!!

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Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

FeverDream

Today a short review for a short book.

By far the shortest book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist is “Fever Dream” from Argentine Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). But what this work may lack in length is more than made up for in tension, heightened blood pressure and breathlessness.

A book that can be read in one sitting, you find yourself pitched immediately into a conversation between Amanda and David. Amanda is the mother of a young daughter Nina, and in hospital apparently shortly to die, David is the mysterious son of a recent acquaintance Carla, he himself being poisoned in the not too distant past, the only “cure”? Having his body’s spirit removed;

There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit back to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other. He wouldn’t be the same anymore, and I would have to be willing to accept his new being. (pg 29-30)

This bedside conversation consists of David eliciting information from Amanda, where she tells of meeting David’s mother whilst staying in a country holiday home, in a region where soy bean production and horse breeding is prominent. David appears as the inquisitor, with short sharp questions, with Amanda giving details, sometimes too many details for David’s liking….”that doesn’t matter”…

A story where conversations happen within the conversation, where the underlying theme of keeping our children close is relayed through a theory of “rescue distance”, an invisible taut rope between mother and child;

My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things. (p75-76)

A story told in short clipped sentences, conversational in tone rather than written, the title alluding to a fever, a dream, and the danger is always on the periphery, each page with a shimmering dream like danger, you know something horrific is coming…

And I’m starting to think you’re not going to understand, that going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense. (p 140)

A disturbing tale that drags on your tension throughout, this work is completely different to any other book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, unique in style, presentation, genre and subplot.

With an underlying environmental message, where we are putting our own children at risk at the expense of progress, the hallucinatory story is difficult to present without giving away too many details of the tension.

A novella from South America, where I have spent quite some time in my literary journeys in the last twelve months, I would rate this amongst my favourites from the region. Translated by Megan McDowell, who has also translated two Alejandro Zambra books (“Multiple Choice” and “My Documents”) as well as Lina Meruane’s “Seeing Red”, these three titles I have reviewed here within the last year.  She also translated Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, which I have read and will review on the blog shortly. When Women In Translation month comes around in August “Fever Dream” is one book you should be adding to your reading piles.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Most definitely, this is a unique work, one that you complete quickly but immediately are drawn to a rereading. This book is totally unlike many literary works that contain dreamlike sequences where the symbolism is too obvious. Surely a book that will make the shortlist which is to be announced later this week.

 

The Musical Brain – César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews)

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Catch up time for reviews – I have seven books in backlog, my notebooks bulging at the sides, it’s just the distraction, the all immersing experience of reading Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” that keeps me from writing up my notes and putting some sort of coherent review together.

Another entry from the “10 Essential Spanish-Language Books”, as listed by Daniel Saldaña Paris in Publisher’s Weekly  , is César Aira’s short story collection “The Musical Brain” (Translated by Chris Andrews). I’m almost through that full list, with Bellatin’s “Beauty Salon” (translated by Kurt Hollander) and “The Empty Book” by Josefina Vicens (translated by David Lauer)  no longer in print, I can only get to eight of the “top 10” and have covered off five on this blog. I do own the missing three, will I review and read them is a different matter?

Argentine César Aira, a prolific producer who has published of over 80 books, with thirteen alone available in English translation through New Directions (including this book), is not your standard narrative producer. As Daniel Saldaña Paris says in his article about essential Spanish Language books;

There are no gratuitous descriptions here, nor are there linguistic diversions that don’t reveal something fundamental about the author’s richly detailed, imagined world. Aira’s stories pave the way for the art of the twenty-first-century narrative.

Aria himself in the short story “The Spy” from this collection

Looking back at what I’ve written, it all seems rather muddled, and if I want to be understood, I need to say it differently (not by means of examples, but, once again, by making it the theme). Sooner or later there comes a time when being correctly understood is vitally important. The hidden cannot endure without that transparency, against which it becomes visible. The hidden: that is, secrets. I have secrets, like everyone else; I don’t know if mine are especially shameful, but I take all sorts of precautions to prevent them from coming to light. It’s natural for people to feel that their own affairs are important; the self is a natural amplifier. When the person concerned is a character in a dramatic performance, at the very centre of the plot, the amplification reaches deafening extremes. The whirlwind of the action forbids any kind of detachment.

