A methodical madness: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

On a cold winter day, in a remote location high in the Pyrenees, an old man is bent over his desk intent on completing an ambitious, eccentric project. Time is against him. He is an enigma—reclusive and unknowable. And the goal of Carlos Fonseca (Suarez)’s infectious debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, is to attempt to unravel and piece together the true identity of this strange man and the circumstances that led him to this place. But it’s no ordinary investigation and the colonel at the centre of attention is a military man only in his own imagination. He is, or rather was, a brilliant mathematician, a cryptic solver of abstract puzzles, who at the height of his fame, suddenly retreated from academia, embarking on a strange journey toward isolation and obscurity.

Our guide in this inquiry is a playful voyeur who follows the aged recluse through the course of a single day, spinning a fragmented, nonlinear narrative of anecdotes, historical asides, interruptions, and discursions. At times we are invited to observe our subject as if through a lens, sometimes zooming in to a level of pixelated hyper-reality. At other times we watch as an invisible (or unnoticed) presence, slipping into the frame to rustle around in his photographs and letters when the colonel is asleep or otherwise occupied. As readers we are complicit. Curiosity is mixed with a sense that we are invading the secret world of a man lost to the caprices of a second, doomed childhood:

Where is the border of the private? Where is the sentry to tell us when we should stop, draw a line, move no closer, and have a little respect? We imagine that at some point, when we’re getting too close, we’ll no longer see him and only the pixels of the background will be left, atmosphere with no storyline.

The pleasure of the intruder.

Much more than an exercise in intellectual and linguistic experimentation, the hero of Colonel Lágrimas is loosely based on the strange life of Alexander Grothendieck, the enigmatic German-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of modern algebraic geometry before suddenly abandoning his career in mid-stride, ultimately spending his later years in seclusion. Fonseca, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, grants his colonel a Mexican birth, a Russian Jewish mother given to painting the same volcano day after day, and anarchist father who fatally throws his lot in with the Spanish Republicans. There are crossovers and echoes with Grothendieck’s life which held its own share of mystery. But here we have a character on whom the spotlight can be dialed in much closer, even if we can never get inside his head, so to speak. In an interview published in Numéro Cinq, Fonseca describes his novel as the product of an intersection of his obsessions with the elusive German mathematician, with archives and archival novels, and with Chuck Close’s large portraits often composed of “pixels” created out of mini-paintings. Stylistically he says he sees his writing as, in some sense, a product of his origins, that is, as “the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other.”

Thus, by playing the voyeuristic detective narrator’s close observations of the colonel’s daily routine and his current effort to record the lives of three imagined alchemical divas against a collection of historical anecdotes we begin to build an image of an old man racing against time to contain an essence of a history he is trying to forget. Woven into the narrative are descriptions of faded photographs, aphorisms from his father’s notebook, and postcards from a long correspondence with Maximiliano, a Mexican who gets inextricably bound in his former hero’s eccentric archival efforts. Themes repeat, patterns form. And binding it all is the regular appearance of a doodled spiral of barbed wire and a complex algebraic equation that are assumed to be connected. Gradually, layer by layer, a picture starts to take shape.  The fragments are the pixels needed to construct a fuller portrait of the life of our solitary subject.

His is a life that crosses many of the major events of the twentieth century—the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, Vietnam—albeit a step out of time or logic, forever anachronistic. We learn that our “young colonel” rejected his past and began a lifelong pattern of slipping behind masks at an early age. He headed off, on his own, to occupied Paris, when he was ten. Within a few years he had adopted the role of an orphan. Later, having earned respect as a mathematical genius, he suddenly tosses it all to teach math in Vietnam during the war. At present, on the day we spend watching him in his absent-minded pursuits, he is engaged in writing the “autobiographies of other people,” his trio of historical divas. Or are they a means of assuaging a guilt that has driven his odd behaviour? That is not an easy question to answer.

There are two ways of approaching the colonel. You can see him from a distance, his romantic profile like a tired genius who finally surrendered to the madness of endless projects. Easy to see him in this genius-like aspect, prisoner of dementia, a captive of the memory of his traumatic childhood. More difficult though to approach him to the point of belief, to where we believe in his projects. To see him up close in his more criminal profile: no longer a genius, no longer mad, but rather a man who waited, patiently, until the day came that would strip him of his talent so he could sit down to write what he always wanted.

