One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Spanish Lit Month, for Stu’s read-along

20190731_064801It’s almost a mystical experience, to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Exaggeration abounds, and emotions take on physical qualities like this:

…the persistence of Amaranta, whose melancholy made the noise of a boiling pot. (p. 216)

Seemingly endless streams of sons are named Aureliano, or Arcadio, until I become thoroughly confused, giving up on their specific heritage and simply reading for what I wanted to know: the meaning of the title.

Melquídas, an ancient gypsy who visits the Buendía family through its many generations, refuses to translate his manuscripts, the letters of which “looked like clothes hung out to dry on a line, and they looked more like musical notation than writing.”

“No one must know their meaning until he has reached one hundred years of age,” he explained.  (p. 201)

The novel contains war, and firing squads, gold coins and illegitimate children. There are explanations for religion and political parties which seem as if they could apply to America today.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality. They were the defenders of Christ, of the principle of authority, and were not prepared to permit the country to be broken down into autonomous entities. (p. 104)

But.

It has become so tedious to continue. I feel I am treading water, getting no where, and sinking deeper. The story has lost its magical quality for me as I become mired in its opacity, and I cannot go any longer with no clear story line…nothing happening but more sons of the same name being born.

More than three-quarters of the way through, I’m laying it down. Sorry, Stu, I tried. And I look forward to your thoughts on a book so many people love more than I can.

For Spanish Lit Month: The Linden Tree by César Aira

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I have chosen The Linden Tree by César Aira for Spanish Lit Month, and like so many books I read for blogging “events”, it has enriched my reading pleasure and knowledge of another country. (I think of José Saramago’s books, both Blindness and Skylight which are deeply memorable to me, or Javier Marias’ most excellent books such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, or Fever and Spearor Thus Bad Beginsor A Heart So White.)

César Aira creates a fictional town of Pringles in Argentina under the leadership of Perón; he is the boy telling us of life in his town, and it could be the first person voice that makes it so resonant of my own childhood, or the innocence of youth some of us are lucky enough to experience.

A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. More than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. A kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know…The father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are the instructions for living. “What about people who don’t have a father?” somebody might ask. But to that I can reply: Everyone has a father. (p. 22)

His father is black, his mother is dwarf-like, with glasses so thick they resemble marbles, and these two form the backbone of his understanding. They live in one room of an empty building containing 24 rooms, which they rent. But, since the landlord will not give his father a receipt, his father will not pay the rent, and so there they reside in a stalemate which seems to work for everyone.

Throughout the novella, we glimpse the life of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the decade under which Péron led Argentina.

…anti-Peronism eventually came from the same direction as Peronism, that is, from above. And when the dream of being able to forge one’s destiny evaporated, the result was disillusion, and shame at being so naive. (p. 54)

But, I didn’t find it to be as concerned with politics as I did with the life of a child in a small, poor, Argentinean town. It brought to mind memories of my own youth, for in some ways, childhood fears and dreams are universal.

I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect linden blossoms, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…So I set out to recover the old self. (p. 92)

I read this for Spanish Lit Month hosted this year by Stu; it is also my sixth book for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer.

A Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I’ll make this short, as I don’t like to disparage authors or their hard work. Also, I sent my opinion out in Twitter and Instagram, so you may already know this.

I didn’t like A Mouthful of Birds.

This collection of short stories had an auspicious beginning. The first story, “Headlights”, tells of a bride abandoned by her husband while she’s still in her wedding dress standing by the side of a road. One has the idea that the field nearby is filled with abandoned brides who are screaming; near the end, a trail of headlights are seen coming back.

Another story, “Preserves”, has a pregnant woman not emotionally prepared to have her baby yet. After seeing a doctor, who has developed a solution, she spits an almond shaped object into a jar of fluid.

The story taking the title of the collection, “A Mouthful of Birds,” has a set of parents who do not know what to do with their daughter who thrives on eating birds. Alive and whole.

“The Test” is a horrible story about a man who must kill a dog to prove that he can follow orders and eventually kill a person. He bashes a dog over the head with a shovel, but doesn’t quite kill it. Instead, the dog is in agony, and the man learns he didn’t qualify because he hesitated when given the order to strike.

Each story is more upsetting then the previous one. I suppose you could say the writing is imaginative; it certainly is bizarre. But ultimately, the dark violence became overwhelming, and I came away from this book quite distraught. If literature reflects life, I am concerned about how Samanta Schweblin sees the world.

