Tuesday, November 27, 2007

José Luís Peixoto: Blank Gaze

Daniel Hahn reviews José Luís Peixoto' "Blank Gaze".
An unnamed village in the Alentejo region, southern Portugal. Its inhabitants are rural, and poor – some are desperate, some more or less resigned, but all are poor.

Among them are the old twins joined at a little finger, identical, with identical gaits and postures, and (though they don't know this) an identical number of white hairs on their heads; and Old Gabriel, who is 120 when the story begins and then proceeds to age several decades further. And then there's the cook who falls in love, and starts making exquisite little figures out of her food. The feuding cousins, and the local priest – more frequently known as "the devil" – who torments them. A master carpenter and the blind prostitute who becomes his bride. There's a voice speaking from inside the old trunk in the big house. And there's a man in a windowless room, writing.

In presenting these characters and the vignettes that constitute their lives, novelist José Luís Peixoto pulls off a impressive and unusual feat; he creates characters who are archetypes, and yet simultaneously ones who are drawn in sufficient detail to demand (and earn) the sympathy of his readers.

The characters are general – many, the women especially, are denied even a name – but the descriptions of their stories and their sufferings are sometimes dreadfully particular. Just look closely at the lips of that tiny stillborn child... Life may seem a shared, common, endlessly repeated experience, but death is a particular, personal and lonely one.

Peixoto does give us weddings as well as funerals, though; there are moments of joyful news, new homes, happy births, unions and reunions, moments showing the unthinking tenderness of lovers, of parents and children. And there are pauses, of something like peace; peace that is hot and dry and grimly poor, but peaceful, at least – and then, out of this seeming stillness, burst other moments that are stark and startlingly brutal. The author gives us agonised death in childbirth, as well as fires, beatings and terrible suicides.

It's these images of grief that are the most vivid – it's death, but given to us as a vivid, lived experience, thanks to some intensely beautiful writing packed with startling and memorable images. (A giant's hand on display in church, anyone?)

Sadness and death, and the awful inevitabilities in each character's story, resonate throughout Richard Zenith's well-pitched translation. But the trust required by the author to follow his fragmented and claustrophobic tale is amply repaid; his bold, incantatory prose is consistently beautiful – apparently simple but also incredibly rich and resonant.

Voices are echoed in other voices, and the dialogue pulses along within it all, undifferentiated. The storytelling role passes between an external narrator and first-person characters and back again; the narrator's own wise words are picked up later and repeated by the characters, as though these portentous lines, these profound thoughts, are out there, abstracted from their lives, just humming in the air, like great discovered truths...

That even these weighty lines are moving and thought-provoking, rather than (as well might have been) tiresomely over-zealous or pretentious, is further testament to the author's considerable skills.

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Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Amy Linden reviews Junot Diaz' "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao".
Not sure if them there literary folks call it a comeback. But when you write a book, said book blows up, (and upon doing so breaks more ground than a jackhammer, as well as garnering unanimous acclaim), chances are good that when the author returns, his new book will be greeted with mad attention, anticipation and maybe even (to keep the alliteration going), apprehension.

Eleven years after his masterful collection of short stories, "Drown," Junot Diaz, the once and future king of Dominican American fiction, has returned: not only with his first full length novel, but possibly - hell, definitely - one of the best books you will ever read in your whole damn life. Period.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is blindingly good - loaded with warmth, keen observation, biting political and social commentary and the sort of humor that makes you laugh out loud, and then pause to reflect on what was so funny. Diaz peppers his narrative with Spanglish, breaks it down with a flow to give Jigga sleepless nights, offers a brutal history and most of all, more of the people in Oscar's wondrous life.

Above all, this is a saga about family. The roots. The aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. The ties that bind. The generational pull and the traditions and superstitions - in this case the curse of the Fuku- and just what it means to truly love, consequences and all. Motivating this socio-economic sit-com/Dominican "Dynasty" are some vibrant and unforgettable folks. There's Oscar's sister Lola, a heartbreaker who masks her sexual siren's call by becoming the neighborhood's first Dominican Goth. There's Oscar's and her moms, Belicia - a former DR beauty queen whose bombshell looks and "dear diary" naiveté results in the kind of damage that will never be repaired. There's dedicated homeboy, relentless skirt chaser and Oscar's BFF, Yunior (a holdover from "Drown," as well as a wisecracking stand-in for Diaz himself) and, of course, the man-child in the vortex of everything swirling around him, Oscar; an overweight, virgin, comic-book-collecting, JR Tolkien-obsessed, sweet-natured, pathetically romantic nerd who spend his days looking for love in all the wrong places.

