Sunday, April 29, 2007

Interview with Isabel Allende

Aida Edemariam wrote a biographical piece on Isabel Allende.

It wasn't until she had published her third book, Eva Luna (1989), that she left her day job at a school for the disabled, and, for good measure, her marriage. Allende has an unusual willingness to make her private life public. Her website contains a selection of personal photographs; she has written without reservation (though with self-mockery, too) of the way in which she met her second husband, "an Irish-looking North American lawyer with an aristocratic appearance and a silk tie who spoke Spanish like a Mexican bandido and had a tattoo on his left hand" at an event for Of Love and Shadows (1987). Within a couple of weeks she had mailed him a contract detailing her demands, and what she was prepared to offer in a relationship, even though she was "absolutely shocked by the way he lived - by how awful his family was. He had three biological children, all of them drug addicts. How can you have three children, all of them drug addicts? No sense of family, everybody disconnected." He soon found himself the subject of a novel, The Infinite Plan (1993); she found that his often invented Spanglish was creeping into her writing; these days she has her work trawled for linguistic and grammatical oddities.

"If I had to choose between a relative and a good story, I would take the story," she says of the outrage that The House of the Spirits provoked among her relatives in Chile. This tendency produced a 1995 memoir that has been called - with good reason - her masterpiece. It was written at her daughter Paula's bedside, after the 29-year-old had fallen into a year-long coma following complications due to porphyria. Intended at first as a way to fill in the gaps for her daughter when she woke, Paula is furious, grieving, recklessly honest; occasionally, when Allende begins to realise that her daughter will never return, is in fact dying, it is unbearably so. Her mother, who was her trusted editor, was horrified and wanted her to turn it into a novel. Allende tried; it felt wrong, a betrayal of Paula, and she refused.

A year later Gordon's daughter disappeared, presumed murdered. (The oldest child has been in and out of prison his whole life; the youngest, after eight years of heroin, is clean.) It was nearly the end of their marriage. "But every time I mentioned the word divorce, Willie would drag me to therapy. He was determined to keep this thing going. And he won. It was very funny, because I remember once we made a deal that for three weeks we would not mention the word divorce, no matter what. We could kill each other, but that word was not going to be mentioned. And it saved us, because we realised that if you put your energy into solving the problem instead of running away, everything shifts." It was five years before she could write again, and she tested the water with Aphrodite (1998), a book of recipes and aphrodisiacs. She had started Daughter of Fortune (1999), about Chileans in the California gold rush, before Paula fell ill, but didn't finish it for another seven years. It's a sweeping melodrama, full of flashing eyes and pirates and love at first sight.

Allende knows this sort of thing means she doesn't often get reviewed - especially in Chile, where she is nevertheless popular (Inés has been at the top of the bestseller lists since it was published there in August) - but she is defiant. "I think that any writer who is commercial, who sells a lot of books, has to face criticism. Because the more hermetic and the more difficult your book is, supposedly it's better. But as a journalist you learn that you have a readership, and you have to connect with that readership no matter what. If your readers do not pick up your book and read it, you've wasted your time. I want people to identify with the characters, to know that other people feel the same way. To know that what is happening to them at a particular point - a child dying or something - has happened before and will happen again." Read More

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Friday, April 27, 2007


Bogotá, this year's World Book Capital, and the Hay Festival presented a list of the new generation of Latin American Novelists.

This selection was made by a jury composed three Colombian novelists Piedad Bonnet, Oscar Collazos y Héctor Abad Faciolince, from the suggestions made by readers, editors and literary agents in the Hay Festival web site.

Here's the Bogotá39 list of 39 Latin American novelists under 39 years:

  • Andrés Neuman, Argentina - 30 years.
  • Pedro Mairal, Argentina - 37 years.
  • Gonzalo Garcés, Argentina - 33 years.
  • Rodrigo Hasbún, Bolivia - 27 years.
  • Veronica Stigger, Brasil - 34 years.
  • Santiago Nazarian, Brasil - 30 years.
  • Adriana Lisboa, Brasil - 37 years.
  • João Paulo Cuenca, Brasil - 29 years.
  • Alejandro Zambra, Chile - 32 years.
  • Alvaro Bisama, Chile - 32 years.
  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Colombia - 34 years.
  • Antonio Ungar, Colombia - 30 years.
  • Ricardo Silva, Colombia - 32 years.
  • Pilar Quintana, Colombia - 35 years.
  • John Junieles, Colombia - 37 years.
  • Antonio García, Colombia - 35 years.
  • Karla Suárez, Cuba - 38 years.
  • Ena Lucía Portela, Cuba - 35 years.
  • Rolando Menéndez, Cuba - 37 years.
  • Wendy Guerra, Cuba - 37 years.
  • Leonardo Valencia, Ecuador - 38 years.
  • Gabriela Alemán, Ecuador - 39 years.
  • Claudia Hernández, El Salvador - 32 years.
  • Eduardo Halfon, Guatemala - 36 years.
  • Jorge Volpi, México - 39 years.
  • Guadalupe Nettel, México - 35 years.
  • Fabrizio Mejía Madrid, México - 39 years.
  • Álvaro Enrigue, México - 38 years.
  • Carlos Wynter Melo, Panama - 36 years.
  • José Pérez Reyes, Paraguay - 34 years.
  • Ivan Thays, Peru - 39 years.
  • Santiago Roncagliolo, Perú - 32 years.
  • Daniel Alarcón, Perú - 30 years.
  • Yolanda Arroyo, Puerto Rico - 37 years.
  • Junot Díaz, Dominican Republic - 39 years.
  • Pablo Casacuberta, Uruguay - 38 years.
  • Claudia Amengual, Uruguay - 38 years.
  • Slavko Zupcic, Venezuela - 37 years.
  • Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Venezuela - 26 years.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Scott Esposito reviews Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives".

In January, New Directions published a translation of the short, lyric and stunning Amulet. Now Farrar, Straus & Giroux has published The Savage Detectives, the first of Bolaño's big books. Upon its original publication in 1998, this sprawling, 600-page ode to Latin America's lost generation of post-boom writers won the Romulo Gallegos Prize and launched Bolaño into the Spanish-language stratosphere.

The novel consists of two main parts. Squat in the middle is a bulky series of monologues. Bookending the monologues are two 100-page segments from the journal of a 17-year-old poet living in 1970s Mexico City. What ties it all together are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, two poets trying to promote "visceral realist" writing. The book traces their flight from Mexico City to wander the world, desperately clinging to the only things that matter to them: poetry and true, perhaps forlorn, love. [...]

The Savage Detectives embraces pain as something essential and unavoidable, and renewal as pain's logical companion. Ulises and Arturo forge a sense of who they are that props them up and helps them embrace the lives they have chosen. Moreover, though their generation may be lost, there will be others: At one point a character tells a science-fiction story about a rich heiress and a naive tramp who fall deeply into an ideal love. Their perfect bond is cut short by cancer, and the heiress constructs a garden of Eden where a clone of the tramp and herself will be brought up to fall in love. What if the experiment fails? a scientist asks. Another responds: It doesn't matter. The experiment will be endlessly repeated. "Sublime, in a way, but creepy too," opines the teller. "Like all crazy loves, don't you think?"

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A few extracts of reviews on Alberto Manguel's biographical novel depicting Robert Louis Stevenson's final days in Samoa.

