Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Literary Guide to Brazil

Jorge Amado, Brazil's most celebrated novelist, was, like the country, larger than life. His novels ("Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon" and "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" were reissued this past fall by Vintage; "Tent of Miracles" and "Tieta" in 2003 by University of Wisconsin Press) burst with energy -- rollicking, robust, earthy tales from the northeast port cities of Ilheus and Salvador, of worker strikes, rubber booms and busts, and mulatto beauties. (The film versions of "Dona Flor" and "Gabriela," incidentally, are classic '70s softcore fare, starring the sumptuous Sonia Braga.) Amado, embraced in the U.S. during the Latin boom era of the '60s and '70s, had been pumping out hardy, proletarian-style novels since the '30s, though by the '50s they had turned more comic, lighthearted and bawdy.

The late-19th-century author Machado de Assis wrote stylish, whimsical portraits of modern bourgeois life that made him a literary phenomenon of his time (his novels were often first serialized in popular women's magazines). Machado de Assis is an original -- witty, erudite, deft and acrobatic, and endlessly inventive. You'll be won over instantly by his "Epitaph of a Small Winner" (1881), republished in 1997 as "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" by Oxford University Press, and translated by Gregory Rabassa -- a titillating, quasi-philosophical reckoning on a life of missed opportunities, narrated from beyond the grave by the eccentric Brás Cubas himself. De Assis' novels cleverly anticipated the mental games and mazes of major 20th-century writers like Borges, Cortázar and Kafka.

Speaking of Kafka, equally bewitching is the Brazilian-Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, whose modernist, heavily metaphysical works have often been compared to those of the Czech master himself. Lispector, who immigrated to Brazil from a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920 when she was just 2 months old, wrote some of the most lively, raw and dizzying internal soliloquies of the past century. "I shall be as light and vague as something felt rather than understood, I shall transcend myself in waves, oh God, and may everything come and fall on me, even the incomprehension of myself at certain blank moments," she rhapsodizes in her first novel, "Near to the Wild Heart," "for I need only fulfill myself and then nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear; from whatever struggle or truce, I shall arise as strong and comely as a young colt."
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Biblioteca Breve Prize

Spanish writer Juan Manuel de Prada won the Biblioteca Breve Prize, organized by the publishing house Seix Barral, with the novel the "El séptimo velo" (The Seventh Veil), an epic novel, set in World War II, in which the search of identity and the memory play an important role.

Juan Manuel de Prada (born in Baracaldo, 1970) is also the author of "Coños" (1995), "El silencio del patinador" (1995), "Las máscaras del héroe" (1996), "La tempestad" (Planeta Prize in 1997), "Las esquinas del aire" (2000), "Desgarrados y excéntricos" (2001) and "La vida invisible" (2003).

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Sundance turns towards the drama of immigration

"Padre nuestro", directed by Christopher Zalla, won this weekend the Sundance's Grand Jury Prize. The other winner is the film "Manda Bala", produced by Jason Kohn, also inspired by Latin American subjects was awarded better documentary. The cinema with Latin background is unstoppable in the U.S. festivals. To the success of Mexican directors, like Guillermo del Toro, with six Oscar nominations with "Pan's Labyrinth", and of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel" with seven nominations, we add Christopher Zalla with this prize for his first work, which counts the history of a young Mexican who enters the U.S. illegally to look for his father, that he never knew.
In the documentary category, "Manda Bala", Jason Kohn's documentary about the violence and organized crime in Brazil, won the Grand Jury Prize.

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The monsters, it's you and me.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte's interview to Le Monde (In French).

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Goya Awards

The most important Spanish cinema awards were deliver in the XXI edition of the Goya Awards, in the Palace of Congresses in Madrid. “Volver” also was awarded with the Goya for Best Music. The film “El laberinto del fauno” (Pan's Labyrinth), directed by Mexican Guillermo del Toro, conquered seven Goya Award, Best Young Actress (Ivana Baquero), Best Original Screenplay, Best Photography, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. The award of Best Actor was to Spanish actor Juan Diego, for his performance in “Vete de mí”, and Best Supporting Actor was for Spanish António of la Tower, for its role in “AzulOscuroCasiNegro”. In this last film, the actor Quim Gutiérrez received the Goya for Better Young Actor . The Argentine film “Las manos”, directed by Alejandro Dória conquered the Goya for Best Foreign Film in Spanish language, while the British film “The Queen”, directed b Stephen Frears, got the Goya for Best European Film. The musical piece “Tiempo pequeo”, interpreted by the Spanish singer Bebe, received the Goya for Best Original Song.

