At first I tried reading this book in Spanish. After 3 weeks I’d read about 50 pages. Depressed and defeated, I conceded by putting down La casa verde and picking up The green house. (Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper, 1968.)Reading it in English wasn’t that much easier, but at least I wasn’t looking up all these jungle-related and boat navigation terms at WordReference every 10 seconds.
It took me a while to realize that the structure of the book is like the film 21 Grams: a lot of cutting back and forth between scenes from the past and from the future, and it’s only until you’re well into the book that you learn the chronology. Umberto Eco said that he was aware that the first hundred pages of The Name of the Rose were the hardest, because he wanted the act of reading to be like an initiation ritual for the reader: like the monks, the reader was meant to be immersed in this really stressful, dense experience that makes you wonder “My God, how am I going to be able to get all the way through this?” Thankfully enough (as tends to be the case for these sorts of books) once you get used to the language and the structure, it’s relatively smooth sailing. I’m definitely left with the feeling that I’m going to have to read this again, in order to let all of its nuances and complexities sink in properly. For the time being, I’m going to offer up this paltry review.
Overall, I’m very impressed by the narrative structure and writing style of La Casa Verde. Mario must have had post-its stuck all over his desk in order to keep track of the chronology (or who knows, maybe even he isn’t completely sure of it). This would be an ideal book on which to write a dissertation because there’s a lot of stuff to unpack in here. Civilization vs. barbarity (modernity vs. savagery) is obviously a big one. There’s a lot of scenes of people’s eyes floating greedily over beads, jewels and rubber, feeling that Sacred Hunger. Most of the relationships between people originates from commerce and trade. The main character is an Indian girl called Bonificia, who is kidnapped from her family by the military and nuns in the opening scene of the novel. If I had to say what this novel is about in one sentence, I’d have to say it’s about Bonificia, and how she goes from living “saved” by the nuns to becoming a prostitute called Wildflower. Her story reminded me a lot of Pocohantus in The New World, especially in the scenes involving her relationship with her shoes.
There’s another narrative thread involving Fushia, a guy with Japanese ancestry who runs away with this girl called Lalita and they end up living in the jungle together, and their dealings with Aquilino, an old man who rides his boat up and down the jungle river and trades canned goods and weapons for rubber with the Indians. There’s a group of four friends who go to a bar. I’m not even going to get into the criminal gang led by this master boat captain Nieves because I’m not sure I fully understood it. And then lurking in the background above it all is the story of the Green House, how it was founded by this mysterious guy called Don Anselmo, who reminded me of Jewel from As I Lay Dying in the beginning, frolicking about on his horses, but turns into this withered lonely old man. He remains very much an enigma to the end. One of the characters call him “the one who brought civilization to Piura.” Whether that civilization is good or bad is a whole ‘nother bag o’ beans.
The important thing about all of these characters is that none of them are depicted as bad guys. Fushia is a little deplorable in his treatment of Lalita in the jungle, but he probably doesn’t deserve the fate he ends up with (not many people would). Even the nuns have a sympathetic scene with Bonificia. Near the very end of the novel, after a description of a torture scene that sheds a lot of light in events earlier in the book, someone describes the Captain involved: “He had his weaknesses, like any human being, Don Pedro: but on the whole he was a good person.” (361) I see a lot of parallel themes between La casa verde and Sacred Hunger, especially concerning the question of how far will humans go in their treatment of each other in order for material goods.
The blind girl that Don Anselmo (the founder of the titular Green House brothel) has a relationship with is also very intriguing. The fact that she’s blind isn’t just in itself interesting, but the way she got blind—I don’t want to spoil it—let me just say that it was grisly enough for me to put the book down for a minute, and that the blind girl is essentially a corpse come back to life. During one of Don Anselmo’s monologues, he says a few things that I think may be quite key to the whole work:
And you didn’t realize, you I’m so stupid, how terrible not to understand, sweet, never knowing what’s going on with you, unable to guess. And there, again, your heart is like a fountain, and the questions, her sparkling, what do you think I’m like, and the inmates, and their faces, and the ground you’re walking on, where does what you hear come from, what are you like, what do those sounds mean, do you think that everybody is like you?, that we hear and do not answer?, that somebody feeds us, puts us to bed, and helps us upstairs?
I found the question raised by this passage particularly relevant to some of the topics I touched upon in the previous post: how do we go about relating with other people? “How terrible not to understand,” indeed. It’s all the more pertinent since the book itself is difficult to understand, and Vargas Llosa obviously knew that. The most obvious example is the dialogue that’s written without any breaks or signs to indicate that it is in fact two different conversations taking place at two different points at time (I hope that makes sense). By doing so, Vargos Llosa appears to be challenging the reader’s concept of the “present”–that when we read, we are reading events in a certain order. In The Green House the present is all mixed up. What a provocative word, the present. Living in the present moment is difficult. And yet it’s what a lot of us are striving to do. I spent a lot of time this weekend really sick from yet another cold (I am officially clipping a bottle of hand sanitizer this week) and spent a lot of time in bed reading blogs about meditation retreats and ashrams. There’s so many people out there, trying to figure out the secret behind truly living in the present. It’s no wonder that novels that mess with time feel particularly meaningful.
In this talk by Vargas Llosa, he discusses how in colonial times (back when the Spanish were still tramping all over Latin Americ), the language of novels was seen as this intensely subversive force. The two greatest forces in colonial Latin America were the church and the military, and the language endorsed by both didn’t have much space for language in which signs were muddled and unclear. Novels were seen as frivolous, sinful even—a language of lies. It was the kind of environment where Don Quixote had to be smuggled over from Spain in the bottom of wine barrels in order to reach South American audiences. Reading a novel back then must have evoked an illicit thrill; the experience must have been a lot like reading Orwell’s “1984” in Burma today. I think one of the things Vargas Llosa is trying to do in La casa verde is evoke that same subversive power that the novel must have had back then, through using this innovative language.
I am definitely going to read this book again someday. I feel like I’m just skimming the surface of the potential ideas and theories it has to offer about human nature, language and literature. Right now I can see what elements and ideas stuck out for me; in the future it’d be cool to develop a theory and argument in more detail.
Medidating on the word “present” immediately brought to mind a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” that I memorized for a final exam, way back in 2007.I feel like it is connected to the mission of this blog (specifically concerning the attempt to connect “the present moment” to poetic forms) in some vitally important yet oblique way:
“It is the first day of the summer holidays. And now, as the train passes by these red rocks, by this blue sea, the term, done with, forms itself into one shape behind me. I see its colour. June was white. I see the fields white with daisies, and white with dresses; and tennis courts marked with white. Then there was wind and violent thunder. There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me.’ That was at midsummer, after the garden party, and my humiliation at the garden party. Wind and storm coloured July. Also, in the middle, cadaverous, awful, lay the grey puddle in the courtyard, when, holding an envelope in my hand, I carried a message. I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell. I was blown like a feather. I was wafted down tunnels. Then very gingerly, I pushed my foot across. I laid my hand against a brick wall. I returned very painfully, drawing myself back into my body over the grey, cadaverous space of the puddle. This is life then to which I am committed.”
“This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached.”