Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin

unbearable

What is essay? In recent years I have been exploring the fiction form and the boundaries being pushed in the fictional format. Recently I have noticed an inordinate number of new essay collections hitting the shelf. Is the factual argument or the exploration of a subject via experimental means lesser of an essay? I recently reviewed Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies; Essay’s near knowing” where personal restriction was put in place (for example, no research whilst writing each essay), this collection was vibrant, exciting, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Can others also experiment with the form for similar results?

As mentioned in my recent post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, reading such a dense, complex and large book poses mental and physical restrictions. Generally I read one book from start to finish, pick up something that seems to suit the flow of my previous reading and then complete the new one, and continue ad-nauseum. A few “breaks” by participating in Women In Translation Month or Spanish Literature Month or other style read-alongs can break the flow I’m in and set me off on a new tangent. As regular visitors here would know I have been primarily focused on Latin American, South American literature for quite a few months now, and switching to the German was a massive cultural shift. Given the sheer size of “Bottom’s Dream” it is not a book I take to read on my daily work commute, I’m therefore breaking up the Germanic, at the moment, with various essay, short story or poetry collections. Regular visitors here will notice that over the comings weeks or months my posts will be reviews of books of the shorter form, although I do have a few unwritten reviews from novels read (and heavily notated) which I may get to write up and post.

For my essay reading I referred to a recent post at Book Riot titled “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016” http://bookriot.com/2016/09/20/25-great-essay-collections-from-2016/ – a number simply didn’t take my fancy as they appeared to address American History, or the blurb indicated a severe case of narcissism (“It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.”), I culled the list to six, yes I was savage in my culling process.

The first collection off the pile was Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

At one stage the Minotaur in his labyrinth is fed nine youths every nine years until visited by Theseus, and later the scientific research of dreaming in-utero is presented followed by “dreams are ephemera”, the adopted Korean cannot discern between truthful and deceitful dreams, the ones she has of her life in Korea, her biological parents being unknown, as evidenced by a facsimile of her Birth Certificate.

At one stage Sun Yung Shin links adoption to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the similarities of having to change in a new environment, new restrictions, new cultural norms, new learned histories.

At times written in the plural, is this the royal “we”?, when the dreams of a forgotten childhood are documented, we later learn Sun Yung Shin’s playful language is in use here, in the essay “Autocionography” the concept of no such thing as “I” is explored.

to love the word we more than I – we don’t have to capitalize we even in the middle of a sentence – the I has been sprung from its prison no more stretcher for you letter I – who do you think you are letter I to be so tall to be like the Roman numeral one – you don’t stand for one anymore – you don’t stand up anymore

Not only exploring her cultural roots, her homeland, her adoption, this is a work deeply rooted in cultural references both Korean and American. We also have the themes of motherhood, of what it is to be female as evidenced by the epigraph from Carl Jung;

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. As a rule, a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment. – Carl Jung in an interview with Frederick Sands, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1961.

Even surrogacy is touched upon, “my womb a piñata”.

Antigone becomes as reoccurring character, and I have to ask are there parallels to Jacques Lacan’s 1997 quotes: though Antigone represents ‘‘a turning point in . . . ethics’’ and reveals ‘‘the line of sight that defines desire,’’ it is ‘‘Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor’’? I’m no psychoanalyst, nor have a clue what half of their work means, so I’ll leave that to the more educated (wish me luck when I get into the whole Freud thing in Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”!!)

Unlike your more “vanilla” essay collections, this work uses poetic building blocks to slowly reveal the existentialist heart, a very impressive result as the personal connection is palpable. Successful where so many fiction writers fail. This work is layer upon layer of revelation, a slow unwrapping of identity, a convincing view of numerous ephemera, myth blended with science blended with history and culture, poetically descending into our consciousness and leaving a memory behind. Thoroughly enjoyable, experimental poetic essay, who would have thought!

