Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Review: The Night Buffalo By Guillermo Arriaga

Manuel loves Tania, his best friend Gregorio’s girlfriend. He is also having recreational sex with Gregorio’s sister. Tania has been sleeping with Manuel for a long time and may or may not love him, but is certainly obsessed with Gregorio. And Gregorio has committed suicide.
What could have been a trite story of youthful passions and betrayal becomes far more haunting and disturbing under Guillermo Arriaga’s pen. Gregorio is insane and brilliant, a doomed genius who manipulates his doctors, friends, and family and is fascinated with death and pain. Alongside, Manuel and Tania thread a delicate razor-edge of sanity, and never succeed in untangling themselves from the maze Gregorio has set for them. As Manuel recognizes, “Gregorio has not finished dying.” Within the scope of this book, he never does.
There are no chapters, no cleanly labeled time frames to ground the reader. Instead, the novel follows Manuel’s frenetic, desperate tumbles through past and present. The short, tense vignettes shade in the relationships between the characters and reveal most of all Manuel, tortured, desperate and tragic. Through his eyes, the women of this novel remain mysterious and merciless, uninvolved in the passionate angst of the men around them. They are an excuse for the actions of the men, not always the true reason.
Arriaga is more famous in the United States for his screenplays: the Academy Award-nominated Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Fans will find the same edgy, urgent pacing and troubled kaleidoscope of characters in The Night Buffalo, the first of three of Arriaga’s novels to be published in the United States.
The flawless English translation is just an added bonus. Alan Page, who has worked with Arriaga on all his screenplays, is a poet. His blend of sympathetic understanding of Spanish linguistic rhythms and taut, meticulous selection of their English counterparts creates a work beyond language barriers. This version will evoke the visceral response of the original text without ever allowing the reader to forget that this is Mexico City in all its tarnished glory. It is a work of art in itself.
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Pan's Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Toro

Set in a dark Spanish forest in a very dark time — 1944, when Spain was still in the early stages of the fascist nightmare from which the rest of Europe was painfully starting to awaken — "Pan's Labyrinth" is a political fable in the guise of a fairy tale. Or maybe it's the other way around. Does the moral structure of the children's story, with its clearly marked poles of good and evil, its narrative of dispossession and vindication, illuminate the nature of authoritarian rule? Or does the movie reveal fascism as a terrible fairy tale brought to life?

The brilliance of "Pan's Labyrinth," which is being released worldwide through May, is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways. If this is magic realism, it is also the work of a real magician. The director, Guillermo del Toro, unapologetically swears allegiance to a pop-fantasy tradition that encompasses comic books, science fiction and horror movies, but fan-boy pastiche is the last thing on his mind. He is also a thoroughgoing cinephile, steeped in classical technique and film history.
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Book Review: Ines Of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Allende freely admits her novel is "a work of intuition", that she researched events widely and then "strung them together with a fine thread of imagination". This may be so, but her dramatisation is marred by passages of overwrought, over-ripe prose.

At its worst, the book is strewn with bodice-ripping cliches: bodies burn with impatience, days drag by, Valdivia and his paramour were born to love each other and would do so through all eternity ("Ines of my Soul" is the conquistador's special nickname for his feisty concubine).
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More Books of the Year

... or in this case translations of the year. From Words Without Borders selection:

From Esther Allen

An Episode in the Life of a Language Painter
by César Aira
Translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions

"The most extraordinary book in translation of 2006 was César Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, brilliantly translated by Chris Andrews (and published by New Directions). Aira is a rather unusual writer who composes his short books (more than thirty of them so far) in uninterrupted bursts of inspiration and without looking back or correcting, or so I'm told. As you might expect, such a methodology leads to a highly varied and uneven though always fascinating body of work. In this brief, incandescent book, about an actual incident in the life of the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas who traveled in Argentina in the early nineteenth century, lightning strikes."

From Francisco Goldman

Last Evenings on Earth
by Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions

"Chris Andrews' translation captures Bolaño's unique and elusive voice perfectly."

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Book Review: The Heretic by Miguel Delibes

This international bestseller follows the life of a boy born on the day the Protestant reformation began—when Martin Luther nailed his list of ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg—through his last days in prison and burning at the stake. Cipriano Salcedo, the only son of the Salcedo family, is born in Valladolid, Spain, on October 31, 1517, shortly after which his mother dies. Resented from birth by his father, who refers to him as “that little parricide,” Cipriano grows up in the care of his peasant wet-nurse and later is abandoned to the town orphanage. When his father dies, Cipriano takes over the family leather business and invents a rabbit-fur overcoat that becomes extremely popular throughout Spain and the rest of Europe, creating a small fortune for Cipriano. With his entrance to the aristocracy, Cipriano marries the daughter of one of his suppliers, an unpredictable woman famed for her sheep-shearing abilities. As their efforts to produce a child prove fruitless over time, his wife grows despondent and is eventually committed to an insane asylum, where she dies, supposedly dreaming of the hills where she raised sheep as a girl. Cipriano, guilt-ridden over his wife’s unhappy demise, takes refuge in the company of a small sect of Calvinists that has sprung up in Valladolid. When the members of this brotherhood are inevitably caught and tried, casualties of the Spanish inquisition, Cipriano is the only member of the group who stays true to his convictions; in his confession the night before his burning he admits to three sins--not loving his father, bedding his wet-nurse during his teens, and fatal indifference to his mercurial wife. Like all the sainted martyrs, however, he holds fast to his beliefs, despite the fact that his demise will be all the more ignominious and painful unless he recants.
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Teolinda Gersão

A short text from Portuguese novelist and short story writer Teolinda Gersão.

On her way home one day, a humble bank clerk happened to see a red fox fur coat in a furrier's shop window. She stopped outside and felt a shiver of pleasure and desire run through her. For this was the coat she had always wanted. There wasn't another one like it, she thought, running her eyes over the other coats hanging from the metal rack or delicately draped over a brocade sofa. It was rare, unique; she had never seen such a color, golden, with a coppery sheen, and so bright it looked as if it were on fire. The shop was closed at the time, as she discovered when, giving in to the impulse to enter, she pushed at the door. She would come back tomorrow, as early as possible, in her lunch break, or during the morning; yes, she would find a pretext to slip out during the morning. That night she slept little and awoke feeling troubled and slightly feverish. She counted the minutes until the shop would open; her eyes wandered from the clock on the wall to her wristwatch and back, while she dealt with various customers. As soon as she could, she found an excuse to pop out and run to the shop, trembling to think that the coat might have been sold. It had not, she learned, been sold; she felt her breath return, her heartbeat ease, felt the blood drain from her face and resume its measured flow.
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My First Language by Bernardo Atxaga

A short text from Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga:

For a brief period during my childhood, euskara, or Basque, was, for me, simply the language I used every day. I had no views about it, and I had no concerns as to its future. I called my father and my mother atta and ama, just as I called the rain ebi and the sun eguzki, for that is what euskara was for—naming people and things with the usual words. In that sense, I was no different from any of the other children who had, in the past, been born in my house, Irazune: they too, regardless of whether it was the twentieth century or the nineteenth or the eighteenth, had said atta, ama, ebi, and eguzki when they wanted to refer to father, mother, rain, or sun. It was the same for other children in my village, Asteasu, and for many others throughout the length and breadth of the Basque Country: we were all euskaldunak, that is, "people who possess euskara."
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Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nuñez

It has been said that the past is another country; if so, then Barcelona in the early 80s must be another planet. Dirty and grim, a capsized ship in the port, whores lining the Ramblas, a shantytown of squatter restaurants down on the open-sewer beach. These are my pre-Olympic memories. Then the city got spruced up and the tourists came in hordes. I mention this because this latest reprint of Nuñez’s book makes great mention of Barcelona and its landmarks on the cover blurb, and readers who only know the new, post ’92 city might be baffled by a thing or two, particularly the fact that the street and place names appear in Spanish rather than Catalan as they are now. No matter, as there is really no great reason the book couldn’t be set in any other seedy Mediterranean port. Knowledge or ignorance of Barcelona won’t hinder the enjoyment of this story one iota.