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Osvaldo Soriano - Ten years after his death

Soriano was born in Mar del Plata in 1943. In 1976, exile in Europe, for political reasons. He returnes from Paris in 1984. A lung cancer took him thirteen years later. From his first novel, "Triste, solitario y final" (1973), he became one of the most read Argentine writers. His books sold in Argentina and abroad, something his critics never liked, linking his empathy with the publishing market to his narrative simplicity.

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Book Review: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

Two reviews of Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio.

Although Lost City Radio is Daniel Alarcón's first novel, his previous short stories hold a novel-like attachment to one protagonist: the city of Lima. In the young Peruvian American author's 2005 collection, War by Candlelight, Lima wasn't just a staging ground for the rotating casts of characters; the city emerged as the book's subject.

Alarcón's brief oeuvre has been rooted in the deep textures of place: In the fittingly titled short story "Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979," every page finds a new avatar, from the "roadside mechanics . . . stained oily black from head to toe . . . the fiercest angels, the city's living dead" to a man in an "ill-fitting suit" selling Chiclets on a crosstown bus. So it's significant to a nearly heavy-handed degree that Lost City Radio never offers the name of the South American nation where it occurs. The country's towns don't even have names: In the aftermath of a long war, the government has replaced the quirky local tags—"unwieldy, millenarian name[s] from God-knows-which extinct people"—with Orwellian numbers: 1797, 1791, 1793.

The war—as vaguely defined as the country it tears up—is the central event in Alarcón's novel. In the present, where we begin, the conflict officially ended a decade before, but the war's legacy still composes both the professional and personal world of our main character. Norma is a honey-voiced DJ with a popular weekly show, Lost City Radio, in which citizens appear on-air to describe loved ones lost in the massive upheaval. Inevitably, she's patient as well as doctor; her own husband, Rey, an ethnobotanist with a passion for fungi and, just maybe, violent revolution, went missing in the war's final period, and she longs to turn her studio into a personal pulpit.
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Daniel Alarcón's thoughtful, engaging first novel is set in a fictitious South American country where the reader will immediately recognize fragments of recent history in Argentina, Chile and, most particularly, Alarcón's native country, Peru. No name is ever given to the country: Alarcón means the novel to be a fable about civil wars and their repercussions, rather than an account of a specific war within a specific place to which we bring all the baggage of familiarity.

With the publication of Lost City Radio, Alarcón is off and running. His collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, was published two years ago to deservedly high praise. Now still in his late 20s, Alarcón has an impressive and rather unusual background. He was brought to this country when he was very young because of the dreadful violence that swept through Peru in the 1980s and '90s during the terrorist uprisings led by the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru movements. In recent years, he has spent a lot of time in one of the poorest barrios of Lima, and much of his fiction is about the people who live there.
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Friday, January 26, 2007

Book Review: A Heart So White / Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias

Mere plot summary would give you a mistaken impression. A nameless Spaniard spends two years teaching at Oxford, has an affair with a married woman and buys a lot of rather obscure old English books. A man in Madrid is about to have an affair with a married woman when she drops dead in his arms; he flees the scene and spends the next few months surreptitiously getting to know the surviving members of her family. A simultaneous translator, recently married to another simultaneous translator, uses the growing friendship between his wife and his father to unravel the mystery behind a suicide that took place before he was born. An author reflects on the strange events -- many of them involving eccentric Englishmen, others having to do with his own private and public life -- that are connected to the publication of one of his earlier novels.

These are the story lines (though that may be precisely the wrong word, for they come to us in circular, disconnected form) of ''All Souls,'' ''Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me,'' ''A Heart So White'' and ''Dark Back of Time,'' the four novels by the Spanish writer Javier Marías that are now available in English. If you judged by the summaries alone, you might guess that Marías's fiction is ludicrously melodramatic or cruelly comic or tediously postmodern. It is none of these. On the contrary, all four novels possess an odd combination of true sadness and deeply satisfying wit that I have yet to find in any of Marías's English or American contemporaries.