Alberto Manguel, who evidently shares the enthusiasm for Robert Louis Stevenson of his friend Borges, has written this short tale of the RLS of the Samoa days. This is the very end, with Stevenson barely fit for firing off missives to the Times about Germans or any other nationality. Known as Tusitala, “the teller of tales”, Stevenson is a benign presence on the island. He defended the native people against the interests of colonialists and the more aggressive missionaries, as well as defending the reputation of Father Damien, “the leper priest of Molokai” from rivals from other denominations (although his defence would offend the pious Damien enthusiast as much as the attacks)

This novella - short story really - is a beguiling fiction weaved around those last days. Robert Louis Stevenson, wracked by the final stages of tuberculosis, filled with “nostalgia for places he had never been.” Mr Baker, a missionary, whose increasingly psychotic preachings resemble less and less the gospels and more and more a dark, genocidal vision of destruction, makes his appearance on the island. Repelled by his rhetoric, Stevenson is nevertheless beguiled by Baker’s accent, taking him back to the Edinburgh of his youth. Baker, however, has nothing but scorn for Tusitala, to the writer that: “you would be better employed reading to them from the Scriptures. That is the only truth.”
by Seamus Sweeney

Manguel's Stevenson went to Samoa to be able to breathe but is oppressed by a combination of status and inertia. He comes across Baker, a missionary from Edinburgh, who is delighted to meet Samoa's "chief celebrity", and they reminisce about Scotland while watching the sun go down. After this convivial start, the story becomes one of shadows: a girl whom Stevenson has publicly admired is raped and killed. His hat (a famous attribute) is found nearby.

Trapped heat suffuses everything: the movements of a crowd, which are "unpredictable and strong as a blaze"; the obscenely rotting papayas, the mouldering books and clothes, Stevenson's inexpressible desire, and the extreme red of the blood he coughs up, which is the same colour as the flower in the murdered girl's hair. Baker, who loathes the island's "poisonous brightness", proves to be a fanatic and a drunk. Stevenson is implicated by the evidence of people who swear that they saw him in places he couldn't have been - or could he? Rumours and accusations thicken the toxic atmosphere, and no one's version of events adds up.

This contrived fiction works well as a novella, a form which can bring out the artifice in a writer to remarkable, or rococo, effect. Here, plain speech bumps up against formal debate and undigested biographical matter, while people act according to the information they have to convey. Syntactical oddities make the book read at times as if it were in translation, but this adds to the general air of mediation.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in Bournemouth in 1885, and died in Samoa 10 years later. Alberto Manguel, of Argentinian descent, author of a notable History of Reading, has read into Stevenson's last days a gothic drama that places the writing of the novel at the end of his life, and makes use of the report that his wife Fanny caused him to burn his first draft on the grounds that it had made a story out of an allegory. Stevenson's second shot stresses the "thorough and primitive duality of man", the idea that every thinking fellow feels himself at times to be two fellows. Manguel's novella borrows from Stevenson's letters, from the expurgated edition of 1899: the story it tells is about the writer of the letters, but it could also be considered counterfactual. It seems to point a dualistic moral, and it bears a faint likeness to the stories of the Argentinian (and Stevensonian) allegorist, Borges.

Juxtaposing Jekyll with Stevenson's unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, which he was writing at the time of his death, brings out a duality in his art. The first of these novels is in English. Parts of the second are in Scots. He was a writer who excelled when he turned to the language of his youth. A fair number of his critics miss the point, and lack feeling for the Scots tongue.

The exiled Stevenson was both a laird and a scarecrow. To protect his lungs he had cast himself away in the thick of a tropical rain forest. "We are a very crazy couple to lead so rough a life." But he wrote some of his very best and most Scottish things in a Samoa of tribal chiefs, diplomats, missionaries, servants, labourers, lotus-eaters. There he would sit lustrous-eyed, in his moustaches, playing his flageolet, a touching sight. Horrid Henry Adams, the American historian and snob, called him a filthy "bundle of sticks in a bag". But he also walked with kings, while the European powers quarrelled over the islands' natural resources. A relative of mine, a British colonial servant stationed in Fiji, saw him as "a meddling conceited fool, who thinks as a successful novelist he should be allowed to try to rule Samoa".
by Karl Miller, The Guardian

In this uncluttered novella illustrated by Stevenson's own woodcuts, I had the strange sensation of stumbling across an oasis in a desert of too many words. Reading felt as soothing as exhaling. Which is both ironic and to the point, given Manguel's subject matter: the final months of Stevenson's sickly life in Samoa, where he went to breathe more easily. Manguel prefaces his work with Goethe's caveat: "No one wanders under palm trees unpunished." When the author finds himself drawn to a young girl at a ceremony, he recalls St Augustine thanking God for "not making him responsible for his dreams". The girl is later found raped and murdered, with Stevenson's hat in the vicinity. The fiction of his mind finds increasingly alarming ways of crawling out. Far from Edinburgh Presbyterianism, in a land where "the stories you tell become part of reality", Manguel offers a terrifying defence for and indictment of the "claptrap of fiction".
by Sarah Adams, The Guardian

In Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, the Argentine literary critic Alberto Manguel (who describes readers as "post-mortem creators") resuscitates the Victorian author, creating a murder mystery based on his final days in Samoa. Much has been made of Stevenson's atheism (particularly in contrast with his father's Calvinism), and in this taut novella, the spiritual struggle comes to a head: Stevenson falls victim to a malady he could reasonably be credited with inventing—a split personality à la Jekyll and Hyde. "Open—brash, unhidden," he is haunted by a ghost-like missionary, "reserved, whispered, buttoned-up." When a young girl on the island is raped, the reader is not sure whether the writer did it, or the missionary, or whether—as Stevenson puts it in his 1886 classic—"these incongruous faggots were . . . bound together."
by Rachel Aviv, Village Voice

In the novella, the ailing Stevenson, out watching a beautiful island sunset, encounters a stranger, a Scottish missionary who straightaway announces his disgust with the easy morality and vices of the natives. A short time later, with that sudden compression that fables specialize in, the body of a beautiful young girl is found in the hills, and the author's hat is discovered nearby. There is just enough ambiguity -- abetted by Stevenson's delirious fevers -- to direct our thoughts to the theme of the double. As it turns out, Stevenson himself is involved with this theme in the work he is struggling with, a grim Scottish fantasia that bears a distinct resemblance to his famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Manguel's spare storybook style keeps us from deeper engagement with the plot but serves him well at the end, when the suggestions and implications are most densely woven. Then he can create a sonorous cadence in keeping with the dark intention of this little work: "He tried not to think of what had happened. Here, in the green heat, that which was forbidden was not mentioned. Evil was tabu, unuttered, it was not given existence in words. On the stones of Edinburgh was written, in the Gothic script that had so delighted Sir Walter Scott in his youth, the Old Testament warning, Thou Shalt Not, so that during Stevenson's wanderings through the city his eye would always land, unbidden, on the outlawed temptations, the sins spelled out for all to know, offered as in a dark mirror even to those who had not yet conceived them, like an inverted pleasure." Though we do hear the Stevensonian echo throughout, only in these last pages does the note ring clear.
by Sven Birkerts, Washington Post

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Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa revealed on Monday that he is currently writing a new novel which will be the last part of his trilogy he started in 1988 with the release of “Elogio a la madrastra” (In Praise of the Stepmother) and continued in 1997 with “Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto” (Notebooks of Don Rigoberto).