The original (1984) Spanish title was Sinatra because the protagonist, Antonio Castro, looks like the singer. Frankie, as he therefore gets called, is a forty-year-old night porter in one of those clapped-out no-star ‘hotels’ you can still just about find off the Ramblas. His wife has left him and he is lonely, leading a tedious, directionless life. He knows that things must be bad when he gets a severe case of diarrhoea. An answer may lie in an ad in a paper for a lonely hearts club. He joins up and the letters start arriving. Now Frankie is quite a sweetie in his way, generous and wouldn’t hurt a fly - but remember, he is a lonely, frustrated male controlled by macho pride. This brings out a nasty side, revealed at times in comments like: ‘She wasn’t much to look at but who cares’. The letters, however, aren’t just from plain, lonely widows and widowers, nothing that simple. There’s a boozy armed robber fresh from prison wanting to move to Barcelona, a gay barman, and a dwarf who writes lousy poems and is desperate to have a man inside her. Then there are those that Frankie just happens to bump into on and around the Ramblas; for example Natalia, a junkie teenager who believes a ratty doll is her baby. Somehow Frankie gets involved with all of them and it gives him bad dreams. He is himself too emotionally weak to help those who ask and he begins to crack. Then, just when it looks like his luck has changed, disaster strikes. His floundering makes a sad but wonderful human story.
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Raul Nuñez was born in Buenos Aires and lived in Barcelona from 1975 until his death in 1988.

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Book Review: Adios Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría

Back in the distant past books and films in translation always seemed to verge on the arty side. This has changed over the last ten years or so with the proliferation of popular fiction in translation. The last two offerings I have read for TBR (both from the Spanish) - Raul Nuñez’s The LonelyHearts Club and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy - are typical of this trendy new wave. These novels are anything but arty; in fact, I doubt there is a word as long as ‘pretentious’ in either one. Adios Muchachos follows in this tradition. For those having a sense of déjà vu this is the UK’s first publishing, and Serpent’s Tail, following the 2001 release in the US, have given the book a graphic-design cover, but made it brighter, more modern and, appropriately, toned down the illustration to a less tarty looking girl. The cover boasts ‘2002 Edgar Award Winner’ for best original paperback; and Martin Cruz Smith’s blurb: ‘Pulp fiction in Castro’s Cuba…sex, scheming, and, well, more sex’. So, we have a mystery-cum-sex book (sic).

The opening line says a lot about the speed, style and content of what follows: "When Alicia decided to become a bicycle hooker, her mother agreed to sell a ring that had been in the family for five generations." Straight in, no messing about, we know mum is going to invest heavily so her daughter can become a prostitute. Not your everyday family setup then. In fact mum cooks fantastic meals for the foreign-tourist-johns that Alicia brings home through a scam with her built-to-break-down bike. It is a good investment and soon the two have a healthy stockpile of refrigerators, air conditioners and so on as Alicia doesn’t really do it for money; she is even insulted if money is offered. No, what she wants is a stinking rich husband who lives anywhere other than Cuba, so to blatantly come across as a hooker is not on.
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And a brief biographic note on Daniel Chavarría.

Writer, professor of Greek and Latin. Daniel Chavarria is considered one of the greatest pen of the Spanish Literature, despite his work was published for the first time on 1978. He lives in Cuba since 1969. As fluent speaker of five languages, he has been serving as German translator for the Cuban Institute of Book and professor of Latin, Greek and Classic Literature at the Havana University among 1975 and 1986.

Author of literary and political papers, movie and TV scripts, he considers himself as a pupil of who is, in his opinion, an ''extraordinary fable narrator'', Alejo Carpentier. ''I consider myself his pupil, he was master of Spanish language during the last century, a figure to whom I devoted ''El Ojo de Cibeles'', my novel awarded in Mexico.
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Book Review: The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

In The Buenos Aires Quintet, first published in 1997, we find Pepe in Buenos Aires, bringing that city to life in the way he does Barcelona. Pepe’s been hired by an uncle of his who wants to locate his son, now back in Argentina after years of exile in Spain. What does Pepe know of Argentina? "Tango, the disappeared, Maradona," he flippantly answers, although Pepe is fully aware of Argentina’s history. Once there, he encounters people of around his age who fought against the military take-over in 1976; i.e., the "subversives," most of whom have "disappeared." The nephew he is sent to find, Raúl Tourón, was aligned with these left-wing Perónists, although he worked as a research behavioral scientist and, in fact, made an important discovery in working with rats: that a link exists between animal behavior and the quality of animal feed. Put another way: "he taught how to treat people like rats." The military dictatorship stole his research, putting it to use for their own ends. The following year Raúl’s house was raided and his wife, the lovely, militant activist Belma was shot and their baby daughter taken away. Raúl was taken into custody as was his sister-in-law Alma, but they were later released. Raúl doesn’t learn the facts until much later, but it was his father, already in exile in Spain, who made a deal with the military junta to spare their lives and get them out of prison.
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Book Review: An Olympic Death by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

An Olympic Death, which first came out in 1991, is set in a pre-Olympic Barcelona, a city far different from the one it was soon to become, with its newly created beach front and the inevitable arrival of cruise ships, turning it into slick, urban tourist attraction. 1991 was an emotionally wrenching year for many of us who lived here as we watched the city being dug up, torn down and rebuilt. Construction work was everywhere you looked; cranes dominated the landscape. At that time the Barceloneta "chiringuitos" (the tattered but colorful open-air restaurants) dotted the beach. You could sit at a wooden table smack on the sand and enjoy an affordable paella year-round (some even provided wool blankets to keep the customers warm in winter). When those were pulled down that, for me, marked the end of an era. Beach dining shifted to the overly priced Olympic Port, which doesn’t even provide a view of the sea in most cases. A hastily and ill-conceived Olympic Village was constructed which looked like standard-issue welfare housing (with apartments selling for extraordinary prices) that within a few years was looking run down. The "community" that was to have grown around this area never developed and is now surrounded by much dead space. A superfluous airport-like mall went up at the other end of the port (trendy bars, including one of the city’s many new Irish bars, and a miniature golf course are located on its terrace rooftop; a McDonald’s and a Ben and Jerry’s sit below.)
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Book Review: Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Already translated into fifteen languages, Cold Skin (originally titled La pell freda) won the Ojo Critico Narrativa prize on its original publication in Catalan in 2002, an amazing feat for anthropologist Albert Sánchez Piñol, born in Barcelona in 1965, who debuted with this darkly beautiful novel. Consider a discrete synopsis:

A young, nameless narrator arrives by ship sometime after World War I at a remote island somewhere in the south Atlantic near the Antarctic Circle. It is there—far away from the normal shipping lanes, apparently more than six hundred leagues from the nearest large landmass—that he is to remain alone for a year. He will take on the unlikely job at this desolate outpost as the weather official for a company that has an incomprehensible need for such a person.
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Book Review: The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo

Among many accolades, Carlos Fuentes calls Juan Goytisolo "Spain's greatest living novelist"—just but curious praise for a writer who has not lived in Spain for 50 years and continues to be its most scabrous critic. Born Barcelona in 1931, Goytisolo’s early novels, including Marks of Identity, were banned by the Franco regime. Driven into exile, Goytisolo lived in Paris from 1956 to 1996, when his wife, the writer Monique Lange, died. Since then he has lived in Marrakesh where he continues to be actively engaged in political and humanitarian projects and write trenchant essays and articles supporting these causes. The Blind Rider marks his10th novel, which he claims will be his last.

Goytisolo has always brought autobiographical elements into his fiction, and The Blind Rider clearly belongs to the genre "fictional memoir," where personal reminiscences of past and present events play a large part. The heart of these memories is expressed through the unnamed narrator, a widower, as he struggles with the anguishing grief that he feels over his loss.
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Book Review: Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende's new novel, Inés of My Soul, takes as its subject 16th-century Spain's conquest of Chile and the founding of Santiago. Meticulously researched and peopled by real historical characters, the novel is framed as the memoir of Doña Inés Suárez, sometimes described as Chile's "founding mother." The narrative moves from the sleepy towns of Spain to the harsh ferocities of Latin America's New World colonies.

Led by the lust for gold, the Spanish employ both cross and sword to overcome the Incans, then turn on each other in pursuit of riches. Inés becomes the lover and helpmate to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, and proves indispensable to the proposed establishment of a society based on egalitarian principles in Chile.