Although this review will concentrate on the two novels that are most recently available, it is difficult, with Marías, to segregate any single work from the others. The experience of reading him is cumulative. When you take up a Marías novel or even a Marías short story, you are at once enclosed in a strange world that becomes increasingly and addictively familiar. Names and characters recur: the wives are often called Luisa, a slightly suspect friend will be either Custardoy or Ruibérriz de Torres, and there are frequent references to an Englishman named John Gawsworth and his position as king of Redonda. Public figures, too, put in an appearance, though Franco is not always called Franco, and Margaret Thatcher may simply be identified as a female British leader. The events take place mainly in Madrid, but London, Oxford, Havana, Venice and New York are also knowledgeably invoked. Time is an active presence, a nearly tangible entity. Ghosts flit through; sometimes (as in the title story in the collection ''When I Was Mortal'') they even act as narrators.
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Book Review: The Uncomfortable Dead, by Subcomandante Marcos & Paco I. Taibo II

Two years ago, the masked, pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatista army — Subcomandante Marcos — sent a hand-carried proposal from his jungle headquarters to one of his favorite writers. “El Sup,” as Marcos is called by his admirers, invited Paco Ignacio Taibo II, an internationally celebrated crime-fiction writer, to co-author a mystery novel. But not just a run-of-the-mill whodunit. This one would be written pingpong style, each writer pursuing his own storyline without consultation and the two bound together only by the promise that their respective protagonists would meet up about two-thirds of the way through the book.

Taibo, a devilishly provocative literary anarchist who relishes spurning the cultural establishment, immediately agreed. Within weeks, the chapters came cascading out and started appearing in serial form, as a work in progress, inside the pages of Mexico City’s leftist daily La Jornada (which experienced a 20 percent growth in its Sunday readership as a result). Now translated into English, The Uncomfortable Dead reads as an uproarious, dizzying, purposefully incoherent plunge into the multiple ironies, absurdities and injustices of present-day Mexico.
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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Bride from Odessa by Edgardo Cozarinsky

The name "Odessa" makes you think of Chekhov, involuntarily inviting a comparison that would make most writers’ work shrivel; but not Edgardo Cozarinsky’s.

He was born in Buenos Aires in 1939 and has lived in Paris since 1974. He is best known for his subtle, semi-documentary films, and has written a previous collection of short stories and prize-winning essays. From his name and these stories one may deduce rather more: that his parents emigrated to Argentina as refugees from the Europe of the dictators, probably from Hitler; that his roots are in Central Europe, perhaps Vienna, perhaps Budapest, possibly more remotely, the Crimea or the Ukraine; and that he is, probably only on one side of his family, Jewish.

He writes in Spanish and the blurb states "his stories belong to spirit of Borges and to a great Argentine cosmopolitan tradition: that of the uprooted exile, the plaything of history." This seems fair comment, though the stories are not clever like Borges’s. Yet they do recall that line of his about Buenos Aires: that the city where the other side of the street hadn’t been built, symbol of an incomplete society.

The stories are not anecdotes. That’s to say, they couldn’t be told in other words without dissolving. They exist only as they are written, unlike, say, some of Maugham’s. You might call them mood pieces, except that this suggests a certain insubstantiality, which would be misleading. An exile is someone who has lost everything except his past, which for that very reason is more alive in his memory than in the memories of those who have never been uprooted. The exile lives in no community except that of the dead and the disinherited. He knows complete uncertainty, the absence of any imaginable future, and yet continues to live from day to day.
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The Moldavian Pimp by Edgardo Cozarinsky

The title of Argentine film-maker and writer Edgardo Cozarinsky's first novel promises a shady émigré underworld, while the cover image of 1920s tango star Osvaldo Fresedo playing the bandoneon evokes an era of underpaid musicians, tubercular artistes and European immigrants with small suitcases and big hopes. Among them were thousands of Jewish women whose hopes were promptly crushed. The "fiancés" who had brought them to the New World often turned out to be procurers for the flourishing white slave trade between Europe and Argentina, of which the most infamous gang was the Jewish Zwi Migdal. The young woman was locked up in some dingy Buenos Aires attic and forced to service local machos, recent immigrants themselves. She couldn't buy herself back, even if she saved enough from her meagre wages. The punishments for attempted escapes were terrible.
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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Literary Guide to Colombia

