Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

David Robson reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl.

The title is promising. Who wants to read about good girls? But then the doubts set in. Will one bad girl be enough? The trouble with bad girls in literature is that they have shot their bolt after a couple of bedroom scenes. Only the best of them - the ones who are good girls underneath - can sustain a whole novel.

The Peruvian veteran Mario Vargas Llosa has found an ingenious solution to an old problem. He uses a single bad girl, but to keep the character fresh, re-introduces her in a series of different guises.

Read More

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Monday, January 14, 2008

Arturo Pérez-Reverte: The Painter of Battles

Stephen Finucan reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.
For more than 20 years, Arturo Pérez-Reverte made his livelihood in war zones. Working first as a correspondent for the Spanish daily Pueblo, and later as a reporter for Televisión Española, he filed stories from Cyprus, the Falklands, Beirut, El Salvador, Sarajevo – and Eritrea, where for a period of months he was listed as missing and believed killed.

In the 1980s he turned his pen to fiction, and by the mid-'90s, with a burgeoning reputation as the thinking person's thriller writer and a trio of bestsellers under his belt – The Fencing Master, The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas – he gave up journalism and began writing full time. He solidified his popularity with the Capitán Alatriste series, tales of a swashbuckling mercenary that fed its author's passion for genre and history, specifically that of Spain's "golden century."

With The Painter of Battles, however, Pérez-Reverte returns to a more recent past, namely the two decades he spent chronicling the horrors of modern warfare.

In the novel, Andrés Faulques, a retired combat photographer, serves as Pérez-Reverte's stand-in. Secluded in a medieval watchtower that overlooks the Mediterranean, Faulques busies himself painting a mural on the tower walls that strives to depict the history of war. His solitude is broken by a young Croatian, Ivo Markovic, the subject of one of Faulques' most famous pictures: a photograph of Croat soldiers retreating from the Serbian onslaught at Vukovar. It's an image that graced the covers of newspapers and magazines worldwide, a photo that Faulques "never failed to take pleasure from."

But it is also a picture that cost Markovic dearly. His face, with its "bright, extremely vacant eyes, features distorted by weariness, skin covered with drops of the same sweat that plastered his dirty, tangled hair to his forehead," was recognized by his Serbian neighbours, who took retribution by raping and murdering his wife and child.

Now Markovic has come for his own vengeance. But before he can take his satisfaction, he needs Faulques to grasp something about himself. "I need for us to talk first," he tells the photographer. "I need to know you better, to be sure that you realize certain things. I want you to learn and understand ... After that, I'll be able to kill you."

What follows is a harrowing meditation not only on the nature of war, but also the nature of humankind.

Markovic's visits to the watchtower stir memories for Faulques, memories of, among other things, the execution of Druse militiamen in Lebanon, the shooting of a looter on the street in Mogadishu, and of wounded Chadian rebels being bound and left on the banks of the Chari river as food for the crocodiles. There are also memories of a former lover, Olvido Ferrara. Faulques may have to answer for as much for her death on the Borovo Naselje road near Vukovar as he does the death of Markovic's family.

For both men, it is the mural that becomes their channel. For Faulques, it has "little to do with his artistic ability and much to do with his memory." His style is stolen from others, from Uccello and Brueghal, Bosch and Goya, because the "old masters, more than anyone, knew how to make the invisible visible." And it is the invisible – the impulse behind the action, the incitement behind the brutality – that Faulques is trying to capture with his brush strokes.

For Markovic, the mural is his key to understanding Faulques, and in doing so, perhaps finding the logic to his own suffering.

The many fans of Pérez-Reverte will find The Painter of Battles a departure. The suspense of the novel is muted in favour of a philosophical approach because the mystery at the heart of this book is more inscrutable: What lies at the root of the cruelties we inflict upon one another?

The answers to this question are not likely to bring much solace. According to Faulques: "The world has never known as much about itself and about nature as it does now, but it doesn't do any good. We've had tidal waves forever, you know.

"What's different is that in the past we didn't try to build four- and five-star hotels along the beach. Man creates euphemisms and smoke screens to deny natural laws. And also to negate his own abominable state. And every time he wakes up it costs him two hundred dead in a plane crash, two hundred thousand in a tsunami, or a million in a civil war."

Markovic's understanding of the question, like himself, is far simpler. The nature of humankind, the nature of the brutality it exacts upon itself, is much like the mural: "Circular, like a trap ... a trap for crazed moles."

In a recent interview with Miranda France of The Telegraph, Pérez-Reverte suggested: "Everything that happens in the book happened for real." He goes on to say, though, that he is not "the tormented type ... I'm not going to go and work for some NGO, it's not in my character. So this book is my solution, my analgesic. It's my way of transforming a nightmare into a ghost."

That he has chosen this stage of his career to find his analgesic is opportune for any number of reasons, but perhaps none more so than the fact that The Painter of Battles will be a bestseller because of the name on the cover – and that in turn means many will read what is surely one of the most important ghost stories to be written in recent memory.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Bernado Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

Nick Caistor reviews Bernado Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
The Basques have a word for it. That word is usually unpronounceable and unconnected to any other European language, reflecting the uniqueness of the history of that troubled, distinctive northern corner of Spain. In The Accordionist's Son , one of these words is zulo, here translated as "hiding-place". Over the 60-year period that the novel covers, from the 1930s to the 1990s, this zulo is used for many different purposes, all of them essential to the lived history of the village of Obaba in the heart of the Basque country.
During the civil war in the 30s, "the American" who owns a hotel coveted by the Francoists is hidden there before he succeeds in escaping over the border to France and eventually makes it back to the United States. In the 60s, the novel's protagonist David Imaz spends hours in its dark well as he makes his silent protest at being forced to play his accordion at the inauguration of a monument being erected for only one side of those who fought in the civil war. And in the 70s, when a new Spain and a new Basque country are struggling to emerge as the Franco regime crumbles, the zulo is given a more sinister function: it is used as a prison where the groups fighting for Basque independence keep the people they have kidnapped and are holding to ransom. Beyond this, Bernardo Atxaga suggests, the zulo is a symbol of the state of mind of the Basques themselves: the dark, hidden place where their complex identity is forged and from which they often only reluctantly emerge.

The novel begins and ends far from Obaba. Like many Basques, the Imaz family have been forced to emigrate. For reasons that become clear only later, David has gone to join his Uncle Juan in California. The opening centres on David's death and the arrival of Joseba, his closest friend from the Basque country, to attend his funeral. David's American widow Mary Ann presents Joseba with her husband's long memoir about his life before emigration and his explanation of how he arrived in California, and it is this memoir that constitutes the bulk of The Accordionist's Son. Born in the 50s, David finds himself surrounded by adults who bear the scars of a war he did not participate in and whose meaning he only gradually comes to understand. As he does so, he realises not only that his father Angel (the accordionist) was on Franco's side, but that he could have been directly responsible for the deaths of seven people in their home village of Obaba. Growing to manhood, David rejects his father's view of the world, with its illusion of progress and attraction to the sophistication of life beyond the village. He himself is far more drawn to the countryside, to horses, the forests surrounding the green valleys, his "peasant" friends, Joseba and local girls, the link with the land and the sensual pleasures of being immersed in still unspoilt nature.