Inés' rise from oppressed anonymity to power and fame embodies one of Allende's most persistent themes: the woman confined by a traditional culture but determined to alter her circumstances. Inés insists early in her memoir that she has never grown accustomed to the New World's "lack of order." But the remark seems tongue-in-cheek, as the "scrambling" of society she decries is partly of her own making and enables her transformation from poor seamstress in a Spanish back street to a "highly placed señora" in Santiago society.
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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Children of Men directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The end is nigh in “Children of Men,” the superbly directed political thriller by Alfonso Cuarón about a nervously plausible future. It’s 2027, and the human race is approaching the terminus of its long goodbye. Cities across the globe are in flames, and the “siege of Seattle” has entered Day 1,000. In a permanent war zone called Britain, smoke pours into the air as illegal immigrants are swept into detainment camps. It’s apocalypse right here, right now — the end of the world as we knew and loved it, if not nearly enough.

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?
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reading others words

bhupinder on César Aira's Life of a Landscape Painter - It has certainly been one of the more unexpectedly wonderful books I came across this year, elegant with a dense story that is most poignant when the bolt of lightening strikes Rugendas and transforms him even while deforming his face forever.

Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life in The Fates Conspire Against Us - The Tragic Sense of Life is a book filled with the most visceral philosophy that I have ever read or even heard of. Miguel de Unamuno looks some of the toughest philosophers in the eyes and slaps them, and often the reader at the same time. He smiles at Hegel and says, oh, yes, “The great framer of definitions, who attempted to reconstruct the Universe with definitions, is like the artillery sergeant who said that a cannon was made by taking a hole and enclosing it in steel.”

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Book Review: The Natural Order of Things by Antonio Lobo Antunes

In the early part of the century, authors like Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and James Joyce cobbled together difficult masterpieces out of shifting narrators and changing time sequences. After World War II, this method fell out of favor, but a Portuguese novel recently translated into English pays homage to the technique--and throws in a dose of magical realism for good measure.

In The Natural Order of Things, Antonio Lobo Antunes traces the complex multigenerational fortunes of two families that are haunted by their pasts. The book opens with the rambling nighttime reminiscences of a middle-aged man as he lies in bed next to a much younger, diabetic woman. It's clear that this is no easy relationship. As the man pathetically puts it, "Whenever I talk about myself, you shrug your shoulders, twist your mouth and stretch your eyelids in disdain and mocking wrinkles appear behind your blond bangs, so that I finally shut up."

In the ensuing chapters, the narration is taken over in alternating segments by a bitter, elderly man and an army officer who is arrested and tortured. And that's just in part one. Future chapters introduce us to a feisty prostitute and her pimp, and an illegitimate girl who is locked up by her father. The author doesn't exactly make all this narrative juggling easy to keep track of. When the speaker jumps, abruptly, in midparagraph, time shifts too, taking a reader across several decades and from modern-day Lisbon to Africa. (The relative obscurity of Portuguese history serves as an additional obstacle.) Only in the final 50 pages or so--or more likely, on a second read--will the careful reader be able to cobble together the pieces of this genealogical puzzle and construct the web that ties all these main characters together.
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Book Review: The Obstacles by Eloy Urroz

The Obstacles is the first novel translated into English by Mexican writer Eloy Urroz, who is one of five Mexican writers who took part in writing the Crack Manifesto--a manifesto which declares its signatories against the Latin American literary tradition of Magical Realism. The Obstacles is the story of two writers, Elias and Ricardo, who live in different towns and are writing novels about each other (and each other's city). Both writers are also searching for love, whether it be through violence, religion, abstinence, or more traditional venues.
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Interview with Eloy Urroz

Theodore McDermott: The Obstacles is, in a lot of ways, a coming-of-age story, but it’s also an incredibly ambitious—and achieved—book. How old were you when you wrote it?
Eloy Urroz: I started The Obstacles after finishing Las leyes que el amor elige (1993), my first novel. So I wrote it between ‘93 and ‘95, more or less, while I was getting my BA at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). It was first published in 1996 in Mexico and then reissued in Spain in 2002. For the second edition, I polished it a lot. I guess I was 26 or 27 years old when I first wrote it.
And yes, in a lot of ways it is a coming-of-age story. It resembles, for example, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, in that the search for love is a central theme, and—again like Flaubert’s novel, as well as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man—one of the central rites of passage a protagonist undergoes concerns his love for a prostitute who becomes, through that love, the object of a desperate desire. The characters Federico Ross, Ricardo Urrutia, and Elias are all seeking love and not getting it. Read More

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Interview with Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Guillermo Cabrera Infante was born in Gíbara, in the Province of Oriente, Cuba, in 1929. One of the best-known writers of the “Boom,” his name nevertheless does not appear in the 1980 Dictionary of Cuban Literature, published by the Institute of Literature and Linguistics of the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Cabrera Infante is the founder of the Cinemateca de Cuba, the Cuban Film Library, which he directed from 1951 to 1956. In 1954, under the pen name G. Caín, he began writing film reviews for the weekly magazine Carteles, for which he later served as editor-in-chief between 1957 and 1960. In 1959, he became director of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolución until it was banned by the government in 1961.
In 1962, Cabrera Infante entered the diplomatic service as Cuba’s Cultural Attaché to Belgium. In 1965, however, he chose political exile and moved to London, where he has been living ever since with his wife, the former actress Miriam Gómez, whom he married in 1961.
Cabrera Infante is known for his puns and his experiments with the language. With a keen sense of humor, which he hides behind a straight face, he views writing as a game: “For me, literature is a complex game, both mental and concrete, which is acted out in a physical manner on the page.” He categorically rejects the term “novelist,” and insists on the fact that he is a writer of fragmentary tales which reflect the history of Cuba and the life of prerevolutionary Havana.
Among his many works are Así en la paz como en la guerra (In War and Peace), 1960; Un oficio del siglo veinte (A Twentieth Century Job, 1991), 1963; Tres tristes tigres, 1965 (Three Trapped Tigers, 1971), for which he received the 1964 Biblioteca Breve Prize of Barcelona and the 1970 French Prize for Best Foreign Book; Vista del amanecer en el trópico, 1974 (View of Dawn in the Tropics, 1978); 0, 1975; Exorcismos de esti(l)o (Exorcisms and Exercises in Style), 1976; Arcadia todas las noches (Arcadia Every Night), 1978; La Habana para un infante difunto, 1979 (Infante’s Inferno, 1984); and Holy Smoke, 1985. This last work is Cabrera Infante’s first book written in English, which makes him a Cuban-born British writer. He has repeatedly said, “I am the only British writer who writes in Spanish.” This work is another play on words, as it recounts the history of cigars and cigar smokers. Writing began for Cabrera Infante as a joke, but it has become akin to a drug which possesses him, the writer now says.
A new unexpurgated Spanish edition of Three Trapped Tigers is scheduled for publication in Venezuela in 1989. It will restore the twenty-two sections that were censored from the first edition.
The following two interviews were held in 1980 and 1984, in New York.
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Abelardo Castillo

A little text from Argentine author Abelardo Castillo from the Barcelona Review.
If Ernesto got wind of the fact that she had come back (because she had come back), I never knew, but the fact is that not long after he went to stay at El Tala, and all that summer, we only saw him once or twice.
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Abelardo Castillo is the founder of the literary reviews El Grillo de Papel (which later continued as El Escarabajo de Oro) and El ornitorrinco. He has written novels and drama, but above all is known for his short stories, characterized by a subtle narrative tension.
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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Patagonia

A text from Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda.

We were in southern Argentina, not far from El Bolsón, a picturesque town on the border between the provinces of Río Negro and El Chubut. The giant poplars sheltering the cemetery bent in the wind. Their foliage formed a huge dome over all who rested there, people who had come to this southern tip of the world with their dreams, ambitions, hopes, plans, loves and hates - the basic ingredients of our brief passage on earth. These polyglot people in their different costumes had come from all over the world only to end up in this forsaken, windswept cemetery, united through eternity in the universal language of death.
A man lent on a tombstone, replacing a few dry flowers. A cigarette dangled from his lips.
"They say Martin Sheffields is buried here," I opened.
"The sheriff. Yeah, that no-good is here all right."
He could have been any age. His face, tanned by wind and sun, was inscrutable.
"Do you know where his grave is?" I insisted.
"Sure, but we can’t rush him. They buried him with his Colts in his hands. In a bad mood the bastard could blast us to hell," he answered, and led the way.
Martin Sheffields arrived in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. He spoke a rough and ready Tex-Mex Spanish. His only possessions were two magnificent Colt revolvers, slung low on his hips, a well-harnessed white horse with a fine Texas saddle, and a sheriff’s star pinned to his breast. He was straight out of Marcial Lafuente Estefania’s westerns (1).
"He’s down there," said the man, pointing to an unnamed grave, "and I hope he stays put."
It was covered with a layer of beaten, almost petrified red earth, adorned by a single plastic daisy with scorched petals. Not much to mark the last resting place of a great Patagonian legend.
Sheffields probably died in 1939. No one knows for sure. Several biographies based on hearsay have been written by authors who appropriated the history of the region. But in Patagonia, legends, myths and truths change with the wind and history is a narrative genre indifferent to chronology and objective facts (2), an excuse to embroider a fireside tale over a glass of maté.
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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Interview with Julio Cortazar

Evelyn Picon Garfield:Let's begin with some general questions. How would you characterize your writing within the context of a literary generation in Argentina and in Latin America?