As a portrait of our stateless colonel is fleshed out in what is more a process of questioning, refining, and focusing possibilities—attempting to solve an individual life as an algebraic equation—it is impossible not to feel pity for this man who struggles with writer’s block, has an unknown audience waiting outside his bathroom door as he sings in the bath, is observed as he dresses up in his finest regalia, and critiqued as he performs a drunken oratory in what he can only assume is the guarded privacy of his own home. Examined as a collection of data, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in his waning days, he will not be allowed to slip quietly into obscurity.

And whether that would secretly please him or not, we will never know.

Colonel Lágrimas is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books.

By the “sun of the dead”: Wolf Moon by Julio Llamazares

The moon has not come out tonight either. The night is like a cold black stain on the outline of the beech groves, which climb up the mountain and into the fog like ghostly armies of ice. It smells of rosemary and shredded ferns.

Our boots slosh through the mud searching for the elusive surface of the ground with each step. Our sub-machine-guns shine in the darkness like iron moons.

We carry on climbing towards the Amarza Pass, towards the roof of the world and solitude.

Set in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain in the years following the collapse of the Republican front in Austrias in 1937, through the end of the Spanish Civil War and beyond, the above passage from the early pages of Julio Llamazares’ novel Wolf Moon could stand as a refrain that will echo down through the pages that follow. Inspired, the author tells us, by his childhood hero, Casmiro Férnandez Arias, one of the countless resistance fighters who led his brothers and comrades to seek refuge in the wilderness where they would be relentlessly pursued to their deaths or driven into exile, the result is a skilful blend of thrilling adventure, harsh natural beauty, and heartbreaking loss. An epic tale rendered with power and lyric intensity.

Wolf Moon is part of the Spanish Season of the World Series published by Peter Owen in association with Istros Books. It is in keeping with the high quality established with the debut Slovenian Season issued last fall. Born in Léon Province in 1955, Llamazares studied law but soon left for a career in journalism and literature. He released several volumes of poetry before turning to fiction. His poetic sensibility is especially evident in the present work, his first novel, originally published in 1985.

The desperate circumstances of the four Republicans at the heart of this story is immediately evident from the opening passages. The leader, Ramiro, is hiding in a ruined hut with his brother Juan, a fellow villager, Gildo, and the narrator. They are on their way over a mountain pass hoping to reach a region closer to home. But remaining hidden is critical. They must restrict their travel to the hours after nightfall and they must be on a constant alert for Franco’s Guardia Civil. “Daylight, we are told, “is not good for dead men.” Containment, darkness, and the tedium of waiting are recurring themes as they seek concealment, first in an abandoned mine, and eventually in a camouflaged cave where they will remain for years:

Since we got here I’ve scarcely felt the terrible moaning of the beast in the depths of my stomach, which bayed despairingly so many times in the final months of the war. It was even worse during the five days when we did not eat at all as we fled across the mountains, in the rain, from a more physical beast, more human and bloodthirsty, which pursued us implacably. It is as if the dampness and cold of the cave have penetrated my bones and my soul, imprisoning me here, lying beside the fire day and night with no interest in eating and talking or even peering through the mouth of the cave to look at the hard, overcast sky.

The narrative has a distinctive lyrical quality. This is most apparent in the strong presence of the natural elements. The landscape, weather, flora and fauna are continually evoked. Nature can be seen as a critical protagonist throughout—an aid, a threat, and a constant force to be reckoned with. As an account of years of seclusion in a wild environment this enhances the reader’s sense of connection with the characters and their plight. Wisely, Llamazares has chosen to make his narrator, Ángel, a school teacher. The tension, the emotion, and the striking bucolic imagery all work well through his voice, in tune with his sensitive, poetic personality. Otherwise, the language might risk feeling a little forced or melodramatic.

