Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marias (for Spanish Lit Month 2017)

The television broadcasts a film with Fred  MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck while Marta lies immovable on her double bed, dying.

Her son, who would not easily fall asleep, lies in his wooden cot under aeroplanes strung on thread just above his bed. They sway lightly in the air, reminding our narrator, Victor, of his own childhood planes.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword.

He is not well acquainted with Marta. He has come for dinner, and what he hopes will follow, while her husband is away in London. Surely he did not expect his evening to transpire as it has. In the course of this improbable event, of a woman dying while he is in her bedroom, he pauses to reflect.

….everything seems as nothing to us, everything becomes compressed and seems as nothing to us once it is over, then we always feel that we were not given enough time.

For awhile, he wonders if she has not in fact died. He returns to her apartment building, gazing at the windows on the fifth floor which belong to her apartment, hoping that perhaps she simply fell unconscious; he hopes that someone has taken care of her son whom he left sleeping in the cot.

But no, Marta has in fact died, and so the title’s implication expands to more than merely our narrator.  We think on Marta’s widowed husband, Dean, and her son, Eugenio, her father, Juan, and her sister, Luisa.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.

He suffers guilt, but also self examination. He is a ghostwriter, and therefore used to being behind the scene. He often refers to himself as being nobody.

Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal, and let fall thy pointless lance. Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow, let me be lead within thy bosom and at a bloody battle end thy days. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, despair and die.

There are all sorts of battles going on. The ones on television where aeroplanes on film are fighting in battle, the ones of Victor’s own making revealed to us as he reviews his life.

A large portion of the novel switches from the death of Marta to his divorce from Celia, with whom he was married for only three years. One evening, he questions if the prostitute he visits could be her. They look so similar, but he is uncertain, and even after he leaves her, and calls his ex-wife who is at home, he cannot be sure that she has not brought a customer home with her.

His battles are many, and tortuous. But, he is not the only one who endures them.

The novel ends with Marta’s husband and Victor in confrontation. Dean reveals his own battle within the details of his trip to London while his wife lay dying, unbeknownst to him, in Victor’s arms.

And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly: while we travel slowly towards our dissolution merely in order to traverse the back or reverse side of time, where one can no longer keep thinking or keep saying goodbye: “Goodbye laughter and goodbye scorn. I will never see you again, nor will you see me. And goodbye ardour, goodbye memories.”

It is a tragic novel, one which examines relationships thoroughly and deeply, as well as the individuals who live in them. After reading it, I see once again why Javier Marias has become one of my favorite writers.

Thank you to Richard and Stu who host Spanish Lit Month in July. Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell): Man Booker International Prize Long List

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The important thing already happened. What follows are only consequences.

The pace of this book is frenetic, building up panic as those who have suffered a terrifying dream are well aware; we want to wake up, we want things to be better, we want to find out that none of what we dreamed was real.

Amanda lies dying on rough, coarse sheets. A boy murmurs to her, and their dialogue is all we have to tell us their story. To lead us to “the important thing.” At the boy’s prompting to remember, she relives the horrors that have brought them to this place.

In a disjointed, and bizarre narrative, we find that she and her daughter, Nina, have come from town to vacation in the peace of the countryside. She has befriended the boy’s mother, Carla, a beautiful woman with an elegant walk whose red hair is worn in a bun.

The boy’s mother has witnessed a stallion die after it has drunk from a stream. Next to the stream was a dead bird, and when the boy’s mother becomes aware that her son has drunk from the same stream, she carries him almost immediately to the green house. There, a woman to whom people go rather than the clinic, takes David into a back room.

Later, Nina sits down in the grass, becoming wet in what her mother assumes is dew. She and her mother are given pills at the local clinic and told to go home, rest. They have had too much sun.

Can it be mere stupidity that denies the effects of poison which has infiltrated the ground, the water? Or, perhaps is it easier to deny the truth than deal with its consequences. But, a mother’s desire to save her child, the “rescue distance” as Schweblin so aptly calls it, can only stretch so far in its effectiveness. And as the lines between the two children blur, so do the ramifications for the rest of the community.