Despite this, David accepts the need to go away to university to study. There in the early 70s he meets fellow students who are much more politically aware than he is. They do not simply feel nostalgia for the village life of the Basque country - they see it as somewhere that has always suffered at the hands of the Spanish, with Franco as simply the most recent manifestation of this oppression. They are determined to take advantage of his disappearance to win independence at last. Almost without realising it, David and Joseba find themselves drawn into this movement, until at the climax of the book they are faced with the choice between espousing violence to win freedom and accepting that yet again others will decide their future for them - in many ways the same choice as that faced by their parents' generation.

In all his work, Atxaga delves into the impact of the political on individual lives. What is most moving in The Accordionist's Son is the push and counter-push of these pressures on a believable individual (and Margaret Jull Costa's elegant and unfussy translation gives us a clear view of him in English) as he contends with the weight of history and a sense of belonging, and assesses his possibilities for action.

The conclusion to the novel is in many ways a sombre one. David rejects using violent means to preserve his garden of Eden, and in so doing is expelled far from it, to a 21st century in which Basque shepherds tend their sheep in the parks of San Francisco. Escape from the zulo can only come at a huge cost.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore
Spanish poet Ángel González one of Spain's most prominent poets and member of a literary generation known for its opposition to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, died last Saturday at the age of 82.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

Miranda France reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl.
He means "bad" in the good sense, of course - at least at the beginning. It is the summer of 1950, a time our narrator, Ricardo, will remember as the happiest of his life. Living in Miraflores, a smart neighbourhood of Lima, he and other teenagers enjoy a lively social life, discreetly presided over by priests and maiden aunts.

Their life is a round of making out and breaking up at parties. This is also the historic moment when "everyone stopped dancing waltzes, corridos, blues, boleros, and huarachas because the mambo had demolished them".

Into the midst of such innocent fun strolls Lily, a sophisticated Chilean of 15 who has a scandalous way with her hips when dancing and tells jokes so risqué they make the Miraflores girls blush. "What a girl!" chides Ricardo's aunt.

Ricardo is smitten and dreams of a future in which he can marry Lily and move to Paris. Then, at one of the parties, his paramour is dramatically unmasked: it turns out that Lily is not Chilean and may even be lower-class.

This is when we learn that, quite apart from her provocations on the dance floor, Lily can be "bad" in other ways too. She tells dreadful lies - the kind that make you gasp and stretch your eyes - and she is always pretending to be something she is not. Since he never learns her true name, Ricardo calls her the "bad girl".

The next time they meet, Ricardo is working as a Unesco translator in Paris and Lily has metamorphosed into Comrade Arlette, a revolutionary in training. Later she will be the wife of a diplomat, then of a businessman with an interest in racehorses, then she becomes a kind of geisha, trafficking aphrodisiac remedies for a Japanese honcho.

In each incarnation she crosses paths with Ricardo, whose life is a picture of stability by comparison, except that he cannot form relationships, because he is doomed to love only the Bad Girl. And this he does with passion, in spite of her coldness in bed.

"She allowed herself to be kissed from head to toe, maintaining her usual passivity, and she heard, like someone listening to the rain, Neruda's 'Material nupcial', which I recited into her ear, along with my stammered words of love: this was the happiest night of my life."

Mario Vargas Llosa has a deserved reputation as the intellectual powerhouse of Latin American literature, but I prefer him when he is funny. There is more flesh on the bones of his comic creations.

That is not to say that this is a simple comedy: Ricardo's infatuation is alarming, and there is tragedy in the Bad Girl's cruelty and self-abuse, and in her assertion that money represents "the only happiness you can touch".

The novel contains serious criticisms of Peru's treatment of its poorer citizens. It is also a clever homage to Flaubert, of whom Vargas Llosa has often written admiringly.

All the same, there is a wonderful bolero cheesiness about some of the scenes, especially as Ricardo learns about each new identity of his lover in increasingly outlandish ways.

On one occasion he spots her in a photograph of racegoers at his friend's apartment. On another, a mute neighbour informs him she has telephoned him via a scribbled note on the slate hanging round his neck. If this were going to be a film, you'd definitely want Peter Sellers in it.

The same humour and good naturedness that characterised Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter are written into almost every line of this novel (I think you have to be good natured to describe Newmarket as "mysterious"). Edith Grossman's translation conveys Vargas Llosa's tone marvellously well.

I have some reservations. The Bad Girl's stated ambition - to be "your lapdog, your whore" - strays uncomfortably into male fantasy, as does the retribution visited on her. But that is the story Vargas Llosa wanted to tell, and he does it brilliantly.

I put the light out at midnight with 30 pages still to go. Two hours later I had to put it back on, to find out what happened to the Bad Girl.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

James Lasdun reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl.
Reading a so-so novel by a first-rate author can be a disconcerting experience. Along with the letdown of the book itself, there's the constant muffled sense of a large talent trying to find a way into its own material. Mario Vargas Llosa's immense resources as a novelist are energetically applied to the surface of this tale of obsessive love - quick scene changes from one cosmopolitan location to another, lightning sketches of Peruvian political history, a bustling cast of eccentrics and revolutionaries, literary allusions galore - but the love story itself never develops a convincing heartbeat.
In the summer of 1950 a 15-year-old Peruvian boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets Lily, a dazzling newcomer in the Miraflores district of Lima, claiming to be a Chilean. She turns out to be lying about both her name and her nationality, but by the time Ricardo discovers this he has already fallen under the spell of her "mischievous laugh" and the "mocking glance of her eyes the colour of dark honey." In Paris, a decade later, where Ricardo has gone to work as an interpreter, the girl resurfaces, this time under the equally bogus sobriquet of "Comrade Arlette", on her way to Cuba as a trainee revolutionary. Ricardo's feelings for her return unabated: "the mischievousness I remembered so well still poured out of her, something bold, spontaneous, provocative . . . And she had that dark honey in her eyes." This time the two have an affair, in which Ricardo puts his tender heart on his sleeve, while the "bad girl" keeps hers firmly in the freezer, thereby maintaining control of the relationship.

So begins the infatuation that will become the source of all pain and pleasure in Ricardo's otherwise unremarkable life, for the next 40-odd years. Back in Paris after her Cuban interlude, Comrade Arlette reappears as Mme Robert Arnoux, the expensively dressed wife of a diplomat. Her face, "where mischief was always mixed with curiosity and coquetry", works its familiar magic on Ricardo (her little "pissant" as she now teasingly calls him), and the two resume their affair until she disappears again, breaking his heart and emptying her husband's Swiss bank account.