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Say Bye To Reason and Hi To Everything – Various complied by Andrew Durbin

New York based magazine and art book publisher Capricious was initially founded as a fine art photography magazine in 2004 by Swedish photographer Sophie Mörner. Now renowned for their feminist and queer art books, with titles like Girls Like Us and Randy, the collection of photographs of Los Angeles sex workers from the 1990’s by Eve Fowler titled Hustler and Matt Keegan’s box of art objects , ==. Capricious approached author Andrew Durbin (Mature Themes in 2014 and next year Blonde Summer both published by Nightboat Books) and asked him to edit a book of his choice with the stipulation that it be “literary”. Andrew Durbin invited five female writers, Dodie Bellamy, Cecilia Corrigan, Amy De’Ath, Lynne Tillman and Jackie Want to each contribute a short book of new or previously uncollected material.
2012 Guggenheim fellowship recipient, artist Nayland Blake was approached to provide the cover and packaging artwork. When Andrew Durbin was perusing archived drawings by Nayland Blake he came across the furiously quacking ducks with the text Say bye to reason and hi to everything – this artwork became the box cover artwork and the overall project title.
Five short chapbooks, five different genres, poetry, memoir, criticism, dramatic monologue and personal journal are the resultant collection.
First up Jackie Wang’s “Tiny Spelunker of the Oneiro-Womb” a personal journal/poetry collection recalling her dreams The medium Wang used was Twitter, placing the restriction of the number of characters in play as well as the immediacy of her output and an unknown audience adds a layer of complexity to the poems. Her simply revealing to the world her inner demons, and the immediacy of her posting the poetic tweets as soon as she wakes up, starting the tweet “stanzas” (loose definition here) with the phrase “In the/my dream”. This demarking of her poems, where as a twitter follower you will know where one poem starts and ends, is also a demarcation of her dream life and reality.
On the box of cardboard letters there is a list of suggested phrases. None of them have to do with Halloween.
The letters have melted together, making my task infinitely more onerous.
The cardboard letters were also supposed to be perforated but weren’t.
It’s hard to assemble even a simple work, materially.
I have accidentally torn the letters of the word I wanted to make and feel defeated about language.
An extremely personal revelation covering a raft of subjects, sexual, artistic, desire, detachable slug like penises, female lesbian desire, lust, book creation, brothers who are under arrest, no subject is taboo here, and in a format that is very readable and enjoyable this is a great introduction to Jackie Wang’s work. Check out more via her twitter handle @LoneberryWang or her blog at http://loneberry.tumblr.com/  How can I not like a collection that includes the following quote?
I revolt: I no longer want to be a person. Clarice Lispector
Dodie Bellamy’s collection, “More Important Than The Object”, covers a raft of personal art viewing, and working history through eleven reflections presented as “memoir”. With titles such as “Permanent Collection”, which explores the nuances, feelings, emotions when entering an art space;
When I visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art I am both an outsider without status and an artist in my own right, with a peculiar variety of privilege. Being a writer, I’m not central to the Bay Area art scene, but I bisect with it in overlapping circles. If you know any curators, the first thing that you’ll realize is that in private they love to act out, to throw off the formal constraints of writing copy for catalogues and signage, or whatever they call those informative blocks of text that hand on the gallery walls, from which the first person is forbidden. In private they take enormous pleasure in disclosing, in writing the forbidden, getting all personal and critical and gossipy, throwing around the first person with abandon. Get them alone and they’re eager to extricate themselves from the official discourse of the museum, to show the human side of the process, all the insecurities and resentments and near catastrophes. They expose their feelings about their jobs, and how at times when rushing around the museum they’re stopped in their tracks by the wonder of a piece of art.
And Bellamy’s past as a 16-year-old art student and her copy of /Vision In Motion” is explored, along with photography, imagery, capitalist consumerism, in the memoir “Moholy-Nagy”;
In our culture of ahistorical surfaces and angles of gaze, we all know better than to go around searching for transcendence, yet I suspect that most of us still long for it, that being human, we’re hardwired for such longings.
“Cream” by Cecilia Corrigan is a stream of consciousness style teenage anecdote/monologue about the beauty industry;
Sometimes I have to look at the internet and see what kind of horrible thing has happened now.
Things don’t seem to be working out very well for most people in the world and there’s so much disaster and tragedy and so many products you’re supposed to put on your skin or not, depending, and lists, and no one knows the answers to any of it.
A monologue that flows from Stanley Kubrick to Shelly Winters to Jean Genet to Abdallah the tight rope walker, the common link their make up.
It’s sad how most men don’t get to use lotions, except for the mysterious “aftershave.”
It’s like they don’t have any secrets.
Eight short poems make up the chapbook “ON MY LOVE FOR Gender Abolition” by Amy De’Ath
Every feminist man thinks he is a good friend.
He wouldn’t hit a woman, nor rape her. Nor kill her,
but maybe he would writer something to pause the brain, a
Heraclitean litany or regular love song. Save her a song in the spirit
of universalism that she would comprehend –
All my abstract labour is on the mountain top. So fuck unto yourself.
Highly politically charged poetry, covering Maxism, feminism, sexuality, this is another personal revelation.
Lynne Tillman’s “In These Intemperate Times: 9 FriezeColumns” we have the critical essay. Seven short pieces that explore the ordinary, where the writer actually explains is a mischaracterisation, maybe the mediocre “Being mediocre requires an effort not to be ordinary, then failing.” She explains the bulk of “ordinary people”, getting sucked into watching reality television, where she generally reaches for the remote, this time the thoughts, whilst watching The Voice, she stays tuned, “If she can do it, I can”
On The Voice she sang for an audience of millions. How at ease, I thought, she looks onstage, which achievement – ease – is meant itself to be a modern-day miracle. The girl started to sing and imitated what hundreds of pop singers have modelled on tv since before her birth. There was no sense, to my eye, of her wanting to make something her own, just to do what everyone else did as well as she could. She had the moves down, handling the mic, doing the familiar gestures, and could add the usual trill and vibrato here and there. The voice was a sweet, unmemorable voice, a voice like so many voices. I didn’t watch to the end, the outcome seemed clear, and she won a day or so later.
Factual in feeling, at times disjointed, the flow or connection at times felt a little tenuous. Containing a large number of great themes that could be explored in more detail. The political, the entity known as a nation is explored in “Fighting Talk” or language in “Seriously?”;
I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions. Still, defending irony is self-defeating and oxymoronic. To mount an attack on anti-ironists would deny me the pleasure of pointing without being pointed. Earnestness does have its place. (President Obama’s new press secretary is names Earnest.) But to be earnest treads the line of righteousness and, worse, self-righteousness. It is often said of an earnest speaker that he or she means well. ‘Meaning well’ implies the speaker has used platitudes. Irony refuses platitudes, and hopes to undo them.
Overall this is a very tight collection of varied works that all address the common theme of identity, a nicely presented collection that gives you a taste of all the writer’s works without having to invest in a full length work. An enjoyable visit into the minds of the margins in the USA.
For more details about the collection and the contributors visit the publisher Capricious’ website here http://www.becapricious.com/say-hi-t/