Post-Gabo writers don't have it easy in a place where "it is often a matter of life and death not to tell a single truth," as one of Restrepo's characters puts it. Two contemporary authors, Fernando Vallejo and Jorge Franco, both recently given high-profile English translations, explore an increasingly urban reality, as opposed to the rural, timeless and universal fantasy of the magical realists -- the young writers' stone to Gabo's Goliath. Vallejo, who lives in Mexico City, depicts in "Our Lady of the Assassins" (1994) a disillusioned returning writer in love with a series of young male assassins. Nothing sacred in Colombian society, from iconic liberator Simón Bolívar to the Roman Catholic Church, is spared Vallejo's ecstatic rage. "Colombia changes," laments the narrator, "but remains the same, this is the new face of the same old disaster."

It's no accident that Vallejo and Franco are both from Medellín, the regional capital that shepherded the first great drug lord and the thorny prosperity and scourges in his wake. (Read Mark Bowden's masterly, intricate "Killing Pablo" (2001) to grasp the fascination -- and the almighty dread -- "Don Pablo" Escobar continues to evoke for Colombians even 13 years after his death.) Medellín may be "wrapped in the arms of two mountain ranges," as it's described in Franco's "Rosario Tijeras" (1999), but there's nothing precious about the ferocity of the Colombian "barrio popular." Franco's young sophists, lacking formal education but superbly schooled in cruelty, observe with casual innocence events only readers can recognize as unjust. As Emilio, the lovelorn and slumming narrator, says, "We don't know how long our history is, but we can feel its weight." Rosario's last name, Scissors, is a sobriquet bestowed after one of many acts of violence against "being born to misfortune." In the book, a corpse gets shot (again) in his casket while another gets paraded around his favorite salsa bars. Franco, Vallejo and others writing in an urban noir vein defiantly turn over the decayed log of Colombian society to examine the activity underneath, seeking that combination of thrilling revulsion and incredulous wonder that Colombia seems so adept at provoking: extremes of terror and beauty.
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Monday, January 15, 2007

Book Review: Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas

A novelist who takes himself as the principal subject of his novel is asking for it, and if he names his narrator after Renaissance statesman and essayist Michel de Montaigne, he is asking for it in a big way. Montaigne was an erudite and charming writer who more or less originated the personal essay, and, you could say, gave all subsequent writers permission to extrapolate from their own experiences and thoughts to larger questions of religion and morality. Montaigne was not a novelist - the novel was being invented elsewhere at the time - but it was inevitable that his idiosyncratic authorial voice would eventually be wedded to stories, long or short, and that, say, Laurence Sterne would pop up, followed by a long line of fictive autobiographers, diarists, explorers of consciousness, existentialists and solipsists. It was also inevitable, according to the narrator of Montano, that a mal, or malady, would result, and indeed, the original title of Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas's novel is El Mal de Montano (Montano's Malady)
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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book Review: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño was born in Chile, raised partly in Mexico, and died in Spain in 2003 at the age of 50. He spent much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Europe, after returning to Chile in 1973 "to help build socialism," a disastrous sojourn he describes in the story "Dance Card."

Arrested during a road check and imprisoned for a few days on suspicion of being a "Mexican terrorist," he was neither tortured nor killed, as he'd expected, but "in the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn't sleep and there was nothing to read except a magazine in English that someone had left behind. The only interesting article in it was about a house that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas. I got out of that hole thanks to a pair of detectives who had been at high school with me in Los Ángeles."

By the time I'd finished the two novels, close friends and total strangers who made the mistake of asking what I'd been reading found themselves compelled to listen to a summary of "By Night in Chile," a narrative framed as the deathbed rantings of a Chilean Jesuit priest and failed poet. At a crucial point in his career, Father Urrutia is approached by two agents of Opus Dei, who inform him that he has been chosen to visit Europe to study the preservation of old churches: the perfect job for a cleric with artistic sensitivities. On his arrival, he is told that the major threat to European cathedrals is pigeon droppings, and that his Old World counterparts have devised a clever solution to the problem. They have become falconers, and in town after town he watches as the priests' hawks viciously dispatch flocks of harmless birds. Chillingly, the Jesuit's failure to protest against this bloody means of architectural preservation signals to his employers that he will serve as a passive accomplice to the predatory and brutal methods of the Pinochet regime.

