The Impostor – Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne)

Imposter

One of the most obvious artificial devices of the storyteller is the trick of going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart.
-Wayne C. Booth “The Rhetoric of Fiction” (p3)

In Javier Cercas’ “The Impostor”, there are really only two characters at play, the author and Enric Marco, a true impostor. The challenge for Javier Cercas is to give the reader a reliable view of his own mind and heart as well as the mind and heart of a man whose claims that he was a prisoner in a Nazi German concentration camp during World War II were exposed in 2005.

I had chosen literature so that I could have a life that was free, happy and authentic whereas actually my life was false, servile and unhappy, that I was a guy who pretended to be a novelist, and succeeded by deceiving and cheating people; in reality I was nothing more than an impostor. (p15)

Of course, we have fringe players who move in and out of the action, for example, people Javier Cercas interviews, the historian, Benito Bermejo who uncovered Enric Marco, however this is essentially a non-fiction fiction about the writer’s struggle to identify the true Enric Marco and the personal struggle that the author goes through wrestling with his own demons, should he write the book we are reading?

Thought and art, I believed, attempt to explore what we are, revealing our endless, ambiguous and contradictory variety, and in doing so, mapping out our nature: Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, I thought, illuminated every nook and cranny of the moral maze, demonstrate that love can lead to murder or suicide, and succeed in making us feel compassion for psychopaths and bastards; it is its duty, I thought, because the duty of art (or of thought) consists in showing us the complexity of existence in order to make us more complex, in examining the mechanics of evil, so that we may avoid it, and even the mechanics of good, perhaps so we may understand them. (p18)

Using this unique literary device, where we are told the story of Enric and then the investigations into the merits of such, Javier Cercas is presenting a story that works on numerous sub-levels. The nature of truth, the motivation to lie, the creation of false identities, the eternal search for who we really are.

For some time now, psychology has maintained that we can barely live without lying, that man is an animal that lies: life in society demands a measure of falsehood that we call politeness (and which only hypocrites mistake for hypocrisy); Marco horribly exaggerated and distorted this basic human need. In this sense, he is like Don Quixote, or like Emma Bovary, two other great liars who, like Marco, cannot reconcile themselves to the greyness of their real lives and so invent and live out fictitious, heroic lives; in this sense there is something in Marco’s fate that profoundly touches us all, as there is in those of Quixote and Bovary: all of us play a role; all of us are other than we are; in some way, we are Enric Marco. (p41)

The Wayne C. Booth text that I quoted above, goes on to explain the importance of “showing” the reader, not “telling” the reader, I purposely chose the reference to “The Rhetoric of Fiction” as Javier Cercas’s book tells throughout, it is self-described as “a novel without fiction”. Using repetition, with subtle changes, the question of memory is brought into play, what is the truth, what is the essential truth?

Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is referenced a number of times and you cannot help but wonder if through the exercise of writing this book, is Javier Cercas damning himself as Truman Capote did?

As well as a character study, following Enric Marco’s life, attempting to understand his motivations to become the great “impostor”, this is also a sociological study, a reflection on Spain pre and post Franco. Post Franco it becomes a nation where everybody has an invented past, surely now Franco has gone everybody was in opposition to him, which means the nation itself is a collective lie.

Personally, I learned a lot about Spanish history, the Civil War, post War dynamics, Spanish politics and the various factions at play, the “non-fiction fiction” really leading me to places I had previously not discovered. I am sure the information I have learned here will be extremely useful with other Spanish works, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” (translated by Edith Grossman) would have been a much richer read if I had read this book first, I’m wondering if this background will help me with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest “Like A Fading Shadow” (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez).

The book can play as an overly long lecture about a character and his motivations, and therefore the emotional connection is lost. Here is a character who you couldn’t care for, he is not an anti-hero, simply a manipulator who looked after himself, a Narcissist. Where is the interest in learning about this leading character, he is not the ideal candidate for a starring role.