Yes it does, it is said Aira writes his works and does not edit, this story is a classic case, the writer appears lost, and the reader is certainly confused.

A short story collection featuring twenty stories dated from 1993 to 2011 just about any subject you can think of would probably be included here, and if you haven’t thought of it, there is a good chance it will appear here…let’s have a look at a few highlights…

“The Dog” is about a dog chasing a bus and barking, or “In The Café”, a story about origami with paper napkins and a lamentation on napkin dispensers. If those two aren’t weird enough for you, how about “God’s Tea Party”

According to an old and immutable tradition in the Universe, God celebrates His birthday with a magnificent lavish Tea Party, to which only the apes are invited. Nobody knows or could know, in those timeless regions, when this custom began, but it has become a fixture in the great year of the All: it seems that the patiently anticipated day will never come, but come it does, precisely on time, and the Tea Party takes place. It is said, plausibly enough, that the original reason for the ceremony was negative: the idea was not so much to invite apes as to not invite humans. Apes are a sarcastic joke, a kind of deliberate and spiteful (or, at best, ironic) slight on the part of the Lord, aimed at a human race that has disappointed Him. It may well have begun like that. But as soon as the arrangement was in place, it was accepted as an ancestral tradition, without a clear meaning, but saved from blatant absurdity by the hefty weight of precedent.

It doesn’t stop there, how about the title story, contains a dwarf love triangle, a circus, theatre, a brain that sings, book swaps, an egg laying human flying phoenix and more .

In Aira’s world of shifting realities, nothing is absurd, his standard narrative suddenly explodes with possibilities as you turn each page, even if you do presume something bizarre will happen, you’ll be wrong.

How about the story “A Thousand Drops” where the one thousand drops that make up the Mona Lisa decide on a trip around the world, leaving the board on which it was painted, bare.

What is fiction? Anything you want it to be…

I persist in asserting, precisely, that literature does not require proof of aptitude. In my heart of hearts I never felt called to literature, or saw myself doing the work that such a vocation would entail. If I were to reply sincerely to the question of which professions I would have liked to pursue, had I possessed enough vigor to lead a real life, I’d have to list, in this order: ladies’ hairdresser, ice cream vendor, bird and reptile taxidermist. Why? I don’t know. It’s something deep, but at the same time I can feel it in my skin, in my hands. Sometimes, during the day, I find myself unintentionally gesturing as if I were doing those kinds of work and, in a sort on sensory daydream, experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done and the desire to excel myself; and then, as in a dream within a dream, I begin to hatch vague plans to market my skills, build up my client base, and modernize my premises.

No need to worry about the plot, if Aira paints himself into a corner, simply start painting in a different colour towards a different corner:

This is what literature really is. Now I can see it. Everything that came before, everything that people, including writers, think of as literature, that is to say the laborious search for themes and the exhausting work of giving them shape, all of that collapses like a house of cards, a youthful illusion or an error. Literature begins when you become literature, and if there’s such a thing as a literary vocation, it’s simply the transubstantiation of experience that has taken place in me today. By pure chance. Because of a fortuitous encounter, and the revelation that followed.

I enjoyed the evil shopping trolley that stalks in between the shelves alone at night, Aria proving anything can become fiction. Or how about two men, one with giant hands, the other with giant feet? Appendage’s so large, as large as their bodies, they live, shut away, together:

That was all: the hands of one, the feet of the other. The two men couldn’t have been more different, and yet, in a way, they were the same. It must have been because of the opposition, ot a kind of asymmetrical symmetry, as if putting them together would have made a man with giant hands and feet, or as if they had resulted from the division of a man like that…But putting them together the other way would have produced a perfectly normal man. You had to assemble and disassemble their images mentally, because there was something inherently illusory or inconceivable about those men, something that made it impossible to believe your eyes when faced with what, believe it or not, was real. It must have been their complementary opposition that made them seem alike.

