Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)

hopscotch_cover

…man only feels secure when he is on grounds that do not touch his deepest part: when he plays, when he conquers, when he puts on his various suits of armor that are products of an ethos, when he hands over the central mystery to some revelation. (p166)

Continuing the theme of novels with an unusual structure, or in some cases written with constraints. Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, another work with a playful theme.

For the uninitiated Julio Cortázar’s novel consists of one hundred and fifty-five chapters and comes with a “Table of Instructions”;

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and the following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

A few months ago I mapped the second reading chart on a simple grid;

hopscotch

As you can see pure chaos, none of the sequential harmony seen in Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’.

Narratively ‘Hopscotch’ “recounts the adventures of an Argentine intellectual living in Paris with his lover and bohemian friends, and follows him back to Buenos Aires, where he works in a circus and a mental asylum.” However, it is not this narrative where the riches of this work are at play.

Hopscotch itself is a game, tossing a small object or a stone, and jumping through space(s), numbered, to reach the goal, in Cortázar’s version the ultimate square is heaven.

Hopscotch is played with a pebble that you move with the tip of your toe. The things you need: a sidewalk, a pebble, a toe, and a pretty chalk drawing, preferably in colors. On top is Heaven, on the bottom is Earth, it’s very hard to get the pebble up to Heaven, you almost always miscalculate and the stone goes off the drawing. But little by little you start to get the knack of how to jump over the different squares (spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often) and then one day you learn how to leave Earth and make the pebble climb up to Heaven…the worst part of it is that precisely at that moment, when practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb up into Heaven, childhood is over all of a sudden and you’re into novels, into the anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into the speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too. And since you have come out of childhood… you forget that in order to get to Heaven you have to have a pebble and a toe. (pgs 221-222)

And not unlike Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ this work contains a number of other play or games references;

…the bishop moves, rooks move, the knight jumps, pawns fall away, and in the center of the board, big as anthracite lions the kings remain flanked by the cleanest and last and purest of their armies, at dawn the deciding lances will be crossed, fate will be served, peace will reign. (p80)

Given the bohemian lifestyle in Paris, the book is filled with philosophical discussions and digressions, from straightforward intellectual arguments through to jazz style blabbering, accompanied by references to the records being played at the time. There are quotable quotes galore, a Twitter feed’s paradise, however these insights are also peppered with acerbic literary commentary;

…the only way to get a hold on Argentina was to come up on it from the shameful side, find the blush hidden under a century of usurpations of all kinds, as writers had pointed out so well, and therefore the best way was to show it in some way in which it didn’t have to take itself so seriously. (pgs 241-242)

In the expendable chapters the character “Morelli”, and his writings, frequently pops up, he’s a character hinting at the construction and writing of ‘Hopscotch’ (or a similarly structured novel) itself, Cortázar’s alter-ego (ignore the male/female reader in the following quote, it is explained in the work, although it is sexist).

It would seem that the usual novel misses in its mark because it limits the reader to its own ambit; the better defined it is, the better the novelist is thought to be. An unavoidable detention in the varying degrees of the dramatic, the psychological, the tragic, the satirical, or the political. To attempt on the other hand a text that would not clutch the reader but would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions. Demonic writing for the female-reader (who otherwise will not get beyond the first few pages, rudely lost and scandalized, cursing at what he paid for the book), with a vague reverse side of hieratic writing.
“To provoke, assume a text that is out of line, untied, incongruous, minutely antinovelistic (although not antinovelish). Without prohibiting the genre’s great effects if the situation should require it, but keeping in mind the Gidean advice,
ne jamais profiter de l’élan acquis. Like all creatures of choice in the Western world, the novel is content in a closed order. Resolutely opposed to this, we should search for an opening and therefore cut the roots of all systematic construction of characters and situations. Method: irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one. (p404)

One final interesting section of the book, and there are so many, a chapter that completely shook my reading style and forced me to slow down and absorb, Chapter 34. It is written in alternate lines, the opening line coming from a book that our protagonist’s lover is reading, the second line is his thoughts about the book he is reading, the third the book again and so forth;

In September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
And the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
like this. To think that she’s spent hours on end reading tasteless (p198)

A systematic breakdown of the structures we are used to.

No need to add more accolades to the innumerable that exist out there, if you haven’t read this book yet, take the time to do so. Just like my chart of the chapter sequence, there is no order to the chaos, immerse yourself, enjoy.