Julio Cortázar: The question is somewhat ambiguous because there are many ways to belong to a generation. I suppose you are referring to a strictly literary generation. Let's leave Latin America aside until later since the Argentine panorama is complicated enough. In order to understand generations you must have distanced yourself in time because while you are experiencing that generational context, you don't realize it. I mean that when I began to write, or rather publish in 1950, I wasn't aware of any generational context. I was able to discern some strengths, writers I admired in Argentina and others I detested; but now, twenty-five years later, I believe I'll be able to say a few intelligent words about it. The first part of my work is situated along extremely intellectual lines, the short stories, Beastiary for example. It is rather logical to imagine that in the fifties I was inclined towards the most refined and cultured writers, and to some extent influenced by foreign literatures, that is European, above all English and French. It is necessary to mention Borges, at once, because fortunately for me, his was not a thematic or idiomatic influence but rather a moral one. He taught me and others to be rigorous, implacable in our writing, to publish only what was accomplished literature. It is important to point this out because, in that period, Argentina was very unkempt in literary matters. There was little rigor, little self-criticism. Someone as extra ordinary as Roberto Arlt, the opposite of Borges in every sense, was not at all self-critical. Perhaps for the best, since self-criticism might have rendered his writing sterile. His language is untidy, full of stylistic errors, weak. But it has an enormous creative force. Borges has less creative energy in that sense, but he compensates for it with an intellectual reflection of a quality and refinement that for me was unforgettable. And so I automatically leaned towards that hyper-intellectual bent in Argentina. But it is all ambivalent because at the same time I had discovered Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt, populist writers. You know the division between the Florida and Boedo groups. I had also discovered those in Boedo. And what I called "force," a moment ago, impressed me. So, for example, the whole "porteno" side of city life in the short stories of Bestiary, I owe--not as a direct influence but rather as rich themes--to Roberto Arlt. Because despite all that has been said about Borges' Buenos Aires--a fantastic, invented Buenos Aires--that Buenos Aires does exist but it is far from being all that the city is. Arlt perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons and saw a Buenos Aires to live in and stroll through, to love in and suffer in, while Borges saw a Buenos Aires of mythic destinies, of a metaphysical mother and eternity. So you see, my place in that generation--which is not mine but the previous one--at the same time fulfills a kind of moral, ethical obedience to Borges' great lesson, and a teluric, sensual, erotic (as you like) obedience to Roberto Arlt. There are many examples, of course, but this one should give you an idea of what I mean. Others in my generation followed similar paths at times, but I know of no one else who simultaneously encompassed those two poles. There were pseudo-Borgeseans who produced an imitative literature.
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Monday, December 18, 2006

Interview with Laura Restrepo

I had never conducted an interview via e-mail before my conversation with the Colombian author Laura Restrepo; therefore, I wasn't prepared to get answers that had the quality of polished writing. Because Restrepo's answers are lengthy and rich in anecdote, I missed not being able to interject whenever she wrote about a subject that I wanted to know more about. That's perhaps the main reason why the resulting interview reads, I think, like a memoir—an evocative recreating of Restrepo's fascinating life. What I hope also comes across in Restrepo's responses is that she has been creating, slowly and deliberately, a remarkably consistent body of work that reflects her singular preoccupations with politics and history. Although relatively unknown in the United States, she will be better known and appreciated as more of her books begin to appear, and the magnitude of what she has achieved becomes clear to all. It is Restrepo's ferocity of vision, her love of language, of storytelling and of innovation, that have made her one of the most accomplished writers to emerge from Latin America since the glorious and distant days of the "boom."
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On the creation of a Colombian national identity through crime fiction

An article by Colombian author Santiago Gamboa.

According to Balzac, a "real novelist" must "plumb the depths of society, because the novel is no less than the secret history of nations." Balzac's observation about the power of fiction to reveal social truth applies with particular force to a country like Colombia, whose reality has been so distorted by its official history. History is typically written by the victors, so it tends to be blind before horrors committed by its authors while exaggerating the misdeeds of others. In many Latin American countries, history functions as just another podium for self-aggrandizing elites.

On the other side stands civil society—a society that suffers history, often in silence, a society to which so much is promised and so little delivered, a society that goes to the voting booth every four years with growing disenchantment, a society that suffers the dreams of its supposed prophets.
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Interview with Leonardo Padura

An interview with Cuban mistery writer Leonardo Padura.

After years of success across Europe, the detective novels of Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes have finally started to appear in English.
This spring, two novels featuring his charismatic policeman Lieutenant Mario Conde are being published in Britain.
The first, Adios Hemingway (Canongate) has already been critically well received. The second, Havana Red (Bitter Lemon Press) has just been published.
Until Padura began writing detective novels in the early 1990s, the genre in revolutionary Cuba was a medium through which an attempt had been made at using it to inculcate the masses in the correct mode of behaviour in a socialist society.
Borrowing heavily from formulas adopted in the former socialist bloc of eastern Europe, the Cuban genre had some successes, but these were outstanding because they shone amid a mass of mediocrity.
All too often, anodyne policemen chased predictable CIA infiltrators and sympathisers in hackneyed plots that held little suspense.
Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the real world that sustained this fictional counterpart disappeared and the way was clear for a revitalisation of the genre.
In stepped Padura with his four novels Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons), all set in 1989, the cataclysmic year in which the Berlin Wall came down.
Just as in 1930s US, when Dashiell Hammett transformed the detective story from the genteel drawing room mysteries that had been popular in the prosperous 1920s into the hard-boiled thrillers more befitting the gangster age, Padura has brought about a similar genre shift in Cuba.
Padura's Lieutentant Conde is a divorcee and a drinker with a heavy sense of irony who tracks down corrupt officials and home-grown crooks in a familiar Havana - of crumbling buildings, street girls and shortages.
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Review: Babel

As we wait for the result of the 7 Golden Globes nominations, here's another review of Guillermo Arriaga's Babel.

The third film from the writer-director team of Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel displays neither the ingenuity of Amores Perros nor the cohesiveness of 21 Grams. Like those earlier films, it focuses on a series of seemingly unrelated events - in this case, involving four families in four countries - that end up being connected to one another in ways that aren't immediately clear. Also like the two earlier films, it purposefully jumbles its narrative, unfolding its story in seemingly random fashion, without regard to chronology (although each story thread is told chronologically, the timelines don't match each other) or any other convention.
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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Interview with Manuel Puig

This interview with Manuel Puig took place during a weekend in September 1979, after he was part of a Congress of Hispanic-American Writers in Medellin, Colombia. Other participants in the event were Camilo Jose Cela, winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Mexican short-story writer and novelist Juan Rulfo.

JC: What role does the reader play in your work? Are you aware of a future reader when you write a novel? Has the reader's taste ever influenced the way you constructed a book?