This is not simply crazy experimental literature, it is also covers wide sociological territory, moral and cultural references. In the story “Acts of Charity”, a priest spends his money on building and furnishing a new house for his predecessor instead of helping the poor in his parish, he sees this as a charitable gift as his predecessor will have no wants and can dedicate more of his income to the poor. This collection is worth buying for this moral tale alone.

Or the story of the underappreciated and scorned jazz pianist, Cecil Taylor, which ends this collection. Is Aira the Cecil of literature, underappreciated? As in the jazz form, there are rules for writing too goddamit, C’mon César follow the rules…

A weird and wonderful collection of bizarre tales, stories that have tangents that just keep flying, strap yourself in before you open this one, a wild ride is ahead. Even the cover is brilliant with a hologram of a neon flashing hand, nothing is normal here, don’t expect sanity

In the end, biographies are literature. And what counts in literature is detail, atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. The exact detail, which makes things visible, and an evocative, overall atmosphere, without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. Atmosphere allows the author to work with forces freed of function, and with movements in a space that is independent of location, a space that finally abolishes the difference between the writer and the written: the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight…Atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music doesn’t interrupt time. On the contrary.

Aira writing his own definition of literature, join in the party.

How To Travel Without Seeing – Andrés Neuman (translated by Jeffrey Lawrence)

howtotravel

Away (again) from the crazy German behemoth and back to Latin America, this time travel fiction/essay/micro fiction. Andrés Neuman’s latest “How To Travel Without Seeing”. Subtitled “Dispatches from the new Latin America”. Let’s let Neuman’s opening paragraph explain:

When the publishing house Alfaguara sent me the exhaustive itinerary of the book tour for their annual novel prize, I was sorry I wouldn’t have more time to spend in each place. But then I thought, isn’t that the point? Aren’t I going to experience, without even planning it, the very essence of contemporary tourism?

The book then takes the form of singular paragraphs as written in Neuman’s Moleskine, as he’s observing events unfold on his journey.

Before I write a book, I think more about tone than about plot, listening for the book’s eventual cadence. In this case I began to imagine a restless journal, told from a tight point of view and made up of a series of compact entries. One observation for each situation. One paragraph for each observation. There would never be a change of topic within a single entry. There would be no pauses. We no longer travel like that. We no longer see that way.

With the structure and restrictions in place Neuman heads off on his whirlwind tour of Latin America, starting with observations from his local airport, then flying to Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, Caracas, Bogotá, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Miami, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Panama, San Salvador, and San José. There is a break, so Neuman can recharge, about half way through, however that’s hardly relevant to the writing style or the content.

Before you start thinking, ‘what a tedious read…I went here…I read this here…I went there!!!”, the format doesn’t take that route whatsoever. Neuman observes the nuances of language in each place, documents the brief chats with taxi drivers, describes the subtle differences in his hotel rooms, relays the current affairs of the day in each nation, is the death of Michael Jackson more prominent in some places rather than others? How does each nation deal with the outbreak of swine flu, what are the differences in immigration forms into each nation, and so on, the list of topics is endless.

We eat at Pescados Capitales – Cardinal Fins – a seafood restaurant. The menu begins with a quote from Joyce: “God made food; the devil the cooks.” I scan the selection of sins: Wrath is a tuna prepared à la Karp; Pride, a risotto à la Bonaparte; Lust, fettuccine with Tuna à la Casanova; Envy, a shrimp pot à la Cain; Impatience, a grilled tuna; Greed, a Rockefeller flounder; Sloth, congressional lobster and calamari. As always, I choose impatience.