The novel seamlessly blends surrealism, lyricism, wit, invention and political and psychological analysis — and the same brilliance illuminates "Last Evenings on Earth." In most of the stories, the horrors of the Pinochet years are farther from the surface, but they're always present, a minor chord thrumming beneath narratives that, like "Gómez Palacio," are told in a straightforward style suffused with an ominous disquiet, a sense of loneliness and loss.

Many concern a writer simply called B, a Chilean exile living and traveling, often aimlessly, in Mexico and Spain. B has strongly mixed feelings about the Chilean exile community, a turbulent love life and an obsession with European and Latin American literature — especially minor writers and Surrealist poets — as well as political dispossession and suicide. Occasionally, all these fascinations converge, as in the title story, in which the young hero, trapped on a doomed Acapulco vacation (and a sorry experiment in debauchery), finds distraction and consolation in the poetry of Gui Rosey, an obscure Surrealist who may have killed himself as he and his more famous friends fled the Nazis.

Bolaño manages to convince us that the deceptively disparate topics of B's fixations (bad writers, great art, suicide, dictatorship and its victims) are essentially the same subject. In "Sensini," an author who has encouraged B to enter a series of humiliatingly modest literary competitions mourns a son named Gregorio (after Kafka's Gregor Samsa) who is among the "disappeared" killed by the Argentine junta. In "Days of 1978," B finds himself at a party telling a disputatious Chilean exile the plot of Andrei Tarkovky's film about the medieval icon painter Andrei Rublov. B's version, which emphasizes the movie's depiction of the power of art and mostly ignores its scenes of torture and violence, causes his compatriot to weep. Later B hears that the man has met a fate not unlike Gui Rosey's.
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Friday, January 12, 2007

Book Review: The Uncomfortable Dead, by Subcomandante Marcos & Paco I. Taibo II

This so-called "four-handed book" has alternating chapters written by Marcos and the Spanish author Paco Taibo. It is self-referential even in its cops. Taibo's limping, one-eyed private investigator, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, gets to tackle a historical murder with El Subco's indigenous campaigner, Elias Contreras. Another equally fictitious sleuth - Pepe Carvalho - puts in an unexpected starring appearance, proving himself just as real as his creator, the late Vasquez Montalban.

The crime Elias and Hector coincide in resolving dates back to 1968 - which in Mexico meant something different to peace and love, and rather more like its opposite. The plot's intention to track down the murderer of a left-winger, imprisoned in a government swoop on those student activists not massacred in Mexico City, takes in much of that generation's history, and a lot more besides.

El Subco remains much given to philosophising; hence the whole chapters on distinctions between Bad and Evil. From the part of the world that brought us "magical realism", he explores the varieties of magic, otherwise known as sleight of hand by politicians. "There's black magic, which is the one you do with demons, and there's white magic... and then there's dirty magic, which is the one the politicians do."
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Interview with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film "Babel" took home best director and jury prizes at Cannes and is up for a slew of Golden Globe awards, including best picture and best director. Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" is at 91 percent on the critical opinion meter RottenTomatoes.com, making it one of the best-reviewed films of the year.
But during their separate visits to the District this season, both directors took time out from promoting their own films to ask if I'd seen the work of someone else.
Mr. Inarritu assured me I'd be blown away by "Pan." Mr. Cuaron marveled, "Isn't it amazing? That ending is so fantastic. ... Very powerful."
These are some strangely uncompetitive filmmakers -- and very good friends.
Mr. Inarritu, Mr. Cuaron and "Pan" director Guillermo del Toro all hail from Mexico and all are in their early- to mid-40s. While they've left their native land, they remain friends who have established Mexico as a hotbed of film talent.
"It must be the water," laughs Mr. del Toro.
"There is a fierceness in how we express ourselves that comes from need and hunger," he says more seriously. "When Alfonso and I started doing films 25 years ago, it was almost impossible to make a Mexican film. It was almost unheard of for a Mexican film to open in America. So we came out of adversity. And I think that makes your voice stronger."
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reading others words

A review of Roberto Bolaño's Distant Star in La Bloga.
My latest excursion with Bolaño, Distant Star confirmed my first impressions and added to my level of exasperation, but did not lessen my admiration for this writer.