Over time, the fugitives engage in cautious contact with their home villages and families, but always at great risk to all involved. Tragic losses do occur, and the little band shrinks and becomes more isolated as the guardias continue their pursuit unabated, even after the war ends. The fugitives, the “men from the hills,” have taken on the status of mythic legend over time, fueling the official pressure to drive them out. In the end, those who survive will be those who manage to make it into France where the Spanish resistance will continue into the 1960s. What Wolf Moon captures so effectively is the alternating claustrophobia and physical exposure of life in hiding and on the run. It is a tribute to the incredible endurance of the young men who sacrificed the best years of their lives deep in the mountains—hungry, injured, and clinging like ghosts to the shadows—and the price paid by their families and the rural communities who likewise lived under continual fear and threat during this time.

It is, like many a great epic, a powerful testament to the futility and human cost of war.

Wolf Moon is translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillip-Miles.

Of reality and imagination: To Begin at the Beginning by Javier Marías

In the opening paragraph of her “Postface” to Javier Marías’ recently released contribution to the Cahier Series, To Begin at the Beginning, famed translator Margaret Jull Costa confesses that every time she starts to work on a new Marías novel, she thinks: “I can’t do this.” His work, with its long, convoluted sentences, and its precise, but shifting, language lies ahead of her at the outset of each project, and until she gets back into the flow she feels a sense of anxiety. I must admit that similar sort of uncertainty faces me as a reader. I wonder, am I ready to commit to Marías again right now? Unfortunately, with a few efforts since I was first swept away by A Heart So White many years ago, the answer has been no, not now.

beginSo imagine my delight with this short, reflective essay about the art of taking the stuff of life—the truths and myths that arise from one’s own family history—and using, even re-using them, to tell stories, create literature. I found this Marías, talking about his family, and his approach to the art of writing, so wonderful to read that I’ve mentally added his trilogy to my list of books to read. And that is one of the absolute joys of the Cahier Series: the opportunity to meet, or meet again, a writer or translator, and spend a little time with them as they explore writing or translating, or the intersection of both, in unique and original ways.

Marías, the highly-respected Spanish novelist and translator, sets out in this piece to explain his desire to devote his energies to writing “inventions,” and why, even when he borrows elements from real life, so to speak, he is inclined to break them up, and blend them into his fictional characters and creations rather than putting them in, unaltered.

2017-01-15-02-12-11 He begins by trying to set himself apart from writers who make every effort to make their fictional offerings appear factual, and expresses his dismay whenever presented with the expression: Based on real events. His inevitable reaction? “I’m filled with a feeling of tedium and anticipatory boredom, of distrust and resistance, of suspicion and even scepticism,” he says, going on to be more exacting:

‘What is so strange and unbelievable, so extraordinarily random, arbitrary, and corny about this story that, even though it’s already happened in real life, they still want to tell me about it, even warning me that I have to believe it whether I like it or not, because this is how it was, this is what actually happened?’

2017-01-15-02-13-49Of course, in the essay that follows, he goes on to share aspects of his own family history, reaching back to his Cuban great-grandfather, pulling out some of the stories that have made their way into one or more of his novels. This abbreviated family history is fascinating in its own right (inadvertently causing one to think that any story “true” or otherwise can be magic in the hands of the right storyteller), but his discussion of his process of re-imagining and working people and incidents from the past into his fictions—and the decisions he has faced when handling elements of the real within the world of invention—is equally compelling.

2017-01-15-02-10-09Marías reports that, when he writes, he applies the same principle of knowledge that is at play in life. He does not know if what he writes at page five of a novel will prove to be a good idea at page 200 any more than we can know if what we do at age twenty will seem to have been wise from the vantage point of forty, and so on. In writing, one has the advantage of editing, adjusting events back and forth between earlier and later portions of the work, giving meaning to the capricious and superfluous, as required, so that “what had no meaning at the beginning does have meaning at the end.” Subject as it is to the unforeseeable variables that mould reality, he contends, life makes a very poor novelist. Imagination is a critical mediator—and one of the essential keys to literature— filtering the invented and the actual, rendering everything equal.

To Begin at the Beginning, the twenty-eighth addition to the Cahier Series, offers an opportunity to spend a little time in the company of a renowned novelist and his chief translator. Illustrated by the works of Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, it will likely be appreciated by Marías’ committed readers. For those who have little or no experience with his novels, it serves as an ideal introduction, or, as in my case, an inspiration to read more.