Writers themselves, the ones Neuman meets on his travels, do not appear in his journal (there is an odd exception but no spoilers), but he does take us through the depth of local writing as he is in each country. It is not simply the Vargas Llosa’s, Garcia-Marquez’s or Bolaño’s though,, Neuman explores the up and coming writers, or occasionally the ones on the margins;

I read Humberto Ak’abal. Once I heard him live in Madrid (the word “live” has never been more appropriate: Ak’abal sings, rattles, and rains down his verses in a trance that sound like a meeting of birds and rivers), but I had never seen one of his books. His poetry is a conversation with pre_Columbian culture, Western literature, and Buddhist perceptions. In La Danza del espanto I find a Platonic science-fiction idea : “We are born with the memory of the future.” Later I read, “Distance is a key: / it opens or closes.”

Simply to use this book as a future reading list would give you years of material to explore, with Neuman obviously reading his way through each nation, but only presenting a few short gems of sentences in his journal, now the book we hold. Sometimes the references are very short, the poignancy more subtle, reading a nation through a simple sentence;

In Rafael Lugo’s novel Veinte, I read, “A little while ago I ran over three men with my car. It happened in the course of an honest day’s work.”

Taxi drivers are one of the main stay barometers of the local culture, or politics, their fingers on the pulse;

At this point, my routine with drivers who take me to the airport is almost spouse-like. They begin by making guarded observations about the weather. Then they become interested in my impressions of the city. And finally they ask me questions about what it’s like to be a writer. I try to avoid the topic, or at least shorten it, and get them to talk about politics. On this occasion, the Lima driver’s diagnosis is the following: “The first Fujimori administration was very good. He fought against the inflation and terrorism that were destroying us. The bad thing was that he later tried to perpetuate himself in power.”

Distinctly different from the previous works of Neuman’s I have read, The Things We Don’t Do, Talking to Ourselves , Traveller of the Century (all three titles translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), this is conceptually an intriguing book, and in the skilled hands of Neuman it is highly readable and educational. A little knowledge of Latin American geography and politics would greatly assist, but it is not a prerequisite. In fact as a travel journal some of the observations are more insightful than any Lonely Planet, as you’re hearing about some of the activities not to undertake directly from the local’s mouths.

Restless Books are a publisher that has only recently made it onto my radar, and with a mission for: “readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives. From Asia to the Americas, from Tehran to Tel Aviv, we deliver stories of discovery, adventure, dislocation, and transformation. Our readers are passionate about other cultures and other languages. Restless is committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.” They will be a publisher I will visit more frequently, having also read “God is Round” by Juan Villoro (translated by Thomas Bunstead), / from their catalogue.

 

The Things We Don’t Do – Andrés Neuman (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Earlier in the week I reviewed the collection of short stories, from Canada, “Arvida” by Samuel Archibald, and that works shares a lot in common with Andrés Neuman’s latest release into English, “The Things We Don’t Do”. The personal recollections, the art of writing, the meta-fiction all in this book too.

