Category Archives: colombia

Returning to Life

Well Internet… not gonna lie… it’s been a rough couple of months. Good things have happened! Things have been good! But also – hard. REAL TALK! I’ve been sick, the cat’s been sick… I went to Colombia, I came back to England, I turned in my PhD, I got sick with a flu which I still have, I saw Tori Amos perform twice, I went to Manchester, I went to London (several times), I went to Charleston (near Brighton), I went to Cheltenham, I went to Sheffield, my job started up again, I trained for a half-marathon, I hurt my ankle, I moved house, I threw a house party, the cat had a manky eye, the cat kept eating her food too quickly and vomiting it up constantly (a symptom of a bigger problem?), the cat let other neighborhood cats wander in through the cat door and blinked indifferently at them as they ate all her food, (though I suppose this was better than her fighting with them)! The cat door has since been blocked with the cardboard box filled with my great-grandmother’s china; plans to purchase a chipped cat door are underway. I put my books on my new bookshelves, alongside all the books from my grandmother’s now empty house. Books in Afrikaans from my mother’s South African childhood, giants atlases of birds and plants and insects, my grandfather’s hymn books, so many orange and white Penguin paperbacks. The past and present is all jumbled together on these shelves, and maybe that’s the way I like it; maybe that’s the way it should be.

In September I only read one book: Return to Howliday Innpart of the Bunnicula seriesa childhood favorite. Vampire rabbits and cheesy puns–that was about all I could handle. I had the dreaded BRAIN FOG. Not as bad as in 2010, fortunately. But everything felt very hazy and muddled and far away. I felt very tired; my body ached. I wept in offices, often. But I think… maybe? Could they be? Are things… better? The cat still needs be taken in this afternoon for an antibiotic shot (there’s blood in her urine… :( poor puss, please keep your fingers crossed for her). But maybe… things are okay? Is that possible? Is that something we can tentatively, daringly say? Like we’re poking up our heads from underneath a manhole cover?

There are two books in particular (maybe three, depending on how long my energy for typing stays up) that I can vaguely wave at and say, You are responsible for this – for pulling me up and onwards. For returning me to life.

Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers (Santiago Gamboa)

It’s good to write in the middle of the storm, although that may not sound very sympathetic to the country in which I live. It may even be immoral, despicable, but it’s genuine. Literature is also written when the streets and running with blood, when the last hero is about to fall, riddled by a hail of bullets, or a child smashes its little head on the asphalt. What is good for writing doesn’t always benefit the defenseless population around it. (“Return to the Dark Valley,” loc 107 in my Kindle)

Now these two books, Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers–THESE are what you call NOVELS. I’ve been meaning to read Santiago Gamboa for a while, but as always, my access to untranslated books here in England is complicated (i.e. expensive and impossible). But! He’s had three books come out in translation in quick succession (are there more in the way? I hope so!). He’s from Bogotá, studied in Spain and Paris, has been publishing since 1995.

As I read these books (one in Colombia, one in England), I slowly felt life return to my body and brain. Bolaño is quoted in the epigraph of Dark Valley, and his influence is all over both books, particularly in regards to the highly readable translation. Sweaty sex … grime … drugs … violence … revenge … murder… poets … monologues by crazy Argentinian Nazis and paramilitary priests … Rimbaud… terrorists … a globe-trotting narrative, ranging from Thailand to India to Ethiopia … the question of home … the question of how you forgive and begin again … the question of how Colombia moves forward post peace process… I don’t want to get into the plots too much, because I don’t want to spoil them. Basically, these books were Christmas present for my withered, broken soul. They were exactly what I needed.

At one point in Dark Valley, a character comments that a story sounds like “one of those stories whose aim is to forge beauty out of the ugliest and dirtiest things in life,” (loc 253) which feels like a good description of Santiago Gamboa’s style. I love how fearless he is in terms of playing with genre – REVENGE. CRIME. DRUGS. I ate it up. And yet these books are so strange! They are definitely not commercial. Return to the Dark Valley in particular is very clever in the way it draws you in via its monologue format: characters narrate, stories are told, but you are not sure who they are, or who they are talking to, or for what reason. The way those answers are revealed is one of the biggest pleasures of the book. What would an essay about Rimbaud’s life have to do with a monologue by a conservative paramilitary priest, or a mentally ill Argentinean Nazi claiming to be the son of a Pope, or a young female poet from Cali who is the victim of the most terrible crime a poet can imagine? You’ll have to read this book to find out.