The Cahier Series is a joint publication from the Center for Writers and Translators of the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

Round and round: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

The unnamed protagonist of 33 Revolutions, a stark, relentless portrait of life in Castros’ Cuba, is a divorced, black man—a misfit who chafes against the collective tedium of his existence until he is forced to decide, like so many before him, what, if anything, holds him to his wretched island nation. The revolutionary bloom is long off the Communist rose that once held his hopes and enthusiasm. With weary resignation, he shuffles off to his ministry job day after day, enjoying the few privileges afforded by the little bit of extra money sent to him from his mother overseas, but it is a hollow existence:

Duty and desire. Angrily, he bangs out his dilemma on the typewriter until the paper is perforated with periods and commas. His desire is to be alone in his office, in this city, in this country, and never to be disturbed. Monotony is expressed in a thousand ways and acquires various signs. Work, radio, new bulletins, meals, free time: I live in a scratched record, he thinks, and every day it gets a bit more scratched. Repetition puts you to sleep, and that sleepiness is also repeated; sometimes the needle jumps, a crackling is heard, the rhythm changes, then it sticks again. It always sticks again.

33Threaded through the thirty-three brief chapters of this slender novella, are two repeated refrains: the scratched record and the suffocating tropical heat. This imagery is employed so incessantly that it begins to wear a groove that could, in a longer or less deftly handled work, easily become irritating. Instead, the sheer beauty of the language lends the repetition a peculiar freshness. And that is exactly the intention. Tedium and repetition can be borne, can even seem bearable. Until one day it isn’t, and then all bets are off.

The author of 33 Revolutions, Canek Sánchez Guevara, inherited a proud and defiant spirit  from his grandfather, the famous Marxist revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro. At the age of 22, he rejected the dictatorial politics of his homeland, and left for Mexico where he became a writer, graphic designer, and heavy metal guitarist. He was dedicated to writing and speaking out against Cuba’s single party system and its attendant human rights abuses until he died unexpectedly in 2015, at the age of 40. This hypnotically engaging novel allows his voice to continue on.

With a sense of absurdity that Kafka would appreciate, Sánchez Guevara creates, in his hero, a man who is aware that he stands at odds with the world around him. He finds refuge in books and an incongruous fondness for avant-garde music. He is aware that his life is paradoxical, verging on metaphysical weirdness that is both a blessing and a curse. And this painful self-knowledge does nothing to protect him from the monotony that curses his days or the vivid nightmares that haunt his sleep. He understands his reality all too well:

He looks down at the sea again and drinks straight from the bottle. Behind him, the dirty, beautiful, broken city; in front of him the abyss that suggests defeat…. We win by isolating ourselves, and in isolating ourselves we are defeated, he thinks. The wall is the sea, the screen that protects us and locks us in. There are no borders; those waters are a bulwark and a stockade, a trench and a moat, a barricade and a fence. We resist through isolation. We survive through repetition.

As this ceaseless repetition begins to weaken him, our protagonist’s disaffection grows. An undercurrent of protest starts to build within him, fueled by the oppressive heat and boredom. He had long managed to hold his distance, to stand apart from both the street corner reactionaries and the huddled gossips distorting what the rumours passed down to the masses—but this continual buffering against the insidious mechanisms of state control, starts to wear him down like, well, the needle on a scratched record.

The heat is criminal—it melts neurons, incites to violence, multiplies fertility tenfold. There isn’t a beer for miles around (or water, or a barley drink, or anything that can be bought with national currency). Nothing belongs to me, he thinks. And what about me, do I belong to anything? (The scratched record plays insistently.)

His rebellion starts passively, opting out and feigning sick, but in that act the course is turned.

He finds himself drawn to the shore. His experiences, not only of the city around him but the uncertain and desperate promise that waits beyond the waves, is mediated through the lens of his camera. The frame of the viewfinder becomes his means of contextualizing himself in the world and a focuses his hopes for a possible future elsewhere. Everyone seems to be leaving—his doctor, an old friend from school, groups of kids clinging to rafts of questionable seaworthiness. The camera with its ability to play with depth of field, becomes his tool in an attempt to tell an alternate story, take control of and document his own fate.

