Thursday, November 30, 2006

The National Prize for Spanish Letters

Raul Guerra Garrido, known for novels set in Spain's Basque region, has won one of the country's most prestigious literary prizes, the Culture Ministry said Monday.

The National Prize for Spanish Letters recognizes the literary achievements of a Spanish author over the course of a career. The award, considered the most important national literary accolade after the Cervantes Prize, carries a cash stipend of more than €30,000 (US$40,000).

Born in Madrid in 1935, Guerra Garrido completed undergraduate and doctorate degrees in pharmaceutical studies. He later moved to the country's northern Basque region, where he opened a pharmacy and began his literary career, writing both traditional and suspense novels.

His 1987 novel, "La Mar es Mala Mujer" (The Sea is a Bad Woman) was made into a motion picture. Other works include "El Otono Siempre Hiere" (Autumn Always Hurts) and "La Gran Via es New York" (The Gran Via is New York).

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The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas

Review of Javier Cercas' The Speed of Light

Javier Cercas made his name writing about the moral confusion of warfare. Soldiers of Salamis(2003) saw him penetrate deep into the psychology of the Spanish Civil War. The novel, currently available in 15 languages, saw its author decorated by literary-prize judges across the world. Now he has an international platform from which to launch this very timely book: a European novel about the personal fall-out from the Vietnam war, published in the same month that the 43rd American President has conceded parallels between the Asian conflict he avoided and the Middle Eastern one he instigated.

The Speed of Light begins in the 1980s. Our likeably pretentious hero graduates from the cynical young bohemianism of Barcelona to an unexpected job offer from an American university in Urbana, Illinois. He aspires to literary success. But he doesn't know how to play the American sophisticate. We cringe for his wrongness, his attention-seeking gaucheness.

On his first night, two of his new colleagues ask him for his view on the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. "Like everyone," he confesses, decades later, "I think I liked Almodóvar's films back then, but at that moment I must have felt an irresistible urge to try to sound interesting or make my cosmopolitan vocation very clear by setting myself apart from those stories of drug-addled nuns, traditional transvestites and matador murderers, so I answered, 'Frankly I think they're a pile of queer crap.' " There's a burst of savage laughter. The joke is on his homophobia. The men he is talking to are gay.

And our hero doesn't learn his lesson there. When he meets Rodney Falk, the lumbering Vietnam veteran with whom he will share an office, Falk asks for his view on Ernest Hemingway. "Frankly," he tells Falk, who is a Hemingway fan, "I think he's shit."

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the room-mates become friends, sitting twice weekly in a bar trading views on writers and writing. Falk's pronouncements become central to the young European's world view. Falk does not talk about his time in Asia, but his experiences of humanity at its least humane add weird weight to everything he says.
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Monday, November 27, 2006

Interview with Guillermo del Toro

No sooner had he finished shooting his first film than the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was wanted by the police.

Guillermo del Toro: 'There is a moment in everyone's life when they have the chance to be immortal'
He had closed his production offices, seemingly in a hurry, and a few days later his fellow tenants had reported a disagreeable aroma seeping through his locked door. It was the smell of rotting flesh. And they knew this fanatical young filmmaker had a fascination with death.

"They thought it was a decomposing body," smiles the 41-year-old director. "And I suppose in some sense it was. The Cronos machine [a device in the movie that bestows immortality upon its owner] was partly mechanical but also comprised a living organism, so to make it look right we used real bits of offal. When I went away, I forgot to clean it out; it really stank."

Thankfully for del Toro, the police were satisfied with his explanation, leaving him free to release first the odour and then his film, Cronos. A surreal and chilling re-imagining of a vampire tale, it proved just as potent as the odour, quickly establishing his reputation as a promising and unusual writer-director. The film won the Critics' Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival before going on to scoop nine Mexican Academy Awards.

Since then, del Toro has made films both inside and outside the Hollywood system, He has had varying degrees of commercial success with his studio projects, from the spluttering Mimic to the soaring Blade II and Hellboy, while winning universal praise for all his Spanish-language films. This month he adds to that canon with Pan's Labyrinth – a dark and intoxicating blend of wartime drama and gothic fairy tale.

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Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Washington Post's review of Isabel Allende's Ines of My Soul.

