Friday, March 31, 2006

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga

Obabakoak is Bernardo Atxaga's best-known book, the one that brought him a small international reputation. Yet it's perhaps his least straightforward novel. It's a novel that operates on several different levels of reality.

Bernardo Atxaga is the pen name of a writer called Joseba Irazu Garmendia, from Asteasu, Gipuzkoa. (Not so long ago, it was not a smart move to write in Basque under one's own name). A storyteller from Asteasu has access to the world's treasure trove of stories. But he chooses to write his own Basque stories as well.

While Atxaga is definitely a novelist, Obabakoak may or may not be a novel. It may be just a collection of stories. Connected or unconnected. It doesn't matter. There are no characters that you can follow all the way through the book, not even the village of Obaba which only appears and reappears from time to time. Obaba is a dark, mysterious place. A place where both local and universal stories are told. People from the outside are out of place there, and they stay that way. Nor is it all about Obaba. Parts take place in Hamburg, Peru, Castile, Iraq, and China. This is a Basque book and it is an international book.

(The title Obabakoak may or may not mean: The things and people of the village of Obaba; It may be just that obaba is the sound a Basque baby makes. )

This is a brilliant, moving book. It does not exploit the reader. It is about storytelling. It is about storytelling in a language understood by a small group of people: a people that understand that if they were to choose not to use Basque, they would be complicit in the death of one of humanity's oldest and most distinct forms of speech. There is not a political word in the book; it is all political. When a writer chooses to write in a language that is marginalized, it is a political act. There are no literary signposts for such a writer.

You can find the review here

Interview with Bernardo Atxaga

A 2001 interview with Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga.

Bernardo Atxaga sent no address, just a piece of paper with crosses marking the pelota court, the church, the fountain, and then his house, in relation to the three basic components of any Basque village. He might just have easily have been describing Obaba, the imaginary setting of his most famous book Obabakoak.
"No," he laughs, "Obaba is an interior landscape. You don't remember all the places of the past, but what sticks in the memory is this window, that stone, the bridge. Obaba is the country of my past, a mixture of the real and the emotional."

Atxaga is, as one critic has pointed out, not just a Basque novelist but the Basque novelist: a writer charged, whether he likes it or not, with exporting a threatened culture around the world. Born in 1951, Atxaga grew up in a Basque-speaking valley of scattered houses and villages near San Sebastian. Basque is a rural language, with no relation to neighbouring Spanish or French, and spoken in Atxaga's infancy by less than half a million people. Franco sought to eliminate it after the civil war: tombstones in Basque were torn up, and the language was forbidden in schools.
In evoking this Basque heritage, Atxaga avoids nostalgia, often the curse of writers recreating lost rural childhood. "The look backwards can be very deceptive, a siren song that any time past was better. You have to be very disciplined about feelings. If you let a sense of nostalgia dominate, you only write false texts." he says.

Two Brothers, the most recent of his works to arrive in the UK, is a short novel with a long history. It was written in the mid-1970s and published in Basque in 1985; Atxaga himself translated it into Spanish for publication in 1995. The two brothers of the title are orphaned in their adolescence. Paulo inherits the sawmill and too much responsibility, because his brother, Daniel, has a mental age of three. Like all Atxaga's characters, they have little room for manoeuvre. They are trapped in their situation, which is in turn aggravated by their neighbours. "Village life is tough. People are often disagreeable and ignorant," Atxaga says.

You can find the review here

10th annual Kiriyama Prize

Luis Alberto Urrea won the Kiriyama fiction prize for "The Hummingbird's Daughter".

The Kiriyama Prize, is given to "literature that contributes to greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia", and is sponsored by Pacific Rim Voices, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mexico's documentary boom

When 23-year-old Tin Dirdamal decided to make his first documentary, he had no film experience to speak of, yet he was itching to tell a story about the hardships of Central American immigrants. So he grabbed a camcorder, rounded up about $7,000 and started shooting. This year, his picture "No One" won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance for best documentary.

Much like many new Mexican directors, Dirdamal felt he had an important story to tell. All too often, he says, the most compelling stories about real people go untold in Mexican cinema.

That appears to be changing. After years of all but ignoring the nonfiction genre, the film industry here is showing growing interest in supporting these projects.

You can find the article here

The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

Viola Canales has written a book that moves in a widening circle through Sofia's life. Every chapter in the book reflects a chapter in Sofia's life as she learns to understand both cultures she lives in. She learns to kick with her head instead of her feet when she comes up against prejudice. She excels in school and is offered a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school in Austin, where she finishes high school and goes on to graduate from a big university. It is while she is at school after her father dies that she truly learns the secret of the tequila worm. It is connected to rituals and traditions that support dreams while keeping connections to something higher. The Tequila Worm is filled with humor, and Sofia's life is never sentimentalized. It is a really good read.

You can find the review here

Buy The Tequila Worm at

Poet in New York (Stage Review)

Federico Garcia Lorca is best known to the English-speaking world as a playwright (The House of Bernarda Alba and Blood Wedding). He also was a poet, and his book, Poet in New York, a collection of the poems he wrote about the nine unhappy months he spent in New York in 1929, gives Pig Iron Theatre's "one-man biographical fantasia" its title.

This show, like Lorca's poetry, offers a fair helping of surreal symbolism. But, like any evocative poem, the dance-theater piece requires emotional engagement rather than exact analysis. Poet in New York is not intended as an accurate biography, but a suggestive one, full of movement as well as language. Flamenco segues into prayer that segues into bullfighting images that fly out of the poems, making a poem on the stage.

Dito van Reigersberg, trained as a dancer as well as an actor, plays all the characters - male and female, old and young, Spanish and American. Of the 11 scheduled performances, three will be in Spanish.