This brief novella hits hard. Harder perhaps in the light of Fidel Castro’s recent passing, and in the desperation of migrants risking the seas for a better life elsewhere. The anguish that comes through personal and powerful, and it is more important than ever that we stop for a moment to listen.

33 Revolutions, by Canek Sánchez Guevara is translated  by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions.

Homecoming – Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horatio Castellanos Moya

In the note appended to the 2007 re-issue of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, author Horatio Costellanos Moya describes how a playful exercise in imitation led to very frightening death threats. Within a week of the book’s publication in 1997, his mother called to warn him against returning to El Salvador as he had planned. The immediate and hostile reaction indicates that not only was the element of satire missed, but the miserable misanthropic protagonist’s exaggerated rants were not entirely without grounds. But what angered some, impressed others, and the little book has endured, inspiring study, debate, and requests from citizens of other Central American countries for Castellanos Moya to similarly skewer their troubled nations. And now, at last, this incendiary novella is available in English from New Directions, in a no-holds-barred translation by Lee Klein.

RevulsionPresented with exuberant Bernhardian spirit, Revulsion is a relentless parody of the Austrian writer’s trademark style. The rhythms, repetition, and tone of Bernhard’s classic works are evoked along with a brutal, insistent ravaging of El Salvador and its capital city that is reminiscent, if not even more graphically emphatic, than the famous rants Bernhard routinely leveled against his own native country.

The eponymous narrator here, in a role common to many Bernhard novels, is on the receiving end of a breathless monologue recorded over the course of one single paragraph that stretches for more than 80 pages. The speaker is Edgardo Vega, a professor of art history who fled El Salvador for Montreal at the age of eighteen. Now, a further eighteen years later he has returned for the first time, to attend his mother’s funeral and ensure that her house is sold so that he can secure his claim on his share of her estate. To say there is no love lost between Vega and his native country would be an understatement.  His most prized possession is his Canadian passport, if he is proud of anything it is his successful escape from the pathetic aspirations of his middle class brother, the crime, the social decay, and the miserable dearth of anything resembling class or culture in San Salvador.

San Salvador is horrible, Moya, and the people who populate it are worse, they’re a putrid race, the war unhinged everyone, and if it was already dreadful before I took off, if it was unbearable for my first eighteen years, now it’s vomitous, Moya, a truly vomitous city where only truly sinister people can live, which is why I can’t explain why you’re here, how you can be around people who are so repulsive, around people whose greatest ambition in life is to be a sergeant; have you seen them walk, Moya?

No custom, institution or individual is left unscathed. Vega rails against his brother who owns a lock and key business, but shows no interest in books or art or anything beyond the most pedestrian popular music. He has less respect for his “ex-clothing store clerk” wife and his two “pernicious” boys who spend their time glued to the television set and have the audacity to call him Uncle Eddie. Even the old school friend with whom he is sharing a few hours at the local bar, a place he tolerates only in the quiet hours between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, is not entirely free from a measure of Vega’s contempt. The patient narrator’s literary ambitions are soundly ridiculed. In this way, Castellanos Moya is mocking himself, as he allows his ranting character to eviscerate his country.

The famished little stories about sex and violence aren’t worth it, I say this to you with affection, Moya, you’d be better off staying in journalism or another discipline; but at your age to be publishing these famished stories is a pity, said Vega, no matter how much sex and violence you put into them, there’s no way these famished little stories will transcend. Don’t waste your time, Moya, this isn’t a country of writers, it’s impossible for this country to produce writers of quality; it’s not possible for writers who are worth it to emerge in this country where no one is interested in literature, art, or any manifestation of the spirit.

As Vega’s account of the indignities to which he as thus far been subjected over the course of his return to his home town builds to a hilarious conclusion, one can feel the enthusiasm with which this exercise in imitation was created. Imagery is pushed to a vile extreme in places and, as much as humour slides through, the polemic unleashed against El Salvador is merciless. Castellanos Moya captures Bernhard’s tone and style with an almost pitch perfect delivery right down to the surprise ending. But with a protagonist who spits enough venomous spleen to make Bernhard’s most hyperbolic vitriol read like an afternoon at a Sunday school picnic, it is little wonder the satire was lost on some readers. All the same, for those who love the infectious wit and humour of the Austrian master, Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a wonderfully entertaining look at post-Communist El Salvador through a very dark lens.