Isabel Allende's new novel, Ines of My Soul , the 15th book she has published in just over two decades, is in many ways her most ambitious. It is historical fiction, set in Spain, Peru (where she was born) and Chile (where she grew up) in the 16th century, the time of the Spanish conquest of Central and South America, one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Its central character is an actual historical figure, Ines Suarez, "widow of the Most Excellent Gobernador don Rodrigo de Quiroga, conquistador and founder of the kingdom of Chile." She is living in Santiago and is more or less 70 years old -- she doesn't know the exact date of her birth, probably in 1507, in Spain, "in Plasencia, in the north of Extremadura, a border city steeped in war and religion" -- and she is looking back on her life in the certain knowledge that her death cannot be far away. (...)

The trouble with that story, in this novel as in many others that have been written about the Spanish conquest, is that while it may seem heroic from the Spanish point of view, it is anything but heroic from the viewpoint of the indigenous people who were slaughtered, enslaved and otherwise broken to the will of Charles I of Spain and his ambitious, ruthless emissaries.

To say this isn't merely to indulge in present-day political correctness, though perhaps there is a bit of that. The unpleasant historical truth is that the Spanish conquest was an atrocity of almost unimaginable dimensions, carried out by the likes of Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortes. Though Allende does not attempt to whitewash the conquistadors -- Pizarro is "a man of about sixty, haughty, with sallow skin, a graying beard, sunken eyes with a suspicious gleam in them, and a disagreeable falsetto voice" -- she cannot resist the temptation to romanticize the feats of the men (and, in this instance, one remarkable woman) who conquered a continent.

The temptation is understandable. In Chile, as in Mexico and Peru, the suppression of the natives -- the Mapuche, the Incas, the Aztecs -- was carried out by extraordinarily small bodies of soldiers who fought against astonishing odds: a hundred men or fewer against thousands. Thus the expedition that set out from Cuzco in southern Peru in January 1540 was "a pathetic group: only eleven soldiers in addition to Pedro de Valdivia -- and me, for I was prepared to wield a sword if the occasion demanded it."

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Mexican film "El violín" (the violin) directed by Francisco Vargas Quevedo, won the Colón de Oro of the XXXII Latin American Festival of Huelva (Spain). "El violín" features Angel Tavira, Dagoberto Gama, Fermín Martinez and Gerald Taracena, tells the history of Plutarco, his son Genaro and his grandson Lucio, who take a double life, since, on one hand, they are humble rural musicians and, by another one, actively support to the guerrilla movement of the farmers against the opressing government.
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Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

A man, whose name is not revealed until half the novel, goes to Comala to pay a promise made to his mother on her death bed: to find his father and claim what is theirs. The story of Juan's experience, his search for identity and his heritage, is interwoven with the tale of his father, Pedro Paramo.

Pedro Paramo dominates the landscape of the novel which flows hynotically through dreams, desires and memories. The novel propels the reader down a dusty forgotten road to a town of death, a place populated by ghosts and living memories.

Juan Rulfo's extraordinarily powerful novel, Pedro Paramo, captures the essence of life in rural Mexico during the last years of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th.

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Aura by Carlos Fuentes

An old widow asks a young unemployed historian to review the papers of his late husband, a general who fought during the French invasion of Mexico (1862-1866). - The widow lives in a house in the center historical of Mexico City, as soon as the young historian arrives at this dark and gloomy house extraordinary facts begin to happen, mainly related to the mysterious and charming Aura, the widow's niece.

Aura is terror, pure terror but it has nothing to do with European or Anglo-Saxon gothic. Carlos Fuentes not only wrote the only Latin American terror novel that I know of, he invented or gave literary form to a new type of terror novel, the American baroque novel.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Latin American Literatures in Salon's Literary Guides to the World

Salon has been publishing Literary Guides to the World, this series has so far featured a few latin american literatures (Chile, Havana, Mexico and Argentina)

