Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Dream of the Celt

Roberto Ignacio Díaz reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt.

In the late '60s, at the height of Latin America's literary boom, Vargas Llosa was one of the region's new stars. He authored daringly experimental novels, such as "The Time of the Hero" and "The Green House," whose intricate narrative devices challenged readers even as they renewed the art of fiction. Decades later, "The Dream of the Celt" is quite traditional in form. Not surprisingly, Victor Hugo - to whose novel, "Les Misérables," he devoted a book - remains one of Vargas Llosa's heroes. What is lost in literary craft is gained in political clarity.

Like Hugo's characters, Casement too dreams of a better world, in this case one devoid of colonial rule. As it moves from continent to continent, "The Dream of the Celt" suggests a new literary cartography in which Ireland, despite its temperate climate, is not unlike the tropical lands exploited by empires. This spatial expansion has a historical dimension as well. As in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," allusions to the Roman Empire abound in Vargas Llosa's text, whose hero imagines Roman legionnaires marching on the Caledonian Road outside his prison.

Curiously, though, the novel seems to have little to say about Ireland itself beyond the immediacy of politics and allusions to its fabled past. The text's most affecting words, in the epilogue, are by Yeats, not Vargas Llosa. Then again, given the novel's title, that's perhaps best. The ancient Celtic land, for Casement and Vargas Llosa's readers alike, remains an impossible dream.

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Mario Vargas Llosa: The Dream of the Celt

Richard Eder reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt
Vargas Llosa gives a painful account of Casement’s tormented indecisions, switches of plans, and stumbles over his own feet. He also describes numerous sexual encounters with young men. Some, presumably, are drawn from the so-called Black Diaries, circulated by the British government to diminish sympathy for him. For many years these were denounced as forgeries; a few years ago an independent group of experts analyzed the handwriting and text and pronounced them genuine. Vargas Llosa, without mentioning the study, agrees that they seem authentic, while suggesting that much of the contents were more fantasy than fact.
Fictionalized history is a perilous genre, and not often done well. Tolstoy, Stendhal, and Hilary Mantel are shining examples of how it can extend itself into a new dimension. Vargas Llosa’s attempt here is more a matter of embroidery.
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Argentine writer Hector Tizon dies at 82

Author of more then twenty novels, died in the city of Jujuy in northern Argentina. The writer was exiled in 1976 and until 1982 lived in Spain.
"Nací por accidente —¿acaso no todos nacemos de ese modo?— en una remota provincia de este vasto y despoblado país, en un hotel a cuyas aguas termales mi madre había ido en busca de remedio para sus males."
Read the obituary in El País

Interview with  Hector Tizon in Ñ Magazine - "The traveler who stole love letters"

Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones

Jake Arnott's book of a lifetime.

Like many of my generation, I first encountered him in the Penguin edition of Labyrinths, a collection of stories, essays, parables and poetry. An excellent compendium, it's a sort of collection of collections which I find a little frustrating (although it mirrors his theme of recursiveness). More recently, there has been the reissue of all of his short stories: Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. But this new translation, commissioned by his estate after his death, has proved controversial. The battle over Borges's legacy in English has become as Daedalian as one of his faux literary essays. It's hard to know where to begin rereading.

Borges's first appearance in Anglo-Saxon culture was a story that ran in a 1948 edition of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a prescient attempt to incorporate quantum ideas into fiction, with uncertainty principles and multiple outcomes. It was to have a massive influence in the SF world as well as in more "literary" circles, and proof that Borges himself could easily exist in two states at once: in "high culture" and a pulp magazine.

So the only way to approach him is on one's own terms, and to have the will bent by the master. And over the years I've found his writing has changed as I have. My Spanish is just about good enough for me to slowly navigate my own translation; maybe now I'm ready to really begin. So his most famous collection, Ficciones, could be the book to take me through the rest of my years (though it is actually two collections in one, but you'd expect that, wouldn't you?). There's plenty to keep me occupied: writers, dreamers, heretics, young men with impossible memories, other worlds revealed by secret encyclopedias, traitors transformed by betrayal, conspirators that plot their own downfall: 17 pieces, none longer than 25 pages; none shorter than a lifetime.