MP: Whenever I write, I'm always thinking of the reader. I write for somebody who has my own limitations. My reader has a certain difficulty with concentrating, which in my case comes from being a film viewer. That's why I don't request any special efforts in the act of reading.
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The Mirror of Lida Sal by Miguel Angel Asturias

"The Mirror of Lida Sal," by Miguel Angel Asturias, is a noteworthy piece of 20th century fiction by a giant of Guatemalan literature. Subtitled "Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends," this volume has been translated into English by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert. Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) is one of the notable literary figures in Latin America who in the 1920s contrived both to explore and to define Latin literature within the mainstream of Western history. He managed to be poetic, political and mythological at the same time, and with a degree of synthesis rarely achieved then or since. In this book, Asturias draws upon Central American history and culture to create several fascinating short pieces. His style (as I read it through Alter-Gilbert's translation) is psychedelic and florid; Asturias mixes realistic and fantastic elements throughout the book. The result is comparable to a prose version of the paintings of Spanish artist Salvador Dali.
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I Gave You All I Had by Zoe Valdes

Zoe Valdes's rambunctious new novel is an appetizingly rich stew, full of the varied flavors of Latin culture -- part bolero, part Brazilian soap opera, with hints of the nostalgia of Oscar Hijuelos and the nutty adrenaline of Pedro Almodovar, not to mention the acrobatic literary abandon of Valdes's fellow Cuban expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Set in Cuba from the swinging 1950's to the grim periodo especial of the 1990's and exuberantly translated by Nadia Benabid, ''I Gave You All I Had'' is a sumptuous story of love and sorrow, a story that -- like so much in Valdes's native country -- is both personal and political.

Valdes's heroine, Cuca Martinez, is a spindly Cinderella born in 1934 in the provincial city of Santa Clara. At the age of 16, she flees to Havana and falls painfully in love with Juan Perez, a smooth operator with two unfortunate attributes: bad breath and mob ties. Even more unfortunately, Juan will vanish after a brief but chaste encounter, only to reappear eight years later as a nightclub impresario and sometime manager of Edith Piaf (an example, we're told, of ''intelligence and sensuality rolled into one, and when those two things meet in one woman, you might as well . . . head for the exit quick or you're a goner'').
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Interview with Zoé Valdés

"To identify as gay or lesbian in Cuba," according to Zoe Valdes, a Cuban novelist and poet who now lives in exile, "is to declare political dissidence. It is equivalent to publishing a manifesto against the government." Though she's heterosexual, Valdes is just the woman to take that challenge. "My brother is gay, my sister's a lesbian, and me, I love the whole world," she says. Gustavo, her brother, translates from Spanish as Valdes takes a sip from her frappuccino on one of New York City's hottest summer afternoons.

She flashes Gustavo a smile, looking at him affectionately with her deep-green eyes as she feeds him her next line. It's an inside joke between them, and they laugh with the intimacy of kinship and the relief of distance from the subject at hand. Gustavo is at the tail end of a giggle when he translates what she said: "In Cuba the gathering of more than three people is considered a conspiracy. But the gathering of three or four gays and lesbians is considered an American invasion."

There is no American invasion in Valdes's astonishing new novel, Dear First Love (translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley, HarperCollins, $23.95)--her third to be published in English. But based on this joke, it comes awfully close by Castro's standards, with two lesbians as the main characters. But Valdes will not let anything compromise her writing. At one point Valdes came this close to being punished for signing a book contract with a French publisher without the permission of the government--one of the "crimes" that landed gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in jail. "When I lived in Cuba," she tells me, "I didn't even know he'd been in jail. That's how restrictive they were with information."
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The Movies of My Life by Alberto Fuguet

Three reviews of Alberto Fuguet's The Movies of My Life.

In a recent issue of Context, the Center for Book Culture's print forum, its publisher John O'Brien scrawled across the back page a passionate essay concerning the lack of literary translations in America. He claims it was not his intent to "argue whether there should be more translations," but rather to investigate why there are so few. Still, the former is as much a part of the argument as the latter, leading O'Brien to call the dearth of translations a "cultural travesty."

Soon after reading this essay I picked up the recently translated Movies of My Life by Alberto Fuguet, a purportedly somewhat autobiographical novel about a young boy born in Chile, raised through early childhood in Southern California, then returned to Chile for the rest of his years. Now a renowned seismologist, a brief but intense encounter with a female stranger on a plane has caused Beltran Soler to go on a manic writing spree. He sequesters himself in a Los Angeles hotel room when he's due in Japan, inditing essay upon essay about the movies he saw as a child. The essays uniformly end up being about his childhood, not the movies. Ostensibly, he is going to send these essays off to the woman from the plane. And, ostensibly, she is not going to be creeped out by all of this.
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Thirtysomething seismologist Beltrán Soler is en route from Santiago to Tokyo when geological and emotional tremors turn his LAX layover into a psychic archaeological dig. Back in movie-metropolis L.A., where he spent his first decade, he holes up in a Holiday Inn to compose an annotated inventory of the films that, so to speak, rocked his world—the ones he projected onto, slept through, or sought refuge in and has since come to idealize, live out, or simply forget. Title and Hornby-ish fanboy conceit notwithstanding, Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet's The Movies of My Life is less about cinemania than family betrayal. Each film on Beltrán's list—viewed between age two and 16, in Nixon's SoCal or Pinochet's Chile—taps into a pungent nostalgia and a painful recovered memory; this associative exercise resolves into a faded snapshot of the Solers, a diasporic, quake-obsessed clan, itself riven with crevices.
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Chilean author Alberto Fuguet never really wanted to be South American. Born in Santiago, he spent the first 13 years of his childhood in Encino, California, the backyard of the Los Angeles movie industry, expecting to grow up as a first-generation American. When his family moved back to Chile in the mid-1970s, after Pinochet's military dictatorship deposed Salvador Allende's democratically elected socialist government, the experience traumatized him. 'Coming to Chile as an immigrant was going down in every sense of the word for me,' he explains to Críticas. 'From democracy to dictatorship, from first world to third world, from English to Spanish. Spanish wasn't so cool then as it is now. It wasn't the second language of the world.'

It may seem strange for a Latin American novelist to admit such reservations about his mother country, much less his language, but in Fuguet's case, it's par for the course. Ever since McOndo, the ground-breaking anthology he co-edited with Sergio Gómez, came out in 1996, the 39-year-old author has made a career of thumbing his nose at literary conventions, chief among them the idea that all novelists south of the border should be magical realists.
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Interview with Alvaro Mutis

Interview with Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis.
Alvaro Mutis, one of the most beloved and esteemed of Latin American authors in the Spanish-speaking countries and throughout Europe, is not as well known here in the United States.

That's probably because he isn't easy to categorize: neither magic realist nor political novelist nor regionalist nor confectioner of folkloric whimsies. For most of his writing life, his reputation has been as a poet–one forced to earn his living at a variety of professions while making his home in Mexico rather than his native Colombia. The Mexican writer Juan Villoro once remarked that his Latin American generation grew up with the voice of Alvaro Mutis: for years Mutis did the voice-over narration for the Spanish-language version of The Untouchables. In an astonishing burst, from 1986 to 1993, Mutis wrote seven novellas that have been published all over the world, winning major prizes everywhere, including two of Spain's most important literary honors, the Príncipe de Asturias and Reina Sofia (for poetry), in 1997. In the United States, the novellas were published in two collections, Maqroll and The Adventures of Maqroll. Essentially, the novellas follow the enigmatic, eccentrically learned, seductive, eternally transient seaman-adventurer Maqroll, "el Gaviero" (the lookout), and his friends on their tangled exploits, usually outside the margin of the law, through seedy ports and tropical backwaters. The world of Maqroll–though not confined to any one place–is as unique and whole a creation, as much a region of the imagination, as the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez.
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Pedro Juan Gutierrez

A couple of texts from Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.

Claustrophobic Me
For years I’ve been trying to get out from under all the shit that’s been dumped on me. And it hasn’t been easy. If you follow the rules for the first 40 years of your life, believing everything you’re told, after that it’s almost impossible to learn to say "no," "go to hell," or "leave me alone."

But I always manage . . . well, I almost always manage to get what I want. As long as it isn’t a million dollars, or a Mercedes. Though who knows. If I wanted either of those things, I could find a way to have them. In fact, wanting a thing is all that really matters. When you want something badly enough, you’re already halfway there. It’s like that story about the Zen archer who shoots his arrow without looking at the target, relying on reverse logic.