Minute-Operas – Frédéric Forte (Translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel)

First up from the American Literary Translators Association, 2016 National Translation Awards longlist for Poetry (geez that’s a mouthful), is Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte (Translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom & Jean-Jacques Poucel).
Stepping into Frédéric Forte’s work is like stepping into a vast sparse gallery space, open space around you, take time to ponder what your eye has been drawn towards. Broken into two sections, “Phase one – January – October 2001” and “Phase two – February – December 2002”. Each section containing 55 “poems” or creations.
Each poem is “Staged” on the page, where a “simple vertical line of 3 inches (I measured the line thinking it would more likely to be in centimetres, but inches it was, I wonder if this is part of the translation or a US audience too?) separates, what Forte calls the stage and the wings”. Typographically the word creations then perform on this stage created on each page. It is probably best to cite an example.
This example showing the passing of time, the polar opposites of marking off weeks but stating that during a “poem’s construction you never count your days”, ageing and creation (in the wings) whilst the seconds pass on the stage. Complexity all on a single page. To quote the ‘Preface” from “The End of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement” by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esosito;
The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The work which results may be “complete” in itself, but it will gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint.
The poem I have used as an example doesn’t actually fall into the Oulipian section of Frédéric Forte’s work, which in fact comes in phase two, but the concept of the paradox and liberation are stunningly obvious.
This is a collection that forces you to pause, as if in an art gallery, to observe, linger, absorb, reflect before moving on, each poem an artwork in its own right, a creation that can work on numerous levels, artistically, literary, poetically, theatrically or even structurally.
Phase two’s poems come with a “Detailed index of fixed forms” where the poem uses existing poetic forms, either traditional or invented by the Oulipo. Another example for you;