The page numbers in the quotes above are taken from the Everyman’s Library edition, which also includes Julio Cortázar’s short story collections ‘Blow-Up’ (translated by Paul Blackburn) and ‘We Love Glenda So Much’ (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal (translated by Norman Cheadle)

Buenosayres

The Argentine Ulysses?

In “Finnegan’s Wake”, James Joyce describes “Ulysses” as “his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles”, Leopoldo Marechal’s hero, Adam Buenosayres, has a notebook, which is presented in Book Six of this monolith, called “The Blue-Bound Notebook”. However, “Adam Buenosayres” (originally titled “Adán Buenosayres”) is not uselessly unreadable, in fact it is a very complex, many layered work, and it is not simply a “blue book” reference which links this work to “Ulysses”.

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I am, very slowly, looking at the many worlds of Ulysses and books that have been identified as being the “Ulysses” of their nation. Joshua Cohen identified “Adam Buenosayres” as the Argentine Ulysses, and unlike a few other works I have read the parallels here are justified.

The novel is expertly translated by Norman Cheadle (assisted by Shiela Ethier, who is credited on the title page but nowhere else!). Cheadle writes a detailed Introduction and provides 77 pages of detailed notes and a Bibliography, these are extremely handy to decipher a number of Argentine terms or references, and if the comparison to Joyce is considered tenuous then that should be dismissed quickly as the introduction provides a section titled “The Joyce connection and the culture wars”;

Another clear source of inspiration is Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) (p xiii)

This massive novel consists of seven “Books” and an “Indispensable Prologue”, where we learn, on the first page, that the protagonist is dead, after the funeral, Leopoldo Marechal advises us;

In the days that followed, I read two manuscripts that Adam Buenosayres had entrusted to me at his death: The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia. Both works struck me as so extraordinary that I resolved to have them published, confident that they would find a place of honour in Argentine literature. But I later realized those strange pages would not be fully understood by the public without some account of who their author and protagonist was, so I took it upon myself to sketch out a likeness of Adam Buenosayres. At first I had in mind a simple portrait, but then it occurred to me to show my friend in the flow of his life. The more I recalled his extraordinary character, the epic figures cut by his companions, and above all the memorable exploits I had witnessed back in those days, the more novelistic possibilities expanded before my mind’s eye. I decided on a plan of five books, in which I would present my Adam Buenosayres from the moment of his metaphysical awakening at number 303 Monte Egmont Street until midnight on the following day, when angels and demons fought over his soul in Villa Crespo, in front of the Church of San Bernardo, before the still figure of Christ with the Broken Hand. Then I would transcribe The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia as the sixth and seventh books of my tale. (pp3-4)

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which focuses on a single day in Dublin, these first five “books” of “Adam Buenosayres” focuses on three days, April 28-30, in an unspecified year in the 1920’s, in Buenos Aires (hence the protagonist’s name). It does say “one day” in the introduction however we also have the manuscripts themselves and, of course, the funeral. But I could rant on for ages about the influences and inspirations, the translator’s introduction to the book most definitely explains it better than I ever could.

As explained by Norman Cheadle, this work could be interpreted as a Roman à Clef, a novel with real life keys overlaid with a façade of fiction. The main characters “carticatures of clearly recognizable individuals”, Luis Pereda is Jorge Luis Borges, the astrologer Schultz being the artist Xul Solar, the philosopher Samuel Tesler is the poet Jacobo Fijman, and Bernini the writer Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, the protagonist Adam Buenosayres Marechal himself. Buenosayres’ beloved, Solveig Amundsen has been associated with Norah Lange, however this is under dispute. Cheadle says “caution must be exercised when interpreting Adán as a roman à clef. On the other hand, it can be read as a Kűnstlerroman whose most obvious model is Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though these two subgenres can hardly account for the novel in its totality.”

A work so rich in literary styles it requires a serious commitment if you want to enjoy its riches, it is a book that demands many readings, and the rewards for complete immersion and further study would obviously be many, however Norman Cheadle greatly assists any reading with his detailed notes.