Kafka, who wrote the best literature in the twentieth century, was an obedient citizen. Any life can lead to literature, by the most convoluted and unexpected paths. “Literature is the sad path that takes us everywhere,” wrote Breton. And not only that: in addition, it welcomes everyone, without an entrance test or letters of recommendation. Only what each person carries in his folder. (Loc 3253)

There’s a kind of dignity in continuing to do things that nobody is interested in and nobody celebrates. (Loc 3539)

Oh, young Arthur, what did you expect? Every poet dreams of being acclaimed, which is why the first book is a terrifying moment: to give it over, not to patient and charitable friends, but to the eyes of strangers; a specific and very fragile order of words that has to give way, alone, to… To what? The young man wants his voice to be heard, wants someone to understand him. That is the sublime ambition of anyone who publishes a book and huddles in fear to await a reaction. The anonymous reader is cruel and unfair because that is how literature is; only he who is prepared to take the blows can enter it. (Loc 4637)

Stopping writing is possible, but stopping reading? That is more difficult. On this subject there are, as far as I know, no precedents. Readers who abandon reading? Someone who has read and loved book is like someone who has tried the coolness of water or the pleasures of sex or good food. He may stop cooking, but not eating. (Loc 5235)

Night Prayers in particular took me a couple of tries to get into (see: BRAIN FOG), but once I got through the first chapters, what a read! My favorite thing about this book was its depiction of the years in which President Uribe assumes power, a time I remember very well, and thus it was very enjoyable for me to read. The contrast between the far-left daughter and her more conservative parents was particularly interesting for me. I love the Bolaño-esque style of Gamboa’s sentences (long, rambling, building). I loved the international settings (Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo, Bogotá, Tehran), and the way time zones made it difficult to communicate, and how living in a certain country can be like living in the future. I loved the sister’s friendship with the old French academic, and their discussions on Colombia as a violent country (“don’t forget,” he tells her, “in the capture of Berlin by the Russian troops, which only lasted a few weeks, more people died than in a whole century of conflict in Colombia, so get the idea out of your head that this is a particularly violent country, because it isn’t.”) (221)

I did not understand the psychedelically narrated chapters entitled “Inter-Neta’s Monologues” – was this the voice of the Internet? I thought it was the sister at first, but at the end it also seems to be the brother? Very mysterious. But it was nice to see this book do something so uncommercial and weird, even if I didn’t understand it.

What was also very powerful about Night Prayers was its depiction of the sibling relationship – how weird is it that we don’t often see this in literature? The love between siblings?

I highly recommend Santiago Gamboa for those interested in Latin American literature and stories about international violence.

Why do you like this country so much? I asked, and he said, well, because it’s mine, why else do you think? I love this fucking country, or rather, if you cut one of my veins what would come out is… Colombia! no more, no less, isn’t it the same with you? and I said, no, what comes out of me is blood.” (255)

For many, to be a Colombian seemed to oblige us to deal with those themes in a particular way, which was why my generation and the ones after us were trying to escape all that, just trying to be a writer, and I added that in our part of the world, being a writer was a highly uncertain and probably unhappy existence because of the helpless state, the neglect and poverty in which most of writers grew old and died.” (168)

You realize you’re a writer when the things that swirl or echo in your head won’t let you concentrate on anything else: neither reading nor watching a movie nor listening to what other people are saying, not even your teacher or your best friend… If you are a writer, the worst thing is not to write. The bad news, given the times we live in, is that you can also tell yourself you’re really fucked.” (98)

The other book that I very quickly want to recommend is the brilliantly titled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass. Full disclosure: I met Jessie at an event and you couldn’t fathom a more humble, intelligent person (her family members very kindly gave me medicine for my illness, without which I would have been in a LOT of trouble – I was so congested I could only breath through my mouth!). You HAVE to read her book. It is such a strange, sad collection of stories. Lonely people dreaming of other places, encountering the dead, working dead-end jobs, animals dying and suffering. In a work less than 30,000 words, it’ll be clear to you that you’ve never read anything like this (it reminded me most closely of Anna Metcalfe’s stories). They’re more like philosophical meditations, or essays, or even prayers. The short story, too, can heal.