Here the detailed index explains that the poem is a “Quintina. Level-5 quenina. In (central pillar of a house [the title of the poem]) the permutation operates on punctuation marks.” Permutations boundless in this example, I‘ll leave it for you to ponder.
This book is not only a feat of typographical wonder, to even contemplate the translation that would have been required, is a feat in itself. For example, the oulipo ‘heterogram’ “invented by Georges Perec. The letters chosen by the poet (the ten most frequently used in the French alphabet, plus one) cannot be used again before the whole series is completed. In the poem ‘(whistle statue II)’ the letters “SILENTBAROU” go through various iterations as words (eg. Silent Bar: our tale is….) eleven times until they end with the words “burial stone”. How on earth did this originally appear in French and how did the translator make it coherent in English? I’m still astounded, initially upon reading the poem, again when taking my notes, and now when attempting to explain it.
The cover of the book tells us that the content of the poems “also constitute, in their cryptic way, a journal of the poet’s life during the period of composition (2001-2002): his love life, the loss of his father…” unfortunately this depth was something that was personally lost in the translation. Whilst the word games, and cryptic style was extremely impressive, the content, as a cohesive whole, seemed to fall by the wayside.
Phase two of the book containing fifty-five word games for you to explore slowly, wonder upon, stretch your limits, refer to the index and back to the poem, research, ponder. An absolute marvel of potential literature. The first fifty-five poems more structured within the space confines, created by the poet, or simply the limits of the page, but still wonderfully rich and detailed in their construction.

A collection that I think would not be out of place in an art gallery. Illuminating and one I will revisit often, if simply just to be stunned at the creation involved.
In a nut shell this is a book I can’t adequately review, here’s what others have said….if that helps…
“A book as intriguing (by its staging of typographic variations) as it is invigorating (in its micro-narratives).” —Emmanuel Laugier, Le Matricule des Anges n°67 (octobre 2005)
“Extraordinary inventiveness…funny, original, brilliant” —Jean-Michel Espitallier, Caisse à Outils: Un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui (Pocket, 2006)
“positively acrobatic, even balletic” – ALTA Blog
How about you buy a copy and see for yourself? I can guarantee literary lovers, Oulipo readers and poetry aficionados will not be disappointed.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} – Brian Blanchfield

Something a little different to end the month, a book that was recommended to me by Rough Ghosts whilst I was reading Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”  Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.
As explained in the opening “Note” each essay was composed using two criteria, they needed to be written fully from memory, with no reference checking, no internet referral, and Brian Blanchfield needed to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.”
Even though our writer here is using a “proxy”, authority to act as somebody else, or as Blanchfield says “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary” he then gives his reason why he is suitably qualified for such, but it is the raw honesty, the existentialist approach, the honest revelation of self that is the moving, touching component here.
Using, what would, on the surface, seem mundane, we have subjects such as “Foot Washing”, here the historical, and religious symbolism is mixed with the familial and “On Minutes”;
Minutes are so called because they keep a chronological record, or because they guarantee that the proceedings of a meeting will be represented in their minutiae. They constitute the primary mode of clerical documentary nonfiction narrative, and are understood to be entirely faithful to fact, objective and without analysis, very nearly at 1:1 scale. Nonetheless the art of preparing minutes inheres in one’s facility with abstraction, namely paraphrase. There are no quotation marks in minutes. What was said must be related, and the audience is posterity.
At times I felt I was out of my depth with the superior intelligence of Blanchfield, but I was true to his creation process and did not use reference material when reading this collection (it helped that I read it on a long(ish) plan flight where there was no internet and I didn’t pack a thesaurus or dictionary). In the essay “On The Locus Amoenus” he describes somebody as “gracefully intelligent, highly literate”, in my mind that is Brian Blanchfield himself!
A collection that is brilliant in its exploration and revelations, for example to explore a simple word like “confound” and add such depth and meaning shows you are reading a master of language, a writer who is operating at full strength and is enlightening you as part of his journey of self discovery.
In housesitting, you have an established normalcy to play at, an established normalcy to play against. Largesse and obligation alternate and conspire in transitory identity, which wanders the premises with you: minder, keeper, prowler, visitor, charlatan, surrogate, subordinate, beneficiary, help. Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, house sitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case. The construct is a tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
 An in-depth discovery of our writer’s journey and thought processes whilst housesitting. And like the aforementioned Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry” there is reference here to Aristotle too;
This is in language what Donald Winnicott insisted remain free in childhood play, our remake of our surroundings, our exercise of independence. This is what Aristotle mistrusted in poets, makers; we cannot leave things alone. We say what we like. There is a given world and then most of us graduate into a second given, an abstract realm where all of the entities of the given world are players that we can bring into transactive arrangements in sentences, by their names. Standing to reason is only one position. That was a proposition.
Whilst Brian Blanchfield is openly gay and there are numerous references to homosexuality, and essays that address subjects such as male-to-male sex and HIV, AIDS in New York in the 1990’s to restrict his observations and revelations to a purely gay audience would be a great disservice. Let’s hope this work isn’t marketed purely as LGBIT essays!!
Blanchfield’s sexuality is, of course, the subject of many family diversions, an adopted child (adopted by a step father remaining with his blood mother), the relationships with his step father and mother, his real father are often the destination of his unpacking, the “area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability”. As family relationships are for many of us!!!
Be warned though, you can, at times feel as though you are a minnow in the shadow of Blanchield’s learnedness, his writing self-described as, “…the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there by a somewhat nuanced consciousness of literary tradition.” As I said…be warned.
With references to other writers, such as Roland Barthes, where he says “agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline”, Blanchfield could be holding a mirror up to his own writing.
And poetry? In the essay “On Reset” he describes reading “Chris Nealon and Kevin Killian and Jena Osman and Harmony Holiday and Aaron Kunin and Bhanu Kapil”…”Each of them, midway, I put down and looked up to find the world changed, a little. That’s what I’m looking for, that transfer, a new attunement.”