Her career as a gold-digging femme fatale thus launched, and her pattern of devastating recurrence in Ricardo's life established, it becomes a foregone conclusion that when Ricardo starts visiting England during the mid-60s, she will cross his path again. She does: this time as Mrs Richardson, wife of a wealthy, horse-breeding toff in Newmarket. The "gestures, looks and expressions that were a consummate display of coquetry" have their predictable effect, as they do again a few years later in Tokyo after she trades up once more, this time becoming "Kuriko", mistress to a sadistic Japanese gangster. So it continues: another round in Paris after she returns from Japan, brutalised by her gangster's nasty sex-games but soon recovering "the old vivacity and mischief" under Ricardo's dependable ministrations; then further rounds in Madrid, the south of France . . .

As the above quotations suggest, there's something static about the presentation of the central relation ship. Where you might hope for a deepening sense of its inner reality to emerge with each re-encounter - a tightening scrutiny of what it is that binds these lovers together - you get incantatory repetition instead: "mischief", "coquetry", "dark honey". In place of psychology or even pathology you get biological depictions of the changing state of Otilia's (as her real name turns out to be) vagina and breasts that come across merely as salacious. The faux-clinical tone is something like that of the doctor who discusses with Ricardo the sexual injuries from Otilia's Sadean interlude: "I have no choice but to give you the unpleasant details . . ."

At one point, as if aware of something missing in the substantiation of his heroine's allegedly irresistible charm, Vargas Llosa comes up with a Vietnamese orphan, unable to talk since his traumatic childhood. The mute boy meets the bad girl and lo, he speaks. It is a moment of unforgivable schmaltz that merely makes Otilia seem more improbable than ever.

The name "Mme Arnoux", Otilia's third alias, is also that of the object of Frederic Moreau's infatuation in Flaubert's Sentimental Education. Vargas Llosa has written extensively of his love of Flaubert, and The Bad Girl is in part an homage to Sentimental Education. Some elements, such as the tenuously incorporated running commentary on Peruvian politics, really only make sense if understood as allusions to the original - in this case the backdrop of French political turmoil. Stylistically, however, the book couldn't be less like Flaubert, whose injunctions against cliche, generic description, idees recues, it flouts with apparent glee, tossing out such lines as "He was the incarnation of the careless, absent-minded intellectual" by way of characterisation, and off-the-peg accessories (high-end, of course) - Guerlain toothbrush, Vuitton dressing case - by way of furnishings.

In its better moments (and there are some incidentally lively passages) it seems to aspire to something more like the skimming swiftness of Flaubert's pupil Maupassant, whose raffishly cynical study of corrupted desire, Bel Ami, it occasionally resembles. But whereas Maupassant situates his predatory charmers in a Paris brought to life by incandescently imagined detail, Vargas Llosa (who has achieved equally brilliant results in other novels, such as The Feast of the Goat) too often settles for the kind of obvious local colour you could find in a tourist brochure. The depiction of Swinging London is particularly lame, beginning with this painfully clunky overview: "Music replaced books and ideas as a centre of attraction for the young, above all with the Beatles but also including Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger, other English bands and singers, and hippies and the psychedelic revolution of the flower children."

The line about the Stones - "with Mick Jagger" - is so richly ludicrous, I wondered if there was some weird pastiche afoot; an attempt to deliver modern times in a deliberately stilted, anachronistic manner so as to simulate the weatherbeaten patina of a "classic". I don't think so, but perhaps in 100 years or so, when the 20th century seems as quaintly old-world as the 19th, The Bad Girl 's kitschy aura will have become imperceptible and readers will share the sentiments of one of the characters in its pages who, on hearing Ricardo tell his tale, is made to exclaim obligingly: "Do you know, it's a marvellous love story?" For now, though, that reads more like wishful thinking.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bernardo Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

Ed King reviews Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
The publication of his first novel, Obabakoak, in 1993 established Bernardo Atxaga as a literary voice of startling originality and a passionate guardian of Basque national memory. The traumatised characters that populate his novels have, for many, come to embody the open wounds of a community still trying to come to terms with its bloody past.

The Accordionist's Son, first published in Euskera (Basque) in 2003, is his most ambitious novel to date, encompassing a vast swath of Basque history from the Civil War of the 1930s through to the transition to democracy in 1976. But it's also Atxaga's most personal novel, a eulogy to the lost country of his youth and a moving defence of his role as a writer.

David Imaz, the book's protagonist, lives in self-imposed exile on a ranch in California. Feeling increasingly disconnected from his native Basque country, he decides to write a 'memorial' and trace the evolution of his life from his childhood in the repressive environment of post-war Spain to his decision to leave the country and never return.

His recollections pay particular attention to his political awakening, triggered by the discovery of his father's association with the Fascists during the Civil War. As David uncovers his father's dirty secrets, he grows increasingly politicised and eventually decides to abandon his village to take up the armed struggle for Basque autonomy.

David's yearning for the past is always described in terms of his relationship with his mother tongue and some of the most touching moments in the novel are his laments over the disappearance of his language. When he senses words passing into obsolescence, David mourns their death like cherished friends, burying them next to his family members on the ranch.

But this isn't just nostalgia. For Atxaga, language is always political. When Franco's troops try to stamp out Basque nationalism in David's village, one of the first measures they take is to ban the speaking, learning and writing of Euskera. (Writing in Euskera was still illegal when Atxaga started publishing in the 1970s.)

When David is caught reading a volume of Basque poems it is viewed as subversion and it's ultimately as a defence of his language and culture that he justifies his role in the terrorist organisation ETA.

But this isn't just a portrait of a terrorist as a young man, much less a defence of Basque nationalism. Atxaga's great strength is his talent for conveying in such simple terms the moral complexity of his characters.

As the complex web of David's regrets and longings slowly unravels, the novel conjures a compelling image of a man trapped by the horrors of his past.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Monday, January 07, 2008

Bernardo Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

Tom Deveson reviews Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
“All books, even the harshest, embellish life,” declares David Imaz, the principal narrator of this superb novel. He’s earned the right to say so and the right to be wrong. It’s not smug literary theory but a recognition of the complex relationship between what happens to us and what we say about it. The book moves skilfully between David’s time in America in the 1990s, his youth in the Basque country in the 1960s and the experiences of his parents’ generation during the Spanish civil war.

At its heart, it’s a wholly convincing account of families and friendship. We meet David’s teenage friends as they play, quarrel and develop rivalries and loyalties; we share his desperately painful suspicions about his father’s support of fascist atrocities and the drowsy eroticism of his feelings for Virginia – “ la paysanne” – who is betrothed to a sailor; we witness his delicate courtship of his American wife, with all the tenderness and strangeness of flirtation and unspoken love. Like Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, Bernardo Atxaga excels in portraying youthful rites of passage against a merciless, often mendacious history.