Calling into question the fad that became “historical memory”, the fact that it actually was included in Spanish Law and then became a marketing tool, Javier Cercas expertly points out the absurdity of “historical memory”:

This is how things were, at least in the early stages of our relationship: Marco both wanted and did not want me to write about him and therefore he wanted and did not want to talk to me. Or to put it more clearly: Marco wanted me to write the book that he would have wanted to read, the book that he needed, the book that would finally rehabilitate him. (p323)

Here I need to point out one error in the book that really played on my mind. This error not only appears on page 129, I am also stunned that it appears in the official blurbs for the book (check Book Depository or Goodreads – this is a direct quote from the blurb);

By the time he is unmasked in Austria in 2005 on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp

In 2005 it was the SIXTEITH Anniversary of the liberation of the camp, and I can assure you, this is no minor error. When you are reading a book that is questioning historical truths, when it talks about stories containing mistakes and inaccuracies on purpose to put you off the scent, I thought for some time that this error was put there on purpose. This was playing on my mind so much I have had someone check the Spanish version to see if it said 60th or 70th, and the original text says “60th anniversary” so it is either a translation or editing error. The Spanish for “sixty” is “sesenta” for “seventy” it is “setenta”, one letter difference, but when talking about a significant historical date, ten years is a decent error. The date of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps are significant in world history. Put simply, this error is lazy.

Add to this a number of typo’s, or translation errors;

P267 “an magnificent actor”
P305 “as part of a homage” (everything else is English so why suddenly the Americanisation here?)

To name just two. I would also like to draw your attention to these few sentences;

I am looking at a photograph of one of the annual reunions of former prisoners of Flossenbűrg. The picture shows all the survivors who were still alive when the reunion took place, or all the survivors who were still alive and could or wished to attend. (pp265-6)

What garbled nonsense? We are looking at a photo, there are no dead people, no need to tell us they’re alive, and in attendance, overstated, simply not required.

I must admit I really struggled with this book, although presenting important historical reflections and using a unique style and manner to bring a story to life, the errors and the repetitiveness started to wear a little thin.

“Like I said, the duty of the novelist is to get people to believe that everything he says is true, even though it is a lie. For God’s sake, do I have to repeat what Gorgias said four hundred years before Christ? ‘Poetry [that is to say fiction, in this case the novel] is a deception, wherein he who deceives is more honest that he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not deceived.’ It’s all there. Do you understand now? I don’t have anything more to add.” (p354)

If the mandate of the Man Booker International Prize is to award the best translation of the year, then I have to say this book should be not make the shortlist. With the massive glaring error that I have pointed out (one the publisher is using to publicise the book!!!) it cannot be celebrated as the best book of the year, unless mediocre, average, sloppy work is to be rewarded.

Interesting and educational but overly long, this isn’t one for my “top six” translated books of 2017. I’m sure the official judges, and possibly the Shadow Jury, will disagree.

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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.

The House of Ulysses – Julián Ríos (translated by Nick Caistor)

HouseOfUlysses

A fiction about a fiction!

Author Julián Ríos, in an interview published on the Dalkey Archive website, when asked about his influences, spoke about James Joyce and “Ulysses”, he said; “I published a fiction-essay or kind of meta-novel on this masterpiece, Casa Ulises”, that work was translated by Nick Caistor, and published in 2010, appearing as “The House of Ulysses”.

A novel that is a physical and mental tour through James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, we are guided through the “house” by;

Our Cicerone in rigorous black with a purple polka-dot bow tie, long-legged and pallid, white streaks in chestnut hair smoother back with brilliantine, a blind man’s glasses, a straggly moustache. Like an ice-skater or Fredasteric dance he glided across the Museum’s wide black-and-white checkerboard floor.

The touring party, through the House of Ulysses, includes our narrator, who simply observes and reports to us, three readers;

carrying (each one, one each) a volume of the monumental illustrated edition of Ulysses in three parts: a lanky gent with a white-flecked beard wearing prehistoric white overalls; to his left, the slender form of a dark-haired girl poured into a pair of white shorts, cropped hair and laughing black eyes (“Eyes full of night”) over the indigo “Ulysses Museum” T-shirt, fronted and back-sided by Joyce; to her left, a few paces away, wrapped in a grayish coat with bulging pockets, the tiny old man with white locks and crackling breath, sucking on an extinguished pipe.
The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.

And lurking in the background is a “beanpole unanimously baptized as the “man with the Macintosh” (a Macintosh computer, that is)”. These five characters, Cicerone, A, B, C and the man with the Macintosh are our prime debaters throughout this homage.

As readers of Ulysses would recognise, within the introduction of the main players, all within the first three pages of this book, Julián Ríos is playing with references and characters from Joyce’s work.