 Described on the back cover as singlehandedly raising the bar for what’s possible in the new golden age of creative nonfiction, this is a collection that demands to be read, if essays are your cup of tea here is a fresh approach to what would seem insignificant subjects. A focus on what appears to be mundane shows a deep personal connection to everything that makes us human, where family relationships can bubble in the darkness and only resurface when you are thinking of personal (or more specifically peripersonal) space or the forest or Bre’r Rabbit. Like the “Understory” described in one essay, the multi layers of soft mulch under the forest canopy, this collection is rich in matter, when the light shines through the over growth the focus is intense, but the revelation unique. An absolute brilliant read, one to be celebrated.

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

Multiple Choice – Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)

This novel is _______?
a) Experimental fiction
b) Non fiction
c) Autobiography
d) Fiction
e) All of the above

The latest work from Alejandro Zambra is structured on ________?
a) The Chilean Academic Aptitude Test
b) Which was in place between 1967 and 2003
c) The need to pass this test to enter University
d) The Verbal Aptitude test that Zambra took in 1993
e) All of the above

The work is constructed into five sections. Which is your favourite?
a) Excluded Term
b) Sentence Order
c) Sentence Completion
d) Sentence Elimination
e) Reading Comprehension

When I quote actual questions how will you tell them apart from the ones I am writing in my review?
a) I will put the text in bold
b) I will put the text in italics
c) I will not differentiate the quotes from my questions in any way
d) I will highlight them in both bold and italics
e) All of the above

Megan McDowell has translated the following books by Alejandro Zambra
a) My Documents
b) The Private Lives of Trees
c) Ways of Going Home
d) Multiple Choice
e) All of the above

Excluded Term – eliminate the answer that has no relation to the other answers or the heading
a) Omitted Word
b) Barred Definition
c) Excepted Expression
d) Disqualified Phrase
e) Inclusive Idiom

Sentence Order – put the sentences in the best possible order for a coherent text
1) By putting sentences into different orders you can change the end meaning
2) Zambra creates flash fiction in five short sentences
3) I can imagine the translation by Megan McDowell would have been difficult
4) Some flash fiction wouldn’t make sense if it is ordered in a certain manner
5) If you create double negatives does that not confuse the reader?

a) 1-4-5-2-3
b) 2-3-4-1-5
c) 2-3-1-4-5
d) 1-2-3-4-5
e) 5-4-1-3-2

Sentence completion – mark the answer with the words that best fit the sentence
37. _____________________ the thousand amendments they’ve made to it, the Chilean Constitution of 1980 is a piece of shit.
a) After 
b) Due to
c) In spite of
d) Thanks to
e) Notwithstanding

Sentence Elimination – eliminate sentences that do not add information or are irrelevant
1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area.
2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising.
3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, from September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987.
4) One summer evening my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend’s house.
5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born.