Chile by Ariel Dorfman
If you haven't had enough of Neruda, then you can discover him again as a character in Antonio Skármeta's masterful "The Postman" (1985), where the illustrious bard befriends the eponymous postman of the title and teaches him how to woo an elusive damsel with metaphors and a pinch of politics. This novel not only will enchant and entertain readers (I like it more than the 1994 film, "Il Postino," that it inspired) but also will offer a glimpse of Chileans' peculiar sense of humor, corrosive and light, self-deprecating and ferocious.
That sense of humor is also present in "Chile: A Traveler's Literary Companion" (2003), though what distinguishes this excellent anthology of short fiction edited by Katherine Silver is that each selection by many stalwarts of Chilean literature opens a vista onto a distinctive zone of Chile: Read Francisco Coloane, for instance, on the seas off Patagonia (where Herman Melville set Ahab's quest for Moby-Dick) or Hernan Rivera Letelier and Roberto Ampuero on the haunted inhabitants of the northern deserts. Or Marta Brunet's terrifying "Black Bird" and its suggestion that Chilean nature is not always as benevolent or glorious as I have implied.
Indeed, every country has its dark side, and no voyager, real or imaginary, should ignore what lurks under the welcoming surface. And there is probably no better guide to that ominous undertow than Chile's preeminent 20th century narrator, José Donoso. More accessible than his labyrinthine masterpiece, "Obscene Bird of Night" (1973) (where, among other niceties, a child's eyes and ears and other orifices are being sewn shut by witches), is "A House in the Country" (1984). Through a sprawling family saga of masters and servants and rebellious daughters, Donoso weaves a secret history of Chile's turbulent past and uncovers the sources of my country's recent violence, the dictatorship for which we have become sadly notorious. Read more

Mexico by Ilan Stavans
Katherine Anne Porter, known for having a persona larger than the person who hosted it, spent years in Mexico, working as a translator, screenwriter, lecturer and reporter. Her 1930 book "Flowering Judas and Other Stories" includes excellent tales about Mexican peasant life that ought to be read alongside more idiosyncratic -- and nativistic -- portraits such as Juan Rulfo's 1968 classic "The Burning Plain," a collection of stories told from the peasant viewpoint. His characters don't just suffer their misery, they act it out for us with bravado.
Finally, no literary tour should ignore Harriet Doerr's debut novel, "Stones for Ibarra," for which she won the National Book Award in 1984 at the age of 73. The book focuses on an aging Anglo couple who move to a Mexican mining town, hoping to return to a copper mine the husband's family once owned. But he soon falls sick, and the wife's odyssey ultimately revolves around her interaction with the villagers. She learns that Ibarrans go about "their individual dooms" with resignation, recognizing "as inevitable the hail on the ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child." Doerr said of her work: "I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stone cutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it." The narrative makes you believe she's patiently sculpting each of the town's dwellers, their wrinkled faces, their longing souls, in stone.
For those ready to unearth Mexico's treasures from within, I recommend Octavio Paz's "The Labyrinth of Solitude," a 1950 study that will help, even today, elucidate the ways people in Mexico live. In his essays, Paz proves the extent to which the whole civilization approaches life as a cosmic performance. His prose is cosmopolitan, and he makes insightful connections between psychology and faith, literature and technology. Sadly, his iconoclastic poetry is less enticing. In its stead, I suggest un paseo, a rendezvous through one of the most lucid and emblematic of all Mexican poets, the 17th century nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her superb book "Poems, Protest, and a Dream" covers the treacherous path women walk in a society ruled by machismo. Finally, people interested in Mexico's tumultuous past may want to look at Mariano Azuela's "The Underdogs" (1915), a short novel about how the Mexican revolution of 1910 ended up betraying its own objectives. It follows the paths of a series of characters in search of a mission and explains how political corruption became the law of the land. Read more

Havana by Tony D'Souza
"Three Trapped Tigers," G. Cabrera Infante's 1958 masterpiece, captures Havana as it was, a place of Santeria and frantic drinking, of mystical black women and handsome young men in their best outfits with not much to do under the oppressive shadow of politics. Half a century later, not much has changed. The things the thugs in power on both sides of the strait can't control continue to be the starry Havana nights, the hectic energy of the Habaneras, the rum, and the brassy music that sets everything off once the sun goes down. Infante, who at first embraced the Revolution, but later died in exile, knew that love is possible at every turn in Havana, especially if it's only for one night. This novel, the best the city has ever produced, is an anatomy of the fecund Havana we dream of finding, and if we possess the bravery to go there in these times, we still do.
But of course Habaneros are more than just their parties. Race and struggle define the Cuban soul. Ada Ferrer's "Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898" details the essence of the Cuban Revolution from 60 years before it happened. Soon after "discovery" in 1492, Columbus' ruthless enslavement of the indigenous Taíno set the stage for the sugar cane factory that chewed up imported African slaves like a juicing machine, which Cuba quickly became. There's a reason why Castro's Revolution, which at one point was only himself, and as he famously quotes, "one other guy," hiding in the Sierra Maestra, went on to defeat the U.S.-trained and -equipped forces of Batista. Ferrer reveals the secret: Cuba has always been a minority white privileged class and a majority of disenfranchised blacks. Ever wonder why the angry exiles in Miami who influence so much of American policy are all white? Ferrer explains it.
Castro is no hero either, though it's hard to find a Habanera who will admit this in public (just as it's nearly impossible to find a Habanera who won't say that José Martí, Cuba's national poet, is really just a jingoist). Reinaldo Arenas, though, had the bravery to, and he paid the price with decades of police harassment, and a constant ban on his works. The gay boys who look for love in the shadows of Plaza Don Quixote all know his name, and his novel "Farewell to the Sea" tells us why. On display here is a human heart, tender and longing, trapped by a political system that won't let it be what it is, and the strained marriage it forces that heart into. Arenas' own tragic demise reflects the one his narrator can't escape in this poetic requiem. Read more

