Saturday, December 11, 2010

José Saramago: The Notebook

Leora Skolkin-Smith reviews José Saramago's The Notebook.
In September of 2008, at the age of eighty-five, Jose Saramago began to write a blog. His wife, watching him suffer the restlessness and anxiety of advanced age, had suggested to him that he try doing something challenging, as his traveling and own writing were slowing down. Unlike so many writers who viewed the approaching age of the Internet as threatening, Saramago wrote: “Could it be, to put it more clearly, that it’s here (on the Internet) that we most closely resemble one another? Are we more companionable when we write on the Internet? I have no answers. I’m merely asking the questions. And I enjoy writing here now. I don’t know whether it’s more democratic, I only know that I feel just the same as the young man with the wild hair and round-rimmed glasses, in his early twenties, who was asking the large questions. For a blog no doubt.”

Saramago viewed blogging as a new collectivism, egalitarian by its very nature. This kind of sentiment was not unusual for Saramago, as his work comes from a broad range of issues about power, social status, and social organization. “The one from and into which all others flow is the question of power,” he once wrote, “and the theoretical and practical problem we are presented with is identifying who holds it, discovering how they attained it, checking what use they make of it, and by what means and for what end.” The phenomenon of the Internet was, for Saramago, a necessary cleansing of the power structures inherent in print and other media, and reading this collection of essays (most of which are raw, urgent, and fragmentary) it seemed that the Nobel Prize winner wished to be a member of the clamorous cyber population, not a distant, superior observer from the upper ranks and echelons of literature and ideas. For him, blogging was a form of citizenship and a means, perhaps, that might engender a new moral conscience, fostering meaningful (albeit sometimes irrational and strident), global dialogues.
Click to read the full article

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Mario Benedetti: The Rest is Jungle

Paul Doyle reviews Mario Benedetti's The Rest is Jungle.
The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, sadly, was little translated into English during his lifetime, and most of what made it through was poetry. Perhaps this was because his fiction never quite fit the English-world model of a Latin American writer, neither writing the meta investigations of a Borges or Cortazar, nor delving into the magical realism of the Boom. Instead, his short stories were in a more realist vein, interested in urban dwellers; later, as he was marked by the turbulent history of Uruguay and its neighbor, Argentina, he reflected on the plight of the political prisoner and the exile. He was concerned with more than just 20th-century history, though, and he included in his stories moments of the fantastic and a humor that finds the foolishness in the deepest held aspirations of his characters. At his best, he combined these to draw portraits of stagnation, isolation, and the limiting power of dreams that are often funny, sometimes dark, and usually surprising.

English-speaking readers can now see for themselves with Harry Morales’ excellent translation of Benedetti’s stories, The Rest Is Jungle. While his stories do vary in structure, one consistent feature is that Benedetti liked to work with voices, whether through conversations or first-person narratives bordering on neurotic self-justifications. Using the conversational structure allowed Benedetti to dispense with direct psychological insights and let his characters reveal themselves, though they are never fully aware (even though they think they are). Not extravagant in their confessions, all these people want to do is talk, to explain. They show that even the most quotidian things can be the most revealing, if you know where to look for it.
Click to read the full article

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Macedonio Fernandez: The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel

Three Percent reviews Macedonio Fernandez' The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel.
Macedonio Fernandez is little known outside Argentina. Unfortunately I foresee this remaining the case for some time. Even with the recent translation and publication of his posthumous novel, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel (Museo de la Novela de la Eterna), by Open Letter Books (translated by Margaret Schwartz), the “skip-around readers” Fernandez is looking for (to convert into “orderly readers”) are few. One of the reasons is because Fernandez is taking a risk. He knows exactly what his novel is and what it isn’t: he knows that it is the “First Good Novel,” which follows the writing of another novel, Adriana Buenos Aires: The Last Bad Novel (Adriana Buenos Aires: ultima novella mala). So what makes Fernandez’s novel so good? This is where (and why) he remains obscure: the tenacity with which he hopes to redefine the novel. It is a task that can get sloppy very quickly. And so, Fernandez makes sure that the reader is well equipped before “beginning” his novel (he argues, “. . . the reader comes late if he comes after the cover.”). Thus, he prolongs the start of his novel with fifty-seven prologues: in part to provoke the novel to be “thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often” by his readers. He boasts, “What other author can boast of that?”
Click to read the full article

José Saramago: The Elephant’s Journey

Richard Elliott reviews José Saramago's The Elephant’s Journey.
The late Portuguese writer José Saramago was a master at combining the fantastic with the banal, the metaphoric with the everyday. There’s always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it, or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose—sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily thought of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to flood the present—he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

The Elephant’s Journey, published in Portuguese in 2008, was one of Saramago’s last works. The journey of the title is inspired by historical events that occurred in 1551, when King João III of Portugal decided, on the advice of his Austrian wife, to give Archduke Maximilian the belated wedding gift of an elephant. Solomon, the elephant, and Subhro, his keeper or mahout, have been languishing in Lisbon since being brought back from Goa two years prior. It’s decided that both will travel to Valladolid in Spain, to meet with the Archduke, and then proceed with him to Rosas on the East coast, then across the Mediterranean to Genoa in Italy, and on to the imperial city of Vienna.
Click to read the full article

Roberto Bolaño: The Skating Rink

Tim Martin reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Skating Rink.
It took the English-speaking world until several years after Roberto Bolaño’s death in 2003 to get a sense of his genius in drip-fed translations, but, thanks to excellent English versions by (separately) Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews, a full-scale excavation of the Chilean novelist’s talent is now underway.

The Skating Rink is just one of several novels, essays and poems that are scheduled for publication or reissue this year or next. The treats in store include not only an entire unpublished novel and a collection of stories but a lost sixth part to the compendious masterpiece 2666, the last book Bolaño completed before his death at the age of 50.

As The Skating Rink is a first novel – or, to be exact, the first novel that Bolaño published after his decision to switch from poetry to prose writing, in his forties – it might seem to be facing stiff competition from this emerging legacy. But never fear: elegant, elusive and amusing, this novel is more than capable of standing alongside the rest of Bolaño’s work, and both long-time fans of the author’s writing and those coming to it fresh will find much to love.
Click to read the full article