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Feast of the Innocents

Feast of the Innocents (Evelio Rosero)

This was a challenging book for me to read. I kept putting it down and not wanting to pick it up again. Some of that might have to do with the chaotic, rambling style, in which sentences are very long and we jump frequently from viewpoint to viewpoint. It wasn’t until after page 150 or so (so more than halfway through) that I really started to “get” it. So this might not be the best introduction to Evelio Rosero’s work (the unrelentingly bleak yet monumental The Armies still takes the cake, followed closely by the darkly satirical Good Offices). But if you’re interested in Colombian literature or Latin American history, then this is definitely a worthwhile read.

I found the themes of this book moving and compelling, especially the deeper I got into the book. The book opens with a doctor dressing up in an ape suit in preparation for the famous Carnaval de Blancos y Negros in Pasto, a scene that reminded me of the opening sentence of Rosero’s Good Offices (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” What a hell of an opening sentence, right? Themes of human vs. animals, civilization vs. barbarity seem to be common in Rosero). Anyway, with this scene we meet the doctor, who is a bit of an unlikeable character. His marriage has basically descended into mutual loathing, and he’s obsessed with writing a book that exposes Simón Bolívar as a tyrant and a coward, a book he’s gotten nowhere near close to completing. However, he is presented with the opportunity to build a carnival float that will depict Simón Bolívar’s atrocities in the Pasto region, both the massacres and the sex scandals. However, the building of this float catches the attention of local Marxist students, to whom Bolívar is an important revolutionary icon… As their leader puts it (in reference to a massacre directed by Bolívar), “If Bolívar shot them or used sabres or pikes on them, it was because they deserved it. Bolívar cannot be called into question.” (183)

It was fascinating to read this book shortly after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, another book concerned with representations of Colombian history (intriguingly, Feast is set the year before Solitude was published, in 1966). The doctor’s justification as to why he wants to tarnish Bolívar’s reputation in so public a fashion are eerily reminiscent of the insomnia plague that descends upon Macondo:

It’s the memory of the truth, which struggles to prevail sooner or later. By correcting the error of the past, speaking out against it, you correct the absence of memory, which is one of the main causes of our social and political present, founded on lies and murder… it’s our duty to dot the i’s if we don’t want to sin by omission. (98)

García Márquez also often writes about carnivals and festivals, and it would be interesting to contrast him with Rosero’s depiction, in which the festival is frequently emphasized as an event where people are disguised and hidden, the carnivalesque as a drunken and dizzying force of life (they’re also dizzying sections to read, at times overwhelmingly so!!).

If life was a vale of tears, as his grandparents had maintained, he did not want to live in it, and if life was a macabre circus enjoyed only by a few madmen–as they had also maintained–he intended to go mad the years remaining to him, who knew how many there would be. (208)

The parts of the book discussing the perception of Simón Bolívar as a cowardly tyrant were also extremely interesting to read, at times disturbing. However, there were a lot of names and battles listed in these sections, and I kind of wish I’d been reading this book with wikipedia on hand (I read most of it on a train) so that I could look them up. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers found themselves feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed during these sections. I wonder if the confusion was intentional, to emphasize to murkiness of history, or something. I also wish there’d been an author’s note at the end discussing the research he’d used (specifically, I’d love to know if the oral testimonies shared by certain characters in the book true or fictional). Because while reading them, I was definitely like, is this TRUE? I just looked at wikipedia, and apparently, YES: Karl Marx apparently DID wrote a highly critical biography of Bolívar, which I find astonishing (Marx’s book is a big plot point in this novel).