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Book Review: Casablanca and Other Stories by Edgar Brau

Edgar Brau was born in 1958 and moved from the provinces to Buenos Aires when he was 10. According to Yates's introduction, he read voraciously as a boy but also played soccer and rugby and nearly pursued a career as a boxer. At the age of 18, he was drawn to the theater, soon acting and directing plays by Moliere, Chekhov and Shakespeare. In 1986, he won first prize in a short-story competition and decided to devote himself to literature, opening a small bookshop on the side. In 1992, his first collection was published, followed since by more than a dozen other books of poetry and short fiction. Casablanca and Other Stories is the first selection of his work to be published in English, but one hopes that others will follow soon. The atmosphere in Brau's fiction ranges appealingly from the mysterious to the claustrophobic, from the horrific to the lyrical and transcendent.

And even to the comically grotesque. In "The Blessing," the president of an unnamed country has taken to firing his revolver into the sky at dusk, as a way of working off the day's tensions. One night, a stray bullet accidentally wounds a little girl, who is rushed to the hospital, given first-class treatment and returned home in a chauffeured limousine, with a car full of gifts and the promise of a scholarship to the university. "When the automobile left later on, the neighbors departed from the modest house in silence; the grownups among them appeared deep in thought." Guess what happens next.?
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Edgar Brau's website has a brief biography in english.

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Enrique Metinides - Mexico’s Weegee

Enrique Metinides photographed his first dead body before he was 12. It was as if he had caught a fever, because after that he couldn’t stop. For years while he slept he kept his radio in Mexico City tuned to emergency stations so that he could be awakened by the latest news of disaster. He would often throw on his clothes and rush into the night to see yet another car wreck or fire or murder.

He found a cornucopia of gore: suicides, jumpers, accidental electrocutions and exploding gas tanks. (In that case petty thieves drove off from the pumps with the hose still inside their car.) We feel somehow we shouldn’t gawk. But how can we not?

So we do. We stare at the mangled corpses and at the crowds who stare back into Mr. Metinides’s camera, which means they stare at us. The cycle of voyeurism is complete.

Mexico’s Weegee, as he’s often called, Mr. Metinides, now 72, worked from the 1940s into the early ’90s, when he retired. His métier was Mexico City’s “nota roja,” the grisly pages. He shot for pulp magazines and mostly for the newspaper La Prensa, making visual sense out of urban mayhem and life’s general unpredictability.
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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

With the help of various colourful characters, including a voluble anti-fascist ex-spy, Daniel starts trying to piece together the story of Carax's life, which turns out to be a splendidly morbid Gothic melodrama. He also finds love with his best friend's gorgeous sister, who is engaged to a charmless Francoist, and incurs the wrath of her rich, reactionary dad. A psychopathic fascist cop starts taking an interest in Daniel's activities, and it soon becomes clear that Carax's fate is a matter of more than scholarly interest to everyone Daniel meets on his perilous trail.

With its bookish outer story and hints of the supernatural, The Shadow of the Wind has inevitably been compared to Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Dumas Club. Zafon's brow is less high than Perez-Reverte's, and his puzzles are less ingenious, but his story is impressively well-rounded.

Humour, horror, politics and romance are skilfully deployed, and although the cardinal plot-twists aren't hard to guess, the overall effect is hugely satisfying. Zafon, a former screenwriter, is particularly good at contrast and pacing: the book's 400 pages whip past with incredible speed.
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Interview with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu is not just a director; he’s a filmmaker, an auteur in the traditional sense of the word. His three films to date, all collaborations with screenwriter and novelist Guillermo Arriaga, have been conceived and developed by the duo, sidestepping the lure of big studio productions, as a director-for-hire, that most successful directors in Hollywood follow.
Not that he is opposed to it. “Well, there is always an idea, a subject, that I want to tackle,” he says about his choice of films, adding, “fortunately, or unfortunately, I just haven’t had the time, or perhaps the luck, to find something that interests me more than what I am working on. If it does, of course, I’d be open to it.”
His latest endeavor, Babel, distributed by Paramount Vantage, the specialty distribution arm of Paramount Pictures, is indeed a studio film. But just like 21 Grams, its predecessor, it was developed by Iñárritu and Arriaga, based on their own ideas.
Babel, the third in a trilogy that began over six years ago with Amores Perros, followed by the 2003 sensation 21 Grams, borrows the fractured narrative style of its predecessors. And like them, it is an exploration of human relations, of cause and effect, and of the way in which our destiny is the random end result of circumstances beyond our control. “Life is a sum of accidents,” says González Iñárritu, sitting in a plush sofa, legs propped on a chair, at the offices of Paramount Vantage in New York­­ where we met to discuss his film. “It’s a series of extraordinary events that we’ve lost the ability to question,” he asserts, adding: “A Cuban friend of mine says: ‘If a second is enough to end our lives, then it is certainly enough to change it.’ I think there are events and actions that determine our lives, and that of others, even across the world.”
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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Toro