a) None
b) 5
c) 1, 2, and 3
d) 4 and 5
e) 2

The final section presents three short stories, followed by questions based on the story’s content. After recently reading Zambra’s “My Documents” these three texts immediately brought back to mind his pristine observations of Chilean society, the struggles of the locals and all presented with wry humour. The earlier sections of this book show Zambra’s expert control over language and the form it can take, structures forming the narrative and the emotional response from the reader is based upon how they add, or delete, or order their own personal journey through the myriad of possible answers. The three short stories combine identical twins who manipulate the education system and become lawyers in a corrupt Chile, how to cheat on aptitude tests, an emotional plea from a father who has abandoned his child (reminiscent of Andrés Neumann’s “Talking to Ourselves”, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) and a story of a doomed marriage of convenience.  When you enter the world of Zambra’s “comprehension” test you are quizzed about your association to the characters, a possible title, your reactions, in all a unique way to approach the short story form.

Given this is a very very short read indeed, and although running to 100 pages the question and answer format, 90 questions, leaves a lot of spare space on the page, and the asking price of US$15.00 is probably a bit rich, given you will knock it over in an hour or two (at most). Short book, short review. Having said that it is an enjoyable format, one that highlights prejudices that you bring to the reading world, another unique experience from someone who is fast becoming one of my favourite Chilean writers.

Was the format of this review….?
a) Patronising
b) Formulaic
c) Predictable
d) Unique
e) Pathetic

The Large Glass – Mario Bellatin (translated by David Shook)

