Tuesday, November 18, 2008

António Lobo Antunes: What can I do when everything's on fire?

Jaime Manrique reviews António Lobo Antunes' What can I do when everything's on fire?
From the beginning of his long, distinguished career, António Lobo Antunes has been a pitiless chronicler of Portugal's colonialism in Brazil and in Africa, the repercussions of which are felt to this day. Lobo Antunes served as a military doctor in the Angolan war of independence from Portugal (1961-75), which generated genocidal acts on both sides, and has emerged as the unquestionable historical conscience of the liberation wars fought by the Portuguese colonies in the 1960s. Haunted by Portugal's imperialist past and decades of repression at home, Lobo Antunes's characters are a cast of disaffected, predominantly marginal people whose souls have been corroded by the legacy of their nation's brutal history (another one of his major subjects is the 36-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, which ended in 1968). His latest novel, "What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?," translated into English with a pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech by the legendary Gregory Rabassa, is another dissection of Portugal's sick soul.
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Carlos Fuentes' Autobiography

According to milenio.com Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes is writing his autobiography.
El escritor mexicano Carlos Fuentes anunció hoy que ya trabaja, de manera adelantada, en la preparación de un libro autobiográfico, el cual vendrá a ser "la culminación de mi vida".

Fuentes aseguró que su texto se llamará "Los días de mi vida" y que le llevará tiempo terminarlo, por tratarse de "un género complicado".



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Jose Saramago: A Viagem do Elefante


José Saramago as just published his new novel "A Viagem do Elefante"
(The Elephant's Journey).

Saramago built this new novel from an historical fact the story of
Salomon an elephant that crossed half Europe in the XVI th century as
a gift from John III, King of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian II of
Austria.
I'm personally very curious about this new experience in an historical
novel 26 years after "Baltasar and Blimunda".



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Friday, October 31, 2008

Carlos Fuentes: Happy Families

Eric Liebetrau reviews Carlos Fuentes' Happy Families
.
In his latest short-story collection, "Happy Families," Mexican author Carlos Fuentes lends credence to Tolstoy's paradigmatic line from "Anna Karenina," demonstrating in myriad ways that, indeed, "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Certainly, there aren't many "happy families" to be found in these pages - more like miniature cyclones of emotion that oscillate between loyalty and betrayal, devotion and rebellion. These 16 stories, like most of the author's fiction, spotlight his home country, though more often than not it's portrayed in less-than-rose-colored hues. A former diplomat, Fuentes is acutely aware of the corruption (a "national pastime"), greed and opportunism that pervade modern Mexico, and he rarely misses an opportunity to dig in and expose the raw-boned truth beneath the surface.

"Being a man doesn't mean not being a child anymore but beginning to be a criminal," notes the narrator in "The Mariachi's Mother," a simmering portrait of a mother's love for her son and desire for him to lead a better life than she. After Maximilian is injured in the wake of a violent protest, Doña Medea supplicates herself in prayer for her son's recovery - though she wryly notes "that even though her example of charitable availability benefits no one, at least it creates something like an aura of kindly normality in a neighborhood with no standard but evil."
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Julián Ayesta: Helena, or the Sea in Summer

Benjamim Lytal reviews Julián Ayesta's Helena, or the Sea in Summer.
Books are often about the same things: the beach, a fire, a memory of sound and light. "The cherry jam shone bright red amongst the black and yellow wasps, and the wind stirred the branches of the oak trees, and spots of sunlight raced over the moss." This sentence, written by Julián Ayesta (1919-96), a Spanish diplomat and sometime author, could stand in for any number of literary memories.

There are some books that we talk about with each other. What did Isabella Archer have in mind, at the end of "The Portrait of a Lady," when James reported that she now finally knew where to turn, that now, to her, "there was a very straight path"? More than one reader is prepared to discuss the question. But only a few of the very most famous novels stay out in the open like this. Most remain private affairs, bottled, stored away.

The cherry jam shone bright red ... The coffee shone too, black amongst the cigar ash in the saucer. And the men all wore lopsided grins because they had a cigar in their mouth and talked and laughed like toothless old crocks, poking out tongues bright with spit as they blew out clouds of blue smoke.


Julián Ayesta's one published novel has only part of what we want from fiction; it is short on conflict and long on atmosphere. Originally published in 1952, and titled "Helena, or the Sea in Summer" (Dedalus, 124 pages, $12.99), this short book sets an idyllic series of early adolescent scenes against the tense backdrop of pre-revolutionary Spain. It reads like repeated sips from Keats's ideal cup of inspiration: "O for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene." It is slight, but intoxicating.
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Luis de Camoes: The Collected Lyric Poems


Eric Ormsby reviews The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões.
In its great century, Portugal commanded an empire extending from Brazil to India. Vasco da Gama reached the coast of India in 1498, and in 1500 Pedro Cabral first sighted Brazil. But the imperial glory was short-lived. In 1580, Philip II of Spain invaded and added Portugal to his kingdom, where it remained unhappily for another 60 years.