The book is set in NYC's little DR, Washington Heights, Patterson, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic: both present and horrific past tense, back when its citizens were terrorized by the bloodthirsty dictator Rafael Trujillo. But the infusion of pure evil doesn't read as despair, at least not all of the time. Diaz's powerful prose turns ugly into beauty, painful into triumphant and ordinary into revelatory. Oh yeah. The prose. People. Check the technique. Describing a particularly deadly cop Diaz writes, "He was one of those tall, arrogant, acerbically handsome niggers that most of the planet feels inferior to. Also one of those very bad men that not even post modernism can explain away." What?! But without being all experimental or obtuse or literary on your ass (this is one of the most user-friendly of "important" works you will come across), Diaz pushes and pushes and then goes to Staples and gets himself another damn envelope - one big enough to contain the magic and mayhem contained within The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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Love in the Time of Cholera directed by Mike Newell

Ryan Stewart reviews Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera".
Great literature is dumbed down to drippy soap opera in Mike Newell's adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. Set in Colombia between the 1870s and the 1930s, the story follows a born romantic named Florentino Ariza (played in teen years by Unax Ugalde and in adulthood by the great Javier Bardem) who never forgets his first love, Fermina (Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno) even as he becomes the Latin Neil Strauss, bedding several hundred women and dutifully recording his conquests in a notebook. Having lost Fermina to the straight arrow Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) in his youth, Florentino vows the ultimate romantic gesture — he will quietly outlive his rival, however long that takes, and then renew his pursuit of Fermina.

To say Newell has no feel for Márquez 's voice would be a kind understatement. Instead of spilling the author's vaunted magical realism onto the screen the way, say, Guillermo del Toro might, or exploring the "rationalism vs. romanticism" battle represented by the leading men, the director seems taxed by the demands of simply filming the wide-ranging, ethereal book. Scene after dry, airless scene is ticked off in a workmanlike manner, and though we occasionally hear a Márquez zinger — "My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse" — we feel none of the weight of his cold, time-averse passions or recognize his obsessions, such as keeping the spirit vital as the body diminishes. Instead of wrestling these abstractions onto the screen, Newell simply boils Cholera down to a one-dimensional Romeo & Juliet knock-off, awash in passionate glances, pained outbursts and chest-beating Shakira ballads.

The damage caused by the director's inexplicable reliance on melodrama can't be overstated, as it turns multiple scenes into unintentional comedy sketches. Consider an early one, in which Dr. Urbino makes a house call on Fermina to assess fears that she may be infected with cholera. As Urbino enters the room, the camera locks on both of their gazes, after which Urbino strides across the room and aggressively yanks open Fermina's shirt, exposing her breasts before smushing his head into them in a faux-diagnostic gesture. Or consider the scene where Florentino and his mother both explode into tears over his inability to find love and they have a good, long cry while we, the audience, sink down in our seats in embarrassment.

There's no "on the other hand" coming, but if there was, it would revolve around Bardem, who at least tries for a relatable performance as the dogged dreamer who hopes in vain to recapture Fermina's affections, despite her being "cured" of her own romanticism by Dr. Urbino. As Cholera wears on, Florentino goes about making his living in a telegraph office, entangles himself in romantic dalliances with non-Ferminas and shoots the breeze with his uncle, played by Hector Elizondo, sporting some impressively bushy mutton chops. This twinkly eyed character, on hand to give advice to his lovelorn nephew, is a variance on the persona Elizondo has recreated continuously since 1990's Pretty Woman, but I suppose it works.

What doesn't work at all — saving the worst for last — is a ship-sinking performance by John Leguizamo as Lorenzo, the disapproving father of Fermina who scuttles her early courtship with Florentino. Putting aside the weird fact that Leguizamo and Mezzogiorno are more or less contemporaries in age, I've rarely seen an actor so jarringly out of step with his role. Leguizamo doesn't recite his dialogue so much as he spits it out in a weirdly affected, stuttering voice that has the feel of something improvised seconds before the camera rolled. Why did Newell allow this? Could the once-promising director of Donnie Brasco not be bothered to pull Leguizamo aside and ask him not to single-handedly derail his film? Love in the Time of Cholera isn't enough of a pitfall to slow down the Bardem juggernaut, but Newell should choose his next project more carefully.

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Love in the Time of Cholera directed by Mike Newell

Roger Moore reviews "Love in the Time of Cholera".
They've gotten an entertaining movie out of Gabriel García Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." But it's also one of those epic miscalculations that Hollywood makes, every so often, to let us know that, no, they haven't necessarily read the book. Well, not all of it.

A spotty skip through a 50-year love triangle set in Colombia, it's a morally murky tale of undying love, unrepentant promiscuity, a South American "Great Gatsby" that utterly loses track of its tragedy and the big cholera metaphor at its heart.

Bells are ringing in 1930s Cartagena. An old man (Javier Bardem) rolls the naked coed off him and says that "a pretty big fish" must have died. He figures out who that was in an instant. It was the beloved doctor (Benjamin Bratt), who married the dirty old man's lifelong love (Giovanna Mezzogiorno).

But now she's available. He dresses and goes to profess his "51 years, nine months and four days" torch for her, only to be rejected.


Thus begin the flashbacks to the late 1870s, the "time of cholera" of the title. That's when Florentino first met Fermina, when her father forbids her from marrying the poor telegraph messenger who woos his "crowned goddess" with letters in purple prose. Florentino isn't taking the father's warnings seriously.

"There is no greater glory than to die for love." She is sent away, only to read his forbidden telegrams with the help of her too-saucy cousin (Catalina Moreno Sandino, terrific). He wastes away so much that his mother (the great Fernanda Montenegro) fears it is cholera. When Fermina comes down with the same lovesickness, the doctor makes his entrance, and you can see her father's greed sucking in through his crooked teeth. Here is her proper match.