This is a frightening book, an alarming story which seems part sci-fi and part horror. It has just the kind of emotional tension which the books on the Man Booker International Prize long list so cleverly create.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published March 2, 2017 by Oneworld
160 pages

Find more reviews from Tony’s Reading List, 1st Reading’s Blog, and A Little Blog of Books.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias

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I may have shared with you how I often feel a stranger in this world. When a writer is able to tap into that emotion, to make me reread a sentence because he has just described a way I’ve felt, it is a somewhat rare occurrence. But Javier Marias is one of the few writers who is able to do just that, touch a piece of my heart and make it feel a little less alone.

Take for example, this early description of Beatriz’ troubled marriage, which faintly mirrors my experience with my first husband:

“Perhaps that was her curse, her main problem,  and one of the reasons why she still loved him so much: he made her laugh and he always had. It’s very hard not to stay in love with or be captivated by someone who makes us laugh and does so even though he often mistreats us; the hardest thing to give up is that companionable laughter, once you’ve met someone and decided to stay with them. (When you have a clear memory of that shared laughter and it occasionally recurs, even if only very infrequently and even though the intervals between are long and bitter.)” p. 66

Film director Eduardo Muriel’s story is told by the twenty-three year old young man, Juan De Vere, and perhaps it is his naive perspective that lends this novel a coming of age feel. He knows very little of marriage, of adult manipulations or despair, and as the lives of Eduardo and his wife, Beatriz Noguera, unfold before our eyes we see through young de Vere’s perspective how bad begins.

This line comes from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” It is in part, of course, the title, but it is also a major theme of the novel. “What is ‘the bad’?” we ask ourselves, “and how did it begin?”

Could it be the loss of a child? A lie told by one spouse to another in the beginning of their marriage? Infidelity? We read to discover what it is that makes Eduardo treat Beatriz so scornfully, in private, and what makes her leave the house for trysts with Dr. Jorge Van Vechten, or an even more private appointment in a room at the Hotel Wellington.

This is a novel which has bound me to it all week, alternating between highlighting passages and stopping to ponder them. It is just the kind of breathtaking work which Javier Marias writes, a writer who has become one of my favorite Spanish authors. I leave you with a few quotes which struck me as I read:

“It’s true, however, that we always arrive late in people’s lives, indeed, we generally arrive late for everything.” p. 327

“…a nostalgia for the life you discarded always lingers on in the inner depths of your being, and, during bad times, you seek refuge in it as you might in a daydream or a fantasy.” p. 414

“It reminds me of that expression that so perfectly defines us Spaniards: Quedarse uno tuerto por dejar al otra ciego-‘To put out your own eye while trying to make another man blind.'” p. 419

“As I said, you can’t just put a line through the past to erase it. Even once you’ve decided that you no longer want that past.” p. 420

 

 

How to Travel Without Seeing: Diapatches from the New Latin America, the latest novel by Andres Neuman

Only yesterday, How To Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America by Andres Neuman was published.

You may recognize the author’s name from this book,

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Traveler of the Century, which was the winner of the Alfaguara Prize, a prestigious prize in Spain.

But, How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America is the first work of nonfiction by Andrés Neuman, called “a kaleidoscopic, fast-paced tour of life, literature, and politics in Latin America.” (Restless Books)

A blurb from the back:

“Lamenting not having more time to get to know each of the nineteen countries he visits after winning the prestigious Premio Alfaguara, Andres Neuman begins to suspect that world travel consists mostly of “not seeing.” But then he realizes that the fleeting nature of his trip provides him with a unique opportunity: touring and comparing every country of Latin America in a single stroke. Neuman writes on the move, generating a kinetic work that is at once puckish and poetic, aphoristic and brimming with curiosity. Even so-called non-places-airports, hotels, taxis- are turned into powerful symbols full of meaning. A dual Argentine-Spanish citizen, he inclusively explores cultural identity and nationality, immigration and globalization, history and language, and turbulent current events. Above all, Neuman investigates the artistic lifeblood of Latin America, tackling with gusto not only literary heavyweights such as Bolano, Vargas, Llosa, Lorca, and Galeano, but also an emerging generation of authors and filmmakers whose impact is now making ripples worldwide.

Eye-opening and charmingly offbeat, How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America is essential reading for anyone interested in the past, present, and future of the Americas.”