But Portugal lost more than its independence in that year. For in 1580, Luís de Camões, later acclaimed as the national poet, died in Lisbon and was cast along with other victims of the plague into a common grave. In "The Lusiads," his great epic of a new world, Camões immortalized the exploits of da Gama, to whom he was distantly related, while in hundreds of shorter poems, he griped — and griped beautifully — about his own disastrous life. To be the national poet of Portugal, the country where the melancholy "fado" was born, is perhaps inevitably to be a laureate of hard luck.
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Interview with Jose Saramago

Elizabeth Nash interviews José Saramago.
Portugal's Nobel Literature laureate Jose Saramago has announced the completion of his latest work "The Elephant's Journey", based on the real-life epic journey of an Indian elephant named Solomon who travelled from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century.

Saramago's achievement marks a rebirth for the veteran writer, 86, whose flagging health, for which he received hospital treatment late last year, sounded alarm bells in the literary world.

The author describes the book as "a story rather than a novel". It will be published shortly in Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan, and opens with the line: "However incongruous it may seem..."

Saramago has been captivated by the tale for last ten years, ever since he made a visit to Austria and went to eat by chance in a Salzburg restaurant called The Elephant, the author says in a long email interview published recently in the Spanish press.

The Elephant's Journey is filled with characters, some of them real historical figures, others anonymous fictional creations: "they are people the members of this travelling caravan encounter on their journey, and with whom they share perplexities, efforts and the harmonious joy of a roof over their heads".
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Dedalus Books has just launched a new volume of its collection dedicated to the Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz, this time is “The City and the Mountains”, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who has recently won The PEN/ Book-of-the-Month Translation Prize with other of Queiroz' novels “The Maias”.



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Machado de Assis: A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories


Miranda France reviews Machado de Assis' A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who died 100 years ago this month, is Brazil's most famous writer. He has been less successful outside Brazil, possibly because his dry, laconic style does not chime with our perception of Latin American fiction.

Machado de Assis's style is more closely related to that of Saki or Sterne than the magical realists of recent times. His humour is dark, verging on bleak. His acuity is second to none.

The author's own life makes a compelling story. He was born in 1839, the mixed-race grandson of freed slaves. He is thought to have taught himself to write, and later became fluent in English and French.

Harold Bloom has called him, somewhat patronisingly, "the supreme black literary artist to date". For Woody Allen, he was "a brilliant and modern writer whose books could have been written this year".

The stories in this collection are reminiscent of Allen in the way they plunge into the action, often with a couple of friends engaged in energetic banter on a street corner. One might be telling the other a gossipy story - about love, jealousy or sex.

"She wasn't a seamstress, she didn't own property, she didn't run a school for girls; you'll get there, by process of elimination." The other man's interjections give the story added fizz.

Machado de Assis was fascinated by psychology and human motivation. His characters are never merely irked or enthused by events: they get caught up in dangerous emotions.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Memories of my Melancholy Whores

Angelique P. Manalad reviews Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Memories of my Melancholy Whores.
A concept that would make everyone react in disgust: a 90-year-old retiring journalist who finds himself in the eve of his birthday wanting to feel his youth through a night of passion with a 14-year-old virgin drugged into service by a whorehouse.

Delivered by the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s in his trademark magic realism and translated in English by Edith Grossman, Memories of my Melancholy Whores challenges readers to sympathize with the narrator. It is a tribute to his lyricism and humanity that Marquez succeeds.

In a twist of fate, the narrator falls into a pattern of sleeping with the young girl in the literal sense of the word, finding love instead of lust in each night that he slumbers beside the child.

He recounts of his previous escapades with women as well as the horror of finding himself in love for the very first time at eve of his life. The narrator illustrates his inner conflict. Describing his passion for the child in letters written in his weekly column, readers are able to empathize with the joys and disappointments of finding love in the wrong stage of one’s life.

Said to be a close comparison to Vladimir Nabokonov’s Lolita, Garcia weaves his own words with a different pattern of exulting other obsessions more powerful than lust itself. Delgadina, the name given by the narrator to the child, was more of a symbol of hope, love and failure all rolled into one, rather than a whore as presented by the book. A young girl robbed off her adolescence was beautifully and intricately described in Marquez’s flow of words.
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Antonio Muñoz Molina: A Manuscript of Ashes

Tim Rutten reviews Antonio Muñoz Molina's A Manuscript of Ashes.
"A Manuscript of Ashes" was Muñoz Molina's first novel, published in Spain in 1986, although he reportedly began it shortly after the death of Franco, more than a decade earlier. It's now clear that his preoccupation with the civil war and its aftermath -- a heritage of violence and betrayal, of loyalty and accommodation -- has been with Muñoz Molina from the start. So too a fearless willingness to let the influences of popular culture work their way through his novels -- a characteristic of so much of Spain's superb contemporary literary fiction. (It's interesting that the best Spanish writers avoid the obvious temptations to respond to history as their Latin American colleagues have with the cinematic impulse into magic realism. One suspects the Spaniards' deep and authentic sense of tragedy forecloses that option.)