The probable title of his latest work in progress will be “Las cartas de Doña Lucrecia” (The letters of Doña Lucrecia), Vargas Llosa advanced in an interview with Mexican W Radio. The new novel will include the same characters of its two predecessors - Don Rigoberto, his son Alfonso and second wife Lucrecia. Read More

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Susan Wyndham reviews The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1 which includes the Jorge Luis Borges 1967 interview.
Jorge Luis Borges, on the other hand, enjoyed the interview so much that he ignored his secretary's frequent reminders that a Senor Campbell was waiting for him. "The Campbells are coming!" he cheers as he ploughs on in his demolition of English-language writers from Shakespeare onwards. The text is footnoted with minor factual corrections, suggesting the blind Borges either didn't check the text or didn't care.

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Jenny Cockle interviews Isabel Allende.
My Chile is an idealised country, probably frozen in the 1970s; it's the old country where I grew up. Though I was born in Peru my parents were Chilean diplomats (the children of diplomats always take on the nationality of their parents) and we returned to Chile during my childhood to live in my grandfather's house in Calle Cueto, Santiago. That particular house really marked me. All my memories of Chile are rooted there. I suppose I've created a utopian country in my mind, the one you find in Pablo Neruda's poetry.

I returned to Chile recently to make a film for The South Bank Show. It's a different country now, especially Santiago. If you travel out of the city, you can still find some of the old-style Chilean hospitality and kindness that I remember. But Santiago has grown into a huge city of 6 million people; everybody is in such a hurry all the time, and there are terrible problems with traffic and smog. During filming, we took the funicular up the San Cristobel Hill. Fortunately, it was a beautiful sunny day and there was no smog, so we got a great view of the city. We could see the whole of Santiago.

Yet, in many ways, I think the country has changed for the better. For example, we now have excellent roads, great airlines and trains that run on time; it's a very efficient place. You might be robbed of a gold chain, but generally there's little violence. It's a safe, wonderful place for European tourists to visit.

In 10 years, Chile has lowered poverty from 39 per cent to 18 per cent, which is astonishing. It's a very prosperous country, yet there's still a gap between the very rich and the rest of the country, which I find appalling. There is a small group of billionaires who control the economy living up in the Santiago hills in gated communities. They live in another world. The country was much, much poorer when I lived there. Now, at least, you don't see all the shanty towns that used to surround the city.

Although I visit Chile three or four times a year, my home now is in Marin County, north of South Francisco. I've often said that I don't fit in anywhere but I almost feel at home in California. When I return to Chile I feel wonderful initially because I can speak with my native accent; I get the humour and all the little codes that you truly understand only in a place where you've grown up. I love all of that. Then after two weeks, I need to get out. There's no privacy because people recognise me in the street and although they are very kind, you can't work in that kind of atmosphere.

It's funny that Chileans look like such mellow people, but anything can spark off the terrible violence that's in our history. We descend from the Mapuche, one of the bravest tribes in Latin America. They were pacified in the 1800s but they never surrendered and I think that formed the spirit of the nation.

I've travelled all over the country - to Easter Island and Patagonia in the south and to the desert in the north. Chile is a great destination to explore but it's a long way away from Europe, so you'll need at least two weeks there.

There's not much of interest in Santiago, but about an hour and a half away is the coastal town of Isla Negra, where you can visit the former home of Neruda, now a museum. He was a collector of all kinds of junk. In his day I would have called it junk but now he's dead, it's "a collection". His poetry had a great influence on Chile. People go there to pay homage and some even stand and recite his poems by heart.

But if I were visiting Chile for the first time, I would go south, to the lakes, the forest, the volcanoes and the island of Chiloe, which is actually an archipelago. If I had more than two weeks, I would add the south of Patagonia, in particular the national park, Torres del Paine, which is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains. Fly to the city of Punta Arenas, and from there, drive for six or seven hours into Patagonia until you reach the wonderful eco-tourist park and hotel Torres del Paine. You need to stay for at least five days because there's such a lot to see: glaciers, mountains. It's the most beautiful landscape in the world. My son says the best part of Chile is the desert up in the north around San Pedro de Atacama; I agree that the desert is fantastic, but I don't think it's as stunning as the south.

Many people come to Chile during the summer in Europe or the US, because it's our winter and we can offer great winter sports. There is also some wonderful fishing to be had. In summer, there are lovely coastal towns to visit in the north such as Antofagasta and La Serena. These are picturesque little towns with beautiful beaches, but the water is really cold. In the south there are no real beaches but you can go to the lakes, which are beautiful. It's a wonderful sight to see the volcanoes reflected on the water.

I grew up in an area of Santiago called Providencia, where my parents still live. My happiest times were spent during the time I was living there, when I was working as a journalist on a magazine called Paula. I was young and still in love with my first husband, and we had two small children. We lived in a tiny house. We had no money, but at the time, the country was changing. The three years when my uncle Salvador Allende and his government were in power were so interesting. It was the beginning of the 1970s, with the sexual revolution, great music, hippies...

I stayed in Chile until about a year after the military coup of 1973, and although it was very sad to leave, I had no choice. I just couldn't have lived under Pinochet's regime. So I went to Venezuela for what I thought was going to be a short time - I never quite unpacked - but I ended up living there for 13 years.

Throughout that time, I was always looking south and hoping to return to Chile as soon as we had a democracy again. But by the time we did, I had met my second husband, William, and was living in the United States. I don't think about what my life would have been like if I'd stayed in Chile - you can't think like that. What if I'd stayed in Venezuela?

It feels natural to keep my Chilean history alive in my books. I don't ever say I'm going to write a book about this or that, but I sit down on 8 January each year and something comes to me. My first novel, The House of the Spirits, started off as a letter to my dying grandfather. And my book Paula started off as a letter to my daughter, who had fallen into a coma. I've just written a memoir based on the letters I've exchanged with my mother over many years. So letters are very important in my life.

I still love my work. I love telling stories and I love the silence that the story requires. I'm not a very social person. I'm not introverted or shy, but I enjoy my privacy and spending time alone. When I'm writing, I don't always feel in control because the story has a way of going in totally unexpected directions. As I work, the characters start shaping up in very different ways. People often want a happy ending but I can't do that. It's not about a happy ending or a bad ending; it's just an open ending. Tomorrow things may be different. Read More

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Amanda Heller reviews Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio
We have been here before, in the totalitarian brave new world of "Lost City Radio." This self-defeated place has no name, though that of the author's native Peru will do as well as any other.

The heroine of the novel, Norma, is her unhappy country's earth mother of the airwaves. On her radio show she reads aching messages from people looking for loved ones separated over years of war and disruption or, more likely, "disappeared" into the grasp of a vicious regime. What her listeners do not know is that Norma's husband, Rey, is among the missing. Rey has a second, secret life, which Norma suspects, as a member of the underground insurgency, and another about which she knows nothing until a boy from the exotic interior makes his way to the city seeking her help.

An expansive political fable, an urgent mystery, a story of doomed love: Daniel Alarcón has chosen no easy assignment for his first novel. Fortunately his talent is equal to the task. No one in the compromised world of "Lost City Radio" is as innocent as we suppose or as guilty as charged by a paranoid dictatorship. Alarcón relates this haunting tale in shades of gray, breaking the rules for concocting a fable but honoring those for conveying truth.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Harriet Paterson reviews Inés of My Soul by Isabel Allende.

Ferocious Indians and hostile geography were grist to the average conquistador's mill in the early 16th century. The real problem with organising an invasion of Chile was that there was no promise of gold. A disastrous expedition under Diego de Almagro in 1535 led to appalling hardship, many deaths, but worst of all, no treasure.

