Bodies of Summer – Martin Felipe Castagnet (translated by Frances Riddle)

BodiesSummer

In a dystopian future (aren’t all futures dystopian?), your consciousness can be uploaded to the web upon your death (called “floatation”), where it will float and interact with others until you choose to inhabit a used body, if you have enough money of course. This is the basic premise of Argentine writer, Martin Felipe Castagnet’s debut short novel “Bodies of Summer”.

Our protagonist, speaking in the first person, was a male and was one of the first to have his consciousness uploaded, however he returns to earth “in the body of a fat woman that no one else wanted”, this was all his family could afford. He is returning to spend time with his son Teo, who, near death, has chosen not to have his consciousness uploaded to the web.

When I went through the process of entering into floatation, my body was destroyed. At that time they hadn’t yet figured out how to conserve bodies and burn people into new ones. The technological advances we’ve seen since then have been astonishing. First, mothers began to put their children on the waiting list for new bodies, just in case they were to die in an accident. Bodies cam to be seen as a valuable resource. Funerals became a thing of the past. Then, obituaries started to include information about who would be reincarnated in the body of the deceased. Finally, it was decided that cemeteries should be destroyed. Most were converted into community gardens, due to the fertility of the soil. The few cemeteries that remain now function as museums.
Each body has an average life span of three inhabitants until it finally deteriorates. Then it’s cremated. Some families prefer to eat the remains of their loved ones’ bodies instead of selling them to be used by other people. This is only legal if it’s been authorised by the deceased in their will.
I guess this is the future. (p12-13)

The premise allows for numerous intriguing debates and questions to be put forward, for example, on subjects such as religion, or politics;

The extension of life seems to have been accompanied by the extension of fascism. (p25)

Or sex:

And sex always finds a way to reinvent itself despite limited positions and combinations. It continues to be a powerful motivator: there’s a pervasive drive to earn more money in order to buy a more attractive body. (pp26-27)

The future world created by Martin Felipe Castagnet includes a whole tool-box of dilemmas, it is a fertile playing field for his imagination;

At one time society’s controversies were the printing press, medicine; today it’s the state of floatation and the appropriation of bodies. Death still exists; what has disappeared is the certainty that everything will eventually end sooner or later. There’s time to shave your head, time to let they gray hairs grow, to get pregnant, to torture, to be the world champion, and to rewrite the encyclopedia. With patience, a single person could build the pyramids; with perseverance, another single person could knock them down. I guess destruction is another form of love. (p28)

The novel also questions the role of the internet, a storage for everything, technological advances, and balances humour and social issues by not taking the story too seriously. There are numerous humorous quotes scattered throughout;

A person in the internet can become Buddha, as long as they avoid the social networks and the pornography. (p32)

However, with a fertile playing field this is ultimately a disappointing work. Why the need to bring up the tacky male in a female body questions? Quite senseless interactions with younger females and then debating homosexuality!!! I don’t want to add spoilers, however race also enters the fray, later in the book. Yes, further social dilemmas to add into the mix, however I found a few of them to be misplaced and not required.

I also found the characters to be very lightly sketched, for a short work of only 105 pages, there are numerous characters, and being a short book they do not have a lot of time to come into focus, therefore they simply disappear, even the son, who our protagonist has come to interact with, is only briefly sketched, where he could have been used as leverage to explain the reasons why a person would choose not to be uploaded to the web after death. A mid teen “Lolita” is simply out of place, as is the character that our protagonist needs to locate so he can settle old scores, and the household hired help, there was no need. It is as though a few extra strings were added to stretch this out to 105 pages, extra flesh on a long short story so it could be published as a novel?

The book won the Saint-Nazaire MEET Young Latin American Literature Award, and it was released, in its original Spanish, when Martin Felipe Castagnet was in his mid-20’s, leaving plenty of time for the young writer to develop. And I would probably revisit his writing again, as the satire is biting and the ideas fresh.

A book you can read in a single setting, that begins with a lively and entertaining premise, but one ultimately that peters out. Enjoyable, thought provoking, at times, but ultimately disappointing and forgettable. Pity as the premise could have delivered a bleak fictional social commentary.

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The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt (translated by Nick Caistor)

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At Berkeley, circa 1980, renowned Argentine writer Julio Cortázar presented a series of eight talks. These classes were reproduced and translated by Katherine Silver and were published under the title “Literature Class” by New Directions in 2017. At some stage I may review that book itself, however I bring it up here as in his “First Class” Julio Cortázar said;

…the books published by someone like Jorge Luis Borges signified to me and my friends a kind of literary heaven, the greatest contemporary potential of our language, but at the same time I had become aware of other writers, only one of whom I will mention, a novelist named Roberto Arlt, who is much less well known than Borges because he died very young and his work is very difficult to translate and is circumscribed within the very closed world of Buenos Aires.