You can find the review here

Gurs by Jorge Semprun (Stage Review)

Gurs - a ghastly word "like a tear stuck in the throat", said the poet Louis Aragon - was the name of an internment camp for "undesirables" in the French Pyrenees. Inmates ranged from defeated Spanish republicans, German anti-fascists and Resistance fighters to Jews rounded up under the Vichy regime for onward transfer to concentration camps. It is chewy subject matter for a play commissioned by the European Theatre Convention as part of a series on refugees, exiles and displaced populations.

Author Jorge Semprun was himself exiled to France during the Spanish civil war and spent two years in Buchenwald camp for participating in the Resistance and many more engaged in efforts to overthrow General Franco. Writing in three languages for a multinational cast, he tackles Gurs as a melting pot of language, culture, politics and religion. Spaniards prepare a show alongside a Sephardic violinist and volunteers from the International Brigades, one being Ernst Busch, an actor from Brecht’s troupe who escaped from Gurs in 1941 after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Interwoven are modern-day scenes about actors preparing a show about Gurs inmates with earnest, rather thunderous arguments about relevance to contemporary audiences.

You can find the review here

Written Lives by Javier Marias

Spanish novelist Javier Marías' "Written Lives" is a collection of portraits in miniature of 20 writers, the choice of whom was "entirely arbitrary" but for two qualifications: the subject could neither be living nor hail from the author's native Spain. The book is notable for Marías' wit and charm but also for its unabashed and refreshing subjectivity.
Marías chooses one quirkily titled aspect of each writer -- "James Joyce in His Poses," "Joseph Conrad on Land," "Rudyard Kipling Without Jokes," "Rainer Maria Rilke in Waiting" -- and then, based on a few choice facts, lets his imagination loose on his topic for about five pages. Avoiding any controversy regarding his inventions, Marías states in his prologue that while "almost nothing in them is invented ... some episodes and anecdotes have been 'embellished.' "

You can find the review here

Buy Written Lives at

Plan to turn Aracataca into a travel destination

The project is being financed by a Mexican cement company under the auspices of the Government of Mexico, where García Márquez has lived for more than two decades.

In the sculpture park, under the shade of almond and mango trees, the public will gather for lectures, readings and other cultural events while gazing at the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta peaks rising to the east.

"We don't have any oil here, and we don't have any gold mines," said Fabian Marriaga, Aracataca's secretary of social development. "The only mine that we have is the exploitation of Gabo."

Yet for many Aracatacans, the dream of turning their city into a tourist destination seems as quixotic and fanciful as García Márquez's fiction, where a man can be transformed into a snake and the living speak to the dead.

In addition to the problem of finding money for the projects, there is the question of whether tourists will travel to a region that is far safer than before but still, just 2½ years ago, saw 11 Colombian soldiers killed when they wandered into a rebel minefield just outside town.

Jimenez said about 2400 people visited the Garcia Marquez home in 2004, a significant jump from the 500 visitors in 2000 but hardly a bonanza for the local economy.

And the famous writer himself apparently hasn't stepped foot in Aracataca since the raucous Nobel Prize celebration in 1983, something his cousin said was due in part to the area's peril.

"There are armed groups operating here, and he could be kidnapped," said Nicolas Arias, 70, one of the few members of the García Márquez clan still living in Aracataca. "It's a real danger for him."

García Márquez could not be reached for comment, but Marriaga and others say the 78-year-old author approves of the redevelopment plans.

There is little doubt that the author's childhood in Aracataca, where he lived with his beloved grandparents until he was nine, had a profound impact on his life and work.

In Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of his autobiography, García Márquez wrote that he decided to become a novelist during a two-day trip back to Aracataca in 1950 with his mother to sell the childhood home.

While there, he took notice as the train passed a banana plantation with "Macondo" written over the gate.

Garcia Marquez later would appropriate Macondo as the name of the fictional town where the Buendia family saga unfolds in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author's 1967 breakthrough novel.

It's clear that Macondo is grafted from Garcia Marquez's boyhood memories of Aracataca, but seven decades later there is little of the dreamy, Technicolor world captured in his prose.

You can find the article here

Monday, March 27, 2006

Shanghai Nights by Juan Marse

Shanghai Nights, only the third of Marsé's novels to be translated into English, is another crossover of these worlds. It is told by Daniel, an adolescent, who is killing time in 1940s Barcelona after leaving school and before taking up his apprenticeship in a jewellery workshop. He minds an unhinged Civil War veteran named Captain Blay, who lost both his sons in the fighting, and who spends his days campaigning against a gas leak and a factory whose smoke, he says, is killing local people.(...)

Marsé has said that the voices he writes are the voices of his childhood, of mothers and old men, whores, drunks, policemen and informers. If he is occasionally sentimental, his handling of different registers is consummate (as is Nick Caistor's translation) and it is clarity of language that settles the argument. His combined rendition of both childish adventures and an adult moral landscape, relayed in his poised and teasing voice, makes for a novel as fulfilling and provocative as one would like.

You can find the review here

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Etiqueta Negra - A Literary Magazine from Peru

Etiqueta Negra

Although they won't always admit it, Peruvians enjoy being underestimated.

"Do you realize that -- after Haiti -- Peru has the lowest literacy rate in all of Latin America? Who would have thought that the most exciting literary magazine to come out of South America would be from Lima and not somewhere like Buenos Aires or Santiago?" asks Daniel Titinger, an editor and writer with the sleek New Yorker-esque nonfiction magazine Etiqueta Negra.

The smile in Titinger's voice suggests he knows exactly who expected Etiqueta Negra to put Peru on the literary map.

Founded four years and 33 issues ago by two brothers born in a remote part of the Andes Mountains who had no experience in publishing or journalism, Etiqueta Negra has grown from an idea "that probably wouldn't make it in a place like Peru" to a circulation of 11,000. The magazine is available in the United States only via pricey special-order subscriptions (, but it is read across the Americas -- from Argentina to Canada. While plans are in the works to distribute the magazine more widely around the world, annual online subscriptions (PDF files) will soon be available for $30.