When I reviewed Andrés Neuman’s “Talking to Ourselves”, also translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, I spoke of the relationship theme, that work being in three different voices told of a single family and their interactions, and Neuman continues the delving into relationships here with a collection gleaned from many sources and over many years. As a blurb of this work says; “Inspired by Borges and Cortazar, and echoing Vila Matas and Zarraluki, Neuman regards both life and literature’s big subjects – identity, relationships, guilt and innocence, the survival of extreme circumstances, creativity and language – with a quizzical, philosophical eye. Shining from the page with both irony and mortal seriousness, these often tragicomic ‘stories of ideas’ vacillate between the touching and the absurd, in the best tradition of Spanish storytelling.”
Here we still have the proving of oneself to another, “for once I had been good enough for her.” We have the perfect relationships, “what a perfect couple, two halves of the same little orange.” (from ‘a terribly perfect couple), fractured relationships “why would her husband pawn his present from the Christmas before last?” (from ‘secondhand’), new relationships as described in ‘delivery’ a single sentence rant over 10 pages taking place in a delivery theatre, about birth, creation, parenthood, a frantic replication of the thoughts that take place when a birth is underway.
The book is split into six different sections, each with a theme. As pointed out in the accompanying subscriber’s letter by Director of Open Letter Chad W. Post, that came with this book, “Andrés pulled these stories from a number of collections, both because they are some of his best stories, and because they work together in broad thematic strokes to create a collection that builds on itself from stories about relationships, to one about the final moments of life, to pieces about the ‘end and beginning of lexis.’”  Very similar to “Arvida” in that although these are stand-alone works, the collection works a whole, those “broad thematic strokes” painting a vivid holistic picture.
‘my false name’ is the story of the Neuman surname, from Europe to Argentina and the chance mixing up of Neuman’s that has succeeded in allowing the false surname to continue. Another very personal collection, nothing more so than the final four sections, ‘dodecalogues from a storyteller’, these “do not claim to be rules for writing stories; they are personal observations that arose during the writing process. It is worth purchasing this volume for these notes alone, their whimsy, insightfulness, a few examples:
To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret.
Although told in the past tense, stories always happen now.
Far more urgent than to knock a reader out is to wake a reader up.
Some short stories would deserve to end with a semicolon;
‘The Last Minute’ exploring death with a grandfather in a bathtub, a suicide, an honourable Japanese gentleman eating takifugu (poisonous globe fish), to the section ‘relatives and strangers’ which includes a story about an analyst and his patient, but who is the patient? The lines being blurred.
The sections “End And Beginning of Lexis” and, obviously, the ‘Bonus Tracks’ for the US, Open Letter, edition, “Dodecalogues From a Storyteller”, very much focus on the art of writing and these are the sections that are full of irony, amusement and black humour. We have Vilchez, Tenenbaum, Rinaldi joining translator Piotry Czery at an event “the end of reading”, the irony in the story being that we are reading it!
“Lexis” being the total stock of words in a language these sections very much explore the art of translation, creation, reading and the more astute, or well read, readers will notice many interplays in this section:
Borges was blind, although he could still make out shapes, blotches, shadows. He could not read books or recognize faces, but he could see phantoms. Golden phantoms. As those of us who were his unconditional fans were aware, out of the precarious well into which time had gradually been plunging him, Borges could distinguish a single color. Therefore, when we learned he had agreed to give a talk to our Foundation, some of us thought up the idea of preparing a modest homage for him: all those present were waiting for him dressed in yellow, the feline yellow. Irma buttoned up her blouse, staring into space.
For readers who have read “Traveller of the Century” and/or “Talking to Ourselves” (both also translated by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor) this collection is more aligned to the later “Talking To Ourselves” and less to the sweeping story of Hans and Sophie and their translations of great European literature, the later sections do lean slightly toward that theme in the longer novel.
A very enjoyable collection of short sharp stories, an insight into the art of writing, the playfulness of language and translation, this is another welcome addition to the English language oeuvre for Andrés Neuman.


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Dinner – César Aira (translated by Katherine Silver)