This makes Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror of Chile, even more pathologically single-minded than his contemporaries. Without the lure of riches, and with the grisly warnings of Almagro's survivors before them, no sensible Spaniard would have attempted another Chilean campaign. With fanatical obstinacy, Valdivia went anyway, lusting for glory, with just 10 soldiers and a group of Yanacona Indians.

History tells us that Valdivia also took along his mistress, Inés Suarez. This gives Isabel Allende her novel: the bloodthirsty tale of invading the Americas is familiar, but here it is told from a woman's viewpoint.

This should be a fascinating story. It took the invaders a whole year to cross the Andes and the Atacama desert, one of the most desolate places on earth. When founding Santiago, their new capital, in 1541, they faced terrifying numbers of Mapuche Indians, warriors so fearsome that even the powerful Inca had failed to subdue them. Six months after the settlement was built, the Mapuche razed it. To withstand all this, Suarez must have been quite a woman.

Unfortunately for us, she knows it. As protagonist and narrator, she is insufferably self-satisfied, listing her achievements without a shred of irony. She hectors the hapless reader with her skill as a lover, her wise decisions, her astounding courage, wit, political nous and so on. She chops her enemies' heads off, she makes great chiefs turn and run. Along with the Indians, she kills our sympathy stone dead.

The narrative meanwhile suffers from flashback fever, jumping to and fro as Suarez looks back over her life. Major outcomes are anticipated without ceremony, whisking tension out from under the main storyline.

Despite lashings of gore, the book remains a bloodless affair. None of the characters ever quite lifts off the page. Even Allende's magic realism is a ghost of its former self, with a dead husband showing up to no dramatic effect. Somewhere in the transition from Allende's obviously extensive research to the novel, a riproaring story of ambition, venality and ruthlessness has sadly lost its guts.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Emily Carter Roiphe reviews Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives".
Even satisfied adults will sometimes hear a train go by and become alert with desire: What would it be like to be in an open boxcar, the wind rushing through, the light shining, hurtling with an unknown purpose toward an unknown destination? It might be something like settling in to read Roberto Bolaño's combustible novel "The Savage Detectives." He remains cagey as to destination and reason, but his characters and their voices make the ride worthwhile.

From the first page it's evident that Bolaño, who was born in Chile and lived in Mexico, El Salvador and Spain before he died at 50 in 2003, is the godfather of the so-called dirty realist movement currently energizing South American literature. In fact, his main characters, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are themselves the masterminds of an amorphous literary genre called "visceral realism," and they are on a quest for their own poetry icon, a woman who has vanished or been "disappeared" by powerful forces. It's a quest that will take them on a worldwide journey from Mexico, through Europe and into the Congo. Their odyssey is described not so much by them as by the extensive carnival of people they meet, into whose voices Bolaño breathes opinionated, fallible, tragicomic life: visceral realism at work.

This book was published in 1998, late in Bolaño's career and late in his life, cut short by liver disease. His rattlesnake wit, however, keeps hissing.

At a poetry workshop attended by the serious 17-year-old narrator in the first section of the book, students read their poems and the teacher shreds or praises them according to his mood. Sometimes he lets the students critique one another. The narrator observes that "it was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment." Anyone who has ever taken a workshop and seen opinion ripple like a breeze through wheat in response to the teacher's comments will respond with a hoarse laugh of recognition -- and this is just the first of many sweet-and-sour surprises.

The narrative of this book stretches across the world and employs a great number of points of view, each with its own startling voice and strange, often tangential, story to tell. It's as vast as Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," but without that novel's stateliness. Bolaño could not care less about myth or tradition; what he wants is speed. As the poets chase their phantom across the world, the very real violence and corruption that surround them claw at any kind of meaning. Looking for logic in the midst of current events, says Bolaño, will only drive you mad.

Plot itself disintegrates under the weight of lies and chaos. In Bolaño's world, the only thing that keeps the disparate characters going is an underlying connection to and belief in the power of the written word. It's a small but sharp little weapon against the post-modern worldview, a view Bolaño continually engages in an uneasy dance. Perhaps it all means nothing. But if that is true, why write a 577-page book?

This glittering, tumbling diamond of a book was Bolaño's answer to chaos. With its strident, utterly believable characters and their stories, Bolaño sends a shot over the bow: When you are done with this book, you will believe there is no engine more powerful than the human voice. So don't worry about where the story is going. Listen to Bolaño's voice and marvel at the scope of his craft -- go along for the ride.

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Richard Wallace reviews Javier Cercas' "The Speed of Light".
Javier Cercas is a Spanish writer, author of the award-winning novel "Soldiers of Salamis" (2001), which was also made into a film. That novel, set in the final months and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, explored questions of loyalty and the nature of truth.

"The Speed of Light," published in Spain in 2005 and a huge best-seller there, is also about the legacies of war. Only this time the war is Vietnam.

In an August 2005 interview with the literary publication Criticas, Cercas said his novels begin with a single image, and the image for this one came while he was teaching at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. He saw a Vietnam vet sitting on a bench watching some children play ball, and Cercas wondered, "What was he doing there?"

In Cercas' novel, that real person becomes Rodney Falk, a middle-age war vet who has been forever damaged by his horrific experiences in the Vietnam War.

Cercas' narrator and Falk meet as instructors at the University of Illinois in the Spanish department. Rodney is a big, lumbering man who rarely talks to the other teachers. The two men become friends, talking literature and drinking beer on their off-hours. After winter break Rodney disappears, quitting his job and leaving the university in the lurch.

Visiting Rodney's father, the narrator learns how a bright, talented, young Midwestern kid became a haunted, lost adult.

Years later, back in Spain, the narrator, now a successful writer, meets Rodney again. Finally, he hears Rodney's version of a village massacre in Vietnam called "My Khe." Soon after, the narrator suffers a personal tragedy that links his fate to Rodney's life in ways he could not have foreseen.

Part detective story, partly a rumination on the writing process, Cercas' novel is about the pitfalls of fame and the nature of evil. What he does best is answer, with deep empathy and candor, how the nightmares of the past persist in the living.

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Alberto Manguel reviews Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas.
Shelley (and later Paul Valéry) suggested that all literature might be the work of a single Author and that, throughout the ages, writers have merely acted as His (or Her) amanuenses. A visit to any large bookshop today seems to confirm this thesis: an infinitude of almost identical accounts of Da Vinci conspiracy theories, immigrant life in London or Los Angeles, dysfunctional families in Brooklyn or Glasgow, offer readers the impression of bewildering déjà vu. If literature has one Author, it’s time for Her (or Him) to change subjects. The figure in the carpet is wearing thin.

Enter Enrique Vila-Matas. For the past 30 years, aware of the futility of telling interesting stories in a world bent on stolid repetition, Vila-Matas has chosen to construct his books out of bits and pieces of the available literature itself, renewing even the idea of collage or bricolage so dear to the practitioners of experimental art in the early 20th century. Vila-Matas, however, never gives the impression of experimenting; there’s no feeling of trial-and-error in his work. Rather, what he does is hold with the reader an intelligent conversation (monologue is perhaps a better word) made up of quotations, literary anecdotes, personal readings and startling associations, that build up an illuminating and brilliant farrago. If he has any ancestors, they belong to the 17th and 18th centuries: Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, Denis Diderot and Lawrence Sterne. All of Vila-Matas’s books have something of Tristram Shandy.