"We consider ourselves a magazine for the distracted," Titinger says. "Our readers are high school students, university professors, retirees, depressed divorced women -- anybody attracted to stories from a backward world."

Literally translated "Black Label," the name Etiqueta Negra was chosen to conjure up images of sophistication and quality like a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky. With stories about swingers, suicide, soccer stars, conspiracy theories and Peruvian politics, the magazine created a quick buzz across the literary landscape.

You can find the review here

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa

Reviews of Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise.

The bold, dynamic and endlessly productive imagination of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the writing giants of our time, is something truly to be admired. It feeds almost always on the material of history and transforms such matter into fiction quite personal without ever losing the effect of universality. Nothing demonstrates this better than his latest novel, "The Way to Paradise," a dual narrative about the life and work of Paul Gauguin and his grandmother, the political organizer Flora Tristan.
As with any great writer, Mario Vargas Llosa makes us see clearly what we have been looking at all the while but never noticed -- in this case, the Peruvian connection to one of Europe's first utopian activists and one of the late 19th century's greatest artists -- and their links to each other.

You can find the review here

In Latin, the title of Vargas Llosa's new novel might translate as Sic Itur Ad Astra. But it is another Latin tag which the book suggested in this reader: Ars longa, vita brevis.

It is the story of two real-life figures from the 19th century: one an artist, Paul Gauguin, whose immortality is secure; the other a female suffragist and pamphleteer, Flora Tristan, whose legacy has been largely forgotten. Everyone knows those incomparable Tahitian nudes. But who now reads Peregrinations of a Pariah or On the Need to Give a Warm Welcome to Foreign Women?

Llosa has combined the two life stories in one novel, alternating between the two with fugal delicacy, for the excellent reason that Flora Tristan was the grandmother of the painter. She died before Gauguin was born and went down in family folklore as "that meddlesome madwoman".

You can find the review here

Might it be possible, for once, to judge Mario Vargas Llosa's novel by its cover? Exotically curled around the spine of the book is a striking reproduction of Paul Gauguin's masterpiece, Manao Tupapau, a disturbingly voyeuristic vision of the painter's adolescent Maori lover, tormented in her sleep by ancient Tahitian demons.

Gauguin lived the kind of life that even his literary idol, Victor Hugo, would be hard-pressed to invent: a sailor, stockbroker and Sunday-painter who, in his mid-30s, abandoned his bourgeois wife and family to rediscover the primitive in himself; first in Brittany, where his best friend made a present of his ear, before booking a passage to French Polynesia on an outward ticket to disaster. Romantic novelists and film-makers have rehashed and travestied this story ever since. What is remarkable is the transformation when an unromantic novelist such as Vargas Llosa takes over.

It was perhaps inevitable that the greatest living Peruvian novelist should be attracted to Gauguin, as the painter himself spent his formative years in Peru. Surprisingly, Vargas Llosa glosses over this childhood period, as his chief interest lies in the strange combination of stasis and inspiration Gauguin experienced in Tahiti. Having travelled to the South Seas, Gauguin did not paint what he saw so much as express his frustration with what he found. His putative paradise was not quite as simple as he imagined. Rather than an untramelled Eden, Tahiti turned out to be a decadent colonial backwater - the first time Gauguin plunged naked into a stream, a gendarme popped up and charged him with offending public morality.
Vargas Llosa wryly dramatises this and many similar instances of Gauguin's troubles in Tahiti - not least the fact that he meekly accepted minor bureaucratic office in the colonial administration to pay his hospital bills. But where the novel really flares into life is in the fleeting descriptions of the creative process - the maddeningly unpredictable moments when Gauguin briefly found what he had been looking for.

You can find the review here

His new novel, ''The Way to Paradise,'' draws heavily on history, or rather two histories. There is no question of transfiguring. Only occasionally does the book even amount to filling in history, and rarely very shrewdly. It is more in the nature of lavish personal decorating, with speculative sorties.

The histories have twin protagonists: Paul Gauguin and Flora Tristán, his Franco-Peruvian grandmother. Just two of the celebrated degrees of separation lay between them, but they were enough to mark out a vast distance between the tumultuous-living painter of polychromatic, totemlike figures in Brittany and the South Seas and the puritanical, self-unsparing woman who struggled around France in the 1840's to campaign for workers' and women's rights.

What did Tristán and Gauguin -- born four years after her death -- have in common? A fiery temper, a fierce unconventionality and a driving impulse toward their two very different extremes. Vargas Llosa's novel follows the extremes in alternate narrative loops without constructing a fictional mean, or even much of a fictional connection. The main connection, in fact, is the author himself. Besides relating his characters' lives he interrogates them persistently, and in an intimate second person that quickly does more than irritate, and creates special awkwardness for Natasha Wimmer's otherwise diligent translation.

You can find the review here

The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

A few reviews of Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway

Working with material from numerous interviews with many of the survivors of the ill-fated expedition, their families and the Border Patrol officers, and dramatizing -- which is to say, conjuring and imagining -- the links between the facts he has and the facts he doesn't have, Urrea, a poet, goes further than most previous attempts by journalists of every level of ability who have tackled this subject before. He describes the history of the region, the nature of the Border Patrol's tracking skills, the hopes and aspirations of the illegal immigrants and their desperate last hours in a serious yet eccentric prose that takes us deep into the heart of life -- and death -- along the Arizona border.

You can find the review here

Luis Urrea writes about US-Mexican border culture with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal. Born in Tijuana, to a Mexican father and an Anglo mother, he embodies the cross-cultural complexity he explores. This lends his work a wrenching, disarming honesty. In "Nobody's Son," the last of his trilogy of memoirs about border life, he describes himself as "a son of the border. I had a barbed-wire fence neatly bisecting my heart. The border, in other words, ran through me."