The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

The Shape of The Ruins is a novel of historical fiction which dwells on many themes: the past, coincidence, conspiracy, how mistaken we might be about what we are told is factual. What if the Twin Towers in New York did not fall just because two planes crashed into them? What if John F. Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone? And, what if Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the Liberal leader of Bogata, was also part of a nefarious plan when he was assassinated on April 9, 1948?

I like how Juan Gabriel Vasquez highlights pieces of American history and parallels them with that of Colombia’s, in terms of possible deception to the people. He presents governments who, at the very least, have distorted or omitted facts for their own political agenda. And, he presents himself as an author within this book, for authors have the freedom to interpret what happened in the past.

And nevertheless, that was the only thing that interested me as a reader of novels: the exploration of that other reality, not the reality of what really happened, not the novelized reproduction of true and provable events, but the realm of possibility, of speculations, or the meddling the novelist can do in places forbidden to the journalist or historian. (p. 181)

Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives us many interpretations of what the past can mean, this being one which particularly stands out to me:

That’s what the past is: a tale, a tale constructed over another tale, an artifice of verbs and nouns where we might be able to capture human pain, fear of death and eagerness to live, homesickness while battling in the trenches, worry for the soldier who has gone into the fields of Flanders and who might already be dead when we remember him. (p. 224)

The plot within these pages is quite involved. It is detailed, in some places, to the point of being tedious. (Especially the section from page 290-390 which describes the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.) Facts, as we know them, have been intertwined with the author’s conjecture, portraying a country’s history as tenuous at best.

I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable—-the place where I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place whose past I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand—-began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard. (p. 441)

The last section of the book pulls me in with sentences like that. I remember being a child who believed that teachers taught you, doctors healed you, and leaders led you. Now that I am grown up, I, too, see the shadows all around me, and for that reason I think The Shape of The Ruins has an impact far beyond its pages. Far beyond Colombia or America. Perhaps all of us can find a certain disillusionment in what we thought to be true about our country.

Mailbox Monday: Four I Am Eager to Read

Children of The Cave is published by Peirene Press. It is the winner of the 2017 Finnish Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel. It is described as, “A Gothic Victorian tale about forest children, which address the limits of science and faith…written as a diary this postmodern, ethical narrative asks questions about how we encounter the ‘other’.”

The Nocilla Trilogy includes Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Exprience, and Nocilla Lab published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 19, 2019. It I has been translated from Spanish, and is described as “a shot to the heart of the traditional novel.” ~J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia

The End of Loneliness has been translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and was published on January 29, 2019 by Penguin Books. It spent over eighty weeks on Germany’s bestseller list, won the European Union Prize for Literature, and was selected as German independent bookstores’ favorite book of 2016. It has been translated into 27 languages, and is described as “a profoundly moving portrait of what can be lost and what can never be let go.”

Seventeen is a Japanese novel by Hideo Yokoyama, bestselling author of Six Four. It is described as “an investigative thriller set amid the after math of disaster.” It is, of course, something I will read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 12 which ends April 1, 2019.

More Mailbox Monday books can be found here.

My Top Ten Books for 2018

 

It is no surprise that when I review the list of approximately fifty books I read in 2018, the ones which are my favorite are all (but one) in translation. But, that does not make them inaccessible for readers who do not normally pick up translated literature. In fact, if you are tired of the same boring mysteries, the same boring love affairs, the same boring story told over and over again, I can’t recommend each one of these enough.

My Top Ten for the Year 2018:

  1. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk: Because it deserved to win the Man Booker International Prize this year for its breathtaking writing and memorable recounting of our lives.
  2. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Because I have never seen three disparate stories woven together so seamlessly, or with such power.
  3. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti: Because it won both the Strega Award and the Prix Médicis étranger, and faultlessly told the story of two boys’ friendship, as well as their relationship with one’s father.
  4. Fever and Spear by Javier Marias: Because Javier Marias is my favorite Spanish author; everything he writes is downright lyrical.
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Because I was enchanted by this quirky character who loved convenience stores, the reason for which I could completely understand when I was in Japan this October.
  6. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami: Because it is an accessible, brilliant novel by my favorite Japanese author whom I never pretend to fully understand.
  7. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Because the tension mounted with every move, and the author wrote it in less than 100 pages.
  8. Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: Because of the compelling side she shows for the immigrants who have no home.
  9. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz: Because it was the most startling and upsetting book I read this year (ever?) and I will never forget it.
  10. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard: Because Mattias Enard captured Michelangelo in a fresh, new way when I thought I knew him already.

And now, I wish you a Happy New Year, and many joyous reads ahead in 2019!

“For I myself am my own fever and pain.” Fever and Spear by Javier Marias (Spanish Lit Month 2018)

Jacques Deza is working and living in London when Sir Peter Wheeler invites him to a buffet supper.