Take this passage from Muñoz Molina's novel "Winter in Lisbon," which borrows fruitfully from film noir and jazz: "On the Gran Vía, by the cold gleaming windows of the Telefónica building, he went over to a kiosk to buy cigarettes. As I watched him walk back, tall, swaying, hands sunk in the pockets of his large open overcoat with the collar turned up, I realized that he had that strong air of character one always finds in people who carry a past, as in those who carry a gun. These aren't vague literary comparisons: he did have a past, and he kept a gun."

On one level, "A Manuscript of Ashes" follows the conventions of a detective story, though less those of the hard-boiled Raymond Chandler -- whom Muñoz Molina admires -- than the older, more ruminative and atmospheric Wilkie Collins. The novel's callow protagonist is Minaya, a university student arrested for political activism in the waning years of Franco's sclerotic dictatorship. He is released from jail through family connections after a rough interrogation and finds himself beset by an emotional condition common to those who believe they have no choice but to accommodate themselves to tyranny: "An unpleasant sensation of impotence and helpless solitude . . . forever denied the right to salvation, rebelliousness, or pride."
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José Luís Peixoto: The Implacable Order of Things

Tatyana Gershkovich reviews José Luís Peixoto's The Implacable Order of Things.
Translation gets a bad rap. At one point or another, every reader has soured on a book in translation after some pompous polyglot declares, "Ah, but you should read the original!" No doubt, much can be lost. But a book's journey around the world also offers an occasion to re-examine and refine its most remarkable attributes, attributes that might have been obscured by an initial choice of words, or - in the case of José Luís Peixoto's splendidly demanding novel - a title.

Published originally in Portuguese as "Blank Gaze" (2001), the book is set in an unnamed town in the arid, sun-bleached Alentejo region of Portugal. It's an austere name for an austere place. Peixoto - in Richard Zenith's translation - weaves together stories of the town's inhabitants, some told from their own perspectives and others related by an unknown and detached observer. A shepherd learns of his wife's infidelity and confronts her lover. Conjoined twin brothers marry the town cook and lose each other. A deformed child is born to a blind prostitute and a crippled carpenter, confronting them with the grotesque consequences of their love. The brutality of nature permeates each tale. "The sun shows us our own desperateness," says Old Gabriel, the town's 120-year-old wise man. "For those with understanding, this sun is the hand that caresses us and crushes us."

Dialogue is nearly absent from the novel. Peixoto's characters speak in streams of consciousness and only to themselves. They have a deeply rooted distrust of language, perhaps because they can neither read nor write. But what a marvelous chance for the author to display his own linguistic virtuosity! The images Peixoto evokes in helping his characters communicate without words are singular and unforgettable. The cook tells her husband, Moisés, that she's sick of eating the same old thing by preparing "a platter with shapely, wide-open potato legs and an open, steaming vagina made of collard greens which, by a trick of her culinary art, slowly contracted ... until it became a collard-green vagina that was irrevocably closed and dried up."

The cook adheres faithfully to the principle "Show, don't tell," but elsewhere, Peixoto occasionally falters. The author is too blunt in conveying his notion that a look succeeds where language fails. The shepherd José realizes he has always been a stranger to his wife, but he is granted one moment of communion with her when they exchange glances: "Wife, I don't know what we were, but I know this day that you are mine. ... Your gaze and your silence are my own." The eye as window to the soul is a well-worn notion, one made less bearable by the allusion to it in the original title. "Blank Gaze" reveals a blemish instead of pointing to the bountiful originality in Peixoto's work.
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Manuel Vázquez Montalbán: Tattoo

Laura Wilson reviews Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Tattoo.
This month sees a welcome reissue of many of Spanish author Vázquez Montalbán's titles, although this particular book, which first appeared in 1976, is being published here for the first time. His Barcelona-based private eye is Pepe Carvalho, an arresting combination of machismo and an old-womanish fussiness about comestibles: a bit like James Bond, without all those irritating gadgets. A local hairdresser hires Carvalho to discover the identity of a young man whose body is pulled out of the sea, heavily disfigured but bearing a tattoo. The plot is slight but enjoyable, and the picture of post-Franco Spain subtly drawn. Although the text is lumbered with an unwieldy translation, it is easy to see why Vázquez Montalbán was recently named one of the 50 best crime writers of all time.
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Mariano Azuela's "The Underdogs"

Benjamin Lytal reviews Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs.
Novels that show the sordid side of war are not scarce. Classics abound, but they do not glut; each book is as distinct as its war. Mariano Azuela's "The Underdogs" (Penguin Classics, 148 pages, $8) realizes a war that we often forget, though it is relatively near at hand in time and space. Azuela (1873-1952) participated in the Mexican Revolution (1911-17), serving as a doctor in the army of Pancho Villa, before the fortunes of war sent him packing across the border to El Paso, Texas. Beginning in 1915, he serialized his novel in one of El Paso's Spanish-language newspapers, El Paso del Norte.

"The Underdogs" was not published in Mexico until 1920, and it did not receive much attention until about 1925. But it now stands for the Mexican Revolution as "The Red Badge of Courage" stands for the American Civil War, and it represents a turning point in Latin-American literature itself. Because the revolution brought a host of regional armies together against a central government, Azuela's novel necessarily undertook the portrayal of regional Mexican culture as meaningful territory, overturning decades of Eurocentric prejudice in intellectual Mexico.