After several excellent books, admired almost secretly by a restricted group of readers, Vila-Matas achieved international fame in 2000 with Bartleby & Co., an exploration of the limits of literature through a catalogue of writers (real and imaginary) who, like Melville’s famous scrivener, ‘prefer not’ to write. Absence of literature is the subject of this book (just as absence of action is the subject of Sterne) and around that absence, Vila-Matas wove a splendid meditation on the morose nature of our time that, under the pretence of febrile activity and snappy urgency, sits and does nothing. Read More

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jessa Crispin interviews translator Anne McLean.

Roberto Bolaño appears to be the new author in translation to read. Who else should be getting attention?

It’s very exciting that Roberto Bolaño’s brilliant novel Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) has finally been translated into English. He’s a superb writer.

Bolaño actually features as a character in Soldiers of Salamis, well, a fictional version of him, that is. Cercas has a new novel, The Speed of Light, which I translated. Part of it is set in the States and we’re very curious to see what American readers make of it.

Enrique Vila-Matas is a Spanish author who I think deserves more attention in the English-speaking world, as does Edgardo Cozarinsky, a film-maker and writer from Buenos Aires, whose first novel The Moldavian Pimp is a compelling and haunting elegy for some of Argentina’s wilfully forgotten history.
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Reader Review: Pudor by Santiago Roncagliolo

This is a novel about intimacy, about the desires and the fears that we don't even confess to those we love, about the secrets we use to protect ourselves from others.

The charcaters are a man who's going to die, a woman who receives anonymous pornography, a boy who sees corpses and a cat that wants sex. Like many families, all the characters live together and the're all alone.

Sometimes it seems to be a very sad and sordid story, sometimes it seems like a comedy. It's what families and feelings have in common, they never agree.

(sent by David Blanco)

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Monday, April 16, 2007

"A sparse, restless ghost story that ushered in the surreal and influenced later magic realists."

Michael Ondaatje selected Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo" as one of the top 5 books of his life, in Newsweek's A Life in Books

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Book Review: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

John Freeman reviews Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio.

"One man's freedom fighter," Nelson Mandela famously argued, "is another's man's terrorist." In his debut novel, Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon reminds that one man's freedom fighter is probably another woman's husband, another boy's father, certainly another man's son.

Set in a fictional Latin American republic, Lost City Radio depicts the trauma inflicted upon a society when these fighters — be they vigilantes or soldiers on the side of the government — simply disappear.

The book takes its title from a popular radio show in what Alarcón describes as the nation's "provincial capital." Each Sunday, the station broadcasts the names of the disappeared. "The idea was simple. How many refugees had come to the city? How many of them had lost touch with their families? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?"

The voice connecting the lost with the found belongs to Norma, a brave, beautiful and damaged journalist whom Alarcón brings vividly to life. Her husband, Rey, has been missing for more than a decade.

A decade later, Norma still sleeps alone, facing the door to her bedroom, as if Rey might still come home in the night.

Lost City Radio then cycles backward to tell the story of the country's war, the way it fractured the committed from the fearful, the urban from the rural and the collaborators from the resisters.

Based on Alarcón's descriptions, the country might be Argentina or Chile or the author's native Peru — all countries racked by civil wars and state-sponsored disappearances.

But the observations this book makes aren't limited to Latin America, especially when it comes to the siren call of violence: "Before the war began, those of Norma's generation still spoke of violence with awe and reverence," Alarcón writes: "cleansing violence, purifying violence, violence that would spawn virtue."

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Scott Timberg on the publication of Bolaño's works and the new Latin American Literature.

While norteamericanos were rereading dog-eared copies of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera," a dyslexic, globe-trotting high-school dropout and ex-heroin addict was publishing the most celebrated Latin American novels in three decades.

Then, in 2003, he died.

But the reputation of the Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño, whose old pictures make him look like the guitar for a psychedelic garage band, continued to grow: Young Latin writers in particular sang his praises, and he became, in the Spanish-speaking world, the most admired author of his generation. Though he is still mostly unknown in the North, Bolaño's mystique in Latin America combines Allen Ginsberg's (lusty, nomadic poet), Thomas Pynchon's (difficult postmodern polymath) and Norman Mailer's (macho media provocateur).

Now the major works of Bolaño are appearing in the United States for the first time, four years after his death in Spanish Catalonia, at age 50, of a ruined liver. This month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish "The Savage Detectives" — a novel about a gang of young avant-garde poets that combines elements of the gangster film, the road movie and the private-eye story — with plans to bring out the gargantuan "2666" next year.

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Book Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Richard Eder reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

It is as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, vivid portrayers in their different ways of Latin America's violence and visions, had become their own extravagant protagonists. Instead each has written at a certain alleviating distance, and perhaps it is the distance that art requires to achieve itself, just as it takes a few inches of travel for a blow from a fist to hurt.

The Chilean Roberto Bolano, who died three years ago at 50 and is perhaps the outstanding figure of the successor generation, uses no distance or alleviation whatever. He jumps in.

His fiction, which has only recently been appearing in the US, can be stylistically elusive, but in essence it is chokingly direct. In the novella By Night in Chile, for instance, Bolano created a glittering and terrible deathbed confession by a Chilean literary critic who supported the Pinochet dictatorship through acquiescence and the quietest of tiny actions. "One must be very careful with one's silences," he says, since only God judges them. His own, he adds, "are immaculate."

The key to Bolano's work is an insistence that the writer must keep no scrim of art or craft between him and the brute reality of the world he lives in and addresses. If there is a theme that runs through the complex, numbingly chaotic and sinuously memorable Savage Detectives, his first long (very long) novel, it is that the pen is as blood-stained as the sword, and as compromised.

Bolano grew up in Mexico and returned to Chile out of enthusiasm for the Allende government, only to be briefly imprisoned after it was overthrown. He went back to Mexico to write and to goad its several literary establishments and eventually moved to Spain. He has created a protagonist who borrows much of this biography, even much of the name. He is Belano, a writer and the savage detective of the title.

Bolano has given his novel an odd tripartite structure. The first part, narrated by a young would-be poet, tells of his initiation into Belano's Visceral Realist movement (a hit off the magic realism of Garcia Marquez and others) and some graphically visceralist sex. It ends with his departure from Mexico City by car with Belano, another writer, and Lupe, a prostitute fleeing her pimp. Belano is seeking traces of Cesarea Tinajera, a poet who long ago belonged to a similar movement and went off to the Sonora desert in the 1920s.

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Book Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

James Wood reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño's reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, "The Savage Detectives," will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño's name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño's extraordinary novella "By Night in Chile." This wonderfully strange Chilean imaginer, at once a grounded realist and a lyricist of the speculative, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, has been acknowledged for a few years now in the Spanish-speaking world as one of the greatest and most influential modern writers. Those without Spanish have had to rely on the loyal intermittence of translation, beginning with "By Night in Chile" (2003), two more short novels — "Distant Star" (2004) and "Amulet" (2007) — and a book of stories, "Last Evenings on Earth" (2006), all translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.

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Book Review: Nada by Carmen Laforet

Fernanda Eberstadt reviews Carmen Laforet's Nada.

I have to admit that, until a month ago, I had never heard of Carmen Laforet. The idea that there might be a lone woman in what seems the unrelievedly male pantheon of Spanish novelists of the post-Civil War era - an era which to outsiders, as Mario Vargas Llosa writes in his introduction to "Nada," seems to reek of "fustiness, sacristy and Francoism" - was like discovering an extra story built in a house you thought you knew.