References to Roberto Arlt occur again and again throughout Julio Cortázar’s talks, and as my deeper literary reading is currently Leopoldo Marechal’s “Adam Buenosayres” (translated by Norman Cheadle), billed as the Argentine “Ulysses”, and a “primal Argentine novel” (“The Complete Review”) then I jumped at the chance to read Roberto Arlt.

“The Seven Madmen” is only one of two books by Roberto Arlt that have been translated into English, the other being “The Mad Toy” (translated by James Womack), this novel was translated by Nick Caistor, a translator I have come across many times, primarily through his work with Argentine Andrés Neuman and more recently his translation of Julián Ríos’ “The House of Ulysses”.

First published as “Los siete locos” in 1929, “The Seven Madmen” opens with Remo Erdosain, our anti-hero, protagonist, being called into his employer’s Director’s office and being accused of swindling six-hundred pesos and seven cents. He is given a few days to get the funds and pay them back, needless to say his job is lost. The work immediately launches into a tale of despair;

The name Erdosain gave to this mood of dreams and disquiet that led him to roam like a sleepwalker through the days was “the anguish zone”.
He imagined this zone floating above cities, about two metres in the air, and pictured it graphically like an area of salt flats or deserts that are shown on maps by tiny dots, as dense as herring roe.
This anguish zone was the product of mankind’s suffering. It slid from one place to the next like a cloud of poison gas, seeping through walls, passing straight through buildings, without ever losing its flat horizontal shape; a two-dimensional anguish that left an after-taste of tears in throats it sliced like a guillotine. (p6)

Written during a politically unstable period of Argentine history and released a year prior to the September 1930 pro-fascist military coup lead by general José Félix Uriburu, the instability and economic volatility is reflected throughout, with our protagonist moving between a hovel where he resides or walking along grand boulevards observing, or dreaming of the lives behind the walls. The threat of revolution is never far away;

 Who is going to make the social revolution if it’s not the swindlers, the wretched, the murderers, the cheats, all the scum that suffer here below without the slightest sign of hope? Or do you reckon it’s the penpushers and the shopkeepers who are going to make the revolution? (p18)

A work that contains all the lowlifes of Buenos Aires, the pimps, the criminals, the crackpots, it is also a wandering tale of despair. Not only does Erdosain lose his job, his wife leaves him and he becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot to set up a secret society, funded by prostitution and based on lies. Through meeting a range of characters with names such as ‘The Astrologer’, and ‘The Thug’ Ersosain moves deeper and deeper into the mire.

A work that initially reminded me of the anguish of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” published in 1890 and then moving towards the despair and philosophical angst, confusion and bleakness of Dostoyevsky.

“On the face of it, I am a coward, Ergueta is a madman, the Thug is a miser, you a man obsessed. On the face of it, that’s what we are, but deep down inside, somewhere beneath our own awareness and conscious thoughts, there’s another life that’s far more powerful and vaster…so that if we put up with everything it’s because we believe that by hanging on, by doing so we’ll finally get at the truth…I mean, the truth about ourselves.” (p94)

However, the physical hopelessness is never far away, our protagonist slipping further and further into the mire;

Erdosain could not have been more rigid if someone had split his spine with an axe. His throat became as parched as if he had swallowed a mouthful of fire. His heart had almost ceased to beat, and a fog poured from his brain and out of his eyes. He was falling through silence and darkness, floating slowly down into the void while the paralysed block of his flesh only continued to exist in order to register still more deeply imprint of pain. He did not say a word, though he would have liked to burst out in sobs, to have knelt in front of someone, to get up at that very instant, get dressed, leave the house and go and sleep in some doorway, or on the outskirts of some unknown city. (p115)

Not an easy read, with hopelessness all around, a dark brooding tale where men and there motivations are reduced to base animal instincts, this is a work ahead of the literature of the times, in 1929, for example, Scotland Yard seized 13 paintings of male and female nudes by D. H. Lawrence on the grounds of indecency.

The political agitation, although pertinent to the times, also shows that not a lot has changed in world politics in the last 90 years…

“…I’ve no idea if the same happens in more civilized countries, but that’s the way it is here. In our congress and senate there are members accused of usury and murder, rogues in the pay of foreign companies – people of such crass ignorance that the parliamentary system here is the most grotesque farce ever to have sullied the life of a nation. The presidential elections are funded by United States capital, on the basis of promises to grant concessions to firms which want to exploit our national riches. I am not exaggerating when I say that in this country of ours, the contest between the political parties is no more than a squabble between salesmen vying to sell the nation to the highest bidder.” (pp 173-4)

A dark tale of the seedier elements of Argentina, the narrative implies numerous potential endings, especially through the ‘Commentator’ notes, where the writer explains things such as how he can be writing in the third person when only Erdosain is in the room. If you like neat tidy endings then this is probably a book to be avoided as there is a second volume, further exploring the story of the characters, called “The Flamethrowers” (yet to be translated into English). Roberto Arlt deserves wider recognition in the English-speaking world and as I further explore the works of Argentinian literature I will certainly read “The Mad Toy”, thanks Serpent’s Tail  for publishing this fringe work and of course thanks to Julio Cortázar for pointing me in Roberto Arlt’s direction.

For readers of Latin American fiction the paperback edition of 2015 also includes an essay by Roberto Bolaño, ‘The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom’, translated by Natasha Wimmer, a short piece, however one that points to even more literary resources to hunt down.

What To Do – Pablo Katchadjian (translated by Priscilla Posada)

What-to-Do1

French Decadent writer Leon Bloy, Saint Isidore’s “Etymologiae” from the Middle Ages, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, Blazac, Paul the Apostle, Paul the Anchorite…. The first twenty-one pages of this novel contain the lot, and then some.

This work consists of fifty chapters, each relaying a similar story, presented to us by an unnamed narrator, journeys about himself and his friend Alberto, their situations constantly morphing through numerous philosophical situations.

The novel uses sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing as prime motivators for decisions. These decisions leading our narrator and Alberto into a labyrinth of possibilities;

I’m with Alberto and we’re trying to talk to a man without eyes about our surroundings, although it’s very hard to identify the objects. This lasts for a hile until we’re suddenly in front of a mirror that reflects us in a horrifying way: Alberto is a mummy and my head is growing. (p91)

An absurd, surrealist story that piles layers upon layers, although using the same milestones, (a university lecture hall, eight hundred drinkers, an old woman, an island where everything can be found, a broom, and more) the outcomes are always shifting:

…the old woman doesn’t need a rational structure to understand us and that this is what does us so much good: we feel understood. (p25)

Do not expect to be understood.

Given our narrator and Alberto are university lecturers, the philosophical debate is always simmering below a shimmering, surreal surface. The discussions on Leon Bloy centre on his “Le Desespere”, and the sections where vivid detail of teeth extraction are presented as an inordinate desire for self-abasement and mortification. Or discussions about Origen’s voluntary castration, or Ilya Kabakov’s relationship with “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, as a reader you are never far away from a treatise on mortality.

I’m furious and indignant because Alberto won’t stop talking about Borges in front of our students at the English university, who are enraptured with all the talk of mirrors, labyrinths, and doubles. Alberto isn’t into these subjects, but knows they’re good for captivating English students. Not only am I annoyed that he’s talking about these things, but also that I, despite being knowledgeable, about this subject, can’t do what Alberto does because I refuse to talk about these things. I try to interrupt him by talking about Bloy, but the students scowl, they motion with their hands, they throw old rags and rocks at me… (p21)

Although confusing and bizarre, well-read people who approach this book will find a smorgasbord of literary and philosophical material to keep them amused and entertained for hours;

I’m with Alberto and we’re at an airport explaining a new relationship that we invented between John Donne and Lawrence of Arabia to an old woman. (p11)

The numerous references include Simone Weil and a mathematical quote, this hints that there is a mathematical edge to this book, does it contain a hidden message, are there structures contained within the text, a la oulipo, that I simply missed? Maybe these stuctures/codes/enigmas are not possible in a translation? Maybe they are there and I had no idea of the riddles, puzzles contained, maybe it is simply a game?

Doing my best to avoid spoilers, the use of our primary senses to make sense of our existence and the daily choices we make, the ending, explaining the multitude of decisions we are confronted with, nicely wraps up a playful and enjoyable excursion. Does it solve the enigma? That’s up to you, the reader, to decide… If your exposure to Argentine writing has been through the pen of César Aira, and you’ve enjoyed his “avant-garde” forays, then Pablo Katchadjian is another writer you should hunt down.

As an aside – there are a few proofreading errors: “Alberto and I are on on a still ship.” (p93), and formatting issues “”Firstthere’ssilence;thenonlyapplauseandshouts” (p94), something I’ve come to expect from Dalkey Archive, given their massive output. It is a pity they couldn’t spend just a little longer fixing these sort of production problems.

 

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!!!

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.