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Mario Vargas Llosa: Dream of the Celt

Julius Purcell reviews Mario Vargas Llosa's Dream of the Celt.

The life of Roger Casement – the former British consul turned Easter Rising traitor – is ripe for fictional treatment, but it struggles to take shape in this clumsy account

He saw Congolese slave workers with hands and genitals hacked off, and later reported on indigenous Peruvians burned alive or drowned. He returned to Europe, took part in the failed 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, and was hanged in Pentonville prison. With a potted history this extraordinary, it's a wonder more novelists haven't taken up the tale of colonialist-turned-traitor Roger Casement. But fictionalising a life this complex has its pitfalls, and Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel (his first translated into English since winning the Nobel prize in 2010) staggers at times under the weight of research.

But first, let's give due credit. Principally remembered for the homosexual diaries used to undermine his reputation shortly before his execution as a traitor, Roger Casement has long awaited a writer of the stature of Vargas Llosa to focus on the real legacy of his life: how working as a British consul in the early 1900s, Casement's reports on colonial abuses in the Belgian Congo and in Peru were remarkable early exercises in international justice. Casement's journey from colonialist stalwart to Irish rebel was also bound up with some major events of literary modernism. It was on his Congo travels that he got to know Joseph Conrad, who was in turn mulling over the novella that would become Heart of Darkness. Later, Casement's doomed role in the Easter Rising instructed WB Yeats in "the terrible beauty" of martyrdom.

With raw material like this, we might have hoped for something like Pat Barker's Regeneration series, a gripping account shorn of historical cliches and bringing an era vividly to life. But Vargas Llosa hobbles his story from the start. Compelling moments are spoiled by clumsy exposition and a stubborn adherence to the mantra of tell-don't-show. "The same old story. The never-ending story," reflects Casement wearily at one point, a lament many readers might share. Vargas Llosa opts for repeatedly depicting similar atrocities, rather than selecting the illuminating detail. I lost count of the times variants of "scars on their backs, buttocks and legs" cropped up, but found the replication of Casement's meticulous note-taking deadened rather than heightened the horror.

What makes the novel readable is the character of Casement himself. A shy man, he does not baulk from facing down his enemies and, while shrinking from the abuses of power, can pull rank if he has to. In what is perhaps the novel's best touch, the extent of Casement's gay encounters is revealed only towards the end: late information that subtly reconfigures him in our eyes.

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Manuela Fingueret: Daughter of Silence

Pierce Alquist reviews Manuela Fingueret's Daughter of Silence, translated from the Spanish by Darrell B. Lockhart.

Acclaimed Argentinean poet and novelist Manuela Fingueret details the 1980's neofascist military dictatorship in Argentina and its dark, painful parallels to the Holocaust through the tales and memories of a mother and daughter in her second novel Daughter of Silence. Translated by Darrell B. Lockhart, Daughter of Silence is a crucial addition to "The Americas" series of contemporary Latin American literature published by Texas Tech University Press, for its exploration of violence, national identity, and survival. Fingueret depicts the tradition of a silent female figure, mute and helpless throughout history, and drastically refutes it with the voice of her narrator Rita, a young Jewish Argentinean and incarcerated Peronist revolutionary. Abused, starved, and rapidly losing her mind, Rita weaves together both her memories and the experiences of her mother, Tinkeleh, a Holocaust survivor.

A poignant portrayal of women, Daughter of Silence illustrates these parallels between the Holocaust and Argentina's political past, while also exploring the unique dichotomy between being Jewish and living in Latin America, a primarily Catholic nation. According to Lockhart in his introduction to the text, "Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America and one of the largest in the world" and the text explores the complexities of a divided national and religious identity. Rita also meditates on the controversial links between the Holocaust and her Jewish identity, and her imprisonment as a Peronist rebel, warning that history is in a constant state of repetition. In a moment of vulnerability Rita details her path to incarceration and its correlation to her mother's path to the Holocaust, one of marginalization and silence. She counts the strikes against her, her religion, her culture, her politics, and ultimately her sex.

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Manuela Fingueret is an Argentine author, storyteller, poet, journalist, essayist, and editor.