Well, when I started to forget about important things–everyone else’s important things–and think and act a little more for myself, I moved into a difficult phase. And it was like that for years: I was on the margins of everything. In the middle of a balancing act. Always on the edge of a precipice. I was moving on to the next stage of the adventure we call life. At the age of 40, there’s still time to abandon routines, fruitless and boring worries, and find another way to live. It’s just that hardly anybody dares. It’s safer to stick to your rut until the bitter end. I was getting tougher. I had three choices: I could either toughen up, go crazy, or commit suicide. So it was easy to decide: I had to be tough.
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Buried in Shit

In those days, I was pursued by nostalgia. I always had been, and I didn't know how to free myself so I could live in peace.
I still haven't learned. And I suspect I never will. But at least I do know something worthwhile now: it's impossible to free myself from nostalgia because it's impossible to be freed from memory. It's impossible to be freed from what you have loved.
All of that will always be a part of you. The yearning to relive the good will always be just as strong as the yearning to forget and destroy memories of the bad, erase the evil you've done, obliterate the memory of people who've harmed you, eliminate your disappointments and your times of unhappiness.
It's entirely human, then, to be engulfed in nostalgia and the only solution is to learn to live with it. Maybe, if we're lucky, nostalgia can be transformed from something sad and depressing into a little spark that sends us on to something new, into the arms of a new lover, a new city, a new era, which, no matter whether it's better or worse, will be different. And that's all we ask each day: not to squander our lives in loneliness, to find someone, to lose ourselves a little, to escape routine, to enjoy our piece of the party.
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Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (b. 1950 in Matanzas) is a Cuban journalist, writer and artist.
Gutiérrez began to work selling ice cream and newspapers when he was eleven years old. He was a soldier, swimming and kayak instructor, agricultural worker, technician in construction, technical designer, radio speaker and journalist for 26 years. He is a painter, sculptor and author of several poetry books. He lives in Havana. He is the author of Dirty trilogy of Havana, King of Havana, Tropical animal (winner of the Spanish Prize Alfonso Garcia-Ramos 2000), The insatiable spiderman, Dog meat (Italian prize Narrativa Sur del Mundo), Our GG in Havana and the short stories of Melancholy of lions. Dirty trilogy of Havana, Tropical animal and The insatiable spiderman have been translated into English.
Named master of "dirty realism", Gutiérrez depicts life in the shady alleys of Havana with his unadorned style. Without taking any political stance, his books describe contemporary Cuba in an unembellished way. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Jorge Luis Borges' Rare manuscripts lost, then found

A three-week scramble to find two handwritten manuscripts by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges worth nearly $1 million ended on Monday when they were discovered in the bookstore that had reported them missing.
Lame Duck Books, a seller of rare books, art and manuscripts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had reported the short story manuscripts missing and presumed stolen after they were last seen on November 12 at an antiquarian book fair in Germany.
"By strange chance we've located the manuscripts today. They had been tucked behind the backing of a photograph that was inside a little plastic sheath that was in one of our manuscript files when we were at the book fair," John Wronoski, Lame Duck's owner, told Reuters.
The global police network Interpol, which fights international crime, had been notified along with police in Harvard Square in Cambridge, where the bookstore had previously held them locked in a safe.
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The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Don Felisberto Fernandes, a piano tuner, arrives at the secluded villa of the malevolent Dr. Droz to find that there are no pianos. It seems Droz has hired him to tune a set of musical automata in preparation for some macabre final performance. The Quay Brothers’ latest film, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, traces Felisberto’s efforts to understand Droz’s evil scheme. At night Felisberto is haunted by the sound of a wordless, yearning voice. What is this singing, he wonders—is it a dream? “Well, it was certainly beautiful,” he decides. Assunta, the housekeeper, assures him: “After a while, you get used to the confusion.”
Piano Tuner is the Quay Brothers’ second full-length, live action feature. Like their first—1994’s Institute Benjamenta—it plays like an animated film made with actors rather than puppets. Currently in limited release in theaters (including, in New York, Cinema Village), Piano Tuner is not so much a movie. The earlier term “moving picture” better captures Piano Tuner: a series of images tied loosely together by a narrative idea. The experience of watching a Quay Brothers film may be likened to dreaming, but it more closely approximates living in someone else’s dream. Like Felisberto (played by the wide-eyed Cesar Sarachu), you just have to get used to the confusion.
The Quays talk a lot about the influence of Kafka and other Eastern European writers; The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer is an homage to the Czech animator by that name, and Street of Crocodiles adapts a story by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz. Ultimately those films feel empty, as though the Quays thought they were taking part in an imagined generic Eastern European aesthetic. Thankfully, they explore new territory with Piano Tuner. A key reference point is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the plot is influenced by stories by Jules Verne and the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares. Their themes—animation and reanimation, the line between wakefulness and sleep, navigating confusion—remain the same. So does their curious unwillingness to delve into the many questions they raise.
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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Love in the Time of Cholera on Location

British director Mike Newell faces the greatest challenge of his career: bringing a masterwork of 20th-century Latin American fiction to Hollywood from a land better known for drugs and guerrillas. Newell just wrapped filming for "Love in the Time of Cholera," the first English-language screen adaptation of a work by Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel García Márquez. From the two-year struggle to acquire film rights from the notoriously protective author to the commercially risky casting of foreign lead actors to crises in filming on location, the making of the movie has been anything but easy.
Then again, neither were the 51 years, nine months, and four days that lead character Florentino Ariza famously waited in the novel for his true love. In the end, it was worth it for Ariza, and Newell and Hollywood producer Scott Steindorff are betting their travails will pay off in the authenticity of the adaptation -- and at the box office.
For the last three months, Newell, Steindorff, and a polyglot cast and crew have taken over the steamy Caribbean port of Cartagena, a little-known colonial gem of leafy, hidden patios and turreted city walls where a great part of the novel is set. They transformed cobbled squares into painstaking re - creations of the 1880s and the 1930s. They turned a commercial tugboat into a replica of a 19th - century paddle steamer. They designed makeup to span five decades and withstand 90-degree heat and humidity.
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Juan Rulfo 2006 Award

Cuban writer Miguel Barnet won the Juan Rulfo 2006 award for his short story Fatima o el Parque de Fraternidad.
Barnet, Cuba's 1994 National Literary award winner, defeated another 6,000 contenders with the story of a transvestite he met at a park in Havana, and earned 9,000 euros.
The award for the best short novel El Punto se Desborda went to Spaniard Jose Antonio Lopez Hidalgo, while Venezuelan Julio Armando Estrada Nebreda won the prize for best photography.
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Monday, December 11, 2006

Spanish Cinema Now

Presented in collaboration with the Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA) of the Spanish Ministry of Culture, the Instituto Cervantes of New York and the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX).

2006 should go down as a banner year for Spanish cinema; the great international success of Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth set the pace, together providing powerful evidence that daring, imaginative works can still attract broad audiences. This year’s selection for Spanish Cinema Now shows in its breadth of styles and subjects how Spanish filmmakers refuse to rest on the tried and true, continuing instead to work out news forms of expression. Agustín Díaz Yanes’s Alatriste, based on the series by Pérez-Reverte, offers a different kind of swordsman-hero, more brooding and pensive in actor Viggo Mortensen’s interpretation. Celia’s Lives, directed by leading producer Antonio Chavarrías, is an effective updating of film noir, while Esteve Riambau and Elisabet Cabeza’s The Magicians interprets a bizarre fantasy-adventure film made during the Spanish Civil War as a true and revealing document of the period. The series also features several extremely impressive debuts, including Daniel Sánchez Arevalo’s wonderful DarkBlueAlmostBlack and Javier Rebollo’s Lola — powerful evidence that the future indeed should be bright for Spanish Cinema Now!

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The program includes:

  • Dark Blue Almost Black (Azul Oscuro Casi Negro), directed by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, 2006; 105m
  • Crossing the Border (Un Franco, 14 pesetas), directed by Carlos Iglesias, 2006; 105m
    Celia's Celia's Lives (Las vidas de Celia), directed by Antonio Chavarrías, 2006; 101m
  • Alatriste, directed by Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006; 135m
  • Welcome Home (Bienvenido a casa), directed by David Trueba, 2006; 118m
  • The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks (La Torre de los siete jorobados), directed by Edgar Neville, 1944; 90m
  • Life Hanging by a Thread (La vida en un hilo), directed by Edgar Neville, 1945; 92m
    The Night of the Sunflowers (La Noche de los girasoles), directed by Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo, 2006; 123m
  • Lady Nitwit (La dama boba), directed by Manuel Iborra, 2006; 98m
  • Quixotic (Honor de Cavelleria), directed by Albert Serra, 2006; 111m
  • Tirant Lo Blanc – The Maidens' Conspiracy (Tirante El Blanco), directed by Vicente Aranda, Spain/Italy/U.K., 2006; 120m.