Bratt, looking dapper, sophisticated and regal, is well-cast as the educated man who sets his top hat for Fermina. But Mezzogiorno starts out bland and blank-faced, no one's idea of a "love at first sight" prize.

Director Mike Newell settles on his movie's tone when he put Hector Elizondo in the role of Florentino's rich, whimsical uncle. "Love in the Time of Cholera" becomes something of a farce from the moment Elizondo makes his entrance, as Florentino drowns his lovesickness in mostly comical sexual conquests, which he tabulates and documents in his diaries.

You don't have to have read this Oprah Book Club selection to see that they've shortchanged the doctor who somehow saved the city from cholera, that Florentino's journey from stricken to sad but sexually sated is meant to be more than mere farce, and that Mezzogiorno doesn't have the charisma or sex appeal to carry her third of the movie.

With its overwrought romance and stumbling timeline and international cast (including Liev Schreiber), all speaking Spanish-accented English, this is like a Spanglish "Memoirs of a Geisha," more a marketing package than a movie.

But all that said, there's enough to make this feast worth sitting through, and best of all, make you want to read the book.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Andrew Fersch reviews Junot Diaz’s "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao".
Oscar De Leon’s life is interesting, maybe not necessarily wondrous, though. Oscar is the textbook definition of a tragic character — an overweight, science-fiction obsessed super-nerd who is unable to fulfill his Dominican manliness by scoring a lady — he’s just not a particularly captivating one. Thankfully, in Junot Diaz’s first full length novel, The “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Oscar isn’t really the main character.

A short story writer originally, Diaz seems to run into a bit of trouble keeping his various characters’ stories connected throughout the book. Oscar’s mother, sister, grandmother, and others fill the novel with tales of woe, whether it is in the Dominican Republic, the bowels of New Jersey, or on some spectral plane in between. These tales are all interconnected in that the characters are involved in each others lives, really though, the only true connection Diaz consistently investigates is the idea of a “fuku,” or Dominican curse. The fuku, which has purportedly followed the family since before Oscar’s mother was put up for adoption, is all a direct result — at least in the case of the De Leon’s — of a man named Rafael Trujillo.

It is Trujillo who provides a great deal of the most interesting story line in the book. The real-life dictator of the Dominican Republic who terrorized his country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961 (and whose influence still looms), was the primary cause in the destruction of the otherwise pristine and comfortable life led by Oscar’s real grandparents, Abelard and Socorro Cabral. Diaz weaves fact and fiction together, making sure to include detailed descriptive information about those events that are real in the form of thorough footnotes. It is Trujillo’s interest in the teenage sister of Oscar’s mother that leads to some of the most brutal and, subsequently, most well-written chapters of the novel.

Narrated (at times with confusion) by Yunior, the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Oscar’s sister Lola, the story jumps from one time period to another with little logic. Always returning to Oscar’s feeble and commonly embarrassing attempts to have his love for a woman reciprocated, it’s hard to read the book and not be disappointed when it returns to telling the story of Oscar himself. The life of Oscar probably only takes up half of the book, with his family filling the other half, but it is amazing how different the two halves are from each other. One half is filled with amazing stories of love, loss, disaster and strife, and the other is filled with an awkward boy who references “The Lord Of The Rings” too much. The parts of Oscar’s life which are truly wondrous and riveting are few and far between and greatly outshadowed by the lives of his relatives.

Style wise, Diaz shows his Dominican roots by making every 20th word or so Spanish, and at times uses whole phrases without translating them for the reader. There are few context clues to help understand what is being said, either. This makes the reader feel like an outsider looking in at an unfamiliar life — that of a poor Dominican immigrant in the United States.

At times heartbreakingly sweet, at others, aggravatingly free of any discernable and worthwhile plot, it’s hard to champion or condemn “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” One thing is for certain though, Junot Diaz has done a wondrous job creating several very enthralling short stories in his first novel. Fuku or not, these stories bring lifes real tragedies to light, and for that Diaz should be championed.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Interview with Karla Suárez

Fabiola Santiago interviews Karla Suárez.
Like some of the characters in her short stories and novels, Cuban writer Karla Suárez is a nomad.

She is a rising literary voice in a generation of irreverent creators who were raised within the Cuban Revolution's confines but are breaking out of its totalitarian mold by roaming the world and making music, literature and art.

What makes Suárez and her thirtysomething contemporaries different from previous waves of intellectuals who have fled Cuba -- novelist Zoé Valdés, poet Raúl Rivero, essayist Rafael Rojas, for example -- is that they are not willing to break their ties to the island.

''I can't consider myself an exile because that would be disrespecting the real exiles, the people who cannot return to their homeland,'' Suárez says. ``I have too much respect for them to call myself an exile. I consider myself an emigrant because I wasn't forced to leave. I chose to leave, and I can go back.''

Visiting the capital of Cuban exiles for the first time, Suárez on Friday brings to the Miami Book Fair International her latest novel, La viajera (The Traveler, Rocaeditorial), the story of two women whose lives parallel that of Suárez and other Cubans dispersed around the world.

Born in 1969 Havana, Suárez studied classical guitar at the conservatory level, sang Nueva Trova music in underground gatherings in the city center, graduated with a degree in computer engineering and became a fiction writer.

All that before Suárez married an Italian psychologist and left for Rome in 1998 -- as she was about to launch her first short story collection, Espuma (Foam), on the island, and her first novel, Silencios (Silences), in Spain.

