Saturday, September 18, 2010
J. M. Ledgard reviews José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey.
The Portuguese writer José Saramago died in June at the age of 87. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, having peaked as a writer later in life. His prose is impish and subtle enough to bear comparison with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, even if he lacked their scope. Saramago was a Communist. He believed there was a new totalitarianism of multinational companies. “To be a Portuguese Stalinist” well into the 21st century “means you’re simply not living in the real world,” the critic Harold Bloom has said. True enough. Yet when Saramago picked up his pen, a richer world was made.Click to read the full article
“The Elephant’s Journey,” Saramago’s slender new posthumous novel, is a road trip. There’s no sex, not much violence, no God-awful narrative arc, and the insights arrive as gently as a skiff pulling up to a riverbank. Confounding though it is for me to say (believing as I do the mind of the apparatchik to be the nastiest soup), it would be hard to more highly recommend a novel to be downed in a single draft.
Saramago disliked America and cars — he once said that being in a car was like being in a spaceship that protects you from everything — so his road trip is naturally dustier, with ox carts on sunburnt plains, cuirassiers, swirling mists, wolves and snows. It is 1551. João III of Portugal gives an elephant from his Lisbon menagerie to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The elephant is called Solomon. His mahout is named Subhro. Together, whispering to each other a tongue known only to them and born of solitude, they journey on foot from Lisbon to Valladolid, to Catalonia, by sea to Genoa, on to Venice, over the Alps, arriving at Innsbruck on the feast day of Epiphany in 1552, before continuing by barge down the rivers Inn and Danube toward Vienna.
Steven Poole reviews Alberto Manguel's All Men Are Liars.
Alberto Manguel is a liar. Or so the reader of this book is invited to think, having enjoyed a peculiarly evasive and suspenseful story told by a rather neurotic and unreliable character named "Alberto Manguel", only to see the next narrator exclaim, at the start of her version of the same tale: "Alberto Manguel is an asshole [. . .] No, nothing is true for Manguel unless he's read it in a book."Click to read the full article
If Paul Auster (another man, and also, in one of the senses of Manguel's title, another liar) wore a friendly beard and had more of a Latin temperament, he might produce something like this richly hued, melancholy and funny puzzle of a novel. It centres on a group of Argentinian literary expatriates in 1970s Madrid, one of whose number, Alejandro Bevilacqua, has recently died, apparently falling from his balcony on the eve of publication of a novelistic masterpiece. "Alberto Manguel" and three other characters who knew Bevilacqua address their memories of him to a fifth person, a journalist named Terradillos living in France who hopes to piece together the truth of the deceased writer's life.
The accounts are contradictory in crucial details, but the broad picture that emerges is one of a thin, gloomy man (somewhat Baudelairean in aspect) who grows up in Argentina (falling in love with a puppetmaster's daughter), begins to write (lurid scenarios for photo-romances), is imprisoned and tortured (he doesn't know why, but we eventually do), and then escapes to Spain (where he is irresistible to certain women). One of those women is the narrator who denounces "Alberto Manguel", Bevilacqua's lover Andrea, who finds the manuscript hidden among his belongings and secretly takes it to be published. The title is In Praise of Lying. Andrea comments: "Lying: that is the great theme of South American literature."
Friday, September 17, 2010
Michael Greenberg reviews Roberto Bolaño's works recently translated into English, The Insufferable Gaucho, The Return and Antwerp.
The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has to be one of the most improbable international literary celebrities since William Burroughs and Henry Miller, two writers whose work Bolaño’s occasionally resembles. His subjects are sex, poetry, death, solitude, violent crime and the desperate glimmers of transcendence that sometimes attend them. The prose is dark, intimate and sneakily touching. His lens is largely (though not literally) autobiographical, and seems narrowly focused at first. There are no sweeping historical gestures in Bolaño. Yet he has given us a subtle portrait of Latin America during the last quarter of the 20th century — a period of death squads, exile, “disappeared” citizens and state-sponsored terror. The nightmarish sense of human life being as discardable as clay permeates his writing.Click to read the full article
Readers trying to navigate Bolaño’s gathering body of work may find themselves wondering where to turn: since his death in 2003, 12 of his books have been published in the United States. “The Insufferable Gaucho” would be an excellent place to start. The title story of this collection is one of Bolaño’s most powerful fictions. It is a reimagining of Borges’s story “The South,” an emblematic tale of the schism that has plagued South America’s republics for almost two centuries: between the capital cities with their totems to European culture, and the vast, serenely violent countryside that surrounds them. In Borges’s story, the protagonist has survived a fever that brought him to the brink of death. He sets out from Buenos Aires to convalesce at his ancestral ranch on the Pampas. On arriving, he goes to the general store where a drunken tough lures him into a fight that honor won’t permit him to decline. Clutching a knife he hardly knows how to wield, he walks resignedly and without fear into the death that “he would have chosen or dreamt” had he been given the chance.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Amy Driscoll reviews Cristina García's The Lady Matador's Hotel.