So here's Guillermo del Toro, Mexican maestro of the fantasy film, a big fat man with a mess of hair, a ready chuckle and a large leather book held tight across the rolls of his stomach like a Crusader's shield. It would be a hard-hearted hack who could resist that plump, friendly face. If del Toro were to turn into his namesake he would surely be Ferdinand, the bull who sat down in the middle of the ring, chewed the flowers and smiled at the sky instead of fighting.

Yet this jolly man is the author of Pan's Labyrinth, a visual feast of a fantasy film set in Franco's Spain that is so dark, so fired with passion, fear and hope, that it blasted almost everything else at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was first shown, into the blue Mediterranean water. Critics who were not expecting anything quite so viscerally satisfying from the director of Blade II, Hellboy or Mimic, the films he made for US studios, described it as the surprise triumph of the festival; in the past few weeks, Pan's Labyrinth has appeared on various top-10 lists and has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the best film in a foreign language. Mark Kermode, of the London Observer, did not hesitate to declare it the best film of the year.
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Peruvian Literary Renaissance

Now, more than a decade after the waning of the Shining Path rebellion, the conflict's legacy is fuelling a literary renaissance. Peruvian writers are blazing a trail through Spanish and English language publishing with books exploring a saga as fascinating as it is painful.

In the past year two of the three top literary prizes in Spanish have been won by novelists from the capital, Lima. Alonso Cueto won the Herralde award for The Blue Hour, about a lawyer who discovers that his naval officer father tortured prisoners. Santiago Roncagliolo received the Alfaguara prize for Red April, which follows a prosecutor's attempt to unravel a murder in Ayacucho, a pre-Inca citadel which became a cradle of the Shining Path in the 1970s.

Daniel Alarcón, who was born in Lima but grew up in the US and writes in English, was shortlisted for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway award for his short story collection, War by Candlelight.

"For a writer this is one of the most stimulating environments you can have. Conflict is the basis of any type of storytelling," said Cueto, seated at a Lima cafe overlooking the Pacific where he does much of his work.

Lima's fog - Herman Melville said it was the saddest city he had ever seen - created an ambiguous atmosphere, said Cueto. "Never dark, never bright, it's somewhere in between."
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Don Quixote on Screen

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to bring classic novel Don Quixote to the big screen has been given another chance.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, based on the work by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, featured a star-studded cast including Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort.
But, after filming commenced in 2000, the insurer quickly pulled the plug on the multi-million pound project after a spate of misfortunes, including flash floods and illness. The trials of the disastrous shoot were captured in documentary movie Lost In La Mancha.
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Frida Kahlo's clothes

The trunk, discovered in the back of an old wardrobe that had been forgotten in an unused bathroom, was like stepping into the past.

Curators opened the lid to find hundreds of Frida Kahlo's colorful skirts and blouses, many still infused with the late artist's perfume and cigarette smoke.

It has taken two years to log and restore the nearly 300 articles of clothing. Next summer, the embroidered and sometimes paint-smeared pieces will be put on display at Kahlo's family home-turned-museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the painter's birth. The exhibit will offer the public a new glimpse into Kahlo's flamboyant and tortured life.
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Francisco de Zurbaran in music

The larger than life-sized portraits showing Jacob and his Twelve Sons dressed in Spanish peasant costumes should offer plenty of dramatic material for writers Duncan Brown and Greg Pullen, both from Spennymoor, and David Napthine, from Binchester, in County Durham.

Painted by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran, they were sent to Mexico in the mid-17th Century to promote Catholicism among the native population at a time when it was widely believed that the Aztecs were one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Instead, they were hijacked at sea by English pirates and ended up in London in the hands of merchant James Mendez, a Portuguese Jew.

In 1756, he sold them for £125 to the high-living Bishop Richard Trevor, a vigorous campaigner for the recognition of Judaism's role in the Christian story.