Urrea's uncanny ability to remain perched on the hyphen between two countries/identities as a careful observer of both worlds -- of how they blur and yet remain separate -- is the unique gift of his new book, "The Devil's Highway." The book tells the story of the 26 men who tried to cross from Mexico into Arizona in May 2001. Waterless, disoriented, and abandoned by their coyotes (guides), the lost band of stragglers were baked alive by a merciless sun as they stumbled and crawled toward nowhere, toward what seemed certain death. The event received enormous media attention because 14 of the walkers died.

You can find the review here

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Luis de Camoes: Selected Sonnets edited and translated by William Baer

Luís de Camões, Portugal's greatest poet, is known to English-language readers for The Lusíads (1572), his epic based on Vasco da Gama's pioneering voyage to India. Since Sir Richard Fanshawe's splendid translation of 1655, there have been at least 17 English translations, culminating in the Oxford World's Classics version of 1997.

In sharp contrast, Camões' lyrics - his sonnets, elegies, songs, rounds, odes and eclogues - are virtually unknown outside Portugal. They exist in English in a milk-and-water selection by Lord Strangford (1803), in the skilful Seventy Sonnets by JJ Aubertin (1881), and in the explorer Richard Burton's eccentric Lyricks of 1884. Burton made it his ambition to write as Camões would have written had he been born English in 1524 - that is, pre-Shakespeare, pre-Spenser, using a language he has to cobble together from such sources as Wyatt and Surrey. The result is magnificently unreadable.

Yet Camões' lyrical poetry has a double fascination. First, four decades before Shakespeare was writing lines like "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", Camões was "out-Petrarching" Petrarch, creating poems of wonderfully lucid wit and beauty. Second, the lyrics chart his progress towards being the poet who would write The Lusíads, as he left behind the Arcadian nymphs and shepherds of his juvenilia and engaged with the challenge of his experiences in Africa and India. He was the first great European poet to cross the equator and find a style to encompass different people and landscapes.

You can find the review here

Monday, March 20, 2006

Miguel de Unamuno's manuscripts on auction

On March 27, the Sala Durán auction house in Madrid plans to sell nine lots of letters and other documents by Unamuno, the author of Fog, Abel Sánchez and Teresa, some of them written during his exile from 1926 to 1930 in the Canary Islands and Paris, during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. Other letters up for sale were written to his wife, children and other intellectuals and writers of his times, such as the poet Rubén Darío.
News of the sale, however, sounded the alarm at the culture ministry. It said it had declared the Unamuno manuscripts off limits to foreign buyers as "a cautionary measure" to "guarantee this assembly of extraordinary interest for Spain's documental heritage" remains in the country.

You can find the article here

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: The Newly Updated and Expanded Classic by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi

Lodidhapura is a city in the Cambodian jungle ruled by The Leper King. Rotundia is an island off the coast of Britain renowned for the good-naturedness of its inhabitants. The Root Beer River cuts through the Valley of Mo, southeast of the Land of Oz.

You won't find any of these or 1,200 other destinations in a conventional atlas. They are all the product of fiction writers' fancies (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edith Nesbit and L. Frank Baum, respectively). But they can all be found in a volume that has been one of my most treasured reference books for a quarter of a century.

"The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" was written by two literary scholars -- Argentinean Alberto Manguel and Italian Gianni Guadalupi, who encountered so much imaginary geography in their fiction reading and opera listening that they decided to collect them all between two covers.

Not only are there tongue-in-check, detailed descriptions of fictional cities, islands, countries and continents, there are detailed maps. Line drawings of places such as Wolf's Glenn in Bohemia (the setting for Weber's opera "Der Freischütz") and the Avenue of Palms in Pala ("The Island" by Aldous Huxley) add to the fanciful texture of the dictionary.

You can find the review here

Reading in Colombia

'We need to rebuild the culture of the book here in Colombia,' explains Manuel Jose Botero, the co-ordinator of academic and cultural activities at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo in Bogotá. The institute is undergoing something of a transformation which reflects the current attempts to transform Colombian society itself.
While Colombia has a strong literary heritage, particularly since 'El Boom' (the explosion in post-war South American literature), for most Colombians, books are a luxury. The nation that famously created magical realism through the pen of Gabriel García Márquez is not short on enthusiasm for literature. At a recent literary festival in Cartagena de Indias on Colombia's Caribbean coast, I saw Latin American heavyweights mobbed by fans who had travelled for up to 36 hours by bus to hear them read. Colombia also has a dynamic literary scene which includes an annual poetry festival in Medellín (notorious as the home town of drug baron Pablo Escobar) and a biennial theatre festival in the heart of Bogotá. But what it has lacked until very recently are libraries, and it is at this grassroots level that things have begun to change.

In 1998, a survey found that there were just 105 libraries in Bogotá - that's about one for every 67,000 people. And three quarters of those libraries had only one employee and were often opened, with limited numbers of books, as cynical vote winners by local officials. Only the BLAA (Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango), which contained 90 per cent of the books in the entire library system, had adequate staffing and equipment and was overcrowded as a result.

Books in Colombia are expensive, costing around US$30 each: well beyond the reach of the 64 per cent of Colombians living below the poverty line. Add to that the four decades of civil war that have ravaged the country and forced around two million refugees to flee their villages for the slums of Bogotá and you can see why access to books is beyond the reach of many.

You can find the full article here

Carlos Montemayor in India

The Mexican writer Carlos Montemayor was in Mumbai recently, visiting India on an exchange of ideas mission, courtesy the Sahitya Kala Academy. Carlos Montemayor has written poems and prose but it is indigenous literature that he is most interested in - that of the ‘real peoples’ ("Why call them indigenous?" he argues. "Do you call the French indigenous people of France?"). (...)