"Nada" was Laforet’s first novel. It was originally published in 1945, when its author was 23, and it created a sensation in Barcelona. It has now been reissued in a new translation by Edith Grossman, and more than 60 years later the book’s odd charm is undiminished.

"Nada" recounts, in coolly understated first-person prose, the experiences of Andrea, an 18-year-old orphan from the provinces who arrives in Barcelona to stay with her dead mother’s relatives while she attends university.

Laforet makes us feel the force of this young woman’s long pent-up hunger to escape the oppressiveness of village life and her convent education. For years, Andrea has feasted on childhood memories of her maternal grandparents’ apartment in Barcelona, a haven of sophistication and ease from which she, because of her parents’ death and the war, has long been cut off.

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Book Review: Delirium by Laura Restrepo

Terrence Rafferty reviews Laura Restrepo's Delirium.

Laura Restrepo writes about Colombia, her native land, but she spends a good deal of her time in Mexico, and to read her latest novel, "Delirium," is to understand why. Most of the action takes place in the Colombian capital, Bogotá — a city, one character says, "where everyone's at war with everyone else" — at a time when the whole country seems either insane or, perhaps worse, in love with insanity and helpless to change. Although Restrepo doesn't specify the year, it appears to be 1983: "E.T." and "Flashdance" are in the movie theaters, Ronald Reagan is president of the United States, and the most powerful man in Colombia is Pablo Escobar, darkly presiding over the vast cocaine empire of Medellín. Escobar "doesn't like being called the King of Coca," though; according to someone who knows him, "he prefers Father of the Nation." And "Delirium" is about his nation of frightened, maddened children, the Colombia he sired.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

John Lichfield previews Manoel de Oliveira's "Belle Toujours".

One of the great classics of erotic cinema for the thinking man - and woman - is revisited in a French-Portuguese movie released in France this week.

Belle Toujours, directed by Manoel de Oliveira, has two of the same principal characters as the Luis Bunuel movie, Belle de Jour, made in 1967. It is not a re-make, but an exploration of the memories, fantasies, frustrations and regrets of the same characters, 40 years later. (...)

In Belle de Jour, which was based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, Séverine is a young, beautiful and wealthy doctor's wife who becomes a prostitute during the day to exorcise her sexual fantasies. In the new movie, she is widowed and about the enter a convent. She agrees to a final meeting over dinner with Husson - a friend of her husband who had helped, and exploited her, in her secret life 40 years earlier. Belle Toujours has had enthusiastic reviews in the French press. The critic for Le Monde described it as a "pitiless examination" of "human perversity". (...)

In the new movie, which is expected to appear in Britain in the autumn, Husson spots Séverine again after many years, at a concert in Paris. He tries to arrange a meeting with her but she eludes him.

Finally, just before she enters a convent, she agrees to meet Husson to discuss what happened four decades before. Most of all, she wants him to answer a question which is still torturing her: did her husband know about her clandestine activities?

Sequels to movies are commonplace, but sequels whose action takes place four decades later are almost unknown.

Le Monde described the new movie as a tribute to Bunuel. It said that the Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, had the same "taste for frustrated love and unsolved enigmas, for the secrets of virgin and profaned bodies".

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Interview with Isabel Allende

Elaine Ayala interviews Isabel Allende.

From her Marin County home in San Rafael, Allende — who, as niece of former Chilean president Salvador Allende, lived for a while in exile, traveled the world as the stepdaughter of a diplomat, and was once fired from her job as a book translator for changing endings to better reflect women — spoke with flair and humor about her life and work.

Q. Your main figures are strong women. Are they ever weak in your world?

A. More than strong, they dare take a risk. They feel that they don't belong. They're poor and have no place in the establishment. Most of my strong heroines make terrible decisions. They're so stubborn. They have to have extraordinary lives. Weak people don't make good characters. They make good former spouses.

Q. What were your favorite books as a child and young adult?

A. I grew up in a house full of books and in an adult world. There was no censorship and no special books
Picasso and Brice Marden
for kids. So by age 9 or 10, I was reading adult books. The works of Shakespeare was the first book my stepfather gave me. The first time I read it, I couldn't keep track of the characters. So I drew them on pieces of cardboard, and I moved the characters around. Then I could understand the plot. I knew nothing of the language. The same thing happened a little later with Russian novels. Then (as a teen) I started reading a lot of science fiction. I read the Latin American writers later because they were not available until then.

Q. Why?

A. Many of the great writers were writing in their own countries and were being published by local publishers. The works stayed in the countries. In Spain, Franco censored all Spanish writers. So Barcelona publishers were looking for (Spanish-language) writers and found this well of incredible literature in Latin America. They exported books back to Latin America. Among them was Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Donoso, Octavio Paz. All the great writers of the boom. Twenty of them at least were published in Barcelona.

Q. Name some of your favorite contemporary books?

A. I read three or four books a week or more. The latest is by Khaled Hosseini who wrote "The Kite Runner," which has been on best-selling lists. He wrote another novel called "A Thousand Splendor Suns." This is what I have on my desk this very minute. Tomorrow I will have other favorites.
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Book Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Patrick R. Chesnut reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

There’s only one question more agonizing than “You go to Harvard?”, and that’s the inevitable follow-up: “What are you studying?” Say English or Hist and Lit and watch admiration turn to disappointment as eyebrows furrow to let you know that, at best, you’re wasting your abilities, and at worst, you’re wasting your life. Literature, we’re told, is a nice, even necessary diversion, but it’s not real life.

Roberto Bolaño begs to differ. As a young man, Bolaño gave up everything to pursue a life in poetry, believing that one should take poetry as seriously as he takes life, that if the author lived what he wrote, the reader would live it, too. This absurd, desperate, noble idea is at the heart of “The Savage Detectives,” a book so good that it is not only its own justification, but a justification for literature itself.

Due in large part to this novel—the 1998 winner of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos prize, now available in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer—Bolaño, who died in 2003, became known as the most important and influential novelist in the Spanish-speaking world, a writer mentioned in the same breath as Borges and García Márquez.

Unlike the other demigods of the literary canon, though, Bolaño seems like a guy you could meet on the street, not a monument cast in bronze. This is the lifelong iconoclast who dropped out of school at 15, stole the books he read, attended poetry readings only to shout down those he disdained, and led an outlaw band of avant-garde poets. This is the life he idealizes in “The Savage Detectives.”

The semi-autobiographical novel begins with a series of journal entries by Juan García Madero, a 17-year-old law school dropout who falls in with a group of poets calling themselves the “visceral realists” (the fictional counterparts to Bolaño’s “infrarealists”). García Madero becomes deeply involved in their bohemian lifestyle but is eventually forced to flee Mexico City with the group’s leaders, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (fictional stand-ins for Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago), as they seek to escape the violence that haunts them and to find a ghost from the past.

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Boyd Tonkin writes about Spanish literature at the London Book Fair.

In literary terms, the British market may well rank as the terrain of hard-headed Sancho Panzas rather than high-minded Don Quixotes. All the same, it has hosted plenty of leading Spanish writers over recent years. Whatever one feels about the artistic merits (or otherwise) of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, that labyrinthine Barcelona potboiler managed to sell a Richard-and-Judy-assisted seven-figure total in English - almost unprecedented for a translation.

Mid-market blockbusters and mysteries from novelists such as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Almudena Grandes, Enrique de Hériz and José Carlos Somoza (the latter pair both Earl's Court visitors) appear at regular intervals. Elsewhere, we can enjoy such outstanding talents as Manuel Rivas, Juan Marsé, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Cercas (winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Soldiers of Salamis) and the absurdly gifted Javier Marías, who is shortlisted for this year's Independent prize for the middle volume in his "Your Face Tomorrow" trilogy, Dance and Dream.