In a way, I’m almost proving the book’s main point, which is that the perception of Bolívar as anything other than a liberator and hero is NOT a mainstream view in Colombia. As another character puts it (a university professor who shares the doctor’s views), “Upon this dreadful error the building of our nations began: a lie is worth more than the truth; a gimmick, a stab in the back: the end justifies the crimes.” (111) Hell, my school was named after him. Anyway, I sure wish I knew more about the Latin American wars for Independence after reading this. And it was fascinating to be presented with a view of Bolívar completely different than the one I was raised with.

So after we get these long sections discussing these negative views of Bolívar in history, that’s when the book really started to pick up for me, specifically with the introduction of Rodolfo Puelles, my favorite character (is his shared name with Rodolfo Walsh a coincidence?), a young wannabe poet who wouldn’t be out of place in Bolaño’s universe. Puelles belongs to a group of young people who are shaken by the recent death of revolutionary priest Padre Camilo Torres, students who are now “considering abandoning their degrees and heading off into the mountains of Colombia, to the guerrilla war, which had not yet officially begun but was already a great hope.” (123) As Puelles puts it, “Was it so important to finish your degree, or better to take up arms, go into the mountains and educate the rural masses?” (186)

There was a terrible sense of dramatic irony–almost brutally so–reading about the poet and his student friends and their obsession with Cuba, in light of everything we know now about what resulted from so many years of civil war. The doctor sees them merely as “faddish revolutionaries,” (215) but with the benefit of present-day history we know better. Or as Puelles later realizes, “Revolutionary enthusiasm was a powerful force, the elation was immense, but the muffled messages issuing from the mountains gave rise to doubt; something bad could be going on, Puelles thought, something harmful about the way things were advancing, in how devotion and effort were being used or abused.” (189)

This section of Feast emphatically reinforced to me how key the intersection between politics and literature was to a specific generation of young Latin Americans, almost tragically so. The way Rosero uses the young poet character was deeply compelling to me: basically, without giving anything away, Rosero introduces someone who ends up being one of the most important characters more than halfway through the book, a very risky move.  What ends up happening to this poet evoked SO much for me in terms of Colombia’s history with violence and youth that I found it personally very moving, almost difficult to endure.

As if invoking otherworldly forces, Rodolfo Puelles took refuge in poetry and from the whole of his memory chose the words of William Blake, clung to them as if they were a plank floating on the ocean: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” What’s more, hadn’t he read in some great Russian novel that you can kill and rob and, nevertheless, be happy? Where had he read that? And he repeated to himself over and over that he was a poet, above all and in spite of it all, and that no matter what, he was light years away from those pigs, I’m a poet, that’s what I am, come what may. (202)

Another provocative aspect of the book is its depiction of women and sex. I’m sure some people would find it offensive. Personally, I found it liberating. The wife and daughter characters (Primavera and Florencia) were, to me, very clearly the strongest and most determined characters in the book, the ones who are most capable of enacting agency (I especially liked the way the daughter took revenge on the little prat that threw flour on her). IDK, maybe I’m completely misunderstanding it, and they’re actually, like, oppressed by their sexuality, or sociopaths in the making. But what impressed me was their bad-assness, especially after frequent depictions of women on the receiving end of violence and oppression (not just in this novel, but in The Armies–that brutal ending!!). It felt to me like Rosero was compensating for that, somewhat. It also can’t be a coincidence, surely, that the doctor’s specific branch of medicine is gynecology? A job where you’re “looking” at women in the most intimate of ways? In some ways the fact that the main character is a doctor is key to the novel’s plot: how does the doctor diagnose the sickness of Colombia, the violence that plagues it, and its treatment of history?

Overall, I’m glad to see Rosero’s work continue to get translated. I really want his early books to get translated (I’ve only read Señor que no conoce la luna, and it was a trip). It would be fascinating to discuss this novel alongside García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, or even Chronicle of a death foretold. This book has made me rethink certain things I’ve always taken for granted, which is a terrific thing for a novel to have accomplished.

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Rereading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

WARNING: This contains spoilers!

