The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.

Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.

A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”

As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:

I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.

Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.

Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.

There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.

A most unusual and affecting tale.

Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.

“It has been wonderful to know you”: My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

September, 1986—spring in Santiago and rumours that the Dictator’s days are numbered are stirring the spirits of the determined, young idealistic members of the resistance. It has been another year of blackouts, street violence and police brutality. The setting is a lower-class neighbourhood where years of unemployment have taken a toll, buildings stand in disrepair, and a certain aging princess has found a castle to call her own:

. . . the scrawny house on the corner, three stories high with a staircase like a backbone leading to the room on the rooftop. From there could be seen the city in the shadows crowned with a turbid veil of dust. It was no bigger than a dovecote with three walls and a railing that was just wide enough for the Queen of the Corner—her hands moving as if playing on a marimba—to hang the sheets, tablecloths, and underpants out to dry.

Her dilapidated dwelling is decorated in style. Boxes festooned with fabrics, ribbons and dramatic imagination stand in for the finest furniture. Our heroine, a balding, drag-queen in her forties bearing the ravages of a rough life, is at last settled. As she embroiders linens for wealthy clients, and sings along with her favourite golden oldies on the radio, she dreams of Carlos, the handsome young student she met at the local store. He had approached her to ask if he could store some boxes of books in her home. She was not the silly old fool she allowed him to think she was, but—those eyes, that virile voice—how could she say “no”? Hopelessly smitten, she swoons like a schoolgirl, and soon more boxes arrive. Before long she agrees to allow a small army of students slip up the stairway to “study” in her rooftop room.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Thus begins My Tender Matador by late Chilean writer, Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015). With a queerly delightful energy, this is a love story that moves quickly and takes no prisoners. The Queen offers an unlikely refuge and serves as a convenient decoy for Carlos and his fellow Marxists. Caught up in a flutter of fluctuating emotions, especially when a string of days without a word from Carlos send her swinging between anger and anxiety, she berates herself for her infatuation. Her trannie sisters tease her wildly, but express their concerns, while Carlos himself is caught off guard by his own conflicted emotions. Something in the uninhibited joy and performative enthusiasms the Queen reveals moves him like no woman ever has. As her sensitivity to the political realities of the present are heightened, he is sent into revisiting a boyhood sexual initiation.

And yet, can anything come of this flirtatious friendship?

Running as counterpoint to the Queen’s story, is a second narrative stream featuring General Pinochet presented as a hen-pecked, weary, and paranoid old man. His wife’s constant nattering runs him down:

Oh, it’s just not fair; look at all these wrinkles I’m getting on my forehead, Augusto. Look, I have almost as many as you do, and I’m much younger than you are. It must be these difficult times we are living in, all the frights and frustrations I experience at your side. No other woman would have tolerated her husband being treated by the international press as a tyrant, a dictator, a murderer. And even though it is all lies, even though all Chileans know you saved our nation, don’t tell me it hasn’t been embarrassing. Yes, as I said, it’s a nightmare to think that all those penniless Communists who consider themselves writers blow their noses at you.

His only retreat is to sink back into dreams, seeking the comfort of his childhood toys. But even his dreams betray him, shifting into nightmares. What emerges is a portrait of a vain, paranoid, brittle, and homophobic man slowly losing his hold on power.

My Tender Matador is at once highly entertaining and politically astute satire. Lemebel weaves narrative with unmarked dialogue into seamless paragraphs that facilitate playful banter, emotional discharge, and the escalation of tension:

As she rushed down the stairs trying to straighten out her few remaining clumps of hair, she knew she wouldn’t say anything to him; she wouldn’t even bring it up. Anyway, Carlos was so careless she could forgive him for anything, as long as she could see him again in the doorway, like sun rushing out from behind the clouds, to offer explanations…. The young man as beautiful as an emerald was asking for her smile. How about a cigarette? he asked with his strawberry mouth, conquering her again with those puppy-dog eyes. What, did you think I was angry? But we had such a good time. Did you enjoy it? Anyway, the next time I go away, it might be forever. Carlos lowered his voice and looked at the mysterious boxes, and a curtain of emptiness unfurled over the moment. Then something pounded its way into her sissy-boy soul. Something Carlos was telling her contained a shard of truth. A fear, a foreboding, something intangible that darkened his pretty boy smile.

The flowery imagery and campy energy is infectious. The outrageous queerness that the Queen performs with her fellow transvestites is crude, and in today’s gay community which often endeavours to downplay and reject obvious femme presentations, there is a brash coarseness that rarely extends into contemporary gay-themed literary fiction. But the Queen of the Corner is not a caricature. She is drawn from the heart. A cross-dresser himself, Lemebel knows her intimately, and her story offers a romantic comedy into which he can throw his passions and concerns and allow them to play out on the page. In his obituary for The New Yorker, author Garth Greenwall portrays Lemebel as:

…a writer who called himself a “queen” (una loca) and “a poor old faggot” (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition. Lemebel defined himself against establishments of all kinds: against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but also against the Marxist resistance that condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice; against the neoliberal consensus behind Chile’s “economic miracle,” but also against the L.G.B.T. activists who Lemebel believed were making commodities of queer suffering and queer lives.

Look closely, and one can see all of these undercurrents coursing through the repartee, antics and drama of My Tender Matador.

But it is the simple human need to love and be desired that gives it its soul.

Translated by Katherine Silver, My Tender Matador is, to date, the only one of Lemebel’s novels to have been translated into English.

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.

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.