And this is not to mention that crucial cohort of Spanish-domiciled writers who have Latin American origins. The posthumous leader of this pack remains Roberto Bolaño, raised in Chile but based in Catalonia for many years until his death in 2003. His stock across the Hispanic world now stands Andes-high. This spring, a collection of stories from Harvill Secker (Last Evenings on Earth) and an epoch-making novel from Picador (The Savage Detectives) should make this ever-rising star shine a little more brightly over here.

So, in the perennially thin soil of British translation, Spanish fiction achieves a breadth - if not depth - of coverage with few counterparts in other European cultures. In general, this is a healthy trend. Broad-appeal romps, epics and sagas have a part to play in cultural exchange, just as towering literary landmarks do. However, publishers can take this welcome naturalisation of the foreign text just a shade too far.

Fans of bravado with brains will relish the latest volume to appear here in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "Captain Alatriste" series of Dumas-style swashbuckling adventures. The Sun over Breda (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) sends Alatriste and his daredevil comrades to Flanders in 1625. There they face down the Calvinist rebels - and their cocky English allies - and reveal the chaotic reality behind Velázquez's suspiciously serene painting, "The Surrender at Breda". It would, no doubt, be in poor taste to say that the rip-roaring finale reminded me of the aftermath of a make-or-break Champions League tie.

Pérez-Reverte in this mode is always more than just a doublet-and-dagger yarn-spinner. The Sun over Breda deftly touches on the fabrication of history out of memory, myth and propaganda as it delivers its pleasantly reeking cartload of genre shocks and spectacles. That makes it even more of a puzzle that I can find no mention of his trusty translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, in the British edition of this book. Does the publisher really think that Anglophone readers ready to enjoy the English team getting thrillingly minced by a last-minute Spanish comeback will take fright at the sight of a translator's name? Pardiez - shame on the lily-livered house of Weidenfeld!

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Book Review: The Sun over Breda by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Erik Spanberg reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Sun over Breda.

"The Sun Over Breda," the third installment of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's delightful series of swashbuckling novels, once again focuses on the reluctantly heroic Captain Alatriste, a mercenary in the Spanish Army and a sword-for-hire in 17th-century Madrid.

This time out, the narrator is Inigo Balboa, a teenager taken in by Alatriste as a favor to a fallen comrade. He recounts the horror and drudgery of a protracted Spanish military campaign in Flanders and offers an extended meditation on a subsequent art mystery. The latter centers on Diego Velazquez's "The Surrender of Breda," a painting which may or may not have included Alatriste amid the high-ranking officials depicted in it. Balboa, meanwhile, remains awed and baffled by the taciturn captain.

The story glides between witty sonnets and nods to Cervantes and the hardened truths and miseries of siege and battle with ample vanity, unrequited romance, and personal rivalry added for good measure. Soldiers contend with lice, gaping wounds, confused battles, empty purses, and poor rations. Boredom and lack of action provide little respite, either. As Balboa reminds the reader, "Fear and watchfulness are bad companions to repose." Once again, Balboa and Alatriste remain good companions to dashing literary fun.

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Book Review: Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa

Jason Wilson reviews Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The South American liberator Francisco de Miranda warned us to "trust no man over the age of 40 unless you can be sure he is fond of reading". Despite standing in Peru's presidential elections and deriding Castro, Grass and many others, you can trust Mario Vargas Llosa, another kind of liberator, as a reader.

Touchstones, the name given to his regular, syndicated column that literally touches on everything, is a follow-up to Making Waves (1996), also edited and serenely translated by John King. These essays are a novelist's account of the world as he sees it. Few would question Vargas Llosa's utterly believable fictional worlds. He documents carefully, has a perfect ear for register and slang, and plot and narrative techniques merge to baffle the reader's anticipations. His language does not draw attention to itself in its creation of imaginary worlds, and he brings this enviable clarity to his journalism.

However, there is a loss of intensity in these wide-ranging essays. It could be that Vargas Llosa has conceptualised his thinking before writing so that there are areas that function as a shorthand for complex processes, like the "truth of lies". He assumes that reading is always a vicarious experience; that it's therapeutic to abandon the self and live through others. This thinking doesn't figure in the fiction.

So these more intellectual essays reveal a reasonable writer who makes sense through low-key narratives about the real world. A large section is devoted to his account of a visit to Iraq in June 2003, with his daughter. What convinces here are the stories he hears, the incidents, the mindless destruction; not his ideas. At the outset he opposed the invasion; this journalistic foray changed his opinions as he learnt first-hand about life under Saddam.

Even more impressive is how Vargas Llosa starts from a cosmopolitan Peruvian position, often in critical dialogue with Paris, so that his range of references astounds readers more attuned to national traditions. Just listing the novels that he re-read while campaigning for the presidency in 1990 is a lesson: Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, Mrs Dalloway, Nadja, La Condition Humaine, Tropic of Cancer and six more. In that list, there's only one Peruvian novel.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Richard Eder reviews Roberto Bolaños "The Savage Detectives"

Mr. Bolaño has given his novel an odd tripartite structure. The first part, narrated by a young would-be poet, tells of his initiation into Belano’s Visceral Realist movement (a hit off the magic realism of García Márquez and others) and some graphically visceralist sex. It ends with his departure from Mexico City by car with Belaño, another writer, and Lupe, a prostitute fleeing her pimp. Belano is seeking traces of Cesárea Tinajera, a poet who long ago belonged to a similar movement and went off to the Sonora desert in the 1920s.

Skipping to the third part: the party searches through a dozens of desolate Sonora hamlets. Belano’s (and Bolaño’s) visceral realism means evoking the obscure and humble — the children of darkness — while pillorying the children of light who flourish in the precincts of art, power and wealth.

Eventually the searchers come upon Cesárea, who dropped her writer’s scrim to join the viscerally real world, harsh and extravagant by turns. Successively she had taken up with a bullfighter, taught school, sold herbs at country fairs and now, grown enormously fat, works as a village washerwoman. We read of a vengeful pursuit by Lupe’s pimp, and a bloody showdown where Belano becomes a knife fighter.

Bulking between these two moving parts — one an amiable but distracted ramble; the other a tense, implacable advance — is a 400-page middle section, more than twice as long as the others put together.

Narrative stops. Or rather, giving way to many dozens of mini-narratives, it replaces forward motion with a kind of tour, the kind Dante took of the Inferno. In this instance it is a tour of characters and attitudes in a Mexican literary scene that is a fools’ carnival of futility; one that Bolaño uses to suggest a more general futility of such scenes in Latin America and beyond.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Review: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

Laura Axelrod reviews Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio.

The most striking quality of Daniel Alarcon's book, "Lost City Radio," is the depth of artistry in his prose. This is a book that is not only meant to be read, but also experienced.

It begins in a South American country, at a radio station deep in a war-torn city. A young boy appears with a list of those missing from his village. He is told to look for the host of a radio show about missing people. Perhaps Norma will read his list on the air and villagers will be reunited.

The reasons for the war are unstated. What the rebels believed is never made clear. This intentional vagueness leaves readers to focus on the effects of the war - the random disappearances, ID checks and spying, the lost people.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: Las Soldaderas by Elena Poniatowska

Martin Winchester reviews Elena Poniatowska's Las Soldaderas.