  1. Things have a life of their own… it’s simply a matter of waking up their souls. (2)
  2. I find the above cover for this edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude hysterical. When in the book exactly does this moment occur? At what point does one of the female characters have a blue macaw perched upon their shoulders? There’s a reference to macaws during the epic journey to found Macondo, specifically to their “harsh and musky taste.” I guess that cover as it is looks sufficiently “exotic” or whatever. But I suppose the cover from the childhood edition I was familiar with isn’t much better? At least with that one I can vaguely say what scene it’s reflecting! Bah, I like the one for my Spanish edition (which I can’t find online) the best.
  3. I first read this book in Spanish in senior year of high school, something we all looked forward to very much as it felt like a proper initiation–we were finally one of the “older kids”; we would join the club of having read the book we’d spent our entire lives hearing about.
  4. Our teacher had us write little descriptions under the name of each family member in the family tree. So José Arcadio Buendía became el patriarca, José Arcadio of the second generation became el gitano, Arcadio of the third generation became el dictador, and so forth. It was very helpful.
  5. As a project for Art Class, my sister made a diorama of the book, with cartoon drawings of the characters. I liked her one of Rebeca eating dirt the best. I think Rebeca is my favorite character…
  6. Along with spending an entire semester reading this book, senior year (or was it 11th grade? I’m starting to doubt myself… God, my memory) was also the time when we took a class about Colombian history. COLMUNDO. God, so many timelines we had to memorize, so many treaties. Colombian history is intense and fascinating and I wish I’d learned more about it in my youth in a way that didn’t primarily emphasize memorizing dates :/
  7. In terms of vivid writing techniques, García Márquez does a great job of using smells in this book, most memorably with Pilar Ternera’s smell of smoke under her armpits.
  8. There’s lots of little moments in this book that I love in general, like when José Arcadio is stumbling around, looking for Pilar Ternera’s sleeping figure, and he bumps against a man who turns in his sleep and says, “It was Wednesday.” (27).
  9. Or when Úrsula thinks her love-struck sons have worms, and she feeds them a paste till they poop out some rose-colored parasites.
  10. The word “shit” comes up frequently in this book–most memorably near the end, when Úrsula shouts out, “Shit!” and Amaranta looks up in alarm, thinking it’s a scorpion. “Where’s the bug?” Amaranta asks, and Úrsula points at her heart and says, “Here.” :(
  11. The frequency of the word “shit” reminds me of the final sentence of Nobody writes to the colonel. Or the way intestines and shit are emphasized throughout Crónica de una muerte anunciada. In both those books, the frequent references to shit functions as a way to condemn the community’s lack of accountability, of the basic shittiness and lack of justice in the world. I wonder if it’s doing the same thing here.
  12. Reading this book makes me feel hot and sleepy. Like I was in a stuffy room without a fan. But in a good way? García Márquez must have based this feeling on the afternoons of his childhood–I definitely feel like I’m living in a sleepy slow town while reading this.
  13. “The host dust that made everything old and clogged up, and the drowsiness caused by lunchtime meatballs in the unbearable heat of siesta time.” (352)
  14. Who has the saddest fate in this book? Meme, with her shaved head and silence in the Cracow hospital? Paralyzed Mauricio Babilonia? José Arcadio Segundo, traumatized by his survival of the massacre? Kiddie raper/aspiring Pope José Arcadio of the fifth generation, psychologically destroyed by Amaranta’s molestations? Rebeca in her “A Rose for Emily”-like self-imposed solitude?
  15. The characters seem most unique in their deaths, in contrast to their names and lives…
  16. I think reading it this time round, the fate of José Arcadio Buendía (el patriarca) hit me surprisingly hard. Passages like the one below reminded me of the accounts of kidnapping victims I’ve read, in which it’s the passage of time, the blurriness of the identical days, that becomes the most hellish thing to deal with:
  17. “What day is it today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” José Arcadio Buendía said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” Used to his manias, Aureliano paid no attention to him. On the next day, Wednesday, José Arcadio went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” … On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed… He spent six hours examining things, trying to find a difference… in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.
  18. Santa Sofía de la Piedad is definitely a character who manages to exist without existing (if that makes sense)–she doesn’t get a POV moment until the end, when she departs. At least the author lets her escape Macondo before its destruction, a small gesture of grace towards her sacrifices. This must have been one of the trickiest things about writing this book (among the MANY, many tricky things)–stating the fates of peripheral characters, so that they wouldn’t just disappear.
  19. Is Fernanda with her close-minded ways the book’s biggest villain? Mr. Brown the gringo who brings the banana plantation?
  20. Is the downfall of Macondo due to the treatment of Úrsula as an irrelevant plaything by the children? The death of Pilar Ternera, the oldest character in the book, whose last name sounds like the Spanish word for “tenderness”? Obviously the banana plantation massacre is a key turning point…
  21. “What did you expect?” he murmured. “Time passes.” “That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.” (341)
  22. I found the final hundred pages of the book deeply intriguing, as they’re the ones I never remember quite as well as the others. I’d forgotten that the characters Gabriel and Mercedes represent the author himself and his wife, for instance–they leave Macondo for Paris, and Gabriel is last seen in the imagination of Aureliano Babilonia, writing by night in a room that smelled of boiled cauliflower (those smells again!!).
  23. And I’d completely forgotten about how much time is spent discussing the bookshop owner from Catalonia, and the time spent there by Aureliano Babilonia and his friends. Is this the one form of redemption offered to Macondo? The fact that a few of its residents were able to escape via literature, via the mad energy of their Savage Detectives-like youthful impulses?
  24. Another big theme of the book that sunk in for me is the pointlessness of violence, and the damaging effects of war, seen most clearly through the Colonel, who basically becomes a walking corpse. His actual death feels so cruel (I’ve never understood why it follows the carnival scene). Such a withered husk of a man.
  25. The way this book depicts old age, illness, and decay is also commendable.
  26. Additionally, the way García Márquez writes sex scenes was very interesting to me, specifically how he depicts the passion without ever specifically saying what’s exactly going on in terms of, you know, what body part is where…
  27. I love how the chapter in which the ascencison of Remedios the Beauty occurs is also the chapter about the arrival of the cinema to Macondo. Which is more miraculous?
  28. I also love the unexpected parallels that I’d never noticed before in previous readings, the little mirroring moments of which there are surely many (how many are deliberate and how many emerged unconsciously during the writing?). Like José Arcadio Bunedía’s discovery of the skeleton in armor and the galleon beached inland, and then his son’s discovery during his gypsy travels of the preserved armour of a Crusader within the belly of a sea dragon. Two reminders of never-ending cycles of war and violence. This is the kind of book that makes you an active reader: you don’t just react to the text, you remember it while you read it.
  29. I want to give the insomnia plague passage to my students in order to provoke a discussion about the connection between words and their meanings. Isn’t it interesting how insomnia ties in to the end, in which everyone forgets the massacre, the wars, the Buendías themselves? Is the insomnia plague a subtle political metaphor for the erasure of memories and stories?
  30. I read an essay which García Márquez wrote early on in his career, about how the documentary impulse that characterized many of the early novels about Colombia’s la violencia period was fundamentally misguided, as they become so gory and obsessed with describing the massacres, the wounds, the desecrated bodies, that they cease to be novels at all. What would García Márquez have made of Part 4 in 2666, with its infamous catalog of corpses?
  31. Speaking of Bolaño, there’s an interesting essay to be written about García Márquez’s use of mirrors and history vs. Bolaño’s…
  32. I could go on to 100, but that would be way too cheesy, so I’ll just stop here :) I’ll save it for the next reread…