It is a book I am anxious to read myself, after completing the Man Booker long list this autumn.

 

 

Spanish Lit Month: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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…you want me to invent a fable that will make the unwary fall on their knees and persuade them that they have seen the light, that there is something to believe in, something to live and die for-even to kill for?”

“Exactly. I’m not asking for you to invent anything that hasn’t already been invented, one way or another. I’m only asking you to help me give water to the thirsty.

This prequel to The Shadow of the Wind holds the same mystery and wonderfully tense atmosphere, with a dedication to books which borders on religious. Andreas Corelli, French publisher with the ever present angel brooch on his lapel, makes the above proposition to author David Martin. He wants David to write a book that has less to do with containing a story than it does with harboring a soul for The Angel’s Game has nothing to do with angels, but everything to do with love, revenge and bibliophilia.

We find the Cemetery of Forgotten Books here again, which is a fortress of tunnels and bridges all leading to a cathedral made of books.

This place is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and loved and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands, a new spirit…

Andreas Corelli’s game is played out on this board, involving the beautiful city of Barcelona with its real streets, such as Calle Santa Ana on which can be found the bookshop belonging to Sempere & Son, and the real cathedral, Santa Maria del Mar. It is an intricate retreat into the dangers and hopes that novels give us, all with a touch of Spain that is perfect for Spanish Literature Month.

Before I go, a few favorite quotes:

“I don’t trust people who say they have a lot of friends. It’s a sure sign that they really don’t know anyone.”

“May I offer you anything? A small glass of cyanide?”

“We can only accept as true what can be narrated.”

“There is nothing in the path of life that we don’t already know before we start. Nothing important is learned; it is simply remembered.”

Beginning Don Quixote. “…A Manual for Life.”

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After a day of distributing treats to the children in my class, it seemed a fitting end to come home and find a few treats for myself.  Particularly this novel which I have been meaning to read for ages:

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It is the 400th anniversary edition of Don Quixote with an introduction by Amherst College professor, Ilan Stavans. But the best part to me is that the publisher, Restless Books, has put forth a series of videos and book group discussions  “which serve as a map to this restless classic, which speaks more eloquently than ever to our perennial willingness to sacrifice in order to fully realize our dreams.” Videos 1 and 2 were released on October 6; the first book group discussion (online) begins November 6. It carries on until February 6 when the final group book discussion takes place.

Therefore, you, too, have time to read and discuss Don Quixote with Ilan Stavans, who describes this book as, “…not only a novel but a manual for life. You’ll find in it anything you need, from lessons on how to speak and eat and love to an exhortation of a disciplined, focused life, an argument against censorship, and a call to make lasting friends, which, as Cervantes puts it, ‘is what makes bearable our long journey from birth to death.'”

All the reader has to do is look for this symbol as he reads:

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I’ve earmarked each page, eight in all, which indicate a video session is available. I’m so eager to begin and hope that you, too, may feel inspired.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa for Spanish Lit Month

Dear Spider Extortionists,

Although you’ve burned the offices of Narithuala Transportation port, a business I created with the honest effort of a lifetime, I’m publicly informing you that I will never pay the amount you demand to give me protection. I’d rather you kill me. You won’t receive one cent from me, because I believe that honest, hardworking, decent people shouldn’t be afraid of crooks and thieves like you but should face you with determination until you’re sent to prison, which is where you belong.

Signed,

Felicito Yanaque (I don’t have a maternal surname)

What courage it takes Felicito to write this letter, and further to publish it in the newspaper! He refuses to concede to the extortionists who try to scare him into giving them $500.00 per month for “protection”. In fact, he takes them on with a vengeance, refusing to acquiesce even when his transportation business is burned down and his lover, Mabel, is kidnapped.

Why won’t he give in to their demands? Because of his father. The memory of his father, who was the very pillar of strength in Felicito’s eyes, will not permit him this betrayal.