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The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas

Success as a writer arrives at last - with a novel which resembles exactly Cercas's own acclaimed Soldiers of Salamis - but because it seems so arbitrary, it brings with it no self-confidence. Instead it turns him into a narcissistic womaniser who alienates then loses his wife and child. By the end of his war with himself, his life is as ruined as Rodney's: all he can do now is tell the story he couldn't tell before, and in doing so tell his own. An event becomes story only when someone has a use for it. The writer hopes to validate himself by becoming his friend's voice; he hopes to save himself - from being a lifetime wannabe, a ghost, a moral and emotional failure in his own eyes - by identifying and strengthening the parallels between their experience.

His tone throughout is calm and busily discursive. In his attempts to understand his relationship with Rodney (not to say his relationship with himself) he draws in everything from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song to a poem by Malcolm Lowry. To begin with, this seems emotionally uninformative. He describes people very clearly - "a Cuban American, well-built, enthusiastic, with a gleaming smile and slicked-back hair"; "a very well read, ironic, slightly haughty guy, who dressed with a meticulousness not entirely free of affectation" - but we don't see anyone or feel anything. And though we know that this is a novel about writing novels, its discussions of fiction soon become as boring as the intellectual landscape of Urbana. For nearly a hundred pages, it's an academic discourse, a book written with intelligence and humour but without sensation. Then Cercas takes us with Rodney to Vietnam, and everything explodes. Ironically enough, though we are now at the heart of the lie of narration, the point where things are at their most written, their most constructed, we begin to travel at the speed of light. As Rodney says, echoing all those grunts so ably ventriloquised by Michael Herr in Dispatches, "war lets you go very far and very fast".

The Speed of Light will vie with Daniel Pennac's The Dictator and the Hammock for the title of tricksiest Euronovel of 2006. But while Cercas has credible enough reasons for encouraging the content to sleep with the presentation, he understands that it's possible to be bored by this romance; and while he's as interested in the fictional hall of mirrors as any postmodern, unlike Pennac he is careful not to be blinded by his own conceits. Forget the biographical conundrum, because that's just a way of teasing us with what we already know about narrators and narration; what saves The Speed of Light from being the template writing-class novel is its humanity. Like Soldiers of Salamis, it's an intricate, male exploration of guilt, monsterhood and authenticity, the impossibility of redemption and the plausibility of self-forgiveness.
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

It has taken a while for this novel to find its way into English. The Seven Madmen was first published in Argentina in 1929. Its author, Roberto Arlt (1900-42), was a disheveled Buenos Aires journalist who defiantly disregarded the rules of Spanish grammar and the finer sensibilities of critics. They in turn hooted at his work, which included four novels, two collections of stories and eight plays. The author once mordantly mimicked the typical response of his detractors: "Mr. Roberto Arlt keeps on in the same old rut: realism in the worst possible taste."

If anyone ever actually believed that this novel was realistic, then life in the Argentine capital must once have been unimaginably weird. True, the trappings of proletarian fiction are all roughly in place—lowlife taverns, brothels and urban rot: "The setting sun lit up the most revolting inner recesses of the sloping street." But the anti-hero who stumbles through this landscape is a perversely comic invention. Remo Erdosain collects bills for a sugar company and engages in petty embezzlement. He also writhes in noisy anguish at a world that can ignore his true genius. "Didn't they call me crazy," he asks an acquaintance, "because I said they should set up shops to dry-clean and dye dogs and metallize shirt cuffs?" One day, everything gets even worse.
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Friday, December 08, 2006

Pacific Cinematheque's Cine Chile 2006

For the past decade, celebrated Chilean author Alberto Fuguet (The Movies of My Life, Bad Vibes, Shorts, Red Ink) has been a leader in the Latin American literary movement known as McOndo (a name that combines McDonald's with Macondo, the fictional setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude).

McOndo eschews mythical Hispanic villages in favour of condos, Spanglish and Mac computers. And Fuguet's characters are more likely to be disillusioned, globetrotting hipsters than grandmothers who can fly.

Last year, the 42-year-old writer took his revolt against magic realism to the big screen in his directorial debut, For Rent. The gentle drama concerns a failed, thirtysomething composer adrift in a Santiago powered by movers and shakers who were once his less-talented university pals.

The film lit up box offices in the slender republic, and tonight it kicks off the Pacific Cinematheque's Cine Chile 2006 -- a week-long spotlight of movies from that nation's youth wave.
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Books of the year

From this year's The Guardian's selection

Kiran Desai: A new translation of Roberto Bolaño's Distant Star (Harvill), pertinent once again now we're back to discussing the machinery of dictatorship, of institutionalised distrust. This book charts the destruction of bohemian life in Chile, the corruption of poetry.

Hisham Matar: Javier Marias' Written Lives (Canongate) is a wonderfully luxurious collection of short biographical pieces on authors the Spanish writer so clearly enjoys evoking. Marias's gaze is affectionate, humorous and penetrating.

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La Malinche and Inés Suárez

For centuries both women have been reviled as collaborators in Spanish conquests of the new world that verged on genocide. La Malinche was an Aztec turncoat who helped Hernán Cortés conquer Mexico; Inés Suárez was a Spanish seamstress who joined another conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, in slaughtering the inhabitants of Chile.

Now two of Latin America’s female literary giants, Laura Esquivel and Isabel Allende, have come to the rescue by writing novels casting them as misunderstood heroines who could be role models for today’s women.

Some critics have balked at the revisionism, saying the novels gloss over the rape and savage subjugation that accompanied the 16th century colonial invasions of Central and South America.
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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Natural Order of Things by Antonio Lobo Antunes

The natural choice after reading José Saramago is to read António Lobo Antunes, another leading Portuguese writer with several novels already available in English translations. Reading these two novelists, as well as João de Melo, gives the impression that there is some very exciting fiction coming out of Portugal. The Natural Order of Things is a novel in which the very theme is the coexistence, or simultaneity, of the past and the present, and of the real and the unreal. Antunes’s technical skill in getting this across is alone worth looking at. Among other stylistic feats, he writes amazing sentences in which two scenes, years apart in time, take place at once. He is compared to Nabokov, among others, for the time shifts, the song-like riffs and the very particular repetitions which are also reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
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32nd Huelva Ibero-American Film Festival

As the 32nd Huelva Ibero-American Film Festival headed into its final stretch, Francisco Vargas' "The Violin," Jorge Duran's "Forbidden to Forbid" and Juan Carlos Valdivia's "American Visa" figured as favorites to take top plaudits at Huelva's kudofest.

In his first edition as Huelva fest director, Eduardo Trias put together a strong competition with three lesser-known competish titles also currying good buzz: Alejandro Doria's healing priest drama "The Hands," Santiago Loza's femme friendship story "4 Women, Barefoot," and Chilean Alberto Fuguet's frustrated musician tale "For Rent."

Playing out-of-competish, fest opener, flamenco musical comedy "Por que se frotan las patitas?," went over strongly on its world preem last Saturday.

"Visa" and "Hands" also figure among the six nominations announced at Huelva for best foreign Spanish language film at January's Goya Awards.

Other contenders are Mexican docu "In the Pit," Chile's sex drama "In Bed," Ecuador's road movie "How Much Further" and Colombia's foreign-lingo Oscar candidate "A Ton of Luck."
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The Republic of Poetry by Martín Espada

What sort of place is "The Republic of Poetry"? As portrayed in the title poem of Martín Espada's dynamic eighth collection, it's a place where poets eat for free in restaurants, where "poets rent a helicopter/ to bombard the national palace/ with poems on bookmarks," and where the "the guard at the airport/ will not allow you to leave the country/ until you declaim a poem for her/ and she says Ah! Beautiful."
While such a land might sound like a fanciful literature-loving utopia, what's described here is the very real republic of Chile -- to which the poem is dedicated, and whose culture and recent history provide the lion's share of inspiration for the book. Yet Chile is not the only muse here: The book's three sections provide a triptych of metaphorical "republics" of poetry, including the poetry of elegy -- where both the past and the dead are visited -- and the poetry of protest. Throughout, poetry is shown to bear the power to dissolve, reshape and illuminate the borders of time and place.

