The African Shore

The year isn’t even half over yet and I think I’ve already discovered my official favorite Newly Discovered Author of 2014: Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa, who is officially endorsed by Maestro Bolaño, apparently divides time between Morocco and New York and was BFFs with Paul Bowles. I haven’t even read his books that I’ve listed on my To Read list and I’m already entranced. Guess I’ve got some yummy treats to look forward to!

The books I’ve read by Rosa so far are The African Shore, which left me absolutely floored (as in, BLOWN THE HELL AWAY), and The Pelcari Project, which creeped the heck out of me and will probably give me nightmares. The African Shore, especially, is the kind of book where as soon as I finished reading it, I instantly sent two emails to close friends, imploring that you-must-absolutely-read-this-book!

Why did I find The African Shore so amazing? First of all, it is extremely short (136 pages, so more of a novella, really), and yet it gets a lot done. It presents a heck of an argument for economy of language and Gordon Lish-level ruthless editing. The prose is extremely readable (dare I say Bolaño-esque?), yet poetic. The themes are highly relevant and powerfully contemporary: cosmopolitanism, border-crossings, migrants, exile, drug smuggling, the impossibility of empathy, the infinite loop of cultural misunderstandings… Lord, what an accomplishment. For such a short book, the structure is also very innovative, keeping us on our toes: we get one section made up entirely of emails from a character we otherwise never meet in person, and the main character in the opening section isn’t seen again until the very end (almost as if Psycho resurrected Janet Leigh’s corpse to make her the focal point of the closing sequence).

Most of all, I loved the slow, delicious way that this book reveals its treasures–the slow and steady way in which the elliptical plot unfolds. The opening sequence ends with an epic “Wait… WHAT is he doing?” moment that truly raises the notch on the Wow, That’s Disturbing meter. The #1 best thing about this book, I think, and what’s stayed with me the most, is its handling of the owl. Yes, that cute little fellow you see on the cover, eating a frog. It’s initially introduced as a MacGuffin of sorts, a device to drive the plot forward. And yet its fate is handled and narrated in such an unpredictable way that I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had tears in my eyes. I am not even kidding. This book made me TEAR UP over what happens to an OWL (and what happens to it is probably not even remotely close to what you’re maybe thinking).

I’ve always loved that Sebald quote about how men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension, and not just because it reminds me of the way my cat stares at me when I’m doing something that must make her think I’m either an alien, an idiot or just plain insane (for example, if I open a new garbage bag for the trash bin, it translates to her as THE APOCALYPSE HAS OFFICIALLY COME). It strikes me more than ever after reading this book, that using animals-as-characters (and not necessarily as POV characters either) in books is a very innovative, risky move. If writing is all about seeing the world through the eyes of something else–how the heck are you supposed to know what an owl would think? See the world? Feel, react?

I don’t think I can say much more, because I truly think the best way to read this book is from a state of mind in which you know as little about it as possible. If nothing else, read this book so that you can find out what happens to the owl. I really don’t have anything more to say other than that.

Also, just for fun, here are a few of my all time Favorite Animal Moments in fiction, just off the top of my head (I’m officially limiting myself to Grown-Up Literary Fiction too… don’t get me started on Colin Dann or Brian Jacques….):

– The fate of the cat at the end of Aleksander Hemon’s short story “Islands,” from The Question of Bruno. Absolutely Herzogian and brutal.

– That damn solitary Chinese quail in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

– Bolaño’s “Police Rat” in The Insufferable Gauchoalong with the bloodthirsty rabbits in the title story.

– Kafka, with anything. But “The Metamorphosis” will probably always hold the most fuzzy place in my heart.

– Okay, I’ll list one children’s book because Kafka would approve: Mary James’ Shoebag. Absolute cult classic.


Filed under books, review

2 responses to “The African Shore

  1. re: animals-as-characters, have you read mink river by brian doyle? i recommend it.

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