“His father might have been poor but he was a great man because of his upstanding spirit, because he never harmed anyone, or broke the law, or felt rancor toward the woman who abandoned him, leaving him with a newborn to bring up. If all of that about sin and evil and the next life was true he had to be in heaven now. He didn’t even have time to do any evil, he spent his life working like a dog in the worst-paying jobs. Felicito remembered seeing him drop with fatigue at night. But even so, he never let anyone walk all over him. According to him, that was the difference between a man who was worth something and a man who was worth only a rag. That had been the advice he gave him before he died in a bed with no mattress in the Hospital Obreco: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.”

Parallel to Felicito’s story is the story of Don Ismael Carrera (boss of Rigoberto who is the manager of Don Carrera’s insurance office). In stark contrast to the relationship with his now deceased father that Felicito holds dear, is the one that between Ismael and his twin sons. From their youth, these boys (Miki and Escobita) have done as they pleased which included carousing, lying, stealing and even rape. They become furious when their widowed father marries his housekeeper, Armida, as she is the one who will inherit his fortune, because all they want from their father is his money.

Perhaps more than anything, to me, this novel is about what it means to be a good father, to be an honorable son. We read of the sharp contrast between one son who holds his father’s teaching so dear that he himself will not bend when threatened, and two other sons who are simply waiting for their father to die so that they can be rich. We read of yet a third son who sees nothing wrong with brutally mistreating the very man who raised him. What are we to make of this? It leads us to the meaning of the word hero.

In this novel, a hero is one who upholds his father. One who won’t let himself be walked over. One who stands in the face of adversity with courage and strength and honor. My favorite kind of guy.

The Discreet Hero was originally published in 2013, and published in English with a translation by Edith Grossman in 2015. I read it for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month, and as my first introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, I can say it was a brilliant one. He has given me so much to ponder about Peru, but even more importantly about the power of a discreet hero.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias for Spanish Lit Month

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Javier Marias often writes sentences that are full paragraphs, and while some require me to read them several times over for clarity, others make me reach for my pen to record them in a journal I keep for exquisite quotes.

“Look,” I said, “people who keep secrets for a long time don’t always do so out of shame or in order to protect themselves, sometimes it’s to protect others, or to preserve a friendship, or a love affair, or a marriage, to make life more tolerable for their children or to shield them from some fear, of which they usually have many. Maybe they simply don’t want to add to the world a story they wished had never happened. Not talking about it is like erasing it, forgetting it a little, denying it, not telling a story can be a small favour one does to the world. You have to respect that. You might not want to know everything about me, later on, as time goes by, you might not want to, and I won’t want to know everything about you either.”

This is, perhaps, a strange thing to say to one’s new bride. But it gives an indication of the depth of secrets contained within Juan’s story. From the very beginning, when Teresa who would have been his aunt had she not shot herself in the breast before Juan was born, there is a sort of veil which covers everything. “Why did she kill herself?” we ask ourselves, filled with apprehension as we read to the end of the book. “Why are there so many secrets the couples keep from one another?” For each of the couples in this novel have a relationship within which something is hidden.

On his honeymoon in Havana, Juan overhears a woman named Miriam arguing with her lover in the hotel room next door. She is told that his wife is dying, and Miriam says that has been the case for a very long time. And then she asks Guillermo to kill his wife. “If you don’t kill her, I kill myself. Then you get one woman’s death on your hands, either her or me.”

Perhaps equally tragic was the relationship of Juan’s friend, who desperately seeks love through a dating service. Each person sends a letter, and often an accompanying video of himself, to the person with whom a potential match is made. But, the man responding to Berta’s letter will only be satisfied with a video showing all of her personal parts; he makes it quite clear that he will sleep with her only if she is attractive. How tragic to me that she responded to his request, so great was her need for relationship.

Threats and empty promises, wounding one another through lies and deceit, these are how Marias’ couples seem to interact.

The lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear throughout the novel, for it is from one particular phrase that it takes its name.

“She (Lady Macbeth) likens herself to him, thus trying to liken him to her, to her heart so white: it’s not so much that she shares his guilt (of murder) at that moment as that she tries to make him share her irremediable innocence, her cowardice.”

Yet, can one partner cover another’s guilt? Conversely, does one’s guilt shade another’s heart so white? This is the struggle which Juan faces as he uncovers his personal history involving a father who has been married three times, and not one wife is still alive.

