The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)

OldGringo

What they call dying
is merely the last pain
– Ambrose Bierce (epigraph)

In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.

Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.

The novel centres on three main characters, the nameless “Old Gringo” an American travelling to Mexico “to die”, rebel leader Tomás Arroyo and Harriet Winslow and American schoolteacher who has travelled to Arroyo’s lands to teach English to the children of the Estate (they have left, being overthrown before she had arrived).

Are these three the Holy Trinity?

…the body of Christ (the mystery that enlivened her memories, the mystery that teased her imagination: a body in a piece of bread, the body of a man born from a woman who had never known man’s flesh, you know, Miss Winslow, we speak in terrible circumlocutions here, we were taught as girls never to say legs, but that’s what I walk on, never buttocks, but that’s what I sit on – she laughed softly, almost sighing; the body of a man who was God, the body of a man who shares his Godliness with two other men; she imagined them as men: a second bearded man, old and mighty, sitting on a throne, who was at the same time the young man nailed to the cross; and a third, spectral, ageless man, a magician who called himself a Ghost, and Holy at that, and who was surely responsible in her childish imagination for all the other transformations: one into three, three into one, one into the virgin, then out of the same virgin, then dead, then resurrected and presumably back into three without ceasing to be one and then three-into-one into wafer, many, many millions of tiny pieces of bread all containing Him, and the Magician working away, the Ghost of a Spectral World). (pgs 150-151)

Besides the physical movement across borders, by the old gringo and Harriet Winslow, the clash of cultures, and national identities bubbles along;

…each of us carries his Mexico and his United States within him, a dark and bloody frontier we dare cross only at night (p187)

“They’re right when they say this isn’t a border. It’s a scar.” (p185)

The desert, a harsh environment, where the oppressive heat shimmers are reflected in the oneiric prose. I recalled French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s descriptions of the desert in his work ‘America’ (translated by Chris Turner) – although America, the desert descriptions felt apt;

Geological – and hence metaphysical – monumentally, by contrast with the physical altitude of ordinary landscapes. Upturned relief patterns, sculpted out by wind, water, and ice, dragging you down into the whirlpool of time, into the very remorseless eternity of a slow-motion catastrophe. The very idea of the millions and hundreds of millions of years that were needed peacefully to ravage the surface of the earth here is a perverse one, since it brings with it an awareness of signs originating, long before man appeared, in a sort of pact of wear and erosion struck between the elements. Among this gigantic heap of signs – purely geological in essence – man will have had no significance. (p 3)

Desert: luminous, fossilized network of an inhuman intelligence, of a radical indifference – the indifference not merely of the sky, but of the geological undulations, where the metaphysical passions of space and time alone crystallize. Here the terms of desire are turned upside down each day, and night annihilates them. But wait for the dawn to rise, with the awakening of the fossil sounds, the animal silence. (p 6)

A diversion by myself, however I feel this landscape description, from another writer, is warranted as Carlos Fuentes prose in ‘The Old Gringo’ reflects the harsh desert environment, a shimmering dreamlike approach where each of the character’s thoughts and musings meld into a blur of experience. And their experiences are looked at in detail, a reflection of themselves;

“Did you look at yourself in the mirror?” (p 43 – and repeated many times)

The mirrors in the ballroom of the estate have been preserved, with the local workers finding amusement in being able to see their reflections, the old gringo and Miss Winslow using the mirror to muse on their own places here.

Harriet looked at the old gringo exactly as he wanted to be looked at before he died. He felt that her gaze completed the fragmented sequence of his imagination of Harriet Winslow that had begun in the reflections in the mirrors in the ballroom that was but a threshold of the road to dream, atomized into a thousand oneiric instants and now joined again in the words that told the old gringo that Harriet would not allow a living testimony to her sensuality, that she was giving the old man the right to dream about her, but not Arroyo. (p149)

A shimmering novel of travel to find oneself to search for one’s own death, this is a complex and multi layered work;

They reminded her of Mantegna’s Christ, so lonely at his death table, His feet, His whole body jutting out of the canvas, kicking the spectator as if wishing violently to arouse him or her to the fact that `death was not noble but base, not serene but convulsive, not promising but irrevocable, unredeemable: the glassy half-opened eyes, the skimpy two-week beard, the ulcerated feet, the breathless half-opened mouth, the clogged nostrils, the blood-clotted flanks, the matted hair soaked in dust and sweat, the terrifying sensation of the presence of the newly dead, of their swearing and bearing and walking and standing erect just a few hours before. (p191-192)

To boil this novel down to a narrative about Ambrose Bierce is too shallow an approach.

