Saturday, December 16, 2006

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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