The history goes deep. As a boy, David is aware of the much older Virgilian world of shepherds and wolves, and the growing and grinding of grain. There are echoes of Petronius, Ovid and Martial; the “hissing leaves” speak with Virginia’s voice and the toads croak harsh warnings. But the “ancient people” among whom he grows up are already losing their memories. Motorbikes appear beside the horses, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hits feature on the radio, contrasting with the “sadder music” of the accordion songs that David learns from his father. To his American children, his memories will seem “from another galaxy”.

History’s worst cruelty is that a civil war is never finished. David sees old lists mentioning locals who were shot and tries vainly to forget them. Another narrator (these shifts in perspective are achieved smoothly) describes horrifying reprisals and a pool of blood on the ground. A hiding place used in the 1930s is needed 30 years later as Franco’s police sniff out subversion. The mere fact of speaking Basque or not playing the accordion for a ceremony becomes a political act; victims become executioners.

Language and loss are intimately connected. David’s country friends said “happy” or “unhappy”, not “obsessive” or “paranoid”. His student friends, however, say “alienation” as naturally as the peasants say “ mitxirrika” when they point to a butterfly. There is not a sermon here about what is or isn’t authentic, and no moral sleight of hand to prove one way of life inherently superior.

What counts most is true feeling and intensity. David’s premature death is mentioned on page two, and its approach is sensed throughout the final pages. In between, the killing of a horse, a bird or an insect are all the more moving for being placed against the atrocities that human beings perform on one another. Even as David meets his wife, he notices the baleful movement of a clock’s pendulum. But death doesn’t have the last word. Atxaga’s dextrous interweaving of themes and vibrant evocation of people and places make the book not an embellishment of life but a celebration of its richness.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

Peter Kemp reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl.
The Bad Girl opens with an exhilarating surge of energy. It is 1950, and in Mira-flores, an attractive seaside suburb of the Peruvian capital, Lima, 15-year-old Ricardo Somocurcio is having the summer of his life. Amid the frangipani, jacaranda and jasmine of the neighbourhood’s lush gardens, he and his friends flirt and fall in love for the first time. As gorgeous days expire in flaming sunsets, dance parties are held, where the mambo, the craze of the moment, holds sway. Relishing every remembered detail of the place and period, Mario Vargas Llosa beguilingly resurrects a sensuous paradise, into which erupts Lily, an exotic-seeming girl with an enticingly foreign Chilean accent. Provocative and flamboyant (but evasive about her background), she soon has Ricardo slavishly devoted to her until, dramatically exposed as not what she seems, she abruptly disappears.

Fast forward 10 years and Ricardo is in Paris training to be a translator. Among South American expatriates there plotting to carry the success of Castro’s Cuban revolution into their own countries, he is surprised to reencounter Lily, now calling herself Comrade Arlette. Rapidly she reasserts her “bad girl” spell over him (this time letting him take her to bed, where she is acquiescent but unresponsive), then again abruptly departs. From Havana, reports arrive that she is having a passionate affair with a revolutionary commandante. Then, in yet another of her startling metamorphoses, she reappears in Paris as Madame Arnoux, the chic, impeccably correct wife of a high-level functionary at the Quai d’Orsay, only to vanish again in murky circumstances.

For the rest of the novel, this pattern recurs with ever greater implausibility. As the decades pass, Ricardo drifts from Paris to London and on to Tokyo and Madrid, only to keep meeting “the bad girl” in some fresh guise: from Mrs Richardson, the wife of a crooked English entrepreneur, to Kuriko, the masochistic mistress of a thuggishly perverted Japanese gangster. Predictably unpredictable, she repeatedly reenchants Ricardo, then departs with mysterious suddenness.

“There was something in her impossible not to admire,” Ricardo asserts of his femme fatale. If so, it stays well hidden in these pages. Compulsively drawn away from him to the moneyed and powerful, she strikes the reader as a monster of grabby materialism, lying, stealing and betraying lovers and friends. Her impoverished origins, it’s unconvincingly intimated, go some way to justifying all this. And her decline, almost farcically melodramatic, into a mutilated travesty of her former siren self looks designed to invest her with closing pathos. But since Vargas Llosa never manages to make her remotely plausible either as a person or a symbol, none of this has any purchase.

Allusions to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which features a weak-willed romantic smitten with another Madame Arnoux) suggest that Vargas Llosa regards himself as offering a similar panorama of misplaced attachment and dashed hopes, personal and political. But his chroniclings of social change can be embarrassingly jejune. In Swinging London, Ricardo solemnly explains, “Music replaced books and ideas as a centre of attraction for the young, above all with the Beatles but also including Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger, other English bands and singers, and hippies and the psychedelic revolution of the flower children.”

Political commentary has a matching banality that it’s hard to credit as coming from the author of such masterly Conradian novels as Death in the Andes (1996), his epic survey of the terrorised Peru of the 1980s, and The Feast of the Goat (2002), his riveting portrayal of the ghoulish tyranny of General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

Awkwardly pitched somewhere between realism and magic realism, The Bad Girl keeps stressing how enigmatic its heroine is. But the real puzzle it poses is why Vargas Llosa should have misapplied his talents to this feeble fabrication that, getting underway with colourful buoyancy, fizzles out so thoroughly that reading it is like watching a balloon deflate.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Nadal Prize 2008

Francisco Casavella won the 2008 edition of the Nadal Prize with his novel Lo que sé de los vampiros.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Juan Marsé

Juan Cruz on the 75th anniversary of Juan Marsé.
Juan Marsé leyó cuando era niño unas líneas de Ernest Hemingway al principio de Las nieves del Kilimanjaro y toda su vida ha querido alcanzar con su propia escritura la música misteriosa de ese texto. Ahora va a cumplir 75 años, mañana, 8 de enero, y sigue pensando en el sonido de aquel párrafo que le cautivó en la infancia.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Zoé Valdés: La cazadora de astros

Luciana De Mello reviews Zoé Valdés' La cazadora de astros.
Aún así, el gesto de rescate es valorable: detrás de la pintora catalana hay una época, una lucha, una ideología para contar. Es justamente un cuadro de Remedios Varo lo que le da nombre a esta novela. La cazadora de astros ha sido cazada. Zoé Valdés atrapó su vida con una mirada y quiso que hiciera de la suya una obra de arte.
Read More

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl

Lucinda Byatt reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl.
Peru's leading contemporary writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, needs little introduction after rising to fame in the boom years of Latin American literature. This latest work combines his political and literary passions, expressed as always with wit and irony, but without the grand scope of his "total novels". The Bad Girl is primarily an analysis of love in which Vargas Llosa questions the nature of unrequited love and abject devotion expressed in "cheap, sentimental" language.