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Two Story Collections

Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)

Along with Anna Metcalfe’s Blind Water Pass (written by a fellow PhD-er, this is an excellent, extremely relevant collection about migration and borders, very Lydia Davis and Kafka-esque), Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is one of the strongest short story collections that I’ve read this year. Thematic links are young girls, sex, Australia, Russia, San Francisco, and not knowing what to do with your life. This is definitely the kind of book I would buy for my female friends.

Here’s a brief commentary on each story:

“Jewish History” – I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like “Mean Girls” written by a melancholy Emily Gould. Very powerful closing sentence. I liked the narrator’s perspective, a Russian girl in Australia who doesn’t quite speak English yet, and the oblique yet effective way the story conveyed this.

“Chagall’s Wife” – the first of many “mature” young girls that appear in this collection. Man, none of the girls in this book would have wanted to be friends with me in middle school; they’d have found me such a hopelessly boring square. The girl in this story runs into one of her teachers at a coffee shop, spends the afternoon with im in an art museum, before the story concludes with them going to the movies. Basically, us readers feel very, very nervous during the entire story about what’s going to happen next. I love the interrupted, in-the-moment, suspenseful ending (quite a few of these in the book).

“The Withdrawal Method” – the first of three stories in the book about Claire, a twenty-something finishing her PhD in film studies in San Francisco, playing in a band and “flailing around” (as one might say). In this story she has an abortion. I liked these three linked stories a lot; they add up to a pervier, more punk rock version of The Wonder Spot.

“Warm-Ups” – possibly my favorite in the collection. It’s also possibly the darkest. It’s about thirteen-year-old gymnasts who go to the U.S. for a performance (not going to say more than that). What a heartbreaking, gut-twisting ending. This story uses slow build-up of dread very well.

“Same Old Same As” – another great story, with a divisive lead character. Ramona is in therapy and starts telling everyone that her stepfather has sexually abused her, enjoying the attention that she gets from her classmates. It’s an ambiguous story right till the end and is definitely one that would challenge readers who need to “like” a main character. I found it very honest.

“The Pretty One” – the second story with Claire, about her relationship and break-up with a younger man. I like how she found solace working in her dissertation (lol). Kind of like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, with a lot more drinking (wow, that’s the second reference to Melissa Banks that I’ve made so far…). I found the descriptions of San Francisco hipsters listening to bluegrass music, juice cleanses and too many facial piercings painful to read. I found the ending a bit too sweeping, like it was trying to sum everything up, but isn’t that what the fall-out of relationships is sometimes like?

“Head to Toe” – maybe the strangest story for me. Very understated. It’s narrated in a distant style: “this happened, this happened, this happened,” with little interiority of the two main female characters. Two sixteen-year-old best friends grow tired (as in existentially so) with their partying lifestyle. They return for a week or so at the horse camp they used to attend as children. The story ends with them returning home and then going to a guy’s house where one of them has porn-style sex while listening to Kanye West. This was a story that made me go “what?” but I definitely kept turning the pages, with a sense of trainwreck fascination.

“Plus One” – my other favorite story in the book. Twenty-two-year-old Amelia can’t finish her collection of essays, so she decides to get pregnant with her gay friend instead. This story made me think of Lorrie Moore and Jenny Offhill. What a devastating ending. This is another story I found extremely honest.

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” – I won’t spoil it, but basically this story describes why Claire ends up having to leave San Francisco. I found it compulsively compelling. I’d love to know how the author did research for this one.

All in all I would highly recommend this book and await the author’s next work with great interest.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

I bought this book at The Strand in New York, where it had a different title than in the UK (The All Saints’ Day Lovers–what’s up with that?). At one point in the final story of the collection (which I’ll talk more about in just a bit), the main character watches the weather report on mute, and thinks about the upcoming news: “The one o’clock news was part of Oliveira’s routine, his day incomplete without the most recent scandal from the Assemblée Nationale or the images of the dead in Algiers, more or less sophisticated forms of violence that vindicated his desire to leave, to hide away from the world.”

I find the phrase “more of less sophisticated forms of violence” very interesting, and perhaps key not just to the collection overall, but to Vásquez’s other novels, which also approached violence as a main theme. Vásquez writes in the introduction to this book that he was inspired by Tobias Wolff, in that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other,” which perhaps explains many of the eerie repetitions. In these seven stories we see the same scenes or images reoccurring over and over again: hunting trips with large groups of men, rural settings in France and Belgium, love affairs gone wrong, exile (both emotional and physical) and yes, shocking moments of violence (usually at the end). Are the intimate, emotional, personal-level forms of violence we see in these stories unsophisticated forms of violence, in contrast to the “sophisticated” scenes that tend to broadcast on television, make national news? And yet it’s these unsophisticated forms of violence, the kind that take place between lovers, that tend to impact us all, regardless of class, geography, etc. It’s this idea of emotional violence as a unifying force, more than anything else, which links this book in my head to Vásquez’s other works, especially The Sound of Things Falling.