The book begins with the “Antechambers” of the Museum, where we step inside, and have a high level Homeric introduction. Once we enter the Museum itself we simply follow each of the eighteen chapters from Joyce’s work, named according to the Gilbert schema…’Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’, ‘Proteus’…etc.

Each chapter is broken into two sections, a tour through the physical room, where debate, discussions take place, and a section called “Passageways” where snippets of information about Joyce’s work are presented. Each chapter also includes an explanatory ‘card’ or screen print, containing the schema, For example;

Nestor

As you can probably gather, it is probably a prerequisite to have read James Joyce’s work, even though Julián Ríos also says in the interview quoted above, “I strongly recommend it to those unable to finish Ulysses.” The presentation of facts, alternate readings, views, deciphering theories are presented throughout this book, here an example from “The Laestrygonians”;

The whole chapter is a tragicomedy about food. “Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!” Bloom meditates. Everybody here eats and is eaten. A tramp chews his scarred knuckles in the doorway of the Long John, while in another pub, Byrne’s, a flea is busy devouring Nosey Flynn, who in turn swallows his own snot. Bloom established a list of the strangest things people have been known to eat: Who was it who ate his own dandruff? he wonders. And from there he leaps straight to the Caspian Sea and to caviar… (p112)

Form is also of interest, as readers of “Ulysses” would know, ‘Circe’ is presented as a script, here “Scylla and Charybdis” is presented as a script;

C (counting by tapping his pipe on his fingers): That makes six. I’m afraid there’s one missing for a dress rehearsal of Hamlet.
PROFESSOR JONES (
eyes rolled up): The number seven, beloved of the mystical mind and Pythagoreans. The number of creation, of the planets and alchemists…
C: “The shining seven,” according to a verse by Yeats quotes at the start of this chapter.
B: Yes, it’s Bloom who is missing. He appears almost on tiptoe in the middle of this literary piece, then appears and disappears rapidly at the end of the chapter.
A: I would say that Hamlet-Stephen’s real ghostly father is Bloom: he is such a ghostly presence we hardly even notice him. (pp123-124)

The ninth chapter in “Ulysses” being, “The comedy of a critical comedy in two acts and an intermission that takes place at two in the afternoon in the office of the director of the Irish National Library in Kildare Street.”

At times, using Joycean styles, but at times reading like explanatory notes, and at other times a humorous satire of a satire, as the back cover says “a slapstick parody of the Joyce industry”, this is really a book for people who have read “Ulysses”. At times I felt like I was back in a University classroom, some of the theories being bandied around quite extreme, maybe relevant and maybe planned by Joyce, or maybe just wild theories dreamt up.

Interestingly the development of A, B and C, as they each debate Ulysses, is one of the side features of the book, A the academic bantering with the similarly pedantic C, B bringing the voice of reason, or valid quotes from Joyce’s work to the table. Scant in name, rich in character and depth of knowledge of “Ulysses”, the anonymous characters portray the various ways you can approach Joyce’s book.

Julián Ríos has shown an amazing depth of knowledge of James Joyce’s work (there are references to other books by Joyce), as well as a raft of other literary works, and to think English is not his first language!!! As a recent reader of “Ulysses” I thoroughly enjoyed the banter, the settings, the style and the theories, for people who are yet to read James Joyce’s book I’d think it would fall rather flat.

Three Trapped Tigers – Guillermo Cabrera Infante (translated by Donald Gardner & Suzanne Jill Levine)

ThreeTrapped

Have you ever looked into a mirror and not recognised, or not liked, what you’ve seen?

I saw a young man opposite me (he was to one side of me as I entered, but I turned around), tired-looking with ruffled hair and hollow eyes. He was badly dressed, his shirt was filthy and his loosely knotted tie hung free of his collar, which had no button or clasp. He needed a shave and a limp unkempt mustache drooped round the corners of his mouth. I raised my hand to shake his, bowing slightly at the same time, and he followed suit. I saw he was smiling and sensed I was smiling too: we both got the message at the same time : it was a mirror. (p48)

Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s “Three Trapped Tigers” holds a mirror up to Havana, and pre-Revolution Cuba, and what is seen is not always as expected. A common theme throughout, the mirror appears in the waters of the bays, in the skies, in many many scenes, a book that presents a distorted, or is it a realistic?, view of Havana.