Vargas Llosa narrates the story through Ricardo, a teenager from the rich suburb of Miraflores in Lima, whose romance with Lily throbbed to the explosion of mambo in the summer of 1950. The evocation of Lima at the time is hauntingly nostalgic. Lily's unmasking and disappearance follow in rapid succession, yet the "bad girl" has left her mark. After moving to Paris, the haunt of other exiled "writers who didn't write, artists who didn't paint", and qualifying as a Unesco translator, Ricardo again meets Lily, now a trainee guerrilla fighter, Comrade Arlette.

But after using him for her own ends, she again disappears. As the pattern repeats itself, the predictability of each parting and "surprise" reunion becomes rather tedious. Indeed, Ricardo wonders if, after 30 years of suffering, this farce could still be called a l
ove story?

Ricardo's work as a translator also provides Vargas Llosa with a wonderful pretext to explore that "profession of phantoms", scathingly described by a colleague as a "disguised form of procuring, pimping, or being a go-between".

Taken solely at face value, the main characters remain unconvincingly monochromatic – Ricardo the unambitious drudge who drowns his misery in work, and the "bad girl" a scheming liar whose pursuit of material wealth overrides any compunction for having deserted her family and ruined countless other lives.

But the novel remains intriguing and poignant, sustained by historical evocations of the Fifties and Sixties, the violent years of the Shining Path, and the author's own unsuccessful political foray into Peruvian politics.

Above all, it pays homage to the Vargas Llosa's literary heroes, their sentiments and the redeeming power of love.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Perla Sassón-Henry: Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds

Noam Cohen reviews Perla Sassón-Henry's Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds.
THE Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges might seem an unlikely candidate for Man Who Discovered the Internet. A fusty sort who from the 1930s through the 1950s spent much of his time as a chief librarian, Borges (1899-1986) valued printed books as artifacts and not just for the words they contained. He frequently set his stories in a pretechnological past and was easily enthralled by the authority of ancient texts.

Yet a growing number of contemporary commentators — whether literature professors or cultural critics like Umberto Eco — have concluded that Borges uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web. One recent book, “Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds” by Perla Sassón-Henry, explores the connections between the decentralized Internet of YouTube, blogs and Wikipedia — the so-called Internet 2.0 — and Borges’s stories, which “make the reader an active participant.” Ms. Sassón-Henry, an associate professor in the language studies department of the United States Naval Academy, describes Borges as “from the Old World with a futuristic vision.” Another work, a collection of essays on the topic from Bucknell University Press, has the provocative title “Cy-Borges” and is expected to appear this year.

Among the scores of Borges stories, a core group — including “Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — first appeared in the United States as “Labyrinths” in the early 1960s. With their infinite libraries and unforgetting men, collaborative encyclopedias and virtual worlds conjured up from the printed page and portals that watch over the entire planet, these stories (along with a few others like “The Aleph”) have become a canon for those at the intersection of new technology and literature.

New Directions, the publisher of “Labyrinths,” reissued the collection in May, for the first time in more than 40 years. In a sign of the changing times it includes an introduction from William Gibson, the cyberpunk author. (The original, by contrast, came with a preface from André Maurois of the Académie Française.)

By 1955 Borges had lost his sight yet was appointed director of the National Library of Argentina. Assessing his predicament (the digital age predicament) of having access to so much information and so few ways to process it, Borges wrote in “Poem of the Gifts,” “No one should read self-pity or reproach into this statement of the majesty of God, who with such splendid irony granted me books and blindness at one touch.”

What follows are excerpts from prophetic Borges short stories — translated by Andrew Hurley in “Borges: Collected Fictions” (Penguin Books) — and examples of those prophesies fulfilled.

Infinite Encyclopedia

THEN “Who, singular or plural, invented Tlön? The plural is, I suppose, inevitable, since the hypothesis of a single inventor — some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement — has been unanimously discarded. It is conjectured that this ‘brave new world’ is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, algebrists, moralists, painters, geometers, ... guided and directed by some shadowy man of genius. There are many men adept in those diverse disciplines, but few capable of imagination — fewer still capable of subordinating imagination to a rigorous and systematic plan. The plan is so vast that the contribution of each writer is infinitesimal.” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940)

NOW Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia project that began in 2001, now has a total of more than nine million articles in more 250 languages. There are more than 75,000 “active contributors,” many of whom remain anonymous. As it grows and becomes ever more influential, its operating logic remains a mystery. A favored saying among Wikipedia’s contributors is: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

Life Is Like A Blog

THEN “Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. ‘I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,’ he said to me. ... And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.” “Funes” (1942)

Now The path from diary to blog to the frequently updated “microblog” has now descended to “life-logging.” Not content merely to record their thoughts or even daily activities, life-loggers record and preserve everything they see, hear, say and read during the day. The world-recognized early adopter is Gordon Bell, a 73-year-old computer programmer who wears an audio recorder as well as a tiny camera that snaps a picture every 60 seconds. A 2006 profile in Fast Company described Mr. Bell as at one time being “worried about filling up his hard-drive space too quickly.” He adds a gigabyte of information a month and figures that an average 72-year-old person would require one to three terabytes, “a hefty amount of storage.”

Nothing Is Forgotten

THEN “I was struck by the thought that every word I spoke, every expression of my face or motion of my hand would endure in his implacable memory; I was rendered clumsy by the fear of making pointless gestures.” “Funes” (1942)

Now There once was a time when a poet could assert that “the revolution will not be televised.” But today, of course, even a politician’s informal meet-and-greet will be recorded for posterity. Senator George Allen of Virginia learned this in 2006 when a tape of him calling his opponent’s videographer a “macaca,” a racially tinged epithet, spread like a virus across the state and, soon, the world. He lost his re-election bid.

Universal Library

THEN “From those incontrovertible premises, the librarian deduced that the Library is ‘total’ ... that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language. ... When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist.” “The Library of Babel” (1941)

Now In announcing that an ambitious international project to digitize universities’ book collections had passed the 1.5 million mark, one of its organizers, Raj Reddy, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, proclaimed in November: “This project brings us closer to the ideal of the Universal Library: making all published works available to anyone, anytime, in any language.” To others, the Internet itself is the Universal Library, where readers can search for recipes, medical treatments, barroom trivia or perhaps even Google themselves.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Arturo Pérez-Reverte: The Painter of Battles

Alan Cheuse reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.
Just as we have our one-of-a-kind popular writers these days in John Grisham and Stephen King, Spain claims Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one of contemporary fiction's great entertainers. Most of his novels take us back into European history, but now and then he has touched on the contemporary world. In "The Painter of Battles," his latest novel to be translated here, he introduces us to a contemporary with a vengeance: Andres Faulques, a renowned war photographer, who, under the weight of grief and conscience, has withdrawn to an old tower overlooking a bay on Spain's southeast coast, where he has given up photography for painting, an art form he finds difficult and laborious.

"He had a good hand for drawing," we learn in the opening chapter, "but he was a mediocre painter." Faulques, or "the painter of battles" as he is often referred to in these pages, is pushing ahead with his new life-project, a mural on the subject of war that will cover all of the cracking inside walls of the tower. His monumental project incorporates images from major battle paintings by various Western artists as well as some from his two decades as a battlefield photographer in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere (accompanied in recent years by his last lover, a daunting though not greatly talented Italian woman named Olvido Ferrara). "There was no ambition to achieve a masterwork," we hear. "[T]he mural did not even pretend to be original, although in reality it was the sum and combination of countless images taken from painting and photography that would be impossible without the existence and the eye of the man who was painting in the tower."

The second chapter immediately changes the pitch of the narrative. It opens with the appearance of a visitor to the tower, a stranger who over the course of the rest of the novel becomes quite familiar to the painter of battles. His name is Ivo Markovic, a former foot soldier, who announces to Faulques that he wants revenge for being featured in one of the man's photographs from a battlefield in the Balkans.

The photograph "destroyed my life," and brought down horror on him and his family, Markovic explains. "Now I know enough to agree that it wasn't entirely the work of chance, since there are circumstances that brought you and me to that exact moment on that exact day. And as a consequence of the process begun by you, by me, by whoever, I'm here now. To kill you."

The rest of the novel takes us back and forth between the painter's daily round and his recollections of his past work as a photographer, with his memories of the now deceased Olvido growing more powerful by the hour as his final confrontation with Markovic draws inevitably closer. Were it not for his recollective state of mind, Faulques' encounters with Markovic would have made for a taut if melodramatic narrative - one about half the size of the present volume. But those forays into the past, added to the pages given over to the description of the painter's unfolding mural, lift the story out of the realm of melodrama and give it a heft and gravity it probably could not have otherwise obtained.

"The painter of battles stirred, running his fingers along the cold, rough edges of the crack in the wall. Raw meat, he remembered suddenly, beside amphibian tracks in the sand. Horror always lying in wait, demanding tithes and first fruits, poised to decapitate Euclid with the scythe of chaos. Butterflies fluttering through all wars and all peaces. Every moment was a blend of possible and impossible situations, of cracks predicted from that first instant at a temperature of three billion kelvins within the fourteen seconds and the three minutes following the Big Bang, the beginning of a series of precise coincidences that create man, and that kill him. Drunken gods playing chess, Olympian risk-taking, an errant meteorite only ten kilometers in diameter that, when it struck the Earth and annihilated all animals weighing more than twenty-five kilos, cleared the way for the then small and timid mammals that sixty-five million years later would become Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo occisor."

Laying on page after page of this philosophical rhetoric, the way his artist hero slathers parts of his mural in paint, tends to amplify Faulques' fate, as Pérez-Reverte elevates his novel above the level of the merely entertaining pages of King and Grisham. It also, alas, reminds American readers of the sublime rhetoric of Faulkner and how such passages in the hands of a master can add to the momentum of the story and how, in instances such as this, it can also drown out the music of the plot.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Friday, January 04, 2008

Jose Saramago: The Double

Michael Freeman reviews José Saramago's The Double.
In his recent novel "The Double," the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago looks at the theme of identity, and just how much our personalities dictate who we are, in the story Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, a history teacher in a secondary school whose life is completely shaken up one evening after he watches a routine comedy.

Tertuliano is feeling depressing and thinking of breaking up with his girlfriend. A colleague at the school recommends that he rent out a movie, and he has just the title for him: a comedy called "The Race Is To The Swift." Tertuliano rents the video and watches it that night, but finds it to be lame and unfunny, a complete waste of his time. He goes to bed, still feeling downbeat.

But in the middle of the night, he wakes up thinking he's heard something in the apartment. He gets up, and finds himself alone; but then he notices that silly video is playing again. Tertuliano sits down to watch, and that's when he notices it: one of the actors in the movie, in a small bit part, looking exactly like him -- almost as if he had a twin out there.

From then on, Tertuliano becomes obsessed with finding the name of that actor.

At this point, "The Double" seems almost comical, as Tertuliano goes to great lengths in his frantic search, renting out every video he can find by the same production company, and watching hours and hours of movies to spot this lone actor. He goes from being depressed and withdrawn to almost manic in his determination to locate his double. Tertuliano also goes to great lengths to avoid letting his collagues or his girlfriend know what he's up to, and his efforts are quite comical.

Then he discovers the name of the actor, who has roles in several of the production company's movies. He even writes a "fan" letter to the lowly bit player, convincing his girlfriend to pretend she's the one sending it to mask his identity. But when Tertuliano finally learns the real name and address of his double, the book starts to take on a much darker, and more ominous, tone. It begins when he calls the actor's apartment and gets the man's wife on the phone. Only, she's immediately convinced that she's talking to her own husband. It seems Tertuliano and this actor share more than just a striking resemblance. Their voices are identical as well.

Saramago moves to the meeting between the two men, and there are a few sharp twists to come before the book's very chilling ending. Along the way, Saramago's tale raises some intriguing questions for the ongoing debate about human cloning. It is a remarkable breakthrough waiting to be discovered, or a ticking time bomb disaster waiting to go off?

Saramago's book provides ammunition for both sides. For one thing, he debunks the myth that we're all unique based on our outward appearances alone. Tertuliano and his twin, who are not related by the same parents, nevertheless have unique and different personalities -- disastrously so, it turns out, as one of them develops an angry, almost resentful view of the notion that he has an exact twin wandering around. Saramago also suggests that few among us could cope psychologically with the notion that someone out there looks and sounds exactly like we do -- and could step into our shoes anytime they wanted to, in essence "playing" us for our friends, co-workers and loved one. It could quite literally become a dark obsession we can't control.

"The Double" is a fascinating book that doesn't aim to politicize the cloning debate, but to offer a careful study of how one individual might react to having a double. Saramago's conclusions are as eerie as they are believable.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Bernado Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

David Flusfeder reviews Bernado Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
Bernardo Atxaga's leisurely novel is a rare thing in our literary culture. Look around a bookshop's tables of fiction and you will see very few translated books; maybe a couple of contemporary novels from France, a few reissued classics from Russia and Germany and South America. The rest will be British and American.

Bernardo Atxaga is a Basque novelist, writing in a language that has fewer than a million speakers, and yet whose work has commanded an international audience.

The Accordionist's Son begins with the untimely death of its hero and supposed author, David Imaz, on his ranch in California, a long way from his home in the Basque village of Obaba. In the introduction we are told that David's book will be "very interesting, very dense…events and facts have all been crammed in like anchovies in a glass jar". In fact - and this is both the book's weakness and its strength - it reads like a slowly unfolding memoir.

We are moved back in time, first into the romance of how David and his (American) wife met and fell in love, and then to his 1960s boyhood in Obaba, where he did the sorts of things that boys do everywhere: flirting, fighting, squabbling with his father and falling in love.