One of the set was missing - Mendez sold Benjamin's portrait to the Duke of Ancaster, who believed himself to be a descendant. It now hangs in Grimethorpe Castle, near Peterborough.

Bishop Trevor had to be content with a copy - a fake by artist Arthur Proud, which was installed along with the rest in the castle's Long Dining Room.

The Bishop had his dramatic political statement to display to his dinner guests, but Zurbaran had been left with nothing.

Receiving no money for his stolen masterpieces, he died a ruined man in 1664.
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50 years of Grande Sertão: Veredas

Brazilians have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of a special book: Newspapers have published reports and articles, academies have organized conferences and debates, news shows have broadcasted stories, museums have offered exhibitions, new editions were printed. This could be routine in other countries, but, unfortunately, reading is not a Brazilian's habit. Shame on us.

The book that Brazilians are celebrating is a singular one. It radically divides opinions. Some readers love it and spend their lives reading it again and again; others can not pass the 50th page. They give up saying that the author's style is too difficult to grasp.

It is a novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas written by a diplomat, Joao Guimaraes Rosa. He spoke eight languages, but chose to write in a peculiar and inventive way. The book has been translated into many languages. Its English title is "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands".

The novel is a tragic love story that ends in an astonishing way. It unites Riobaldo and Diadorim, two gunmen in a raging war against rival bands. The author creates a new language, using unknown words that readers magically understand.
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Making of Love in the Time of Cholera

He made Hugh Grant a floppy-haired trans-Atlantic star and teenage Harry Potter a screen hero. Now 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 Garcia Marquez.

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 32 C heat and humidity.

There were times – when the city flooded from torrential rainstorms or less-hardy crew members dropped out – when it looked as if it wasn't going to come together.
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Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Review: Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Leave it to Isabel Allende to reassess the past, individual and collective, from a feminine -- though not a feminist -- perspective. Her new novel, "Inés of My Soul," is structured in the form of a " crónica, " or account, using the standard devices of the form, including placing the narrator at the grave's edge, at the Spanish conquest of Chile, in the 16th century.

The protagonist and narrator is the fiery Doña Inés de Suárez, who is known in textbook s as conquistador Pedro de Valdivia's lover and a "defender" in the battle of Santiago, when, in 1541, the indigenous population rebelled against Spanish power.

Doña Inés is about 70 when she reminisces about her involvement in the so-called Chilean war of 1549 to 1553, and the events that led her to it. She tells the story to Doña Isabel de Quiroga, her daughter with her second husband. (Doña Isabel is a concoction, since Doña Inés is said to have been sterile.) "That I can write down these memories and thoughts with paper and ink," Doña Inés says, "is owing to the good graces of the priest González de Marmolejo, who took the time, amid his labors of evangelizing savages and consoling Christians, to teach me to read."
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Book Review: City of God by Paulo Lins

Raw, brutal, and graphically violent, "City of God," by Paulo Lins, is a multifaceted story about hellish life and early death in a Brazilian slum, where family ties can be severed as easily as a kite string.

Based in part on Lins's childhood in the Rio de Janeiro favela known as Cidade de Deus, or City of God, the book was originally published in Brazil in 1997 and made into a film in 2002. While the movie focused on the relationship between two of the characters, the novel is a fast-moving and intense series of snapshots about a complex network of young thugs during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Most of them are known only by their nicknames -- Hellraiser, Green Eyes, Sparrow -- and all of them struggle with issues of class, race, and power.
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Children of Men directed by Alfonso Cuaron

The future looks bleak in Children of Men, a sci-fi thriller that has less to do with the plot - centering on a world where disease has left all the women sterile - than with the director's vision of where our culture is headed.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that the director is Alfonso Cuaron, one of current cinema's most striking visual stylists - for proof, just check out the soaring majesty of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Children of Men is no less breathtaking, although toward a slightly different end; think of the new film as Potter if Voldemort took over.

But as great as the film looks, the story, adapted from a novel by P.D. James, never quite comes into focus. Is it about the importance of fighting for an ideal? The need to focus on the future, no matter how desolate the present? The redemptive power of love, and devotion? Or is it a determinedly pessimistic ode to the utter (and ultimate) stupidity of men, who spend so much time fighting and looking for scapegoats (thus justifying even more fighting) that they wouldn't know what to do if something good and hopeful happened?
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