Women in combat may seem a recent phenomenon to some, but to students of the Mexican Revolution the role of women in battle has long since been known. For nearly a century, though, these soldaderas have been buried deep in the background of nostalgia, far behind more recognizable figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

Celebrated Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska brings these heroines of history to the forefront with a summary of their contributions accompanied by an impressive collection of black and white photographs in Las Soldaderas.

The term soldadera originates from the word for the salary soldiers paid female servants to carry out domestic chores while they were in camp, on the road, or away in battle. Gathering firewood, making tortillas, and making sure gunpowder didn’t get wet quickly turned into actual fighting as the male casualties climbed and the ranks of revolutionists were depleted.

The book brings to life some of the most impressive participants of the Mexican Revolution.

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Book Review: Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Natasha Walters reviews Isabel Allende's Inés of My Soul.

Isabel Allende's early fiction, particularly The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, had an emotional warmth about it that readers found hugely compelling. Together with the fey twists and turns of magical realism - which you either love or you loathe - her ebullient inventiveness led inevitably to comparisons with García Márquez.

Some of her latest work, however, has not been so successful, and for me, this novel dips to a new low. Here, Allende is working with historical reconstruction, and perhaps it is the constraints being laid on her imagination that make this such a lumpy, indigestible read. I'm not qualified to say how far this tale of the 16th-century consort of Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror of Chile, accords to the historical record, but I'd guess that it stays pretty close. Yet although dates, names and battles may be in place, the work of bringing the events to life has eluded Allende. The Inés Suárez who narrates the book is not a person, but simply a cloak of rhetoric thrown over a series of historical happenings, and her almost supernatural abilities - to seduce, cook, heal, dowse for water - while never actually magical, are never actually convincing either.

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Although a bit off-topic here's a review of Milan Kundera's The Curtain where he tells of an encounter with Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar in Prague.

During a conversation with a French acquaintance he is eager not to let his account of life in Prague under Soviet surveillance dip into the syrupy sweet “aesthetic evil” of kitsch. As the dominant style in the 19th century, kitsch was understood by Central Europeans as the tyranny of over-blown Romanticism. Kundera describes an episode that could be found in one of his novels: an apartment swap with a womanizing friend that befuddles the Soviet spies as well as the friend’s multiple lovers. The ensuing icy response to the light treatment of a heavy subject is chalked up to the Frenchman’s own distaste for the vulgar, his nation’s equivalent of kitsch. The two men are held apart not by their respective native languages, but by a cultural barrier that is deeply engrained within their national literary consciousness. As an antidote to this story of national differences Kundera describes a memorable encounter with Latin American writers, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar, when the trio visited Prague in the early days of the Russian occupation. “We would talk and a bridge—silvery, light, quivering, shimmering—formed like a rainbow over the century between my little Central Europe and the immense Latin America; a bridge that linked Matyas Braun’s ecstatic statues in Prague to the mad churches of Mexico.” For Kundera, the experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude moves from a free-flowing appraisal of magical realism, into an analysis of historical and social continuities between two countries traumatized by centuries of invasion.
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Roberto Bolaño's review roll. Suddenly the reviews started popping.
Charles Oberndorf reviews The Savage Detectives and Amulet.
In 1998, Roberto Bolaño's novel, "The Savage Detectives," galva nized a Hispanic literary world mired in magical realism. In the nine years that followed, the novel's reputation only grew, and its author, who died in 2003, nearly has been deified. Natasha Wimmer's very fine translation finally brings the work to readers of English.

First of all, "The Savage Detectives" is a masterpiece, but unlike other postwar masterworks, it doesn't proclaim its importance right away. "The Tin Drum," "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Midnight's Children" all open with strong narrative voices and linguistically rich sentences.

"The Savage Detectives" opens in the voice of 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, and all the narrators that follow speak in plain language. Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Salman Rushdie board their characters on history's train and send their protagonists directly out into pivotal moments of their country's history. Anton Chekhov is the Russian ghost who hovers over Bolaño's shoulder, as his characters walk ordinary city streets, history being the abyss just below the surface.

Bob Thompson reviews The Savage Detectives.
So here's what you're up against if you're an American publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux trying to persuade readers to shell out $27 for the first English translation of Roberto Bolaño's nearly 600-page novel, "The Savage Detectives," just out this week.

You've got to introduce them to an author of indeterminate nationality of whom, it is safe to say, 99 percent of Americans have never heard. The Chilean-born Bolaño spent most of his adult life in Mexico and Spain; he liked to call the Spanish language his homeland.

You've got to sell the book in a crowded market notoriously resistant to literature in translation. You've got to sell it without benefit of author interviews in newspapers or blogs, on television or NPR, because your author isn't around to do them: Bolaño died of liver disease, at 50, in 2003.

Most important, you've got to explain why the heck readers should want to spend large chunks of their scarce leisure time in the company of Bolaño's scruffy, combative protagonists: two obscure poets who, in the novel's key plot juncture, leave Mexico City for the Sonoran Desert -- pursued, as it happens, by an enraged pimp -- on a quest to track down an even more obscure poet from a previous generation. Bolaño never portrays the marginal lives and literary passions of the pair directly. They are glimpsed, instead, through the retrospective testimony of more than 50 narrators who have, however briefly, encountered them.

Thomas McGonigle reviews The Savage Detectives.
Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives" is a deeply satisfying, yet overwhelming reading experience. Ostensibly about two poets and their search for another poet who has mysteriously disappeared, the novel becomes nothing less than a broad portrait of the Hispanic diaspora, spreading from Central and South America to Israel, Europe, Africa and every place in between, from the late 1960s through the 1990s.

Bolaño, a Chilean novelist and poet who died in 2003, is not entirely unknown in the United States. Three previous works of fiction have been published in English to wide acclaim — a book of stories, "Last Evenings on Earth," and two novels, "By Night in Chile" and "Distant Star," that are short, obsessive monologues set during the bleak days of the Pinochet regime in Chile. But, before going on, let's be honest. You may have noticed a little detail in the book information above that stopped you: 578 pages. You and I — time-bound creatures that we are — may share the same question: Is this novel worth our commitment?

To answer, consider the score of voices that make up "The Savage Detectives." We hear from poets, prostitutes, revolutionaries and lovers, and aging editor-poet Amadeo Salvatierra, who recalls for us a long visit by two friends, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, years ago. It becomes clear that they are the detectives of the title, and that "savage" refers to their ragged youth. On that visit, they are accompanied by a few other artist friends — they call themselves the "visceral realists" — all looking for poet Cesárea Tinajero, the group's inspiration.

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Book Review: Delirium by Laura Restrepo

Maya Muir reviews Laura Restrepo's Delirium.

Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo's new book, "Delirium," poses as a mystery: Why has Bogota beauty Augustina Londono gone mad, and how did she come to be found delirious in a room at the Wellington Hotel?

The answers unfold within four fractured narratives of three generations of the Londono family and the people around them. Clever revelations, withheld to the final pages, provide answers. But Augustina, the reader discovers, has always been a little unhinged like her grandfather before her, and the mystery adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Also Augustina's delirium simply -- but conveniently -- fades without much reason at the story's end.

The more-interesting delirium Restrepo delineates is the drug-corrupted society of 21st-century Colombia. A character describes Bogota as "this city where everyone's at war with everyone else." Random bombings and kidnappings occur daily; the countryside is punctuated by zones so dangerous that the military withdraws by midafternoon each day; and the social elite have become eager puppets of the drug lords.

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