“It was simply a matter of accepting the belief or superstition that what one doesn’t say doesn’t exist. And it’s true that the only things never translated are those never spoken or expressed.”

A Heart So White won the Dublin IMPAC prize for the best novel published worldwide in English in 1997. Find other thoughts from JacquiWine’s Journal, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List. Other friends who read it this month are Frances from Nonsuch Book and Scott from seraillon.

My January Reading Plans: Part 1

Don Quixote

I began my reading year 2014 with Roberto Bolano’s 2666It didn’t bode well for me. I read only the first three parts, about halfway, before laying it down. (As I did with The Savage Detectives in 2012.) It’s therefore ironic that I am beginning my reading for 2015 with another book of Spanish translation: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am relying on Richard to accompany me on this path, for it is his invitation which I have accepted, and I wonder how well I’d fare alone.

don-quixote by Dali

But, Don Quixote has been on my Classics Club list since I first formed it three years ago. The art alone which this novel has inspired is quite thrilling. Above is a painting by Salvador Dali; below is a painting by Honore Daumier.

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Harold Bloom calls Don Quixote the Spanish Bible, and says “it stands for ever as the birth of the novel out of the prose romance, and is still the best of all novels.” The best? Ever?

Don Quixote is a man I’ve heard about my whole life, how could I not discover him through the novel first hand? And so, I’m venturing forth into his world and hope to experience this masterpiece with great appreciation in January. I know Richard would welcome you to join us as well.

Spanish Lit Month: The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The story opens in Barcelona, with our hero Manuel Coy attending an auction. It isn’t that he has money to spend, or a particular item he yearns to possess. It’s that he’s bored, and restless, and a little lost ever since being suspended for grounding the forty-thousand-ton-container-ship, Isla Negra, on his watch.
Right away, I was entranced by Coy. How it is that a sailor can resemble a cowboy, and here I’m comparing Coy to Owen Wister’s The Virginian, I’m not quite sure. But they both have an integrity defined by what they judge to be right. They’re both independent, and brave, and loathe to follow rules for rules’ sake. 
Coy’s attention is caught between two bidders, who each seem to be fighting for an Atlas Maritimo de las Costas de Espana, the work of Urrutia Salcedo. One bidder is a beautiful blonde, covered with freckles; the other is a man in a ponytail who ultimately succumbs after her bid at five times the opening price.
What is it about this map, this woman, this gray pony-tailed man who have grabbed Coy’s attention? He is determined to find out, as he travels from Barcelona in search for the woman, Tanger Soto, who works for the Museo Naval in Madrid.
Apparently a Jesuit ship, the Dei Gloria, was attacked by a xebec corsair on February 4, 1767. The pirate ship did not expect the Dei Gloria to fight back, which it did, and ultimately both sank. But the Urrutia map seems to hold the location where the Dei Gloria lays, and it is this ship that Tanger wants desperately to find. 
Why? And why is the gray ponytailed man in pursuit of her and the ship himself? This is the core of the mystery, a mystery which becomes more and more intriguing as one continues through the novel. But, more fascinating to me is the character of Coy. He is a mystery in and of himself, a man of the sea and a reader as well.
The books that he reads are all relevant to ships. Sailing. Sea. He tells us he has gone through a Conrad period, a Stevenson period, and a Melville period. But soon after that passage, I began recording the titles and authors that Perez-Reverez includes in this spectacular novel. Because if they’re important enough to mention in his work of fiction, they’re important to me to know more about.
The titles Perez-Reverte has included in The Nautical Chart are:
Thunderball by Ian Fleming
The Alexandria Quartet by Durrell
Mutiny on The Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Men Against the Sea by Charles Nordhoff and James Normal Hall
Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
The Death Ship by B. Traven
The Inheritors by William Golding
The Mirror of The Sea by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 
Green Fire by Peter William Rainer
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
The Adventures of Tintin by (Belgian cartoonist) Herge
The Secret of the Unicorn by Herge
Red Rackam’s Treasure by Herge
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Internationally acclaimed author Arturo Perez-Reverte was born on November 25, 1951 in Spain, where he lives. He has been a member of the Spanish Royal Academy since 2003. His best selling books have been translated into nineteen languages in thirty countries and have sold millions of copies.