A tale of the ancient peoples of Mexico - the Mayas, the Tzotziles, the Tzeltalesa and the Zapotecs. Of how they’ve all been lumped together as ‘Indians’. Christopher Columbus may have made a mistake two centuries ago. However many different tribes, distinct in their cultural identities who have never even set foot in Asia, are still called ‘Indians’.

Montemayor dwells on the wisdom in their voices - the poems and stories that recognise the spirit of the earth. Great literature that has, alas, gone unheard for years. Languages disparaged as dialects and literature as merely oral. Subject to a writing of history both unfair and inaccurate- history as recorded by the colonial victor.

Montemayor tells of a friend who went up in the mountains with a Zapotec. The Zapotec complained bitterly of folk tales fiddled with, like one of a Spaniard and a Zapotec competing with each other. Neither won according to the oral version. But the written (mis)records the Spaniard as the winner.

You can find the full article here

Studies of Chicano detective fiction

The boom in Chicano detective fiction that began in the '90s shows no sign of stopping, as more and more Mexican American authors have turned to the genre. Although the trend has yet to produce a best seller, it has attracted high-profile writers - most notably, Rudolfo Anaya (best-known to Austinites as the author of "Bless Me, Ultima"), who recently completed a quartet of novels featuring the shaman sleuth Sonny Baca.

What Anaya's crime novels share with other Mexican American mysteries, such as those by Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava and Manuel Ramos, is their protagonist's mix of "street" and indigenous knowledge, and their willingness to expose some of America's dirty little secrets - notably, racial oppression, government corruption and conflicts along the border.

A literary trend as significant as this deserves critical attention, and now it's finally getting it. Through some sort of odd coincidence, Ralph E. Rodriguez, a professor of American civilization at Brown, and Susan Baker Sotelo, a Spanish teacher in Tucson, Ariz., have recently published scholarly studies of the five novelists mentioned above.

Although Rodriguez and Sotelo's subjects are identical, their analyses aren't. Both authors claim that the novels they are writing about transcend "escapism" by providing insight into contemporary Chicano culture. But only Rodriguez formulates a coherent - if occasionally didactic - argument. Rodriguez is an academic - he earned his doctorate in English from UT- and at times he writes like one. But "Brown Gumshoes" never lets the reader lose sight of its central point: that detective fiction provides an ideal form in which to explore Mexican American identity in a post-Chicano movement era.

Rodriguez argues that the alienated stance of the hard-boiled detective parallels the outsider perspective of Chicanos, for whom the radical dream of a unified, separatist Aztlán nation has faded. "In a post-nationalist landscape . . . (Mexican Americans) can no longer find refuge in a mythologized Chicana/o homeland of solidarity and ethnic unity," he writes. Rodriguez makes a strong case that Mexican Americans are undergoing an identity crisis, and he provides plenty of evidence from the novels under investigation.

He's also able to construct a smart critique of some of the Chicano movement's oversights (such as its obliviousness to feminist issues) while remaining sympathetic to its ethnic-empowerment agenda. Rodriguez even takes on one of the movement's sacred vacas, the aforementioned Anaya, offering a rigidly political take on Anaya's mystical-mythological story lines, which he finds insufficiently Marxist.

You can find the full article here

Ariel Dorfman (Chile)

A biography of Chilena writer Ariel Dorfman.

A late contributor to the Latin American literary "boom" of the 1960s and 70s, Dorfman, now 61, was hailed by Salman Rushdie as "one of the most important voices out of Latin America". Bilingual in Spanish and English (which he speaks with a New York upper east side accent), he writes in both.
Praising his "accessibility and greatness", critic John Berger said he "leads us, like Dante, into the pit of his country's experience". His art plumbed the state terror of the continent's "dirty wars" of the 1970s and 80s and their troubled aftermaths. His journalism appears in the US, Britain and Spain, and he uses his art for human rights education. Eugenio Ahumada, a Chilean human rights archivist since the coup, places Dorfman at the "centre of the struggle for memory".

His most famous and contentious work, Death and the Maiden, examined the compromise between justice and national reconciliation not only across democratising Latin America but also following apartheid and Soviet communism. In the aftermath of a South American military regime, Paulina kidnaps the doctor she believes tortured and raped her under blindfold to the strains of the Schubert string quartet. While her lawyer husband puts his faith in the "whitewash" of a truth commission, she craves justice but appears destined to coexist with her unpunished torturer.

The play premiered at London's Royal Court in 1991 and won a Laurence Olivier award. Mike Nichols directed the Broadway production while Roman Polanski made a film in 1994 - for which Dorfman co-wrote the screenplay - starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.

For the playwright, the "juxtaposition between torturers and tortured, executioners and victims" is the story of the democratic transitions of the 1990s. His thriller dramatised dilemmas of revenge and reparation yet to be confronted. "I write when there's a void," he says, "but you end up being prophetic. By writing the imaginary, you write the future: what was not happening in Chile, South Africa, the Czech Republic, but was going to happen." Yet some were uneasy with the commercial success of a drama about rape and torture. Dorfman's recent career has been dogged by the charge that he has profited from others' experiences from the safety of exile.

A Chilean national, Dorfman sees himself as an expatriate, no longer in exile. Professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, North Carolina, where he has taught since 1985, he lives with his wife Angélica amid pine forests just outside campus. He teaches two days a week in the spring, travelling for much of the year, and is increasingly involved in theatre and film.

Of his recent plays, Picasso Lost and Found, about the artist in Nazi-occupied Paris, was read in London in January by a cast including Rufus Sewell, Charles Dance, Thandie Newton and Juliet Stevenson, who played Paulina in the original west end production of Death and the Maiden. Purgatorio opens at the Arts Theatre in London in the autumn, while The Other Side has its world premiere in Japan next year.