Espada, a Brooklyn native whose parents hailed from Puerto Rico, has long been inspired by Latin American poetry (of which he is a widely published translator), and most especially by Chile's most esteemed and extraordinary poet, Pablo Neruda. Today Espada teaches courses on Neruda, along with creative writing classes, as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And in his own poetry (for which he has won the American Book Award), he often seems to work in the tradition of Neruda, displaying a vibrant, far-reaching and distinctively openhearted imagination on matters both political and personal.
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Lower City directed by Sergio Machado

Let's face it, love triangles can be a drag on film. The sex might be diverting but two guys fighting over the same girl (it's almost never the other way round) usually means there's no real love story. The blokes are too busy with their cockfight. It's a phallocentric form.

Lower City is a bit different. It does have both a real (simulated) and metaphoric cockfight, but it also encompasses three corners of a bruising and compelling love story. It's a brilliantly fresh, immediate and intimate film from a young Brazilian director who is announcing his arrival. It's also quite sexy.

Sergio Machado is 38, from Bahia, the most African of the Brazilian states.

He has worked with Walter Salles since being recommended by the great novelist Jorge Amado, whose books made Bahia famous. Salles (who made The Motorcycle Diaries) produced Lower City, which is set mostly in Salvador, the Bahian capital.
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The trailer is available here.
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In the National Board of Review Awards, held yesterday, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver", which swept the European Film Awards at the start of the week, won best foreign language film.
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reading others' words

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel as seen by edify. Babel is a difficult and challenging experience, and doubt I'll ever watch it again, but I don't really need to; it stays with you and never lets go.


DC's found some Juan Goytisolo's fans, quoting Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Edmund White and Orhan Pamuk.


Mantex on Alejo Carpentier - His literary style is a wonderful combination of dazzling images and a rich language, full of the technical jargon of whatever subject he touches on - be it music, architecture, painting, history, or agriculture.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Almodovar's colors

An article about Viva Pedro! festival, a retrospective of Almodovar's films, and the predominance of Red

Attending this month's Pedro Almodovar film festival will have you seeing red.

Not from anger, disillusionment or disappointment. Far from it.

Literal red. The brilliant Spanish director's movies are awash in the color, symbolically used to evoke revenge, murder and, most of all, passion.

In "The Flower of My Secret," a woman's sexy red dress at once captures her physical desire and her bottomless desperation. In "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," a scorned woman's smart red pantsuit signals her determination to get even.

In "Matador," a fantastic yet overlooked thriller, the action culminates with lovers completing a murder-suicide pact, their nude bodies collapsing onto a bed of crimson bullfighter's capes at the moment a solar eclipse turns the Castillian countryside the shade of blood.

The bold use of color is just one of the many stylistic ticks you pick up when you watch Almodovar's best films back to back. And that's what makes Cinema 21's two-week Viva Pedro! festival particularly enticing. The double-feature screenings that begin Friday (and precede the Dec. 22 opening of Almodovar's latest, "Volver") span two decades of work, pairing the director's hits with lesser-known rarities. Seeing these eight films during the course of days, not years, you notice artistic brushstrokes and recurring themes that might otherwise get lost.
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Lola Alvarez Bravo by Elizabeth Ferrer

Lola Alvarez Bravo did not set out to be the "first woman photographer" of Mexico, but that is how she is remembered today. Wife of Mexico's leading photojournalist Manuel Alvarez Bravo, her influence extends to the latest generation of Mexico's female photographers, many of whom studied under her tutelage. Bravo's contribution is now being acknowledged through an assessment of her work by scholar Elizabeth Ferrer titled Lola Alvarez Bravo.
As photographer, educator, and curator Bravo traveled the country documenting rural areas, indigenous people, and cultural traditions. Her imagery was inspired by "frolicking," she said - a playful description that typifies her approach to her subjects.

Colleagues such as surrealist painters Frida Kahlo and Marie Izquierdo, as well as visits from acclaimed French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, encouraged her to weave both surreal and traditional elements into her work.
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Alfaguara Prize 2007 Jury

Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa will preside to the jury of the 10th edition of the Alfaguara Prize 2007. Like in previous editions, the composition of the rest of the jury will not become public until the award is announced.
From his first edition in 1998, outstanding writers have presided over the Jury of the Alfaguara Prize: Carlos Fuentes, Eduardo Mendoza, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Jorge Semprún, Luis Mateo Ten, Jose Saramago, Manuel Caballero Bonald and Angeles Mastretta.
The Alfaguara Prize is one of the most important literary awards in Spanish language.
Previously awarded authors include, last year's winner Peruvian Santiago Roncagliolo with Abril Rojo, Graciela Montes, Ema Wolf, Laura Restrepo, Xavier Velasco, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Elena Poniatowska, Clara Sánchez, Manuel Vicent.
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Interview with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

An interview with Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu about his last film "Babel", which is tipped for an Oscar.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has become one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood with just three films - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and, now, Babel, perhaps the film he's received the most press for and one that will likely lead him to an Oscar nomination for best director. Part of the recent wave of Mexican directors, including Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, Inarritu is a part of a new era of filmmakers who are willing to challenge viewers to see something new in the medium. As great as Perros and Grams were, Babel is Inarritu's first masterpiece, a fascinating dissection of culture, communication, and crisis in the new millennium.

What attracted studios to Babel

I don't know. I think maybe the [studio] people are tired to be making the same kinds of films. They feel that there's something, that maybe they can bet on some elements. Maybe they feel like the package makes sense and they trust in the elements, like the story, the director, the actors, and the way I pitched them. And, I presented them in a way that they trust. I think all of these people, maybe as you are, are bored, of doing and seeing the same thing. So, I gather that's what drives them, kind of the curiosity about this film.
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Carlos Fuentes presents his new book

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes in an interview to El Tiempo talks about is new book 'Todas las familias felices' (All the happy families). This work is a collection of 16 short stories connected by the presence of a choir remembering the ancient Greek tragedies. About this new book Fuentes tells us that "Each one of this stories tells histories of families, of relationships between man and woman, father and sons, lovers. But they are histories of families who I did not want to remove them from a more collective context. So the choir comes to be the collective voice, the one of without voice. This unites the family stories and gives a greater social resonance to them.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Interview with Juan Goytisolo

A 2002 interview with Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo.

Except for a scattering of dream fragments and apocalyptic fantasies, State of Siege, Juan Goytisolo's eighth novel to be published in the U.S., begins reasonably conventionally. About a quarter of the way through, though, a major in the International Mediation Force, stationed in a Sarajevo-like city under siege, realizes that a letter he is reading "correspond[s] word for word to the contents of the first pages of the present book." From then on in it's all Russian dolls and Chinese boxes, a labyrinth of texts within texts that would have dizzied Borges. Goytisolo's narrative contortionism is not mere postmodern showmanship, but precisely the point—that the reader, like the inhabitants of the besieged city, is "caught in the rattrap," cornered in an epistemological purgatory in which "Reality has been transmuted into fiction: the horror tale of our daily existence!"
Goytisolo, the 71-year-old author of over a dozen novels, is widely considered Spain's finest living writer—somewhat ironically, as he left Franco's Spain in 1956, living in self-imposed exile in Paris and North Africa ever since, where he has remained a harsh critic of contemporary Spanish society. He first visited Sarajevo during the summer of 1993, as a correspondent for El País. The result was his "Sarajevo Notebook" (published here in 2000 as part of the collection Landscapes of War), a series of impressionistic reports describing the horrors of the siege and attacking the international community's non-interventionist policy for its cowardice and hypocrisy. He returned in January 1994 and found that "the situation was more horrible than the first time. It was winter and the cold was terrible." The Serb bombardment of the city was constant. "It was impossible for me to write a second 'Sarajevo Notebook,' " says Goytisolo on the phone from his home in Marrakech, "but my impression was so horrible that I thought that the only way to answer this situation was through literature, and to oppose the truth of fiction to the lies of propaganda."
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Books of the year

The season for the Books of the Year lists is here, and here's the SPLALit selection from the New Statesman list.

Andrey Kurkov

Ruben Gallego's White on Black : a boy's story (John Murray) is an incredible and moving autobiographical novel of a handicapped son of famous Spanish communists who was abandoned in a Soviet special institution for children.

Jonathan Meades

The Moldavian Pimp (Harvill) sketches tango, brothels, Jewish sex traffickers and Buenos Aires in the 1920s. Cozarinsky's shadowy novella is preoccupied with the way that any attempt to exhume this ignominious history - or any other history - is impaired by the accretion of all previous attempts and by the ghosts of those who strayed into the territory.

You can find the full list here

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