On the first page of Cristina García's new novel, the lady matador stands naked before a mirror, rolling on a pair of long pink stockings as part of her preparatory ritual for the bull-fighting ring.Click to read the full article
The ceremony has other steps, too: lighting candles for her mother, eating a single sliced pear -- seeds and all -- and, for extra luck, having silent sex with a stranger two days before a fight.
When she finally steps into the ring, she repeats three words in Spanish and Japanese.
Arrogance. Honor. Death.
The Lady Matador's Hotel is filled with those elements, plus hefty doses of lust, violence and bad intent. It's a ruthless romp through an anonymous Central American capital buffeted by the winds of political turmoil. Suki Palacios -- she of the pink stockings and unusual appetites -- has arrived with her all-male entourage to compete in the first Battle of the Lady Matadors.
Steven G. Kellman reviews José Saramago's The Elephant’s Journey.
The distance between Lisbon and Vienna is 1,429 miles as the crow flies. As the elephant trudges, it is a more arduous expedition. How do you convey an Asian pachyderm from the Portuguese capital to the seat of the Habsburg empire? Very carefully, especially if the beast is a wedding present from King João III of Portugal to the Archduke Maximilian and his bride, Maria, daughter of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. In a brief prologue to The Elephant's Journey, José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate who died last June, explains that he learned about this extraordinary transport when, visiting Salzburg, he encountered a set of carvings commemorating the event. He was inspired to write a whimsical novel about how, in 1551, a four-ton elephant named Solomon but renamed Suleiman was brought from Portugal to Spain and then by boat to Italy and up through the Alps to Austria.Click to read the full article
Sunday, September 12, 2010
John Vernon reviews Cristina García's The Lady Matador's Hotel.
The hotel in “The Lady Matador’s Hotel,” by Cristina García, located in the capital city of an unnamed Central American country, is the luxurious Miraflor. The time frame is a week. And the stories involve a set of global mongrels and expatriates: a Japanese-Mexican matadora who was raised in Los Angeles and has just arrived for “the first Battle of the Lady Matadors in the Americas”; a suicidal Korean manufacturer of textiles who owns a local maquiladora, Glorious Textiles Unlimited, and whose pregnant mistress is living at the hotel; a lawyer who employs breeder mothers to produce the babies she delivers for adoption to wealthy Americans staying at the hotel; an exiled Cuban poet married to one of those wealthy Americans; an army colonel in town to swap the latest torture and detainment techniques with other thugs from neighboring countries; and an ex-guerrilla whose brother was murdered by the colonel years ago, and who now works as a waitress at the hotel. In six chapters, an “interlude” and an epilogue, their separate stories advance by shuffled increments against the backdrop of a presidential election, insurgent bombs and an impending hurricane.Click to read the full article
The result is a kitchen sink of a novel (as in everything but) whose juggled stories, augmented by the obligatory soupçon of magic realism, take on a quality of festive, freakish excess. Yet García keeps the plates spinning. Not all the stories are equally engaging, and not all the characters rise above the level of types, but the cumulative effect is of an appealing yet barely controlled wildness. The control is in the scaffolding — seven days, six main characters, a collage of news items at the end of each chapter — and at times it can seem constraining. But without the constraint the wildness would sputter. At its best, the novel has the energy of an obsessive tango. Or, indeed, a bullfight.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Richard Eder reviews José Saramago's The Elephant’s Journey.
José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobelist, has ended his journey with another one: a 16th-century trudge from Lisbon to Vienna by an elephant named Solomon, a present from the Portuguese King João III to Archduke Maximilian, heir to the Holy Roman Empire. “The Elephant’s Journey,” written not long before Saramago’s death in June, displays his unique mix of absurdity, sudden logic, comedy shading to melancholy, and digression that tunnels up into unexpected purpose.Click to read the full article
Guided by Subhro, Solomon’s discursive Indian mahout, and escorted by a detachment of Portuguese soldiers, the elephant, who is allowed an occasional discursiveness of his own, travels north to Castelo Rodrigo, crosses into Spain, and makes his way to Valladolid, where he is turned over to Maximilian. The procession, lavishly swollen by Austrian courtiers and troops, continues by sea to Genoa, crosses the Alps over the icy Brenner Pass, and is triumphantly welcomed to Vienna.
The journey is based on a historical event; and perhaps Saramago has forfeited a little of his power by it: His greatest novels invent their own history. “Blindness” is an astonishing parable of what happens when suddenly nobody can see; in “The Stone Raft,” Spain and Portugal break off from Europe and go floating away; in “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” a proofreader’s mischievous insertion of “not” drastically alters three centuries of Portuguese life. In “Elephant,” the extraordinary story is very roughly tied to the real; that is, it lacks some of the unhampered detonations of Saramago’s magical realism. Nonetheless it is for the most part a delight.