Dorfman has described Pinochet as a shadow throughout his work, a "dark guide into the worst aspects of myself and others". He was "flabbergasted" in October 1998 when Pinochet, who had been forced to step aside after a 1988 plebiscite but remained chief of the armed forces and senator-for-life, was arrested in London, awaiting extradition to Spain on charges of torture and genocide. "I'd come to terms with the fact that he'd never be brought to trial, that we were never going to see justice done," he says.

In Exorcising Terror, The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet, published in March, Dorfman views Pinochet's "unending trial" as a victory, even though he escaped on the grounds of mental incapacity. The book, praised by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Observer as a "small bomb", dwells on Pinochet's betrayal of Allende. "I heard his voice before the coup and didn't recognise his evil," says Dorfman. "It haunts me."

You can find the full article here

Ariel Dorfman reviews four films that chronicle the fight for human rights in Latin America

For anyone intrigued by these questions, four compelling films presented at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival provide some tentative answers. For starters, there is The Dignity of the Nobodies, by the eminent Argentinian film-maker Fernando "Pino" Solanas. Less stylistically provocative than his incendiary Hour of the Furnaces (1968), this film explores in 10 heartbreaking vignettes the ways in which his compatriots have managed to survive the unprecedented economic and social catastrophe that recently engulfed an Argentina reeling under the colossal failure of the neo-liberal "shock therapy" strategy.

In Memoria del Saqueo (2004) he denounced the way in which previous governments, allied with the multinationals and the International Monetary Fund, had looted land that was once the bread-basket of the world and now could not feed its own people. Many of the "nobodies" documented by Solanas endure an existence on the outer margins of destitution, where hunger and unemployment are the recurring spectres and communal soup kitchens the solution. (...)

It is true that the one assassination depicted in The Dignity of the Nobodies - Darío, a young activist - creates such a public furore that the officers responsible are put on trial. And it is a delight to watch those unarmed women farmers flummox their adversaries by belting out the national anthem while the police stand by indecisively. Yes, the military is discredited and weakened and cannot massacre those who dare to rebel. But the rebels themselves know all too well that the terror of the past can easily return, that this terror, in fact, is not really in the past as long as it can be remembered.

State of Fear shows all too clearly how terror can contaminate a country. This timely film by Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy crisply recounts how the Peruvian struggle against terrorists (in this case the messianic sect known as Shining Path, responsible for the death of 30,000 indigenous peasants, in the name of the oppressed Indians of the Andes) eventually degenerated into state genocide and the destruction of the democracy supposedly being defended. As if trapped in a suspense film, we are forced to follow this escalation of violence step by tragic step, slowly understanding how so many Peruvians were poisoned by this maelstrom of madness and cruelty.

You can find the review here

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Interview with Javier Sierra

An interview with the Spanish author of The Secret Supper (La cena secreta)

Q: Javier, how would you describe La cena secreta to those who are not familiar with your work?
A: I would describe it as a kind of atlas or guide to learn a new language. It’s not only a novel, but a tool that teaches the reader how to interpret works of art from the past. In fact, I think if La cena secreta has any virtues, it’s the virtue of giving us back the capacity to read art-a capacity we lost with the discovery of printing and with the literacy of our culture and civilization. In the 15th century, not everyone could read. Very few had access to books. Therefore, the formula they used in the past to convey information was through works of art; almost everyone could read art then, something that doesn’t happen now.

Q: Our audience is bilingual Hispanics who are 50 and older. Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your book?
A: Well, there are different approaches to the book, depending on the reader’s age. I think that every good book has different levels of reading. To young people, it’s a thriller, a book of action, of intrigue, of mysteries. It’s kind of like a giant puzzle that they assemble piece by piece. And middle-aged people have discovered that the book tries to bring them closer to a significant aspect of religion. Deep inside, all the characters in La cena secreta fight to find their faith, their real faith. And I think it’s very important for people of a certain age, or any age, to find their real faith.

Q: And do you have an ideal reader?
A: I think that the ideal reader of my books is the reader who feels curiosity and hasn’t lost the capacity to be surprised. It’s a reader who, even though he’s an adult, retains a child’s spirit; he keeps the capacity to be amazed by the things he doesn’t know. He’s capable of opening his eyes very wide to understand more than what he’s been taught. That is my ideal reader: the curious reader.

Q: Which authors have in some way influenced your work?
A: I feel I owe a big debt of gratitude to authors like Umberto Eco, the Italian writer and semiologist. He’s a very intelligent person who in his novels introduces many cultural references and mysteries, but they’re facts. They’re facts, real things. And his books have enabled millions of people in the world to get closer to fragments of classical culture that otherwise would have remained inaccessible to a mass audience. I also admire the great creators of thrillers, of intrigue, of fiction. From Ken Follett with his work in Pillars of the Earth to other contemporary masters like Dan Brown. I discovered Dan Brown when I was about to finish writing La cena secreta.

You can find the full interview here

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Selected Poems) by Fernando Pessoa

A new book of Pessoa translations, with brilliant introductions to the book and each heteronym by Richard Zenith, has been published: “A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Selected Poems).” Penguin Classics, 2006, 436 p.

In 1924 you pick up a little po-zine in Portugal called Athena. Among the poets you like: Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, and one of the editors, Fernando Pessoa. Their thumbnails reveal four very different bios, the poems reveal four distinct styles. Only if you penetrate the avant garde scene in Lisbon will you find that three of these poets are heteronyms, imaginary brother poets, of the fourth.

When you discover Fernando Pessoa you don’t walk into a new room of poetry, but into another wing. Hop over to another planet. In solar system Po, he’s Planet X, orbiting just outside, shadowing everything going on in our busyness. More than any other human, he lived life solely in his poems, his life a shell for the literary movement that was himself. Relatively unknown in the US, the publication of a new book of translations brings him to center stage, a poet who eschewed life to create life, a poet for whom “living poetry” was not sprawly boho sensuality, but as Constant Writer.