Sergio Waisman's new translation of "The Underdogs" therefore faces its biggest challenge in its treatment of Mexican dialects. Demetrio Macias, a local hero in the Sierras who becomes a general in Pancho Villa's army, terrorizing the villages and cities of the plains, sometimes sounds like an American lug: "God willin', ... tomorrow, or perhaps even tonight, we will get another close-up of the Federales. What do you say, muchachos? Ready to show 'em 'round these paths and trails?"
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Mayra Montero: Dancing to Almendra

Margaret Barno reviews Mayra Montero's Dancing to Almendra.
The “Almendra”, translated “almond”, is a slow-paced, sad Latin musical piece popular beginning in the 1950s throughout Central South America and Cuba. It’s rhythmic accents match well with the mambo, a dramatic, beautifully seductive dance.

This tempo is the background music of nightclubs, casinos and backdrop of this intriguing, multifaceted story of the under layers in Havana society in 1957.

Tensions, building among power brokers with links to organized crime figures locally and in the United States, were felt in unusual places: a circus and a zoo.

Lives of people, seemingly disconnected, would forever be entwined and affected.

Add an offbeat, frustrated young news reporter assigned to cover less than newsworthy events, sent to report the death of a hippopotamus at a local zoo, and the stage is set for a dramatic, pulsating novel that is as intense as it is intoxicating.

There is another significant factor, one that is usually somewhere in a book about people: love. When people break accepted mores, all is well. Stray into the territory of another, outside the unwritten “family” rules, and there can be deadly or at least memorable results designed to reinforce the consequences of going astray in affairs of the heart.

Edith Grossman, the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation winner, does an excellent job at capturing the bawdy language and atmosphere of Havana in the immediate era before the Cuban Revolution.
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Carlos Fuentes: Happy Families

A review of Carlos Fuentes' Happy Families.
This collection by celebrated Mexican author Fuentes (The Eagle’s Throne) treks a wide swath of Mexican history, encompassing revolutions won and brutally suppressed, evolving sexual mores and economic upheaval. While all kinds of relationships are explored—lovers and friends, mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers—the most revealing of Fuentes’s work are father-son stories. In “The Disobedient Son,” a father demands that his sons become priests to honor their dead mother; “The Official Family” posits a fictional president of Mexico who controls fiercely his own passions by imposing limits on his wayward boy; and in “The Star’s Son,” a fading movie star takes belated responsibility for a son with a crippling disability. Interspersed with short chapters of free-form poetry that turn an unflinching eye on homelessness, sexual abuse, gangs and drugs, Fuentes’s urgent stories make clear that Mexico is too full of life and tragedy to be controlled or constrained. Desperately holding the turbulence still for a moment, Fuentes examines closely hard lives in an unforgiving place.
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Antonio Muñoz Molina: A Manuscript of Ashes

Adam Kirsch reviews Antonio Muñoz Molina's A Manuscript of Ashes.
Five years ago, Antonio Muñoz Molina's novel "Sepharad" was published in English to rapturous reviews. Not since W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants" had a new European writer so powerfully seized the imagination of American readers. "Sepharad" was, in fact, a kind of transposition, into Spanish history and language, of Sebald's masterpiece — with its blending of fact and fiction, its obsession with the horrors of the 20th century, and its deeply ethical insistence on retrieving individual stories obliterated by history. In a fluid, even slippery narrative, Mr. Muñoz Molina braided the stories of Sephardic Jews, exiled from Spain in the 15th century, with the experiences of Spaniards during that country's civil war, and the more public lives of figures such as Franz Kafka. I'm not sure how many people read "Sepharad" — it was not the kind of book that makes a best seller — but it helped to give Mr. Muñoz Molina the literary stature in America that he has long enjoyed in Spain, where the 52-year-old is one of the leading writers of his generation.

Now, with the publication of "A Manuscript of Ashes" (Harcourt, 305 pages, $25), we have the chance to read the book that launched Mr. Muñoz Molina's career as a novelist. First published in Spain in 1986 under the title "Beatus ille," now translated into English by Edith Grossman, "A Manuscript of Ashes" shows that some of Mr. Muñoz Molina's central concerns were with him from the very beginning. Once again we find him investigating Spain's damaged past — in particular, the violence and betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, and the fear and tedium of the Franco dictatorship that succeeded it. Again he is tormented by the pastness of the past, which makes it impossible to know reliably, as well as by its continuing presence, which makes our own lives seem like mere sequels to great events that happened long ago. And already in his first novel, we can now see, Mr. Muñoz Molina was experimenting with a narrative technique adequate to these perceptions. "A Manuscript of Ashes" is divided between two narrators and at least three time frames, and the reader must be constantly on the alert for multiple shifts of perspective, sometimes in the space of a single paragraph.
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Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