Divorced five years later, and now an Italian citizen, she moved to Paris, where she has lived the last four years.

''I am terrified by the idea of staying fixed in one place,'' Suárez, 38, says in a telephone interview.

In The Traveler, Circe and Lucía leave Cuba, using Brazilian contacts they met on the island to get themselves the required invitations before they can travel. Their adventure begins in Sao Paulo, and once the feisty Circe is basking in freedom and new experiences, she wants to shed the leftist Brazilian woman when the organization of ''solidarity with the Cuban people'' insists that the women give a conference on Cuba.


''I don't allow anyone to turn me into a puppet,'' Circe says.

Circe and Lucía live in a gritty building brimming with immigrants, but they later separate ''to find their place in the world.'' One ends up in Paris, the other in Rome.

Life as odyssey is the leitmotif.

''She's considered one of the important writers of that generation,'' says Alejandro Ríos, one of the coordinators of the book fair's Spanish-language program. ``She's one of the Cuban writers setting the standard.''

Suárez and her characters are the literary counterpart of musicians like the Habana Abierta ensemble, known for its ''rockason'' fusion and bold-lyric songs that have become anthems to their generation.

In Suárez's novel, Circe buys a Habana Abierta CD in Madrid.

''I love their music,'' says Suárez, who met some of the members when they were all in their 20s in Havana.

The Madrid-based group performed at several venues in Miami last week, their third time in town, and they have played in Havana as well. Their lyrics are critical of the Fidel Castro regime, yet they refuse to be pigeonholed into camps, singing about being tired of the ''trips in circles'' of the right and left.

The feelings, lingo and experiences of Suárez's characters are reflective of the reality espoused in Habana Abierta's lyrics -- marrying foreigners to leave the country and to legalize their status abroad, for example. In The Traveler, Lucía marries the Italian businessman she meets in Sao Paolo. Circe travels from country to country, using the people she meets along the way as trampolines to her next adventure.

''¡Legalízame!'' Boris Larramendi croons in his new song, Horizontal Mambo, about a Spanish woman yearning to sample a Cuban lover.

Both music and books address the nostalgia for the Cuba left behind -- or the lack of it.

Circe ''leaves Havana, and she no longer feels that Havana is her city,'' Suárez says. ''It no longer speaks to her, and she has to find a new place where she can feel she belongs.'' But Lucía, who remains in Rome, spends her days brooding.

''Lucía is always dying of nostalgia. I created the characters with opposite experiences because we Cubans are extremists, and I was searching for equilibrium,'' Suárez says.

Which one of the two is she?

``When you emigrate, you change, the country changes, and when you return, you feel like you are in a state of limbo. That happens not only to Cubans but to all immigrants. Me, I am always ready to travel, with my bags packed.''

Suárez's first novel, Silencios (Lengua de Trapo), is the coming-of-age story of a contemporary Cuban woman who discovers the lies that precariously sustain her family.

''It's very autobiographical, but that is not my family,'' she says. ``It's the story of 20 years in the life of a Cuban woman who was raised in the '70s. Her mother is a foreigner, an Argentine who moves to Cuba in the '60s with illusions about the Cuban Revolution. Her father is a military man, and the novel deals with issues such as racism, and it culminates with the Special Period of 1991-93. I wanted to tell the story of the Havana I lived, the Havana of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.''

It was only natural that she, the daughter of a professor of literature, would end up a writer, Suárez says.


''I loved to make up stories from the time I was a child,'' she says.

But Suárez also loved math and sciences and studied computer engineering in Cuba's Instituto Superior Politécnico, doing her thesis on electroacoustics. The technical school hosted a literary workshop, and Suárez enrolled and began to write her first short stories. She also participated in amateur music festivals, singing country music with troubadours.

Something else inspired her: French. She took lessons at the Alliance Francaise in Havana, dreaming of someday living in Paris. But she went to work at the official Cuban Book Institute, working on its website while continuing to write. She won literary contests in the '90s and published her stories in the official magazines Revolución y Cultura and Caimán Barbudo.

''The first stories were pretty surreal, philosophical. Everything was a question, you know, the way one is in the early 20s,'' she says. ``I was influenced by Cortázar, Borges, Kafka.''

The state imprint Letras cubanas (Cuban Letters) published a selection of her stories, Espuma, in 1999 after Suárez had left the island -- an unusual move for a government that most of the time bans or ignores artists and writers when they leave. By then, Suárez was living in Italy and had been chosen to be part of an anthology of new Latin American writers under 40, Líneas aéreas (Airlines), published by Lengua de Trapo.

She later published in Colombia Carroza para actores (Floats For Actors), a short story collection about ``disastrous couples.''

Her writing has taken Suárez to Mexico City, Bogotá, Berlin and the island of Guadeloupe. Next month, she plans to participate in a literary festival in Haiti. She wants to spend time in Lisbon and live at least a year in each of Latin America's capital cities.

She has never been in Miami. She wanted to visit longer to see the city and meet exiled family, but she was booked only for 2 ½ days for her presentation. Ríos says the fair lacks the funds to keep writers in town beyond their appearance date. But days later, Suárez happily reported that she was able to extend her visit. Like the wandering Circe in The Traveler, she located a friend with whom to stay.