He haunted the night because, in his era, the torch of daytime incited a war without laurels; it raped silence, it scourged holy stillness. Daytime was external like skin, active like the hand, sweaty as armpits, loud-mouthed and prolific in falsehood. Male by sex, daytime was a young hairy-chested hero. He shied away from the light of day because it pushed him toward the temptation of material fortune, induced the anxiety to possess useless objects, as well as other unhealthy desires: to be a politician, boxer, singer, or gunman. “and the night?” Colourless, odourless, insipid as water, nighttime nevertheless kindled the dawn of difficult voices and deep calls which the day with its trombones drowns out. Antipode of light, night made the tiny stars visible. Destroyer of prisons, she favoured escape. Field of truce, she facilitated union and reconciliation. Female who healed, refreshed and stimulated, she lay with man and conceived a son called sleep, the gracious image of death. (pp19-20)

The story of a man, struggling with unrequited love, a hero who is about to undertake adventures, where the underbelly of Buenos Aires will be exposed. The first five books, consisting of 355 large pages, is Marechal coming to terms with his place in Argentina, his struggles with writing and his role within the wider literary circle;

Did Adam concoct, as was his wont, some poetic analogy to express such a vexed duality? He had no need, Plato’s inimitable simile sprang to mind: his soul was a like a wingèd chariot pulled by two different horses. One of them, sky-coloured, its mane bristling with stars, its delicate hooves airborne, tended to draw always upward, toward the heavenly meadows where it was born. The other, earth-coloured, slack-lipped, balky, its crupper twisted, paunchy, long-eared, knock-kneed, down at the mouth, and stumble-gaited, always pulled downward, itching to get stuck in muck up to the crotch. Poor Adam, the driver, held the reins of both horses and strove to keep them on track. When the accursed colt prevailed and dragged down the soul’s entire equipage, the divine equine seems to be asleep in its traces. But when the celestial steed took over, its limbs plied a marvellous light, its nostrils flared to the scent of divine alfalfa fields, and the coach flew, hoisting aloft the dead weight of the earthly horse. The sublime charger kept going higher until it sensed the air thinning, its sinews slackened, and it fell asleep drunk on loftiness. That’s when the terrestrial animal woke up and, finding its teammate asleep, let itself fall down hard, given over to voracious hunger for impure matter. When satiated, this beast nodded off, the noble bronco awoke and was master of the coach once more. Thus, between one horse and the other, between heaven and earth, now pulling on this rein and now on that one, Adam’s soul rose up or tumbled down. At the end of each trip Adam the coachman wiped acrid sweat from his brow. (p27)

Using many literary and philosophical references throughout, the influences of European thinking and culture upon Argentine progress is a subtle backdrop to the travails of our hero and his merry band of writers, artists, poets. The philosopher Samuel Tesler appears in chapter two, he does not wash as a rejection of being baptised (as per Stephen Dedalus?) and his appearance ensures there are many philosophical debates throughout their journey.

In Book Two, Adam Buenosayres wanders the streets, a la Bloom in “Ulysses” and meets a large cast of characters, this is the melting pot of Buenos Aires. A funeral crosses his path, we have dishwashers calling on Melpomene “the tragic muse” quoting poetry, Polyphemus appears as a blind street beggar who owns rental properties, drinking funeral coachmen, old witches who have been fleeced, men doffing hats to statues of Christ, large pregnant women, nymphs in blue, white and green revealing a “Hesperides of incalculable abundance”, Clotho with a spinning wheel, Syrians smoking the narghile, and it all comes together with a resounding crescendo…a fight;

Standing in the first row of the ring, Adam Buenosayres studied the combatants. There were the Iberians of thick eyebrows who’d left northern Spain and their dedication to Ceres to come here and drive orchestral streetcars; there were those who drank from the torrential Miño River, men practiced in the art of argumentation; those from the Basque countries, the natural hardness of their heads concealed by blue berets. Then there were the Andalusian matadors, abundant in guitars and brawls. And industrious Ligurians, give to wine and song. Neopolitans erudite in the fruits of Pomona, who now wield municipal brooms. Turks of pitch-black mustachios, who sell soap, perfumed water, and combs destined for cruel uses. Jews wrapped in multi-coloured blankets, who love not Bellona. Greeks astute in the stratagems of Mercury. Dalmatians of well-rivetted kidneys. The Syrio-Lebanese, who flee not the skirmishes of Theology. And Japanese dry-cleaners. In short, all those who had come from the ends of the earth to fulfil the lofty destiny of the Land-which-from-a-noble-metal-takes-its-name. Adam studied those unlikely faces and wondered about that destiny, and great was his doubt. (p94)

As the journey continues the reader is exposed to an array of Argentine history, myth and sub-cultures, the five books coming to a nationalistic conclusion;

The Argentine, by nature, was and must be a sober man, as our country folk were and still are. And so were, and are, the immigrants responsible for the existence of the majority of us. Bet what’s happened? Foreigners have induced us into a cult of sensuality and hedonism, inventing a thousand needs we didn’t have before. And – of course! – it’s all so they can sell us the geegaws they produce industrially, and so redeem the gold they pay us for our raw materials. In plain language, that’s what I call eating with both hands! (p336)

A full novel contained in the first five books, Marechal’s “Ulysses”, but this only constitutes a little over half of the work, we still have “The Blue-Bound Notebook” and the final book “Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia”.

“The Blue-Bound Notebook” is a metaphysical exploration, a delving into the soul of Adam Buenosayres, a philosophical musing on existence and love. The book where he has written his inner most desires for Solveig, this section explores Adam’s heart;

She moved slowly forward, beneath a sun perpendicular to the earth: her body, without shadow, had the firm fragility of a branch, a sort of combative force in her lightness, a terrible audacity in her decorum. She wore a sky-blue dress wrapped round her like a whisp of mist; but the garden, the light, the air, all heaven and earth joined forces and worked to clothe her, so much to be feared was her nakedness. With her face turned to the sun, she showed the two violets of her eyes and the slight arc of her smile; a bee buzzed in circles around her hair. As she walked, her small feet crushed golden sand, seashells, and the carapaces of blue beetles. Her arrival seemed to last an eternity, as it The One came from very far off, across a hundred days and a hundred nights. (p384)

After exploring Adam Buenosayres soul and inner machinations it is time for a decent into Hell, a la Dante’s “Inferno”, here nine stages of the helicoid tracking the living hell of Buenos Aires, the masses chewing, swallowing and shitting whatever news is fed to them, sexual debauchery, where Chapter 15 “Circe” in “Ulysses” instantly sprang to mind;

Why, it’s Don Moses Rosenbaum! He has exhumed his ancient lustring frock coat and his astrakhan hat. See how his crazed gaze wanders over the banquet table! And observe how, in the face of such devastation, he tears tufts from his beard, weeps without a sound, raises his arms toward the ceiling, as though trying to prop it up? Great God, what’s he doing now? In his madness, the poor wretch has started gathering crumbs from the tablecloth, righting toppled glasses, and salvaging the spilled wine. But no one sees or hears him, and around him the debauchery intensifies. (p470)

Occasional spices of humour appear, for example the dragon guarding the door into the fifth circle of hell needs to be put to sleep, how they do so is to read it Argentine literature.

A massive novel that contains riches upon riches, a work that deserves better recognition as a canonical piece of Argentine literary history, a book that is not an easy read, a mental exercise that took me many months to complete. Late in the book Leopoldo Marechal explains it thus;

Reader, my dear friend, if I had to justify the drowsiness that came over me in the fourth circle of Schultz’s inferno, I should remind you of a hundred illustrious precedents recorded in as many infernal excursions. Alighieri, being who he was, slept quite a bit in the descent he made. If the metaphysical character of his journey allows us to assign a symbolic value to that bard’s siestas, we can say that Alighieri slept in the proper place at the proper time. Less fortunate than he, I made an infernal descent without theological projections. I didn’t sleep when I should have, but rather when it was humanely possible to do so. How lucky are you, reader! For, having no metaphysical obligations or any cares whatsoever, you can cop a snooze on any page at all of this, my true story! (p481)

Underappreciated, sadly released in English with barely a whimper, “Adam Buenosayres” was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, not even making the shortlist (the eventual winner was Can Xue’s “The Last Lover”), which is extremely disappointing given the massive effort that the translator has put in here and given the novel’s place in Argentine literary history. Lauded by Julio Cortázar shortly after the novel was released in 1948, where he said “The publication of this book is an extraordinary event in Argentine literature.”

For lovers of complex literature this is worth reading, not because it is a materwork, but just for the ending where an insatiable desire of knowledge and the allure of reading is debated. Of all the national “Ulysses” I have read, I must say the comparison here is completely justified.

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.

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

SevenMadmen

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.