Originally published under the Spanish title “Tres Tristes Tigres” in 1965, the title translates literally as “Three Sad Tigers” but the traditional tongue-twister would be lost in translation, hence to English title. This is a complex and multi layered work and to simply review the whole novel by presenting the narrative plot line would not do the work justice, nor would it to explore all of the themes (I don’t have time to write a thesis!!) so I’ve taken a look at a few high level interesting components, …. And the recurring use of the mirror.

Opening with a “Prologue” it is “Showtime”, from the “Tropicana! the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD”. Our MC introduces not only the players on the cabaret stage but also the audience, “ENORMOUS American audience of glamorous and distinguished tourists who are visiting the land of the gay senyoritas and brave caballeros”, even individually calling out a number of guests. Cuba is the melting pot of external influences.

Our novel essentially follows Cúe the actor, Seseribó the musician, Silvestre the writer and Códac the photographer, all of them chasing art, hunting down the ultimate rhythm, the missing word, the conclusive image. Besides these four “core” characters we have Bustrófedon, whose word plays feature heavily throughout, and La Estrella, a huge singing talent, both coming into and out of focus. But these are not the only players here, this is a novel that is peppered with rich local characters, the melting pot that is Havana figuratively coming into the readers view page after page.

As we were walking along we saw the Cripple with the Gardenias coming out of the dark opposite, with his crutch and his tray of gardenias and his good evening said so politely and with such courtesy it seemed almost impossible he could be so sincere and crossing another street I heard the harsh, nasal and relentless voice of Juan Charrasqueado the Sing-Singing Charro singing the single verse of the lottery which he always sings and repeats a thousand times, Buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy your number and buy, meaning they should throw money into his sweaty sombrero as he forcibly passed it around, creating an atmosphere of mock obsession which is poignant because everyone knows he’s incurably mad. (pp74-75)

Billeted as the Cuban “Ulysses” this novel uses a raft of literary techniques to portray a place that is in decay, “twenty-year-old beauties and total hunger are too much in competition with each other for the prize of Havana” (p148). We have first and third person narratives, word games, blank and totally black pages, a sequence of tales written by imagined writers about the assassination of Trotsky, single sentences that cover many pages, as the driver is speeding through the streets, emulating the rush, pictures and a whole lot more…The influence of James Joyce on Guillermo Cabrara Infante is obvious, as is the homage to a city and the compressed time frame.

We talk : about my birthday which wasn’t today but in three months’ time, about the anniversary two weeks back of the day when Bloom’s moll sitting on the bog had let flow a long stream of unconsciousness which would become a milestone, a mill-stone in the shape of a solid shit turd in literary history” (p150-151)

A novel where the cultural references come thick and fast, a work where a reader who is not au fait with music, film, and book influences of the 1960’s and earlier, will require google to be handy. I am sure a magnificent Spotify playlist could be made of the Cuban (and Latin American) musical references;

He didn’t say because I had forgotten Kuérkegaard the next minute and was remembering Count Dracula instead, the unforgettable Bela Legosi” (P363)

Readers of Camus would immediately understand the opening line reference to the section “I Heard Her Sing”;

Bustrófedon died yesterday, or is it today?
Is life a concentric chaos? I don’t know, all I know is my life was a nocturnal chaos with a single center that was Las Vegas and in the center of the center there was a glass of rum and water or rum and ice or rum and soda and that’s where I was from twelve o’clock on, and I turned up just as the first show was finishing and the emcee was thanking his charming and wonderful audience for coming and inviting them to stay for the third and last show of the night and the band was striking up its theme song with a lot of noise and nostalgia, like a circus brass band but changing from the umpa-pa to the two-four or six-eight beat of a
charanga trying out a melody: the noise of a ragtime band coming on like a Kostelanetz string orchestra, something which depresses me even more than knowing I’m already talking like Cué and Eribó, and all the other six million soloists of this island called Tuba and while I’m rubbing the glass in my hands and digressing that sober little man who sits inside me and speaks so low nobody but me can hear him tells me I’m losing my footing and as that genie of the bottle I am has just said very softly now Cuba, and Hey presto! there she was greeting me, popping out of nowhere to say, Hi there honey and at the same time giving me a kiss just where the cheek meets the neck and I looked in the mirror, mirror on the wall (of bottles) and I saw Cuba, every inch of her, bigger and more beautiful and sexier than ever and she was smiling at me so I turned around and put my arm around her waist, And how’re you Cuba baby, I said and kissed her and she kissed me back and said, Be-au-ti-ful, and I don’t know if she was okaying the kisses she was testing with that sex sense she carries on the tip of her tongue or if she was extolling her soul, as Alex Bayer would say, because her body sure didn’t need any padding. Or maybe she was simply glowing over the evening and our chance meeting. (pp292-3)