Think of the circular hint Carlos Fuentes is providing with the opening and closing sentences being identical, the epigraph about death, the musings on finality, this is a complex but highly engaging novel, one that demands re-reading, the nuances would become more fruitful at each visit.

A wonderful find in the local charity shop, the edition being the 1986 first edition (in English), a bargain for $4, making me happy to extend my Carlos Fuentes collection.

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Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)

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

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

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

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

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

hopscotch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A systematic breakdown of the structures we are used to.

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

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

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

BodiesSummer

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

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

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

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

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

Or sex:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocilla Dream – Augustín Fernández Mallo (translated by Thomas Bunstead)

NocillaDream

Disconnection or connection?

Augustín Fernández Mallo’s debut “novel”, “Nocilla Dream”, consists of 113 brief chapters, a hybrid work of fragmentation, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and space. Most critics have referred to the work as narratively revolving around U.S. Route 50 in the Nevada desert, “the loneliest highway in North America”, however the canvas here is much broader than the activities occurring on “a highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing.” In fact there is something, a central motif, a poplar tree with “hundred of pairs of shoes hanging” from the branches. Shoes that are recycled (you replace your worn ones with ones found on the tree), or shoes that are discarded, the tree becoming a place of connectedness with ones you do not know.

However, the tree of hanging shoes motif is only used, or encountered, by a handful of characters. The book populated with diverse characters from all over the globe.

“Nocilla Dream” uses many external references and quotes about computers, programming, internet networks and complex systems, in fact the opening chapter is a quote from B. Jack Copeland & Diane Proudfoot:

Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket’s trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. Bet seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modelled more closely on the human brain. (p9)

Using the premise of a global “road movie”, where characters move in and out of focus, it is a work that attempts to connect disparate groups, characters and theories into some coherent whole;

The most important element in any road movie is the horizon; it has to feature sooner or later, signifying something in and of itself; a far off point that comprises the spirit of the film in question. As any number of studies have demonstrated, in European cinema the horizon signifies loss or melancholy; in North American cinema, it’s hope, the magnetizing element for pioneers; and in Chinese and Japanese films it means death. (p47)

A complex web of events that somehow relate to each other, can scrunched up papers, rolling like tumbleweeds through the desert be collected and digested by another? Can an homage to Jorge Luis Borges, made by a man who had lost faith in his fiction, be truly understood by US residents?

It is precisely these differentiators, displayed through Augustín Fernández Mallo’s disparate characters, who populate the whole globe, including micronations, that brings me to the question of connectedness. As a reader, the fragmentary nature of the work, being disconnected from any simple narrative linear approach, forces you to attempt to apply some order.

One way to prevent people from accessing transmissions on the internet is to encrypt them: manipulate the information and make it unreadable so that it will, for the duration of the transmission, be unintelligible. (p108)

Is there a connection between the Chinese surfers and Las Vegas prostitutes, or Mexican truck drivers hauling black beans, or designers of man hole covers and their relationship with a permanent resident of Singapore airport?

‘The past is what we remember of the past, and memory consists of a miscellany of fragments that, now, in the present moment, we stick together, we bundle up. Thus the past does not exist, it only exists in the present emulsification moment, a compositional process governed by its own rules, ones which also make the process part of the present. But if the past doesn’t even exist, how can the future exist? Even more dismaying. (p131)

There is a character who is obsessed with Jorge Luis Borges and the labyrinths of Borges’ fiction occasionally sprang to mind as I absorbed this book. Something more akin to a performance piece, or an evolving fiction that develops on the internet, the book is unsettling, at times incomprehensible, and at other times moving and engaging. Covering such a range of genres, styles I am sure there are many many different personal interpretations. Maybe that is the connection we have in our disconnection?

The shoes in the tree a metaphor for the book itself;

At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona,…at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency – the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. (p16)

“Nocilla Dream” (published by Fitzcarraldo Edition in November 2015) is the first book in a trilogy, the next two being “Nocilla Experience” (which was published in November 2016 by Fitzcarraldo Editions also) and “Nocilla Lab”. An experiment over three works, one that has engaged me enough in the initial piece to ensure I read at least the second.

Although 113 apparently disconnected chapters, the vast majority deal with connection in some way, relationships, reliance, similarities, and it is through this landscape that balance in the chaos prevails.

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.

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.