Mario Bellatin, artist, film-maker, a member of the Honorary Advisory Committee at dOCUMENTA 13 (more on that later), Guggenheim Grant recipient in 2002, and of course writer, is never far from publicity. Having been born with  a deformity, he wears a “variety of striking, artist designed prostheses in lieu of his missing right forearm”, including a giant can opener, and recently demanded that Planeta “unpublish” his novel “Salón de Belleza” (the English language translation appearing as “Beauty Salon” translated by Kurt Hollander). This novel appeared on the recent Publisher’s Weekly list of “ten essential Spanish-language books”, compiled by Daniel Saldaña Paris but now appears to be out of print and therefore no longer available in English!!!
Described by Daniel Saldaña Paris as “one of the most interesting writers working in Latin America right now. His writing is an offshoot of contemporary art, but also a marvel of the imagination and an inexhaustible wellspring of eccentricities.” Graciela Mochkofsky in The New Yorker (December 2015) saying; “In Bellatin’s stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurry; the author himself frequently appears as a character. His books are fragmentary, their atmospheres bizarre, even disturbing. They are full of mutations, fluid sexual identities, mysterious diseases, deformities.” Larry Rohter on 9 August 2009 in the New York Times saying; “In a score of novellas written since 1985 he has not only toyed with the expectations of readers and critics but also bent language, plot and structure to suit his own mysterious purposes, in ways often as unsettling as they are baffling.”
Add the dOCUMENTA 13 guest membership on the Honorary Advisory Committee and we have a very interesting character indeed. Every five years in Kassel, Germany, the documenta exhibition of modern and contemporary art takes place. The concept came to life in 1955 as an attempt to bring post-war Germany up to speed with modern art, after the banishment and repression of the cultural fringe during the Second World War. In 2012 dOCUMENTA 13 had Carolyn Christov-Bajargiev as the artistic director and curator and was based on the theme “Collapse and Recovery”. Enrique Vila-Matas in his work “The Illogic of Kassel”  was a guest writer-in-residence at dOCUMENTA 13, appearing in a Chinese restaurant so customers and staff could watch them “write”, observe them “creating”.
Mario Bellatin’s most recent release to appear in English is the autobiographical “The Large Glass”, three works appearing under the one title, so named after Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Very much like Duchamp’s sculpture, described in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections; it “has gradually become the subject of a vast scholarly literature and the object of pilgrimages for countless visitors drawn to its witty, intelligent, and vastly liberating redefinition of what a work of art can be”, Bellatin’s book also pushes the boundaries, redefining what autobiography can be.
Courtesy of Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp, here is a precis of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass); the work depicts abstract forces, not worldly objects and it portrays a sequence of interactions not a static tableau. The abstract forces are ones that shape human erotic activity – the realm of ego, desire. It is a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations. It shows a sequence of interactions, suspended in time, hence the subtitle “a delay in glass”. Duchamp wrote notes to accompany “The Large Glass”, they were meant to complement the visual experience, but they “are the stuff of sublime nonsense, driven by free association and wordplay, and resolutely anti-rational”. It is worthwhile reading the full text at the Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp website, as the alignment to Mario Bellatin’s work is unquestioned.” Sublime nonsense”, “a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations”, “art can engage the imagination and the intellect, not just the eyes”….Or for a more detailed explanation you could visit the page http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_1/Articles/Glass.htmlwhere an alignment of Duchamp’s artwork to the novel “Days and Nights” by Alfred Jarry (a French symbolist or absurdist writer) is discussed. Reading a few quotes of Jarry’s work, I’m thinking a new book is to be added to the “to be read” pile!!!
Mario Bellatin’s “The Large Glass” opens with “My Skin, Luminous” a section of 363 numbered sentences, mainly dedicated to his youth in a mental institution and his visits to the public baths with his mother so she could gather the gifts showered upon her for showing off his extraordinary testicles. A few short examples;
117 – The gifts began to appear as soon as my mother took off my pants.
134 – Those are some of the few memories that I have of my school years.
135 – Although it is strange, to an extent, to consider events that have occurred as memories.
181 – From time to time they are joined by lovers that have been suddenly abandoned or those afflicted by transmissible diseases – who generally take refuge next to some sewer.
The imagery in a number of these short sentences is startling, and although they may appear obscure, even random, there is a semblance of order as Bellatin’s tale of childhood is revealed. Are these notes following Duchamp’s theme and his release of The Green Box scraps and notes that accompanied his sculpture?
The second section “The Sheikha’s True Illness”, loosely follows Bellatin’s publication of an article titled “The Sheikha’s Illness” in Playboy magazine. Bellatin is a Sufi and his religious influences dabble along the edges here, along with hairless, toothless dogs on death row, protagonists who are the protagonists is his previously published work which he doesn’t like but the protagonists do, a Sheikah with fancy shoes and a hospital bed in a garden. That’s just a taste of what you’re in for here. A crazy melting pot of memories, anecdotes and experiences, all contributing to the character who is Mario Bellatin.
The final section of Bellatin’s autobiography is titled “A Character In Modern Appearance” and follows a forty-something year old woman (who is the narrator, therefore Bellatin), his stunning German girlfriend, a 1970’s Renault, living at home with her parents, grandparents and siblings, a home which has been demolished by a north-south highway, breeding rabbits and rats and acting as a marionette to fend off the landlords.
One of the main characteristics of my personality is lying all the time. I think that this, somehow, makes me amusing to others. I know that the stories that the puppets interpret always have a lie at their center. Maybe that’s why I have assimilated aspects of my performances into my daily life. I lie, for example, about my age. I love to say I am forty-six when in fact I am just forty-five years old. I always lie to the store’s salesman, as many know that I tend to buy sweets for my nephews with money stolen from my father’s wallet. I lie about my hobbies. It is not true that I had a trigonometry book under my arm when my grandfather crossed the railroad tracks. That is false. I am actually interested in writing books. Making them, inventing them, writing them. I know that I can hardly write my name. Instead of a J I always put a Y. Nonetheless, almost no one knows it, but I made a book about dogs.
To say that this book is a bizarre form of autobiography would be to sell it short, our avant-garde (surely he would hate that) writer is pushing the boundaries of what is autobiography, if not fiction, a collection of memories. As the translator David Shook notes, in a very short section titled “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (the long title of Duchamps sculpture):
Between Bellatin’s original composition, made entirely of his words, and this translation, made entirely of mine, lies a process that ultimately results in a text that is both entirely its own and entirely a reflection of the ideal text it came from, something, in my own experience, no matter how technically or scientifically approached, cannot be categorized as other than a mystical experience.
If you fancy your fiction a little off centre, if you want to delve into the world of a writer who once presented an invented Japanese novelist at a literary convention, the invention being cited as a deep influence on his work, the resultant presentation being so convincing he wrote a whole fake biography about the imaginary writer (“Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction”), and if you like your reading to challenge you, to force you to think of genres as being interchangeable, then Mario Bellatin is probably a writer you would enjoy. If you like the standard narrative style, I’m thinking you best look elsewhere.

As a suggestion a little research into Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), may assist with some of the references. A writer who is crossing boundaries with his art, challenging the status-quo, someone who would certainly excite with each new work or stunt, whether they all meet their mark is still to be known, this work certainly does.

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Moods – Yoel Hoffmann (translated by Peter Cole) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

A few years ago I bought a very colourful, heavy book called “Buddhist Offerings 365 Days” a 750 page book with a short Buddhist quote and a colour photograph (generally from Tibet) for each day of the year. The intention was to read and reflect on the quote each day, one of those grandiose ideas that lasts a week or two, however I do revisit the book from time to time for a timely quote or two, the first quote happens to be today’s (10 June), the others are just random choices:

Every event, every situation in which you may find yourself has a positive value,
even the dramas, even the tragedies, even the thunderbolt from a calm sky.
Arnaud Desjardins
It is our mind, and that alone, that chains us or sets us free.
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Usually we think that brave people have no fear.
The truth is that they are intimate with fear.
Pema Chödrön
Like all reflective quotes the act of pondering what is deemed as ancient wisdom permeates and can leave you with a feeling of becoming wise simply by contemplating somebody else’s musings. Unlike a novel, or even a short story, the very short form can leave itself open to many interpretations and the relationship between the writer and the reader is more along the lines of a passing “punch in the face” (immediate and extreme but quickly forgotten) or, at the other extreme, a shadowy brush that somehow lingers for longer than the relationship itself and comes back to haunt you when least expected.
Yoel Hoffmann’s “Moods” (translated by Peter Cole) is made up of 191 short musings on human emotions…moods. And each and every section impacts the reader in different ways, reflecting moods, emotions, temperaments.
In the room, the French woman held out a hand (one of the two she had) and took the thousand-franc bill, as one takes the wine and wafer from a priest. (from [5])
A forty-watt bulb (elsewhere I’ve called it an electric pear) lit up the bed but the picture of the Virgin (and Child) stood outside the cone of light like an omen. (from [6])
A book that would have been extremely difficult to translate with references to sounds, specific words, iambic, for example, taken from [28]
In Japanese the back is senaka. Senaka, we think, is the perfect word for it. More accurate than for instance, back, or Rücken.
However you really need to look at the Kanji characters for the word “senaka” to understand the perfection of the word…I’ve replicated it here… 背中
A stunning work, each of the 191 sections being shards of a broken mirror, they capture the everyday moments, the obscure, the memories, the reflections of a small fragment of a life, you do not have the full picture a full picture is not able to be formed. Don’t try to decipher the collection, just like you cannot decipher human existence;
This book is a book of moods. We could call it The Book of Moods.
Now we’re filled with love, and now it’s hatred. Sometimes we hate things we’ve loved or love things we’ve hated, and there is no end to it. (from [54])
An emotional rollercoaster moving through a raft of “moods” within a single page, this is not a book you can read in a single setting, a book that you need to contemplate, allow it to inhabit your core, chew over, re-read, meditate upon the concepts. A Zen master who speaks Hebrew? Hoffmann is a professor of Japanese poetry, Buddhism and philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, with his translation of “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” being released later this year as well as compiling, editing and commentating on the collection “Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death”. With six other books published by New Directions since 1998 I feel inadequate that I haven’t discovered his work before now!

It is not only the everyday that is contemplated or explored here, we also have musings on the art of writing itself;
We’re asking ourselves what the point of this book is or of books in general.
We’ve never seen books classified by genre. That is, we’ve seen them classified, but not correctly. What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, for instance, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?
Or take, for instance, science books. These aren’t stories? Accurate ones. But stories nonetheless. Or the distinction between biographies and novels. Is there a biography that isn’t a novel? Or a novel that isn’t the story of a life?
If book are going to be classified by genre, it should be done in an entirely different manner. First, once has to distinguish between happy books and sad books. Not books that make one happy or make one sad. Happy books, plain and simple. A book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes. (from [114])
As an aside this book is classified as 1. Psychological fiction. 2. Experimental fiction, Jewish.
One of the standouts of the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, a book that I thought would be in serious contention for the main prize (don’t get me wrong Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a fine work indeed and a worthy winner, in my eyes this work would have caused a few debates amongst the judges), one that any readers of “on edge” or “new” fiction should go out of their way to read. I’ll stop with the classifications now, “what’s the point”?

The shards of the broken mirror are scattered, don’t expect a non-corrugated journey, these shards scattered like heavenly bodies, like “uncut diamonds scattered about on a large table at the polishing workshop”, but “however you put it, the shards of things too are whole in their way.”

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