There’s the mirrors again, only a few pages earlier we had; Bustrófedon, he…”has taken a trip to the other world, to his opposite, to his negative, to his anti-self, to the other side of the mirror”…(p284), we then have a full page of mirrored text!!!

Ending with a large section where our characters descend into melancholy, a night of drinking, driving and incessant word game playing, the disintegration of a cultural identity becomes more and more evident.

Art (like religion or science or philosophy) is just one more attempt to focus the light of order on the gloom of chaos. (p361)

Complex, difficult, playful, engaging and enlightening, this is a masterful work of literature, amazingly a fringe player on the world stage, it pre-dates a number of Roberto Bolaño’s themes (the diagrams were hauntingly familiar), whilst paying homage to great maters such as Proust, Kafka and Joyce;

Besides, I haven’t the slightest reverence either for Marcel Proust (which he rhymed, distinctly, with pooh), or for James Joyce (Cué pronounced it Shame’s Choice) or for Kafka (it sounded like caca in his otherwise well-behaved voice). This is the Holy Trinity, whom you must adore if you are to write in the twentieth century – and as I wouldn’t be able to write in the twenty-first… (p352)

There are so many themes one could follow here, from the opening Epigraph from Lewis Carroll and “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” and a paragraph that gets “smaller and smaller and smaller and yet smaller”, or the list of characters, or a listing of all the musical references – you could follow hundreds of threads. Another book for those who like their works to challenge, savour the use of language, the word play, the mish-mash of cultural references, Guillermo Cabrera Infante has held a mirror up, he is separated from his country, his culture, his youth, it appears as though he doesn’t recognise what he sees.

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.

 

Recounting: Antagony Book I – Luis Goytisolo (translated by Brendan Riley)

Recounting

The Catalan “Ulysses”?

In recent months I have come across a plethora of references to James Joyce’s novel, with comparisons to numerous world literature works, must be the circles I mix in on social media! As frequent visitors here would know, I have recently reviewed part of Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”), referred to as the Turkish “Ulysses” and today I look at Luis Goytisolo’s “Antagony”, more precisely “Recounting: Book 1”.

Here’s a few snippets of other reviewer’s thoughts, one taken from the publisher’s foreign rights page, the other from a site I visit often to explore world literature.

In whatever way, like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In search of lost time, like many others—or few others—you shouldn’t die without having read it (Antonio Martínez Asensio, blog Tiempo de silencio, Antena3.com)

In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. From the site “The Modern Novel” (although a great review it should come with a spoiler warning)

And then we have Mario Vargas Llosa (thanks to The Untranslated for this snippet ):

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Structurally this book does have a Proustian bent, following the life of Raúl Ferrer Gamide, a middle class Catalan, from childhood through army service, law studies, romantic interludes but more importantly his desire to be a writer. All against the political backdrop of Barcelona. I won’t be putting any spoilers in my thoughts here, rest assured if you decide to tackle this massive book I’ll allow you to discover the narrative yourself.

However, it is not the plot that is the main attraction here, it is the novel’s structure, grand sweeping exploration of Catalan society after the Spanish Civil War and the political luminosity that drags you along, through 648 pages.

A difficult book to read, we have ten page paragraphs, generally consisting of a single sentence, dialogue that forms part of the main text, so it is a challenge to understand who is speaking, a cast of hundreds, all with nicknames, some with code names and then broad philosophical debates, including political manifestos.

For example there are three page explanations as to why a door was locked at 3pm precisely, another three pages observing the eating of a ham sandwich, but it is the microscopic examination of Barcelona and the middle class that brings the richness to this novel.