“A few friends and acquaintances are coming here for a buffet supper two weeks from Saturday; why don’t you come too, I know how alone you are in London.” (p. 23)

He is alone in London because he is separated from his wife, Luisa, which seems to be a source of sorrow for him even though they could not continue life as a couple. Deza imagines her not answering the phone when he calls because she has a male companion with her, and when she does call him back he cannot be sure that her explanation of being on the phone with her sister is wholly accurate. (Marias does a remarkable job of examining everyday life from every angle, as if he is revealing my own thoughts in the process.)

While at this buffet supper, Deza is introduced to Bertram Tupra who eventually hires him away from his post with BBC Radio to work exclusively for Tupra.

The work got off to a gradual start, by which I mean that once the contract had been agreed, they began giving me or asking me to undertake various tasks, which then increased in number, at a brisk but steady rate, and, after only a month, possibly less, I was a full-time employee, or so it seemed to me. These tasks took various forms, although their essence varied little or not at all, since this consisted in listening and noticing and interpreting and reporting back, in deciphering behaviors, attitudes, characters and scruples, indifferences and beliefs, egotisms, ambitions, loyalties, weaknesses, strengths, truths and contradictions; indecisiveness. What I interpreted were – in just three words – stories, people, lives.” (p. 212)

Is this not, I ask myself, exactly what Marias does as a writer? He interprets stories, people, and lives, exquisitely. He gives me much to think about as I progress through each of his novels. Within Fever and Spear, he touches on youth:

”When you’re young, as you know, you’re in a hurry and always afraid that you’re not living enough, you feel impatient and try to accelerate events, if you can, and so you load yourself up with them, I you stockpile them, the urgency of the young to accumulate scars and to forge a past, it’s so odd that sense of urgency. No one should be troubled by that ear, the old should teach them that, although I don’t know how, no one listens to the old any more.” (p. 99)

On trust:

“We never know when we have entirely won someone’s trust, still less when we have lost it. I mean the trust of someone who would never speak of such things or make protestations of friendship or offer reproaches, or ever use those words – distrust, friendship, enmity, trust – or only as a mocking element in their normal representations and dialogues, as echoes or quotations of speeches and scenes from times past which always seem so ingenuous to us, just as today will seem tomorrow for whoever comes after, and only those who know this can save themselves the quickening pulse and the sharp intake of breath, and so not submit their veins to any unpleasant shocks.” (p. 183)

On grudges:

”…we forget what we say much more than what we hear, what we write much more than what we read, what we send much more than what we receive, that is why we barely count the insults we hand out to others, unlike those dealt out to us, which is why almost everyone harbors some grudge against someone.” (p. 199)

On seeing:

”It’s a very rare gift indeed nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, that is, without any fuss or squeamishness.” (p. 254)

Wheeler tells Deza that they are similar; they can both see people like that, clearly and without qualms, such that seeing was their gift to be placed in the service of others.

Near the end of the novel, a series of cartoons and pictures appear, which warn against speaking too much as your words may by heard by enemy spies. Wheeler tells Deza,

“But I don’t think there was ever a campaign like this one against ‘careless talk’, in which they not only put civilians on guard against possible spies, but recommended silence as the norm: people were prevailed upon not to speak, they were ordered, indeed exhorted, to keep silent. Suddenly people were made to see their own language as an invisible enemy, uncontrollable, unexpected and unpredictable, as the worst, most fearsome of enemies, like a terrible weapon which you, or anyone, could activate, and set off without ever knowing when it might unleash a bullet…” (p. 332)

It is ironic, then, that Wheeler suddenly becomes unable to speak himself as his papers fly away in the wind of a helicoptor which has suddenly appeared, hovering over their conversation. It all seems to reflect the times in Spain when Franco’s dictatorship required people to get around the censorship laws.

As I close the final pages, I am curious as to the identity of the woman who has rung his doorbell in the rain, saying, “Jaime, it’s me.” Who says, “It’s me” without being certain of being let in with no further identification? Deza’s story continues, and I will need to see what it contains in Volume 2 of Your Face Tomorrow. Javier Marias has left me hanging, but not without much to ponder.

(Thanks to Richard and Stu who have sponsored Spanish/Portuguese Lit Month and extended it into August.)

The Imposter by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018) “Reality kills and fiction saves.”

Javier Cercas is unashamedly forthright about his own personal objections to writing this book right from the beginning.