You can find the review here

The return of Federico Garcia Lorca

Lorca haunts us. The Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, one of the most read and loved writers of the 20th century, was killed in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, by Falangist executioners in his native Granada. His martyrdom only added to his fame.
Seventy years later, he re-emerges, radiant with signification, in contemporary works like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz's Beauty of the Father and classical composer Osvaldo Golijov's new opera Ainadamar, both of which played in New York this winter. And he is the subject of a new work by choreographer Ray Sullivan of the Miami Contemporary Dance Company, The Death of García Lorca, that premieres tonight at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach

You can find the article here

Volver directed by Pedro Almodovar

"Volver" brought Almodovar and Maura back together after a 17-year split. Maura starred in many of the director's features, perhaps most memorably in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" in 1987.

After that film, the two quarreled and split although they have never told the world why.

"Volver" also marks Cruz's return to Spanish cinema in an impressive lead performance, after spending the last six years establishing an international career in Hollywood.

"I still don't really believe that I was lucky enough to make this film," Cruz gushed. "It was like a gift from God."

The film's title has many meanings for Almodovar.

"There are several returns for me. I've gone back, a little bit, to comedy. I've gone back to the feminine universe, to La Mancha ... (and) to the maternal role as the origin of life and fiction," he wrote in notes for the film.

Almodovar has often said that his addiction to stories comes from listening to conversations between women as a child.

Mostly filmed on location in La Mancha, "Volver" seems set for box office success, at least in Spain.

Apart from the pull of the director and the lead actress, village life is a nostalgic ideal for many Spaniards who moved to Madrid and Barcelona seeking work in the 1970s and 80s.

You can find the review here

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Francisco Ayala turns 100

Don Francisco Ayala, one of Spain's intellectual giants, turns 100 on Thursday and, while the decades have undoubtedly taken their toll, his humour-filled, piercing brown eyes let you know he still has plenty to say.

"Mindwise, I feel exactly as I've always felt. Energywise, I'm slowing down," he said in an interview at the elegant Madrid home he shares with his wife, Spanish literature professor Carolyn Richmond, an American.

Novelist, sociologist, moralist and literary scholar, Ayala has won all of the prestige prizes in Spanish letters, from the Cervantes in 1991 to the Prince of Asturias in 1998. The Spanish Civil War forced him into decades of exile, leading him to teach in universities in Argentina, Puerto Rico and in half a dozen in the United States before retiring from the City University of New York some 40 years ago.

You can find the article here

Spanish and Portuguese Languages throughout the world

The Tucson Police Department offers financial incentives for officers and civilian employees to learn Spanish and rewards certified Spanish speakers with a bump in pay.

"There is still a big flow of people from Mexico coming to the Tucson area," said Officer Claude Ralls, who has been with the department for 24 years. "(An) increase of the Spanish-speaking population will (create) more of a demand."

In January, 52 officers passed a certification test. An additional 114 police employees, including civilian employees, receive extra pay for speaking Spanish.

You can find the article here

Spanish and Portuguese Languages throughout the world - Spanish for dentists

In most introductory Spanish classes, you learn phrases such as "¿dónde está la biblioteca?" or "where is the library?"

In a small classroom in the University of Rochester's School of Medicine and Dentistry, 16 students sat laboring over the gerund in "la muela me esté doliendo," or "my molar is hurting."

Among all the courses on anatomy and biology, as well as the required clinical work, UR's medical school also offers Spanish classes. The idea was spawned by med students.

You can find the article here

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Feast of the Goat and Rafael Trujillo

An essay by Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner on the film and on Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

I had thought it was practically impossible to bring to the screen The Feast of the Goat, the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa that was published in 2000 with extraordinary success. I was wrong. First at the Berlin International Film Festival and later in Madrid, a fine movie version was shown, scripted and performed in English and directed by Peruvian Luis Llosa, the novelist's brother-in-law and cousin.
Luis Llosa is an experienced filmmaker, renowned throughout Latin America for his TV novelas (soap operas) and in Hollywood for two adventure films that did well at the box office: The Specialist, with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone; and Anaconda, with Jennifer Lopez.
The performances in The Feast of the Goat were by a basically European cast: Isabella Rosellini; Tomás Milián, a Cuban Italian trained at the Actors Studio in New York City; a splendid Stephanie Leonidas; and Paul Freeman, a fine British character actor capable of conveying with a few gestures all the infamy, ambiguity and pain of a father who delivers his teenage daughter to the elderly dictator so he can deflower her in exchange for reinstating the father's political privileges.
Llosa's film tells two perfectly dovetailed stories, those of the dishonored girl and the conspiracy to kill Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo, assassinated on May 30, 1961, by a group of former government supporters who had turned against The Goat, one of the nicknames the people gave the despotic general.
Aside from the anecdotes threaded through the plot, something even more important shows through in the film: the atmosphere of terror, sycophancy and savagery that pervaded Dominican society during three interminable decades of horror and degradation.

You can find the article here

Spanish and Portuguese Languages throughout the world

Spanish Language - World´s 2nd Fastest Growing Language

Between 1980-2040 the world´s Spanish-speaking population will increase a 103 %, as UNO estimations indicate. 538 million people will have Spanish as first language.

23,45 millions of Europeans (excluded the Spaniards) declared to be able to speak Spanish, as Instituto Cervantes published recently. In 2001, 3,4 million European citizens studied Don Quijote´s language.

English is still leading the interest for those who want to learn a foreign language , and Chinese Mandarin keeps its first position as the world´s most spoken language - 1.000 million native speakers.

Spanish, with 402 million native speakers in 2005, is becoming a popular choice when deciding a new foreign language to learn. Why learn Spanish? 68% of the students take this decision for job-related reasons.

You can find the article here

Spanish and Portuguese Languages throughout the world (Goa/India)

"There was a period of silence in the relations between India and Portugal between 1961 and 1974, and it took a long time to recover whatever relations we had through confidence building measures," said Dr Pedro Adão, Consul General of Portugal in India, at the History Series of Xavier Centre of Historical Research at Porvorim, on February 16 evening. Dr Adão said, "When I arrived in Goa I thought that the Portuguese language was dying here, but I am now very proud to say that it is not so." He added, "Language should be a communication tool and not a barrier. I do not believe that because of tradition alone the new generation is going to learn Portuguese language." He wants Goans and Indians to connect with the new Portugal, and the latter to know about the changes that Goa has undergone.

You can find the article here

Catalina Moreno stars "The Heart of the Earth"

Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, who received an Oscar nomination last year for playing a drug mule in "Maria Full of Grace," will star in the 19th century drama, from Spanish writer/director Antonio Cuadri, "The Heart of the Earth".

The story, is set around the British-owned mines of Andalusia's Rio Tinto in 1888 and depicts the friendship of two women, one Spanish and the other British, against the social upheavals of the time.

The film will shoot for 12 weeks in Spain and Portugal beginning March 31. The cast also includes Sienna Guillory, Hugh Dancy, Bernard Hill and Joaquim de Almeida.

Pursuit by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Brazilian Chief Inspector Espinosa, in the series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, fascinates his lover Irene with "the bizarre combination of logical thinking and delirious fantasy that cohabited in his head." A similar delirium infuses Pursuit, in which Espinosa investigates a series of disappearances involving a psychiatrist, Artur Neese, who is being stalked by one of his patients.

You can find the review here

Duck Season directed by Fernando Eimbcke

Forget grown-ups, cupcakes and Narnia - here's your real lazy Sunday. Two teenage boys, left alone in a Mexico City apartment, plan to spend the day playing video games, drinking soda and eating chips. A neighbor girl comes by to use the oven for some baking. Then the power goes out. The boys take more notice of the girl. They order a pizza.

Though the plot may be skeletal, a lot happens in "Temporada de Patos" ("Duck Season"), the debut feature by Mexican writer-director Fernando Eimbcke, 35. Shot in a series of long takes by the steady gaze of a fixed camera, the film bursts with life as the characters move about the room and all around the corners of the frame. The deadpan humor and low-key performances are reminiscent of the early films of Jim Jarmusch, a debt Eimbcke makes explicit by thanking his predecessor in the end credits along with another master of cinematic stillness, Yasujiro Ozu.

For a project that's been described as a film in which nothing happens, it seems packed with ideas about the big issues: what brings people together, what bonds them and what makes their lives meaningful.

You can find the review here

Monday, March 13, 2006

Guide to the Latin American Boom by Alexander Coleman

"Boom" is a term that should have died long ago, because it is such an ugly word. But the word has kept bouncing around in critical journals, mostly because of the jealous detractors who have kept it going. But there are a few things about the Boom that can be said with some accuracy and equanimity. The authors involved are resolutely engaged in a transfiguration of Latin American reality, from localism to a kind of heightened, imaginative view of what is real—a universality gained by the most intense and luminous kind of locality. That is what Garcia Marquez, Rulfo, Donoso, and Fuentes have done, among others. These are the eternal lessons of authors as disparate as Jane Austen, Faulkner, and Thomas Mann. The boom novel is never reportage, it is never blatant political protest, it is never "responsible," in the suffocating sense. And too, the Boom announced a cultural hegemony and unity out of disparity that would have been unthinkable some twenty or thirty years ago. Some elements that aided in this newly forged continental consciousness are such disparate facts and events as the cultural impulse given to Latin America by the Cuban Revolution, and in particular the Review of the House of the Americas, the most distinguished cultural organ of the Castro revolution; the existence of the distinguished Ford Foundation-financed literary review Mundo Nuevo, which, although it only lasted some two years under the formidable editorship of Emir Rodriguez Monegal, managed to introduce most of the authors of the new wave, those of whom we are now speaking. And of course it is significant that Borges enjoyed a retainer from The New Yorker, and that the same magazine, under the aegis of William Shawn and Alastair Reid, has begun a comprehensive search for new texts from Latin America, to be translated expressly for the magazine. And no one is surprised when a Cortazar short story is transformed into a film by Antonioni (Blow-up), or short stories by Borges undergo brilliant radical surgery by such filmmakers as Bertolucci (The Spider's Stratagem) or Nichohs Roeg (Performance). These are details, of course, but these details are indicative of a change of atmosphere, and that is everything. Nothing like this would have occurred in the forties or the early fifties. Latin American literature has gained an enormous readership just in the past twenty years.

The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History is a breezy exercise in literary parricide—the old boys are ejected from the pantheon, the local gods are outraged, the whippersnappers take over, a whole new profile for Latin American culture gradually takes form. Jose Donoso is not only a witness to it, he is a fundamental part of this literary process. His memoir should not be missed by anyone who cares about literature. It is a unique and discerning document, done with equal amounts of black bile and good humor. Thankfully, he has been eloquently served by his nimble translator, Gregory Kolovakos. By the way, for those interested in a lucid overview of the whole movement, with an abundance of useful factual material, I recommend Emir Rodriguez Monegal's El Boom de la Novela Latinoamericana (Caracus: Editorial Tiempo Nuevo, 1972).

The author adds also a short list of books including:

Ficciones, Personal Anthology and El Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Three Trapped Tigers by Gillermo Cabrera Infante, Explosion in a Cathedral, The Lost Steps and Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier, The Winners, Hopscotch and Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortazar, Coronation, This Sunday and The Obscene Bird of the Night by José Donoso, Where the Air is Clear, The Death of Artemio Cruz, Aura, Change of Skin and Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, No One Writes to the Colonel, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, The Third Bank of the River and The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and The Buenos Aires Affair by Manuel Puig, Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, From Cuba With a Song and Cobra by Severo Sarduy, The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.

You can find the article here