A wonderful example of the craft is the beginning of Chapter IV, where the paragraph opens with “Coming down to Las Ramblas…”, an area of Barcelona, and ends with “their fitful procession heading up Las Ramblas.” In between there are descriptions of all the alleys, the crowds, the flowers, “confusing alleys and side streets with their little dives which stank of hashish, alleys where, as it grew dark, the shining lights isolated the ground floor businesses, the red doorways, the worn, narrow pavement, the filthy paving stones, high-heeled shoes, bulging hips, necklines, long manes of hair, painted eyes, a succession of bars, of turf marked off and intensified by cigarette smoke.”

Each of the players circle in and out of focus, and as we move through Raúl’s maturation from childhood to schooling, to army service, to his involvement with the socialist/communist party, his distribution of clandestine pamphlets, his legal work and dreams of being a writer, we learn more and more about Catalan society.

Classic references to things such as the “caganer”, the defecating figurine in Catalan nativity scenes, blend with discussions on Catalan poetry, literature, its demise and subsequent rise, and further discussions on Spanish speaking Catalonians, this is a detailed expose of cultural life.

In one section we have many pages describing the Sagrada Familia, Raúl simply walking in there to hide from the police, when suddenly the text lapses into descriptive explanations of the iconic Church:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

The more you read of this complex work, the more you realise it is an homage to Barcelona.

Richly packed with snippets of historical data, with references to cultural icons and other books, there are also brilliantly referenced cultural scraps, for example when one character’s father suspiciously dies and the subsequent legal action over his business interests hots up, there is a reference to Goya’s “Trágala, perro”, “depicting some raving monks with a giant syringe about to forcibly administer an enema to a trembling man in the presence of his veiled wife.”

 

425px-Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._58_-_Tragala_perro

 

Suddenly an obscure etching has made itself into my sphere, and now my consciousness.

We also have a number of references to Marcel Proust, one of my favourite sections talking about a literary endeavour:

…we have a good example of that in Manolo Maragas, with his remembrances and reflections, with the magnified profiles of his memory, when he talks about Alicia and Sunche, when he talks about Magdalena’s grandmother as if she were the Duchess of Guermantes and as if Grandpa Augusto were the duke, and Doña America were Madame Verduin, and that crazy Tito Coll a sort of Charlus, while he, Manolo Moragas, the narrative I, an apathetic Marcel, too sceptical to take the trouble to write anything, the only reason for him not already having withdrawn into his cork-lined cell, becomes a chronicler of Barcelonan society, the literary transcription of whose avatars, for any reader not directly implicated in that world, would awaken the same interest, probably, as the prose of one of those stylists in the Sunday edition of a provincial newspaper who’ve achieved a certain notoriety by the agreeable character of the collaborations, stylists who philosophize like a sheep chewing its cud before the ruins of the Parthenon, not in service of the validity of the ideas developed, but rather, to please his readers’ palates, of the originality of the focus and the graceful exposition, as well as this stylist’s prose, the interest of the specific problems of that world, of the characters capable of inhabiting it, grazing and watering among the ruins of the culture, with the grace and subtlety and elegance of a bull’s head that, like Narcissus, gazes at itself in a puddle.

In a few lines, the depth of characters take on a new meaning, readers of Proust suddenly having another layer to the already complex players. But we are not restricted to Proust, the is a whole section questioning scholars and them not giving enough time to Dante’s Canto 34 in Inferno. Through drunken debates, scholarly discussions, a whole playing field of the author’s views can be spread on this massive canvas.

I must admit, there were many political sections where I tired of the proletariat debate, the roles of the bourgeois, the eternal struggle of the worker, however these political rants were more than adequately balanced with crystal clear observations of daily life, of the existentialist struggle. A Menippean satire? Possibly. A Catalan “Ulysses”, less likely, for a start it isn’t a single day…

A massively complex but thoroughly engaging work, unfortunately we have to wait until August 2018 for Book II to be released in English, and by that time it may mean a re-reading of “Recounting” is required, a novel that would reveal so much more upon every re-read, and so little time!!!

I am hoping to get to a few other world literature “Ulysses” over the coming months, I may tire of that journey but a few books I do have set aside are:

“Leg Over Leg” by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (all four volumes)

“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

“Adam Buenosayres: A Critical Edition” by Leopoldo Marechal

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin

And of course I need to post my thoughts on the remaining section of Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnecte d”

I am sure there are many many more books that fall into the “Ulysses” category, hopefully I get to discover their riches over the coming years.

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!!!