Poets, artists and other lost souls: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. But that’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness, and death.

The individuals that populate the stories collected in Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth tend to be poets, writers, artists, and dreamers. Typically they are oddly groundless, restless beings who seem to drift through not only their own lives but through the lives of those they encounter. Most are either exiles or products of the Chilean diaspora, loosely set down or wandering between Mexico or Europe. As a result, their existences carry a ghostly aura, they are haunted by an otherness that is indefinable to themselves and obscures their relationships with others. The narrators or protagonists are unsure of their own memories, sometimes anxious and paranoid, sometimes bored and aloof–unwilling to trust, to fully engage with those around them.

eveningsIn this, my first encounter with Bolaño’s work, I found myself captivated by the misty melancholic mood, the affecting prose, and the characters, who are commonly struggling with the vagaries of what it means to be creative and to find value in life. Yet there is an underlying ambivalence, anxiety, and insecurity that lends the collection an atmosphere that can be unnerving and faintly depressing. And it can also tend to contribute to blurring of the edges of many of the stories so that a reader may, at the end, be left with a sense of appreciating the journey but losing track of the details that set many of the tales apart.

That is not to imply though that there are not stories that stand out. In my reading, my favourites were the ones that happened to strike me as especially sad, but then I read this book at the bedside of a dying parent. Sadness was the order of the day.

The title story follows a young man and his father on an ill fated holiday to Acapulco. Their days pass in relative calm, though a strain can be felt in the relationship between the two. The father wants to go out, have fun, while the son prefers more solitary outings and spends much of his time reading a book about surrealist poets and contemplating the fate of one particular poet, a minor writer who disappeared and was essentially forgotten by his peers. Father and son engage in aimless conversations that highlight their differing temperaments while the latter is haunted by a feeling of impending doom. For a time the imagined threat is held at bay:

Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase that appears to be normal but is ruled by the deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he certainly would not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.

As the threat becomes real, the son’s passive reaction to all of the warnings that come his way add to a tension built on the very human ability to fail to act on one’s better instincts. Bolaño is a master at exploiting the ambivalence that erodes relationships. Again and again his characters prefer to observe rather than engage, things are left thought but unsaid until, very often, it is too late.

Another especially poignant story is ‘Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva’. Here the narrator recounts the experiences of a fellow Chilean exile he meets in Mexico City. The Eye is described as a sensitive man, one who always tried to avoid violence, “even at the risk of being considered a coward.” He eventually finds work as a photographer and as his modest fortunes improve he develops a style of dress that sets him apart from other Chilean exiles and likely leads to the intimation that he is a homosexual–a designation received with considerable derision, even fear, by his fellow countrymen at that time.

One night the narrator encounters The Eye in a cafe. The description of his friend is striking. Bolaño’s characters seem to pay particular attention to the appearances of their friends and acquaintances, almost as if they are looking to read something lurking beneath the surface, an understanding, a message or an ulterior motive:

I sat down next to him and we talked for a while. He seemed translucent. That was the impression I had. The Eye seemed to be made of some vitreous material. His face and the glass of white coffee in front of him seemed to be exchanging signals: two incomprehensible phenomena whose paths had just crossed at that point in the vast universe, making valiant but probably vain attempts to find a common language.

On this evening, The Eye not only confirms his sexuality, but announces that he will be moving to Paris where he can live more openly and pursue the kind of photographic work he has always dreamed of. It will be years before they meet again. The narrator, now married with a child and published books to his credit, crosses paths with The Eye in Berlin and learns of the life altering, disturbing experiences his friend had in India. It seems that the man who had always tried to avoid violence has discovered, like other Latin Americans of his generation born in the 1950’s, that violence would ultimately find him, even on a distant continent.

The fourteen stories that comprise Last Evenings on Earth are imbued with a wistfulness that captures the spirit of dislocation of the exiled. But with his evocative, evenly paced prose Bolaño speaks to a borderlessness that many of us feel when we don’t fit in wherever we happen to be. It is, perhaps, the writer’s soul that responds, I don’t know. I feel at a loss to define it, in this, my first experience with his work, but I do know I will return for more.

Last Evenings on Earth is translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions.