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.


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:

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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