But this is Franco's Spain, where the men with power in the village, including David's father, Angel, are those who fought or conspired for the winning side in the Civil War. Before we can approach these unpleasant truths, though, we pass several seasons in the life of the village, where things pass slowly.

The most remarkable events are David's expulsion from school, after being caught with a pornographic magazine that belongs to his friend Martin (who will later become a cocaine-tooting nightclub entrepreneur and boxing promoter); his hiding of his Uncle Juan's horse so that the rich Fascist's daughter will be unable to buy it; and his love affairs.

The most poignant of these is his afternoon of love in room 27 of the Hotel Alaska with Martin's sister, the lame Theresa. She has always loved him, while he has always loved the virginal Virginia, who is engaged to a sailor who will later be lost at sea.

In defiance of Chekhov's maxim that a pistol introduced in Act 1 must always be fired in Act 3, Theresa's pocket revolver is introduced with no greater shock ensuing than the death of a sparrow.

But there have been human deaths: the village was ripped apart in the Civil War, with Uncle Juan on the Republican side and Angel the accordionist implicated in the murders of Republican sympathisers. (Moral value here is generally equated with which side a character supported, or would have, in the Civil War.)

And the boy David, the reluctant accordionist and 1960s adolescent, becomes obsessed with disinterring the truths of the village's past.

The surface of village life is finally lifted, and we are thrust into murder and conspiracy in the story of Don Pedro "The American" (a Leftist villager so-called because he once lived in Canada), who had been chosen for death but managed to get away.

By the end of the novel, subtly, with the reader almost being unaware of the process taking place, we are in tune with the lost rhythms of Basque rural life and able to begin to comprehend a world that supported both communal village traditions and the atrocity of Guernica.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Arturo Pérez-Reverte: The Painter of Battles

Barrie Swift reviews Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.
Andres Faulques has spent his life photographing wars. Now retired to an 18th century coastal watchtower, he is painting a giant mural on its walls to capture what his photographs couldn't the meaning of war.

A stranger arrives one day and tells Faulques he is going to kill him. The stranger is in fact the subject of one of Faulques' prize-winning war pictures and wants Faulques to explain his motivations. As the painting progresses, the back stories of photographer and subject are revealed together with interesting references to famous paintings. It is a story of art, love, actions and consequences in the form of a psychological thriller and as such, builds to a satisfying climax. Perez-Reverte is a best-selling author in his native Spain: previously a war correspondent, his experiences show through in the gritty realism of the war scenes he portrays. With translated works it's not possible to gauge the quality of the author's prose, but Peden's translation reveals memorable passages.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Arturo Pérez-Reverte: The Painter of Battles

The Guardian review of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles.
A man lives alone, in a crumbling tower by the sea. On its interior wall, he is painting a vast circular mural of war, melding histories and landscapes into a singular nightmare. One day a stranger arrives, and announces that he intends to kill the painter. Instead of punching the man, fleeing or informing the police, the painter takes the news phlegmatically, continuing to work on his mural while receiving the visitor each day for a series of long, philosophical conversations on the nature of art and war.

Such is the curious setup of this novel. There is no point complaining of implausibility, since if the painter had reacted otherwise, this particular story wouldn't exist, and it is this story we have in front of us. Other fictions are based on similar theatrical conceits: perhaps Sandor Marai's Embers, in which two men converse in a castle to reveal one's betrayal, long ago, by the other; or the sly entertainment of another two-hander, Gilbert Adair's A Closed Book. But here Pérez-Reverte - the author of some delicious novels constructed around enigmas in chess or painting, and the series of elegant swashbucklers starring Captain Alatriste - is composing in a more minor and less ludic key.

The painter, Faulques, used to be a war photographer, and his memories of those times form the meat of the novel. (The publishers tell us that Pérez-Reverte drew on his own experience as a war correspondent.) These scenes - in Beirut, Croatia, Chad, Kuwait - are drawn with a terrible precision, beautifully rendered, and yet within them Pérez-Reverte manages to argue also that the beauty is a problem. Paying intense attention to light and colour, allowing Faulques to recall the exact technical details of the f-stops and shutter-speeds he used, he simultaneously draws the reader's gaze over the photographer's shoulder to the killers and victims who appeared to him more as material than as human beings.

The novelist implicates himself, too, in the callousness he depicts in Faulques, using suffering to make art, even as he also indicates what Faulques has to leave out of his work: "What there was no way to photograph was the buzzing of flies - they won all the battles." The strategy can result in moments of powerful, seductive nihilism. On one job, Faulques photographs a group of prisoners who are tied up by a river and left to be eaten by crocodiles. Later, safe in a restaurant, he thinks of all humanity as "rational meat lying in the sun".

But the novel, it seems, does not quite trust the texture of its own painting, and writes explicatory notes to the exhibition. The framing story - that of the present-day conversations between Faulques and the stranger - spells out all the concerns about the ethics of representation that are already eddying, with productive stealth, through the muddy ochres, winter greys and scarlets of the war scenes. The visitor who proclaims his intention to murder the artist is a Croat, called Ivo Markovic, whom Faulques once photographed. The photograph, published internationally, made Markovic recognisable to his enemies, and his wife and daughter were murdered. Thus the issues of responsibility and guilt are rather overtly staged; and there is a lot of inconclusive talk about Faulques's own theories of symmetry and chaos as they apply to art and violence.

There is also a beautiful and tragic woman in Faulques's past. She is called Olvido, and her function in flashback is to laugh behind crystal wineglasses in restaurants and to stand naked on balconies at night. She goes to art galleries with Faulques, where they talk about the paintings; and then follows him to war zones. On the way she is made to say such things as: "I watch you; you're all the time taking mental photos, as focused as if you were practising some strange Bushido discipline, with a camera in place of a samurai sword." That is a rather lovely physical image, but in the end her character seems over-burdened with wisdom.

The Painter of Battles is a strange book, much of its material shoehorned cornily into its flashbacks, its central dialogue straining under the moral weight placed upon it; it's a messy clash between showing and telling. And yet in a way it also becomes the mural of which it tells, drawing a perfectly obsessive, claustrophobic panorama. Few novels display such intensely marshalled powers of extended visual evocation. "Faulques never used pure black," the prose explains laconically at one point. "That colour created holes, like a bullet or burst of shrapnel on the wall." Finally, perhaps redemptively, Pérez-Reverte pulls off an ending of such calm tact and art that the reader is left in contemplative silence, circling the images left in his head.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore
Argentine writer Jose Hernandez's epic poem "Martin Fierro," is finally ready to enter the libraries of Turkish bookworms, some 130 years after it was published in 1872.