Argentina by Benjamin Kunkel
Since Borges' long life (1899-1986) coincided with Argentina's rise to fantastic wealth and long, wracking decline, Williamson's biography can also function as a history book. Not by itself, however: Williamson somehow refers to the Dirty War prosecuted by the ruling junta between 1976 and 1983 as "the war against the guerillas." There were perhaps 400 leftist guerrillas at the time of the coup; the remainder of the 20,000 or 30,000 people tortured and killed by their government were unionists, factory workers, campesinos, teachers, student council leaders, psychologists and their inconvenient spouses and children. Marguerite Feitlowitz's "A Lexicon of Terror" (1998) offers an appalling anatomy of one of the most sordid regimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Reading it, one is yet more intrigued by the nightmare Borges reported having had on April 10, 1977. In his poem "The Leaves of the Cypress," Borges dreams of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by a man intent on murder, just as no doubt happened in the waking lives of some of his neighbors as he slept.
Borges (who later chose to die in Geneva at least partly for political reasons) never wrote anything approaching a novel in length. The best-known Argentine novels are "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar (who died in exile in Paris), and "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" by Manuel Puig (who died in exile in New York). "Hopscotch" (1966) has not aged gracefully: With its rhapsodic conversations, allegedly jazzlike prose and bohemian cast of characters, it seems like the work of a sort of superior Kerouac. "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1974) is something else. Two Argentine cellmates, the one guilty of homosexuality, the other of Marxism, talk about movies and revolution, and, between sessions of torture at the hands of the police, fall in love. In its combination of political commitment and pop-cultural dizziness, in the terrible pain that it describes and the great pleasure that it gives, this is the novel that half the writers living in Brooklyn, N.Y., today have always longed to write.
Juan José Saer (who died last year in Paris) is not as well-known as Cortázar or Puig, but he deserves to be mentioned in their company. His fine novel "The Event" (1988) concerns the efforts of an Italian immigrant -- a rancher and magician -- to do two things: make a fortune on the pampas, and prove the truth of his metaphysical conviction that mind can command matter, that the visible world is the least and flimsiest aspect of reality. The force of the novel is to show how this conviction is done in by obdurate Argentina, especially the implacable landscape of the pampas. In a magnificent passage, Saer describes "the precarious settlements that were forming on the flat surface of the oldest land in the world, covered by the sediment of continents and of extinct species and pulverized by time and harsh weather, that unreal and empty space that the conquistadors took special care to avoid but that, the Indians first, then later cows and horses, and shortly thereafter adventurers, soldiers and landowners, and then later still the disinherited of the whole world who had arrived in overcrowded ships, stubbornly persisted in crossing again and again, gray, hallucinated figures, leaving fleeting traces that the strong winds and the rain undertook almost immediately to efface." Read more

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Alberto Barrera Tyszka wins the Herralde de Novela Prize

Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka won the Herralde de Novela Prize with his novel 'La enfermedad'

You can find the article here
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Interview with Jorge Volpi

An interview with mexican write Jorge Volpi, around his novel In Search of Klingsor and the Seix-Barral Prize in 1999

You can find the interview here
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Portuguese Group Madredeus takes a sabbatic year

The Madredeus group confirmed yesterday its intention to take a sabbatic year, after offering a last concert the next month in Tokyo. They denied therefore the information that circulated on a possible separation after more than two decades of successful activity.

You can find the article here
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