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Interview with Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Elizabeth Nash interviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Why write? I ask Spain's bestselling author of adventures and historical potboilers. The packed bar in Madrid's Palace Hotel empties as crowds move to an art auction in the next salon. Arturo Pérez-Reverte breaks the hush. "I clarify things. I organise things. I lead a very chaotic life. Writing enables me to reflect on this. It consoles me for the bad things and celebrates the good. It's a form of organising the intellectually disordered baggage of my life."

He sits hunched in the corner of a squashy sofa, his whole body watchful and alert with the predatory instincts that took him through 23 years as a war correspondent, chasing – as he puts it – the scoop. He turned to full-time fiction in 1995, but still carries those years with him, and recycles them in his work. Not to exorcise demons, then? He snorts dismissively. " That's rubbish. Writing's no catharsis. Literature is an analgesic for life's pains, it doesn't remove them."

It's teatime, but he has a glass of cola ("I had a heavy lunch," he apologises), a couple of venerable notebooks in a plastic folder and a large rolled umbrella propped beside him. All the kit he might need for the immediate future. Pérez-Reverte, now 55, cultivates an austere soldierly style even though his days of action are, he says, long gone. "I always have my hair cut very short, my nails clipped." Part of trying to control and organise his material, his life.

Pérez-Reverte bounded into Spain's literary scene in the mid-1990s with his creation of the world-weary swordsman for hire, Captain Diego Alatriste, who strides through Spain's 17th-century golden age, fighting dirty battles, striving to protect his honour and stay alive. This is the Spain of Cervantes and Velázquez, where high art blossoms in a corrupt society run by a stupid and incompetent court. The six adventures of Alatriste, warrior on the battlefields of Spain's collapsing empire, are devoured by hundreds of thousands in a nation which, Perez-Reverte says, has lost touch with its history. Written in the rapid-fire style of classical adventure yarns that inspired the young book-thirsty Arturo, they also pack a devastating critique of Spain's rulers through history, a message explicitly relevant today.

"We Spaniards have the worst political class in Europe, but the finest people on the front line. In my novels I express love and tenderness for those at the bottom, and disdain for those in power. We've always had terrible rulers. An 11th-century Spanish troubadour wrote: 'What good vassals they would be if they had a good master.' That sums up the whole history of Spain. It's our tragedy."

He grasps for an example. "You know the film Master and Commander? When Captain Aubrey tells his sailors, 'This ship is England.' In Spain that would never happen, either in real life or a film. The legacy of Franco has contaminated our idea of patriotism, making it inoperative, contemptible." He envies the British for their historic patriotism, their solidarity in face of crisis. Then he adds, "It's nothing personal. You have to keep a distance, avoid getting too close, taking sides."

As a boy growing up in Spain's southern port of Cartagena, he was inspired by the adventures of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, not to mention Homer and Cervantes. "Those writers sent me away from home at 18. It wasn't that I wanted to write like them; I wanted to be the hero, the central character. That's why I was 35 before I started writing. I wanted to live it."

Alatriste's adventures are now appearing in English, after Anglophone readers discovered his other novels of intrigue and adventure – The Dumas Club, The Flanders Panel, The Fencing Master, The Seville Communion, The Nautical Chart, The Queen of the South, and now The Painter of Battles (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), his darkest and sparest book so far.

It tells of an award-laden war photographer, Andrés Faulques, who has spent a long career recording images of horror. Faulques has retreated to a Mediterranean watchtower where he is covering the wall with a huge battle-scene mural. He strives to portray the essence of war he couldn't capture on film. Then a stranger arrives, a former soldier from the Balkans who once provided Faulques with a prize-winning shot, and says he's going to kill him. The two men discover that apparently random coincidences obey an iron logic.

"It's the nearest I've got to a personal memoir," Pérez-Reverte says. "Every novel has its own personality, even though they cover similar terrain. This is very introspective, cold, stripped of adjectives and adverbs, a scalpel on a marble table. It's easy to be melodramatic about war, blood, evil men, excesses of violence and all that, but I wanted to do the opposite. To treat horror as something cold and geometric, like metal." He has produced characters more rounded than hitherto, and the memory of a beautiful and intelligent woman.

War isn't about bad people, the writer says. "It's life taken to extremes. It's a cruel world. I don't separate war from normal life. Those who have lived through war know they are never safe." So life is a battleground? "It's... a dangerous place, full of dangerous animals: us. " He takes my notebook and sketches a curving mountain road, with snipers on hilltops. Whether you are hunter or hunted can change from one moment to the next. "You have to learn the rules." In The Painter of Battles, Faulques recalls an episode when he accompanies a sharpshooter in Sarajevo, photographing him as he chooses his prey, then freezes when his momentary ally tells him he was in his rifle sights two days previously. " I have lived these things. I know," he says.

The problem is, and he shifts forward and touches my arm in emphasis, that people are no longer conscious of the danger of our world. "It's a minefield." He gestures to the handful of drinkers still comfortably installed. "Anyone here could step on a mine. They don't realise. We've always known there are tsunamis in Indonesia, that's why no one built on those virgin beaches. The Twin Towers attack was greeted with amazement, but did no one ever tell Americans about the Trojan horse? The horrors of the war in Iraq? Goya told it all in his engravings. It's all happened before. We pay the price of not learning from historical experience. Centuries ago people were not educated and were taken in. Today there's no excuse for ignorance."

Two years ago Pérez-Reverte wrote an account of the battle of Trafalgar from the viewpoint of a Spanish sailor, a peasant dragged from a tavern to confront the British navy, the world's most powerful seaborne killing machine, with no training, scared rigid, yet acutely aware of the craven inadequacy of his commanders. Cabo Trafalgar is written in a corrosive below-decks Spanish argot that jumps the 200 intervening years whilst exuding the historical stench of that terrible day, a turning-point in European power relations. The book is, he reckons, untranslatable.

Pérez-Reverte has become a specialist in rendering historical language, and spoke on the subject when elected to Spain's Royal Academy in 2003. " You can't write a historical novel with the language of Walter Scott, it would be anachronistic and unreadable. I create a special hybrid language, conserving the aroma of the time but adapted to today's reader. It's a creative way to tell a historical story." In Cabo Trafalgar, the miserable powder monkey draws on unsuspected wells of bravery, knowing defeat is inevitable. That dignity is what he admires in his compatriots. " Spaniards in a crisis... are magnificent." He recalls the Madrid train bombings of 2004, when ordinary folk mounted a rescue effort while politicians flapped.

Pérez-Reverte is freer in his public criticisms of authority than any Spaniard I have met. Is this a perk of success? "I am free," he concedes. "I am economically independent... If I am invited to a prime minister's dinner or a literary festival I can say no. I am proud. I admire that kind of dignity, I try to make it a personal ethic."

I ask what he's working on now. "I'm finishing a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, the Third of May": that day, immortalised by Goya, when the Spaniards who rose up against French invaders in 1808 faced the firing squad. Lots of Goya, then. He smiles. "Very goyesca. He saw war. Goya knew."

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Junot Díaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Marcela Valdes reviews Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Culo. Coño. Puta. Mariconcito. Coje that fea y metéselo! The number of obscenities that appear within the first twenty-five pages of Junot Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, makes it abundantly clear that he’s not writing for Oprah’s Book Club. At the very least, Winfrey would have to bone up on her four-letter Spanish before she could rubberstamp this book, because more than any other author writing today, Díaz sings straight to the heart of urban Spanglish, and he’s not waiting for outsiders to catch up. His Spanish is untranslated, as is his freestyle hip-hop slang. Clearly, he’s writing for his people—Dominicans on the island and around New York City—and as far as he’s concerned, everyone else is just listening in.

In 1997, Díaz told People magazine that Drown, the short-story collection that set his name in lights, “was like a hand of love out to the community.” Love is a word that appears in a lot of Díaz’s interviews, but his affection can be scorchingly unsentimental. Drown’s ten stories spotlight issues that the Latino community mostly likes to avoid: namely, its deep veins of homophobia, in fidelity, racism, sexism, and casual verbal abuse. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao adopts a similarly critical stance, but where Drown delivers its assessments with laconic restraint, Wao bellows them out with a carnivalesque mix of fantasy and gallows humor.

At the center of the novel sits Oscar de León, an obese, Walter Mitty–ish New Jersey “GhettoNerd” who is addicted to science fiction and aches desperately for a girlfriend. “He had secret loves all over town,” Oscar’s friend Yunior tells us, “the kind of curlyhaired big-bodied girls who wouldn’t have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming.” Oscar’s an antidote to the clichéd image of the Latin Lothario, yet almost every character in Wao regards his geeky, no-play ways as an unpardonable offense. You’re not Dominican, they tell him over and over again, as if to disown him. He becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes. “You ever eat toto?” one man asks him, referring to oral sex. “Probably the only thing you ain’t eaten, right?”

Oscar’s social torture reveals why Yunior and the rest of the men in Drown and Wao adopt such fierce, womanizing postures. Deviation from this machista stance invites brutality. (“We pick on our weak,” Díaz told Hispanic magazine.) Yet one of the most perceptive things about Díaz’s novel is the way it shows how machismo can crush both the men who don’t conform and those who do. As the action unfolds, Oscar’s buoyant imagination slides toward bitterness and depression while Yunior, who narrated several of the stories in Drown and proves he’s a real hombre in Wao by sport-fucking his way through Rutgers University, heads toward an equally bleak isolation. For most of the novel, both courses seem absolutely fixed— and that’s where Díaz’s brilliance shines.

So much contemporary fiction revolves around a kind of therapeutic epiphany, where the mere realization that a certain behavior is damaging is enough to catalyze a transformation. Life, we know, is more complicated than that. Metamorphosis is painful—it’s only when problems turn ruinous that most people can give it an honest try. Even then, the effort doesn’t often pan out. This is something that Díaz appears to understand innately, and it’s part of what makes Wao so hard to put down. (I myself opened it for the first time at eleven o’clock one night, thinking I’d read a few chapters before bed, and found myself still hungrily flipping pages at dawn.) Each of Wao’s major characters— Yunior; Oscar; his sister, Lola, and their mother, Belicia; Belicia’s father, Abelard—is pushed at some moment to disaster. Not all of them get through it alive.

For Belicia and Abelard, those moments arrive in the ’40s and ’60s, in the Dominican Republic, during Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-oneyear dictatorship. Trujillo, Díaz cracks in one of his many footnotes, was the DR’s “Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up. . . . Outstanding accomplishments include: the 1937 genocide against the Haitian and Haitian- Dominican community,” in which some thirty thousand people were murdered. Díaz, who was once addicted to sci-finovels himself, plays the Trujillo–Evil Master comparison for all it’s worth, studding Wao with references to J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack Kirby, and Alan Moore and suggesting (tongue firmly in cheek) that the DR’s whole bloody, impoverished history may be due to a “fukú,” or interstellar curse. Díaz, thus, combines heartbreaking realism with the wildest sort of comic-book fantasy, moving beyond the surrealism of Borges and Cortázar and the magical realism of Márquez and Allende to break new ground. Call it comix realism— it gives Díaz a tremendous verbal and emotional range.

Because Díaz moved to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic in 1975, when he was seven, because he grew up in Section 8 housing and worked all manner of blue-collar jobs, there has been a tendency among critics to portray him as a kind of outsider, a writer from the margins. But what makes him compelling are not just his flickering portraits of urban alienation but his rich sense of Dominican history, of community. “Way too often,” he told a Other Voices, “writers of color are, basically, nothing more than performers of their ‘otherness.’ I’m trying to figure out ways to disrupt that.” The way out has been lit by Toni Morrison, whom he has cited again and again as the most lasting influence on his work. “Morrison,” he explained to Black Issues Book Review, “is not attempting to translate black American culture for a white audience. . . . That in itself is revolutionary.” It’s a revolution that Díaz himself clearly intends to continue, in his own Latino, African, Dominican, Middleearth, X-Man way.

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Interview with Javier Marías

Susan Irvine interviews Javier Marías.
Garlanded in literary prizes, tipped as a future Nobel winner, the Spanish author Javier Marías is also hugely popular, having sold more than 5.5m copies of his work in 39 languages. Yet he remains surprisingly little known in Britain, even though he is something of an Anglophile. His magnum opus, Your Face Tomorrow, is narrated by a Spaniard who works for a shady member of the British Establishment. All Souls (1999) is set in Oxford, and Dark Back of Time (2004) is about the bizarre impingement of the novel All Souls on Marías’ real life.

Even his narrative voice encapsulates a throwback ideal of English maleness, cool and urbane in tone, ironic, somewhat studied. And strangely reserved for someone who never shuts up. For the shadowy first-person narrator in most of Marías’ novels is in no hurry to get to the point.

The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow (2005) begins with a typical Marías sentence (though, it has to be said, one shorter than most). It is an admonishment. “One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.” He then goes on, over the 711 pages (in the English editions) of volumes one and two, to do just that, making us remember beings who have never existed and those who are safe, well, almost, in oblivion, well, uncertain oblivion.

His style is one rich in clauses and qualifiers – in another life he would have made a brilliant barrister; his favourite word would seem to be “or”; his books question the border between truth and fiction, and the hidden influence of the past versus what he has called “the prestige of the present moment”, in a style that is mesmerising, crackling with sly wit, above all, prolix. He is a writer who makes Henry James look like the soul of brevity.

Earlier this month Poison, Shadow and Farewell, a final, third volume of Your Face Tomorrow was published, as yet only in Spanish . I arrive at Marías’ flat in Madrid a couple of minutes after the author’s copies have been delivered. We stand in the entrance hall surveying the pile of books. I pick one up. My wrist buckles.

“Seven hundred and seven pages ,” says Marías. “Shorter in English.”

“Goodness,” I say, hefting the wodge of pages. “You’ve outdone Tolstoy.”

“Never mind Tolstoy. Don Quixote is 1,200 pages. Mine is over 1,600 pages. I have beaten Cervantes.” He smiles. “Not in quality, of course, only in extension.” He smiles more. “It’s a terrible boldness on my part.”

But while the thought of a 1,600-page novel by a Nobel Prize-tipped Spaniard revelling in having topped Cervantes may not be the best inducement to would-be readers, rest assured: Marías is pure pleasure of the page-turning kind normally only delivered by spy novels and detective fiction. Which, in some ways, many of his novels also are.

We go into the sitting room, which is dark and moody, stuffed with books, leather chairs, and knick-knacks. A bust of Sherlock Holmes smokes its pipe on top of the telly next to a jaunty statuette of an English naval officer. It’s a very male sort of room, almost donnish. Marías lives here alone. He has never married or had children, though he has written and spoken, reservedly, about girlfriends. He doesn’t own a computer, doesn’t communicate by e-mail, and is innocent of the internet, which is odd, given that the structure of many of his books has the vertiginous labyrinthine quality of internet links.

He will barely start a story before breaking into a side story, into a meditative digression, into fictionalised family history, into a disquisition on a word such as “eavesdrop”, or a rumination on, maybe, Botox, all of which return to the main story to make an intricately interconnected whole.

Marías’ English is fluent, though he occasionally asks me how to pronounce a word, “vehement” for example. He was born in Madrid and studied English literature at university there, going on to translate such English and American authors as William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Browne, and Laurence Sterne. His first impulse to write, he says, came from reading Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. “I was 12 or 13. I started to write a poor imitation of William and his gang in order to read more of them.”
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Friday, November 02, 2007

The Bad Girl - Mario Vargas Llosa

Heller McAlpin reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Bad Girl".
Mario Vargas Llosa's wonderful new novel, "The Bad Girl," is about one man's persistent desire for a difficult woman. It is also, cunningly, about a broader persistence of hope for a better world. On one level a deliciously absorbing love story that details the eponymous bad girl's damaging lifelong hold on his narrator, Vargas Llosa's novel spans decades and continents - and, in the process, with a deftness that borders on literary sleight of hand, bridges the personal and the universal.

Although less overtly political than such earlier novels as "Death in the Andes" and "The Feast of the Goat," Vargas Llosa sets his thwarted love story against a backdrop of social turmoil, revolutions and the recurrent heartbreak of failed democracy in his native Peru. "The Bad Girl" spans 1950s Lima, 1960s revolutionary Paris, 1970s hippie London, 1980s swinging Tokyo and 1990s theatrical Spain. Vargas Llosa's novel is more similar in tone to his 1977 dazzler, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," than to his last, quasi-historical novel, "The Way to Paradise" (2003), about Paul Gauguin and his socialist grandmother. Each of its seven long chapters, separated by years, relates a new episode in the lurching, on-again-off-again saga of Ricardo Somocurcio and the bad girl, who sports a new identity each time he encounters her.

Ricardo is an unusually sympathetic narrator - modest, bookish, utterly trustworthy. Orphaned at 10 and raised by a loving aunt in Miraflores, he has fixed on a simple ambition by the time he first meets the love of his life the summer he turns 15: to live in Paris. Posing as Lily, a Chilean newcomer to the neighborhood, the bad girl is flamboyant and gorgeous, "the incarnation of coquettishness." Ricardo writes, "I fell in love with Lily like a calf, which is the most romantic way to fall in love - it was also called heating up to a hundred degrees - and during that unforgettable summer, I fell three times." In what is to become a lifelong pattern, Lily leads him on before rebuffing him - and then vanishes.

When she turns up again in Paris more than a decade later, it's as Comrade Arlette, an activist en route to Cuba for guerrilla training. Ricardo, meanwhile, is training as a simultaneous interpreter. She pretends they never met, then, with an insult, concedes that they have - "Even back then you had a sanctimonious look" - yet denies being Lily the Chilean girl. She accepts his advances passively, unresponsively, and keeps him dangling: "Never lose hope, good boy."

Comrade Arlette's political apathy is as obvious as her sexual indifference. Her outspoken credo is "to get what you want, anything goes." When she allows Ricardo to make love to her, it's clear that she's using him as a possible ticket to stay in Paris.

Three years later, she turns up as the elegant Mme. Robert Arnoux at UNESCO, where her husband is a diplomat and Ricardo works as a translator.

And so it goes. They resume their affair, abuse included. She's both a liar and brutally honest. "How naive you are, what a dreamer," she scolds when Ricardo asks her to marry him. "You don't know me. I'd only stay forever with a man who was very, very rich and powerful, which you'll never be, unfortunately."

Ricardo is repeatedly taken in and left "a human wreck." He swears it's the last time when he falls into a trap arranged to excite the bad girl's creepy, voyeuristic Japanese lover, yet a few years later he goes into debt to finance her medical care. He retreats between episodes to a "fairly normal, though empty ... dull, flat life," throwing himself into the self-effacing interpreting business at international conferences and berating himself as a "failure ... imbecile."

This works, without trying our patience, because Vargas Llosa succeeds not only in conveying the bad girl's attraction but also in pulling us into Ricardo's cycle of hopefulness, eager to learn what will happen next between them. Is it love, masochism, fate or compulsion that keeps him coming back for more? Whatever it is, most of us have been there at one time or another.

Ricardo's friendships with doomed individuals - a revolutionary in Paris, a hippie artist in London, a fellow translator in Japan - and his unexpected but satisfying discovery of la niña mala's true identity further heighten the novel's considerable allure. (One wishes translator Edith Grossman had left a "niña mala" or two in Spanish for flavor.)

Most impressively, by mirroring Ricardo and the bad girl's tug-of-war with the tug-of-war between democracy and totalitarianism that concurrently roils the world, and especially their native Peru, Vargas Llosa's novel becomes an allegory for the undauntable desire not just for love but also for freedom. Over and over again, the world dashes our hopes just as the bad girl disappoints Vargas Llosa's narrator - and yet we love it and keep hoping for the best anyway.

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Frida Kahlo

Peter Schjeldahl writes about Frida Kahlo and a retrospective of her work at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis.
There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was born a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, that simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even a Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merits one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon of Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, to feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggled not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) And her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical and emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However, Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and then some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectly awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperilled morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generis in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is among the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absent for long from the mental museums of future artists.

She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried. They were the loves of each others’ lives, though with innumerable supplements. Their semi-public affairs (her amours included Leon Trotsky and numerous women); their dealings with famous figures in America and Europe, from John D. Rockefeller to Pablo Picasso; and their political adventures, as Communists subject to sectarian pushes and pulls, make Hayden Herrera’s hugely consequential biography, “Frida” (1983), a delirious read. (Herrera is a co-curator, with Elizabeth Carpenter, of the Walker show.) Kahlo died, probably of a complication of pneumonia, the last in a cascade of deteriorative maladies, a year after the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico.
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