The Turkish translation of "Martin Fierro," produced with the initiative of Spain's Cervantes Institute and the Argentinean Embassy in Ankara, was launched at the institute in İstanbul last week. The book's Turkish translators, Ertuğrul Önalp and Mehmet Necati Kutlu of Ankara University's Spanish language and literature department, are both scholars of the Spanish language.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore
A new edition of A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, was presented here last December 26th as a tribute to the 80 years of an indispensable writer in the history of Spanish speaking literature.

Illustrated by the painter Roberto Fabelo and published by the editorial house Arte y Literatura, the Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute) also celebrates with this volume the 40th anniversary of a book that marked a new way for narration and opened the boom of Latin American literature, during the 1960’s.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore

Alberto Manguel: Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey

Melinda Harvey reviews Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.

New books crowd our view of old ones. But publishers and authors are culling while they clutter. Thousands of original titles are printed each year and a significant number of them tell us precisely which books to read and how many.

There have been Melvyn Bragg's 12 Books That Changed The World and Peter Boxall's rather more dispiritingly titled 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Meanwhile, Penguin's slim and chichi Great Ideas titles continue their reign at bookshop counters.

Upping the ante, American publisher Atlantic Books has launched a Books That Shook the World series. Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is its ninth and penultimate addition. Earthquakes, bombs and asteroids shake the world - but do books? More to the point, do poems? The Republic, The Bible, The Koran, Rights of Man, On The Origin Of Species, The Wealth of Nations, On War and Das Kapital - the focus of the previous eight instalments of the series - can lay clear claim to whipping up seismic shocks on history's timeline. But, as Bragg observes, explaining the absence of novels from his list, literature didn't put men on the moon or clinch the right to orgasm for women.

For Manguel, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Literature has accompanied us every step of the way from the polis to the politburo, and Homer's epics have managed to talk in time, regardless of the ideological beat. Or indeed tribal beat: Manguel tells the remarkable story of a remote jungle people who, supplied with a copy of The Iliad as well as a selection of practical handbooks on farming by Colombia's Ministry of Culture in the 1990s, refused to return it. When the village elder was asked why, he replied that Homer's story exactly mirrored his people's own past - of wars without reason and unhappiness without relief.

Manguel celebrates literature's pat-head-rub-tummy ability to reflect the real world, as well as entertain and move. He notes that The Iliad and The Odyssey have served as geographical textbooks (Strabo), war manuals (Alexander the Great), treasure maps (Heinrich Schliemann), not to mention Ancient Greek primers and civilising agents for countless boys from Horace to today. These poems are also "the beginning of all our stories". Beyond pioneering techniques related to plot, character and point of view in fiction-telling, they have seeded myriad books, from Virgil's Aeneid to James Joyce's Ulysses and beyond to Jean Giraudoux's Tiger at the Gates, Derek Walcott's Omeros and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.New books crowd our view of old ones. But publishers and authors are culling while they clutter. Thousands of original titles are printed each year and a significant number of them tell us precisely which books to read and how many.

There have been Melvyn Bragg's 12 Books That Changed The World and Peter Boxall's rather more dispiritingly titled 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Meanwhile, Penguin's slim and chichi Great Ideas titles continue their reign at bookshop counters.

Upping the ante, American publisher Atlantic Books has launched a Books That Shook the World series. Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is its ninth and penultimate addition. Earthquakes, bombs and asteroids shake the world - but do books? More to the point, do poems? The Republic, The Bible, The Koran, Rights of Man, On The Origin Of Species, The Wealth of Nations, On War and Das Kapital - the focus of the previous eight instalments of the series - can lay clear claim to whipping up seismic shocks on history's timeline. But, as Bragg observes, explaining the absence of novels from his list, literature didn't put men on the moon or clinch the right to orgasm for women.

For Manguel, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Literature has accompanied us every step of the way from the polis to the politburo, and Homer's epics have managed to talk in time, regardless of the ideological beat. Or indeed tribal beat: Manguel tells the remarkable story of a remote jungle people who, supplied with a copy of The Iliad as well as a selection of practical handbooks on farming by Colombia's Ministry of Culture in the 1990s, refused to return it. When the village elder was asked why, he replied that Homer's story exactly mirrored his people's own past - of wars without reason and unhappiness without relief.

Manguel celebrates literature's pat-head-rub-tummy ability to reflect the real world, as well as entertain and move. He notes that The Iliad and The Odyssey have served as geographical textbooks (Strabo), war manuals (Alexander the Great), treasure maps (Heinrich Schliemann), not to mention Ancient Greek primers and civilising agents for countless boys from Horace to today. These poems are also "the beginning of all our stories". Beyond pioneering techniques related to plot, character and point of view in fiction-telling, they have seeded myriad books, from Virgil's Aeneid to James Joyce's Ulysses and beyond to Jean Giraudoux's Tiger at the Gates, Derek Walcott's Omeros and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.

That we have read and treasured Homer for more than 28 consecutive centuries is, for Manguel, proof that the poems have shaped, if not shaken, the world. Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is subtitled A Biography, and Manguel believes a biography of a book is a history of its readers. With a Casanovan mixture of fickleness and genuine affection, we gad about the ages, rendezvousing with a galaxy of authors, artists, scholars and translators for whom Homer mattered. There's the painstaking Aristarchus, the conflicted St Jerome, the ecstatic John Keats and the speculative Samuel Butler, who wholeheartedly believed that The Odyssey was the work of a young unmarried Sicilian woman and not a blind and wandering male bard. The story of Caliph al-Ma'mun, who, after an encounter with Aristotle in a dream, had the entire corpus of Ancient Greek writing translated into Arabic, ensuring its survival, serves as a timely parable for our times. Manguel's world view is a cosmopolitan one: while we should delight in differences, the world is a single civilisation, and Homer is the one thing upon which we all agree.

Manguel exults in unearthing an imprecise decoding of The Iliad by Pope here, a fleeting allusion to Homer by Goethe's Werther there for the same reason that he waxes lyrical about the mutable materiality of books themselves in A History of Reading (1996). Like a slight tear on page 72, a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of a back cover or a handwritten poem on a flyleaf, these are signs of life, proof that literature has a pulse. Like his hero, Jorge Luis Borges, whom he famously met at Pygmalion, a Buenos Aires bookshop, aged 16 and subsequently read aloud to for the next two years, "the concept of the 'definitive text' corresponds only to religion or exhaustion".

Yet one wonders whether this fad for treating books like historical relics is a symptom of literature's decadence. A curiosity of the statistically verifiable decline in reading in our time - the US National Endowment for the Arts's recent study, To Read Or Not To Read, found we read less and less well - is the preponderance of books about books in our marketplace.

In Manguel's books, readers are eulogised as an endangered species. This book harbours more than a hint of nostalgia for the days when people read Homer with passion and with real world issues at stake. As for Manguel himself - well, it's clear he dearly prizes Homer, but what his poems have whispered into Manguel's ear when no one's watching one cannot, ultimately, say.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Please visit SPLALit aStore