So after a week of reading about Indonesian un-dead, ghosts and folk-lore, I thought a visit to Argentina would be in order, a bit of South American fiction, translated from the Spanish, I delved into the world of César Aira. The back cover has a quote by Rivka Galchen from Haper’s “Aira’s worlds are like slim cabinets of wonder, full of unlikely juxtapositions. His unpredictably is masterful”. Not having delved into any of his fifteen previously translated works from an oeuvre of over eighty published works, it was time I jumped on the Aira train. And wasn’t I in for a wild ride…
 Dinner is a very short work, running to just 108 pages, but it is definitely not a flimsy work. Our story opens with our first person narrator discussing memory and his earliest childhood memories containing pits:
This recurrence of memories of pits, so primitive and maybe purely fantastical, had maybe come to symbolize “holes” in memory, or rather holes in stories, that not only don’t exist in the stories I tell but that I am always filling in to stories others tell me. I find fault in everybody else’s narrative art, almost always with good reason. My mother and my friend were particularly deficient in the respect, perhaps because of their passion for names, which prevented the stories’ normal development.
Our narrator is bankrupt, no assets and living with his mother off of her pension. They dine at a friend of his place where miniature toys are collected and displayed. The night ends with photographs being taken of our narrator wearing a huge elephant mask, surely this will be relevant later on….
Upon returning home, listening to his mother’s grumbles, our narrator decides to channel surf and comes across the local television station broadcasting live, they are riding their motorbikes to the local cemetery where corpses are returning from the dead:
Anyway. They were on their way to the Cemetery, because they’d been told that the dead were rising from their graves of their own accord. This was as improbably as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true. The guard who sounded the alarm first heard some rustling sounds that kept getting louder and spreading across the graveyard. He came out of his lodge to take a look and hadn’t even made it across the tiled courtyard to where the first lane of cypresses ended when, in addition to the worrisome rustlings, he began to hear the loud banging of stone and metal, which seconds later spread and combined into a deafening roar that reverberated near and far, from the first wing of the wall of niches to the rows of graves extending more than a mile. He thought of an earthquake, something never before seen on the serene plains of Pringles. But he had to dismiss this idea because the paving under his feet could not have been stiller. Then he managed to see, by the light of the moon, what was making the noise. The marble gravestones were moving, lifting from one side and breaking as they came hurtling down. Inside the crypts, coffins and iron fittings were cracking open, and the doors themselves were being shaken from the inside, the padlocks were bursting open, and the windows were shattering. The covers on the niches were being forced off and crashing loudly to the ground. Concrete crosses and stucco angels flew through the air, hurled by the violent opening of the crypts.
Our sleepy village of Pringles in being invaded by zombies, and they are sucking the endorphins from the brains of the living, they are topping up on our happiness:
There was something diabolically efficient in their timing. If what they wanted were endorphins, the little drops of happiness and hope secreted by the brains of the living, there was no more propitious time than Saturday night, when the worries of life are set aside and people temporarily indulge in the needs for socializing, sex, food, and drink, which they abstain from during the rest of the week. In their depressing existence in the afterlife, the dead had developed a true addiction to endorphins. It was a glaring paradox that the Cemetery Road and become the Endorphin Road.
Besides the bizarre story, the vivid language also portrays the scene perfectly, you are draw into the Saturday night scene and chaos in Pringles, the tension is not just because of a horde of endorphin sucking zombies, it is also the settings that bring the tale to life:
El Manco, on the other hand, was up there alone, but he wasn’t any less confused. He had to admit that the view was splendid and defied the imagination; beyond that, everything was ambiguity. The full moon spread its white light impartially over the darkness of the town, seeming to make it rise to the surface, like the checkerboard skin of and antediluvian sperm whale. The plain stretched out and beyond, as did the phosphorescent ribbon of highway distorted by the curvature of the horizon. The sector he was watching was much closer, though he was well aware that at night the illusory plains of contiguity could become stuck together, like the pages of a book. His attention separated the pages, and there the aberrations of nocturnal vision coincided with the monstrous fantasies of nightmare.
Our linear narrative is strange, to say the least, and my early thoughts about connections between miniature toys, gigantic dolls and elephant masks continued to play on my mind as the ritual of the undead continues through the whole town. As per usual, I’m not going to give away any endings or connections, you’ll have to read this yourself to see if the zombies are defeated.
A work that explores a number of themes, probably more than I picked up, however the overarching concept of our names dictating our identity resonates throughout, we are known by our names the only thing that accompanies us to the grave. There is a very early reference (page 1) to our narrator’s mother enjoying names…”she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation – and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening – because there was a constant mention of the names of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life.”
Our work also ends with a very uplifting beautiful soliloquy, a page that is worth buying the book for that revelation alone.

So I’ve gone from Indonesia undead to Argentinian zombies, what a journey…a reflection on our times? The era of undead tales? I think my next book choice will be a little more sedate….I think I might read about a cat…
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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