Suddenly I felt that, though I had twice given up on the story, it had been through a lack of courage, because I sensed that in the old man (Marcos) something was hiding that interested me, or profoundly concerned me and I was afraid to discover what it was. p. 51

As long as we’re revealing inner thoughts, I must confess that I am more interested in Cercas’ revelations about his own life, and that of a writer, than I am about Enric Marcos’ life. It doesn’t matter much to me that he lied, and presented himself as someone he was not, as much as what his actions imply: that lies are built on many small truths, and therefore they hide the whole truth. So what would have made Marcos build a life of lies, posing as an imposter, in the first place?

Enric is like Quixote: he could not resign himself to a mediocre existence, he wanted to live life on a grand scale; and since he did not have the wherewithal, he invented it. p. 31

Cercas says he was afraid that in writing his book, he would somehow be justifying the actions of Enric Marcos. And then he remembers a quote by Tzvetan Todorov:

Understanding evil is not to justify it, but the means of preventing it from occurring again. p. 53

Which is, of course, one of the the main reasons for studying history in the first place.

In presenting himself as someone he was not, in mixing small truths with big lies, was Enric Marcos inherently evil? Cercas says that Marcos’ “narcissistic lie (saying that he was in Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp, as a prisoner) hides the truth of horror and death…it is an attempt to hide reality so as not to know or recognise it, so as not to know or recognise himself.” p. 187-188

So I read this book not because I am so terribly interested in Enric Marcos the individual, as much as I am interested in what he represents. I also found myself fascinated by the personal revelations of Cercas, as he wrote about what it means to be a writer; what it means to write fiction.

“…reality kills and fiction saves, because more often than not fiction is merely a way of disguising reality, a way of protecting oneself from it or curing oneself of it.” p. 203

While this is not a favorite of mine from the Man Booker International Prize long list of 2018, it was well loved by many on the shadow panel. It was not, however, deemed worthy of the short list by the official judges. Judging from their short list, it seems that they prefer shock value more highly. (Yet, if that was wholly true, why leave off Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz?)

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munez Molina (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

I’d like to say I liked this novel, and at first I did. But halfway through I became so bored I didn’t know whether to finish it or throw it against the wall.

In a nutshell, it is the story of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his endless aliases and attempts to avoid being captured by the police. He reads James Bonds novels and cheap spy thrillers; he stays in fleabag hotels and employs prostitutes. He tries to be more sophisticated than he is, but his suit is the wrong thing to wear in the hot May temperatures of Lisbon, Portugal. His ears are lopsided, one bigger than the other, and he never quite fits in. We are given only the briefest glimpses into his past, brought up in Alabama with alcoholic parents, lice ridden siblings, and a growing prejudice against African Americans.

Alternating with his story, is the story of the author who is discontent with his life; his marriage, his two sons, everything gets in the way of what he wants to do: write. Or, on some pages, drink and hang out with his friends. I was interested, at first, in the difficulties inherent to writing: seeing the stack of white paper next to the typewriter, feeling the flow of ideas fall naturally into a rhythym one day, or hide into nonexistence another.

But the two storylines don’t connect very well in my opinion, and the tediousness of Ray’s efforts to escape became overwhelming to me. I am compassionate to a point. However, there are books on the Man Booker International Prize long list which are calling to me more loudly than this one.

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world by Jorge Zepeda Patterson (a thriller for Spanish Lit Month)

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Milena isn’t Russian, as supposed, and she didn’t come to Mexico of her own free will. She was captured as a teen in Croatia by a human-trafficking ring and forced into prostitution.

When the novel opens, her benefactor has just died in her arms. He is the owner of El Mundo, and has prepared for such an event by writing a letter which instructs his daughter to protect his love, Milena, and to take the black book away from her because it could ruin the family.

What black book? How could it destroy the family? The secrets are many and multi-layered in this Spanish thriller which won the  Premio Planeta. (A literary prize of $800,000.)

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world was sent to me by Restless Books. I read it for Spanish Lit Month with an ache in my heart for the women who suffer in this trade, and the men who are oblivious to their suffering.

The next day, each of them (the men who came to the prostitutes) went on with his normal life, beyond the boundary of that hell they financed, thinking they had integrity and that paying a stack of euros got them off the hook for any wrongdoing.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson does a brilliant job of portraying the darkest aspects of prostitution and its inherent evil; of men taking advantage of anyone they can to gain power. He shows us the inner workings of the mafias engaged in human-trafficking and the groups laundering money for organized crime.

A far cry from Javier Marias’ gentle, even enigmatic prose, reading this novel is like watching a film. One that carries scenes all the more horrifying because they can be found in real life. It is a shocking book, and violent, incredibly fast paced and an exceptional thriller for those who enjoy this genre.