Katie Toms reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Bad Girl".
In 1950, 15-year-old Ricardo becomes obsessed with an exotic, mysterious girl. Over 40 years he continually chances upon her; each time, she sleeps with him despite having a new husband for each city in which they meet. The only crime of the 'bad' girl in question seems to be that she asks for what she wants when it comes to sex and refuses to say she loves him. Her punishment? Near death and permanent vaginal damage at the hands of her brutal Japanese husband. The final reckoning involves cancer, a double mastectomy and painful death. There are some vivid passages here, but on the whole this novel is a glib, disjointed monologue. Sadistic pornography may prove titillating for some, but it makes for dull reading.
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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Senselessness



Jed Lipinski reviews Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness.
Senselessness is the eighth novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya and, remarkably, the first to appear in English. Moya has been hailed as El Salvador's foremost novelist, and Senselessness, published in Spanish in 2004, took only four years to arrive in the States—not a bad track record, considering that Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, released here last fall, was first published in 1998.

A chaptered but nearly paragraphless 142 pages, Senselessness reads like a vicious, novella-length rant by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard—had Bernhard spent his developmental years drinking mescal in a corrupt, oppressively Catholic Latin America and having sex with passionate Spanish women. Bernhard's influence is obvious, like Joyce's influence on Flann O'Brien and J.P. Donleavy, but never burdensome. By filtering Bernhard's addled consciousness through his own, and steeping it in the humidity of a thinly disguised Guatemala, the novel provides a kind of meta-analysis of the neurotic Austrian master—though it stands alone, too, as an innovative and invigoratingly twisted piece of art.
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Felisberto Hernández: Lands of Memory



Jed Lipinski reviews Felisberto Hernández' Lands of Memory.
The Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964)—considered the father of magic realism for his influence on García Márquez, Cortázar, and Calvino—was fond of dimly lit rooms, veils, hats in general, and the way blind people strike matches. A virtuosic pianist, in his youth he worked as a "musical illustrator" for silent films. He required absolute silence to write and admired the way silence draws attention to a person's face. He liked to wander through unfamiliar houses. A friend claimed he lived "on a mountain in the moon."

The two novellas and four stories that make up Lands of Memory—most of them published in the 1940s, all of them first-person accounts and rigorously translated for the first time by Esther Allen—are summarized by the author as "commentaries on things." The main "thing" is Hernández's affection for certain moments, especially those that precede knowledge. Memories of his childhood, like the inexplicable sadness he felt after throwing a yellow banana peel into a green alfalfa field, were particularly important to him for having preceded adulthood, when thought begins to influence and corrupt feelings. Lands of Memory provides a kind of solution to n + 1 magazine's complaint with the "faux-naïf" sensibility of McSweeney's. Hernández is capable of writing with a child's sense of wonder, but he can also philosophically justify childhood's connection to the unknown ("With respect to the unknown, I want to define the vein more clearly by specifying that there is little thought in it"). The story "Mistaken Hands" consists of complex psychological letters to female strangers, in the hope they'll write back and describe what their day is like.
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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Jose Eduardo Agualusa: The Book of Chameleons

Steven G. Kellman reviews José Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons.
The Book of Chameleons begins with an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine master of conceptual ficciones: “If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different.” Agualusa’s book teases the reader with the fungibility of multiple identities. What Félix imagines for a client is what the client becomes. Declaring himself an animist, the salesman of selves explains: “The same thing happens to the soul as happens to water — it flows. Today it’s a river. Tomorrow, it will be the sea.”

Eulálio sees a procession of strangers enter the house in search of fresh identities. One, an itinerant photojournalist eager to be thought Angolan, ends up with a new name, José Buchmann, and a complicated family history. His mother, he is told, was an American painter who mysteriously abandoned the family. So “José Buchmann” goes off to New York to find this concocted woman and finds traces of her there and in Cape Town that Félix never imagined. Another client is a government minister who is intent on commissioning a personal genealogy that will endow him with heroic stature. Still another makes this uncommon request: “What I’m after is for you to arrange for me exactly the opposite of what you usually do for people — I want you to give me a modest past. A name with no luster to it whatsoever.”

Though he never reveals his original name, Eulálio, we learn, was once a human being, a librarian whose failure to love was probably the reason for his transformation into a gecko 15 years before. Now, in his saurian state, he is especially attentive to the relationship developing between Félix and a beautiful young visitor named Ângela Lúcia. Like José Buchmann, she, too, is a photographer, though she demurs: “I’m not even sure that I am a photographer. I collect light.” One of the finest sections in The Book of Chameleons consists of Ângela Lúcia’s comparative analysis of the quality of light in different locales, including Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Goa, Berlin, and Cairo.

Throughout the novel, which is composed of brief, terse chapters, a haze hovers over boundaries between identities, as well as states of being. In this Borgesian ether, dreams alternate with what passes for “reality,” and characters collide with their doubles. Agualusa situates his story within the context of the dictatorships and violence that have plagued Angola since Portugal began to pull out in 1975. If his novel has a fault, it comes at the end, when the author does not trust the reader’s imagination enough to refrain from explaining. Until that point, Agualusa is, like his character Félix, a consummate con. “I lie with joy!” the merchant of pasts exclaims. “Literature is the only chance for a true liar to attain any sort of social acceptance.” For the true lies of this novel, José Eduardo Agualusa deserves not just acceptance but acclaim.
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A few poems by Fernando Pessoa translated by George Monteiro.

Self-Analysis

The poet is a forger who forges so completely that he forges even the
feeling he truly feels as pain. And
those who read his poems feel absolutely, not his two separate pains,
but only the pain that they do not feel.
And thus, diverting the understanding, the wind-up train we call the
heart runs along its track.
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and the original:
Autopsicografia

O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.

E os que lêem o que escreve,
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve,
Mas só a que eles não têm.

E assim nas calhas de roda
Gira, a entreter a razão,
Esse comboio de corda
Que se chama coração.


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Jose Luis Peixoto: The Implacable Order of Things


Jack Shreve reviews José Luis Peixoto's The Implacable Order of Things.
Hailing from the worlds of the theater and poetry, award-winning Portuguese novelist Peixoto (b. 1974) writes straightforward prose that, with its incantatory cadence, brings readers to new heights of realization. Recommended.
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Roberto Bolano: The Savage Detectives

Claire Buckland reviews Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives".
Translated into English for the first time, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s prize-winning book portrays a lost generation. It opens in Mexico City in 1975 with the diary of Juan García Madero, a 17-year-old devotee of the “visceral-realist” movement championed by fictional poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima.

The visceral realists spend their time reading, stealing and destroying books – and posturing outrageously: according to a gay friend of Juan’s, “novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual”.

Juan’s own writing is self-regarding, exuberant, naïve and charged with possibilities. The diary ends when Juan, Belano, Lima and a runaway prostitute set out on a road trip to trace the last recorded journey of a 1920s poet.

Bolaño’s intense monologues fragment into a series of interviews with just about anyone who came into contact with Lima and Belano between 1976 and 1996.
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Friday, June 20, 2008

Isabel Allende: The Sum of Our Days

Ilan Stavans reviews Isabel Allende's The Sum of Our Days
Isabel Allende has recently published a sequel to her popular memoir "Paula," which recounted the tragic death of her 28-year-old daughter Paula Frías, who became ill with the rare blood disease porphyria at the end of 1991. Like its predecessor, "The Sum of Our Days" is structured as a mother's letter to the absent Paula. In it she recounts her life since Paula's death, her artistic hits (the global appeal of her memoir, the making of the Billie August film adaptation of "The House of the Spirits," the research of novels like "Portrait in Sepia" and "Inés of My Soul") and an array of indiscretions (the fertility treatments of a daughter-in-law, the bisexual identity of another one). Seasoned throughout are recurrent dreams, as is fashionable in Allende's work, and recommendations on how to live a happy life amid endless misfortunes.

There's an unavoidable honesty to the narrative, a directness that is likely to hypnotize a handful of readers. Yet at its core the book is soulless, sin alma. The short chapters leap haphazardly from one tale to another, from this relative to that tourist trip to meeting Antonio Banderas, as if the book was nothing but a series of journal entries.

Allende used to be a writer of promise. She came late to the Latin American literary "boom" of the 1960s and 1970s. But once she arrived into the mostly male club (Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, García Márquez), people paid attention. But somewhere in the journey she became a facile, consenting storyteller, ceasing to surprise her audience.
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Leonardo Padura: Havana Gold

A few reviews of Leonardo Padura's Havana Gold.

This is the final novel in the English-language version of Padura's Four Seasons series of novels, set in Havana in 1989, although in fact it is the second in the original Spanish. Again we have a murder set against the looming crisis of Cuba's Special Period as the implosion of the Soviet Union starts. And again the disillusioned detective Mario Conde sets out to resolve the crime in his own slow-paced, insightful manner. It is a formula that has worked throughout the four-part series as well as in two other novels, Adios Hemingway and the latest, and by far most sophisticated work in this genre, La neblina del ayer (2005, still untranslated into English). Leonardo Padura's recent presentation at the International Institute for the Study of Cuba will have illustrated the reason for his novels' popularity (now translated into sixteen languages) and his own personal success.

The plot is simple: the body of Lissette Delgado, a young teacher, is found after she has been raped, beaten and strangled. Mario Conde's mission is to find the killer, a challenge that takes him through the crumbling streets of Havana to his old high school, where Lissette taught. The Special Period is on the verge of arriving, along with massive dislocations in Cuban society - and the edgy atmosphere, complete with incipient social problems (drugs were virtually unheard of until this time), growing corruption, and generally demoralized environment, are all superbly presented.
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Like an indulgent parent, Leonardo Padua allows his literary progeny (in this, his fifth outing) free rein to chat up women, argue about books and music, get drunk with friends and express his desires. Indeed, we get to know The Count so well, and become so involved with his arguments about Franny and Zooey (better than The Catcher in The Rye), John Fogerty (the greatest ever voice) and “Strawberry Fields” (The Beatles’ best song), that unravelling the murder becomes almost incidental to the plot.

Havana Gold is a textured treat for those who like their detective fiction served long and lazy with a double shot of rum.
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Havana Gold is the fourth novel in the Havana quartet by Leonardo Padura and once again creates a rich and fascinating portrayal of a crumbling yet vibrant city. Lusty, macho, foul-mouthed and poetic in roughly equal amounts Lieutenant Conde becomes our guide to the faded grandeur of Cuba's stylish yet poverty-stricken capital as he reflects on the changing conditions in the city that he grew up in. Vital and rough-edged, Havana Gold is perhaps best enjoyed with a glass of rum and a cigar.
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Interview with Margaret Sayers Peden

Steve Bennett interviews translator Margaret Sayers Peden.
If you've ever read Isabel Allende or Carlos Fuentes — in English — then say a prayer for Margaret Sayers Peden.

Peden is the translator from Spanish to English of more than 60 books over the past 50 years, including the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Mexican essayist Octavio Paz, both Nobel laureates, as well as “Como agua para chocolate” (“Like Water for Chocolate”) author Laura Esquivel and, of course, Allende and Fuentes.

The Missouri native, who will teach two workshops on translation during Gemini Ink's Summer Literary Festival next month, follows a simple rule when she receives a Spanish manuscript to translate: “Take small bites and chew very hard.”

Actually, Peden follows two rules religiously. The other: “The dictionary is the great betrayer.”

Renowned translator Edith Grossman once said, “Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper.”

“If you translate word for word,” says Peden in her welcoming, musical voice, “it sounds ridiculous. Words — I love pizza, I love Josephine — can have so many meanings. Words can be like amoebas. If you just look at meanings of words, you won't get it.”
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Monday, May 26, 2008

Alberto Manguel: The Library at Night

Philip Hensher reviews Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.

Like many writers - "a subset of readers," Alberto Manguel calls us - I am a creature of libraries, and can trace my life through each one habitually used. New Malden branch library; Broomhill (a lovely Edwardian villa in that queen of suburbs); Sheffield central library; the Bod; the Cambridge University Library, always feebly abbreviated to the UL; and the London Library.

And, as Manguel says in this remarkable and lovely book, our personal libraries, too, are "reflections of the owner", carapaces into which we fit neatly. Libraries are living things, and have their own lives, as surely as books or people do. Nowadays, of course, the idea of the library is under attack, and many librarians seem the last people who should be left alone with a book and a waste-paper basket.

Nicholson Baker has chronicled the brutal assaults on library stock carried out by librarians, but it hasn't stopped. The librarians of the university I teach at, Exeter, regularly toss out irreplaceable volumes without any consultation, to the point where academics have to loiter around skips to rescue anything important.

The tragedy is that nobody has ever invented a piece of such durable and portable technology as the printed book, and it has, thus far, proved irreplaceable. Manguel tells an amusing story of the BBC, which, in 1986, celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book by putting the whole thing on computer discs.

Sixteen years later, those discs proved impossible to read by any technological means. The Domesday Book itself was still fine, but if it had been, say, a 19th-century newspaper rather than a 12th-century manuscript, it would have long been consigned to the flames by a librarian, and lost for ever.

Manguel's study addresses the idea of the library, which will always be incomplete, and empty both of books that remain to be written, and books that remain to be found. Somehow libraries, both shared and private, fill up with complete surveys of the most surprising subjects.
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Interview with Mario Benedetti

Juan Cruz interviews Mario Benedetti.
Cómo nacen mis libros es un misterio. Porque de repente estoy meses sin escribir, y de pronto aparece, plaf, ahí está, vuelve la escritura. Aparecen de golpe, con sus títulos y todo, con la división de capítulos. Pienso que eso le pasa a todos los escritores, que un nuevo libro les surge como un secreto que se revela...
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Post Boom Novels

Alberto Manguel selects sixteen post-boom novels. (In Spanish)


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Friday, May 23, 2008

Interview with Leonardo Padura

Jane Jakeman interviews Leonardo Padura.
Leonardo Padura's prize-winning series of novels about Cuban detective Inspector Mario Conde has changed the face of Latin American crime writing, taking a conventional formula into the category of dark and serious literary fiction. Havana Gold completes his sweeping portrait of Cuban society, seen through the ironic vision of his louche, sensual and intelligent cop. Here, Conde searches for the murderer of a teacher who has been strangled, and the quest takes him back to the school where he studied.

Padura has written of Conde as whispering in the writer's ear, and of the Havana Quartet as a joint decision between character and author. Yet Conde, though he has many consolations in the form of cognac, cigars and occasional sexy women, sometimes suffers from a form of anomie that leaves him in despair. During his visit to London, I ask Padura, a man of warm and lively empathy, whether he and Conde are one and the same. He explains that Conde is a pair of spectacles through which he can observe Havana.

"Conde is fiction, but he has many of my own characteristics," he says. " We belong to the same generation. This is a very important thing in Cuba, because it's the generation that was practically born with the revolution. All my intelligent life happened with the revolution. We grew up in its romantic period – the Sixties and Seventies. I remember in school we had posters that said that the future of humanity belonged completely to the socialists.
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Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Informers

Alastair Sooke reviews Juan Gabriel Vásquez' The Informers.
Colombia is not well known here as a theatre of the Second World War, but its wartime years form the backdrop for Juan Gabriel Vásquez's new novel. An absorbing afterword, which should have been printed at the beginning, fills us in on some of the history.

After war broke out, the American government panicked that National Socialism would spread through Latin America. It was especially jumpy about important strategic zones such as the Panama Canal and neighbouring countries, particularly Colombia.

In 1941, Eduardo Santos, the Colombian president, agreed a series of accords with the US, including the building of military bases on the Caribbean coast and the implementation of a "blacklist" drawn up by the Americans that July.

According to Vásquez, the objective of the "Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals" was "to prevent the economic and commercial activity of persons and companies opposed to US defence policies" - put simply, to block Axis funds in Latin America, and elsewhere.

By May 1942, 630 Colombians supposedly sympathetic towards the Third Reich were on the list, their assets frozen. Inevitably there were injustices: the US embassy blacklisted some citizens on the basis of little more than rumour and prejudice whipped up by a network of self-interested informers.

After a German submarine sank a Colombian schooner two years later, the new president, Alfonso López Pumarejo, opened detention centres for blacklisted citizens, confining many German exiles to a luxury hotel in the small city of Fusagasugá, two hours from Colombia's capital, Bogotá.
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Albert Sánchez Piñol: Pandora in the Congo

Michael Eaude reviews Albert Sánchez Piñols' Pandora in the Congo.
Albert Sánchez Piñol's second novel is an action-packed adventure story in the best Rider Haggard tradition. It is also a parody of such novels and a sophisticated reflection on the imaginative power of literature. More complex than Cold Skin, the Catalan author's novel of terror on an Antarctic island, it shares a nightmarish closed space where the protagonists face the attacks of non-human assailants. What they really face is their own fear.

Here the closed space is a clearing in remotest jungle where the aristocratic Craver brothers, fleeing disgrace in England, seek their fortunes in a gold mine. As the mine deepens, first a strange half-human woman they call Amgam emerges, and is at once enslaved as a sexual object by the Cravers. Then masses of Tectons, as they name the underground creatures, pour out of tunnels to attack them. Only Marcus, the gypsy servant, gets out of the jungle to tell the story.
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To lend a book is an incitement to theft

Great article by Alberto Manguel.
Since my library, unlike a public one, requires no common codes that other readers must understand and share, I’ve organized it simply according to my own requirements and prejudices. A certain zany logic governs its geography. Its major divisions are determined by the language in which the books are written: without distinction of genre, all books written originally in Spanish or French, English or Arabic, come together on the same shelves. (I allow myself, however, many exceptions: Certain subjects — books on the history of the book, biblical studies, versions of the legend of Faust, Renaissance literature and philosophy, gay studies, medieval bestiaries — have separate sections.)

Certain authors are privileged: I have thousands of detective novels but few spy stories, more Plato than Aristotle, all Zola and hardly any Maupassant, almost all of John Hawkes and Cynthia Ozick. I have dozens of very bad books that I don’t throw away in case I ever need an example of a book I think is bad. The only book I ever banished from my library was Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” which I felt infected the shelves with its prurient descriptions of deliberately inflicted pain. I put it in the garbage; I didn’t give it to anyone because I wouldn’t give away a book I wasn’t fond of. Nor do I lend books. If I want someone to read a book, I’ll buy a copy and offer it as a gift. I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.
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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry

Eric Ormsby reviews César Vallejo's The Complete Poetry.
Vallejo did to the Spanish language what earthquakes did to Spanish masonry. He sent it flying, exploding verbs, twisting nouns, subverting New World Castilian with slang, neologisms, and fragments of Quechua, the indigenous language of the northern Andean region, where he was born March 16, 1892. His poems pulverized Spanish, then reassembled it, often in fantastic ways. How can such a poet, who baffles Spanish readers as much as he electrifies them, be translated into English?

The answer seems to be, only by the work of a lifetime. Clayton Eshleman has now accomplished this feat in "César Vallejo: The Complete Poetry" (University of California Press, 730 pages, $49.95). Mr. Eshleman has been wrestling with Vallejo's impossible poetry for nearly 50 years. (I still recall the impact of his early version of Vallejo's "Human Poems," published by Grove in 1968.) The present volume offers Vallejo's four books in definitive versions, most of which have been revised, corrected, and polished dozens of times over the decades. It contains as well a foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa, an illuminating introduction by Efraín Kristal, a detailed chronology by Stephen M. Hart — the latter are both leading Vallejo scholars — notes, a bibliography, and a moving "Translation Memoir" by Mr. Eshleman.

Mr. Eshleman remarks of Vallejo that "the man I was struggling with did not want his words changed from one language to another." His translations thus represent struggles with a stubborn ghost, and are all the better for it. When Vallejo invents the untranslatable verb "to autumn" ("otoñar") in the line "and the cattle-bells autumn with shadow," Mr. Eshleman recasts it as "the cattle-bells are autumncast with shadow," a lovely solution. But his true ingenuity shows in his handling of Vallejo's notorious "experimental" verse.
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