The majority of these stories begin sloooooowly and build up to killer endings (a patience-based form of pacing similar to many of Bolaño’s works). The ending of “The Solitude of the Magician,” for example, makes a simple pencil have an emotional impact that you just plain would not believe. “At the Café de la Republique” is another standout, in which a  husband and wife reunite six months after separating, and the husband decides he wants to get back together (an medically inexplicable lump in his jaw is a major factor in his decision).

My favorite story by far was the aforementioned final one, “Life on Grimsey Island,” the darkest and one of the longest. In this story, a man whose father has recently died meets a veterinarian, whom he agrees to drive back to her home in Paris. During their journey (which is, believe it or not, full of unexpected twists and revelations) she tells him about the titular island north of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets: “so no one is afraid, no one feels the horror of having a fear of the dark.” It runs the risk of being a heavy-handed metaphor (dark = death, light = love + connection, etc.), but in the end, the story earns it, devastatingly so.

At another point, the main character stands in front of a map: “He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery.” Oh boy, talk about a passage that one can relate to…

Overall, I’m impressed by Vásquez’s understated writing style, and his ability to show how violence and greed can split people’s lives open irregardless of the promise of love.

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Medellín Fiesta del Libro / Book Festival

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I got to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón. I fly back tomorrow via Madrid... at least I won't have a 12-hour layover this time (!). I still have 40% of

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I’ve had the opportunity to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón, specifically in Medellín.

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintin sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintín sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to be present at a talk with Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to give a talk alongside Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories, for the Medellín Fiesta del Libro y Cultural (Book & Culture Festival).

This was an amazing event and I highly recommend for anybody to attend should they ever be in Medellín in September. There were talks by Colombian authors Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among others), as well as Anne Mcclean (whose translations of Rosero I've enjoyed very much).

This was an amazing, extremely well-organized event. If you are ever in Medellín in September I highly recommend that you atttend. There were talks by authors like Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among many, many others), as well as Anne Mclean (whose translations of Rosero I’ve enjoyed very much).

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books... this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books… this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

There was also great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! All of the great ones and more! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I got a Borges bookmark for myself.

There were also tons of great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I also treated myself to a Borges bookmark.

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero's Los Ejércitos (

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero’s Los Ejércitos (“The Armies,” a book that truly deserves its own post on this blog someday soon).


I was also very moved by these displays, scenes of Colombian citizens confronting the legacy of the armed conflict. I believe these photographs were affiliated with Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum of exhibits dealing with the civil war.

The talk itself went very well IMHO... :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google 'em!

The talk itself went very well IMHO… :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google ’em!

And now it's back to England tomorrow. Why does time go by so fast? Why does it go by so slow?

And now it’s back to England tomorrow, sadly without this copy of La broma infinita… I fly via Madrid… but at least I won’t have a 12-hour layover there this time, a truly godforsaken experience that I do not recommend. I also still have 40% of My Struggle: Volume 1 to finish on my kindle, and have just purchased A Little Life as backup, just in case.

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In the Beginning Was the Sea

An enjoyably dark, deliciously Herzogian and bitingly humorous story about J. and Elena, a yuppie-ish Medellín couple who move to the Caribbean coast of Colombia in order to get away from it all. At first we think it’s just for tourism (even with Elena bringing her sewing machine), but we slowly learn that they are in fact planning to settle down, start a “finca” (the Spanish word for farm), begin a new life for themselves amongst the crab stew, the sand flies and aguardiente-swilling locals.

My favorite thing about this book was the dark, dark humor. Oh, how it made me snort, and believe me I am the kind of reader who barely cracks a smile. I love the Sebaldian parrot that shows up early on in one of the houses they stay at, prowling on its perch and “racing from one side to the other in what seemed like panic.” Smart parrot–this is the most appropriate reaction we get from pretty much anybody in the entire novel. I love the sense of failure hovering over this book, the gradual descent into desperation as the cattle die, the hired help sullenly skulk and the cook’s baby never stops wailing. Elena’s mad attempt to build a wire fence around the property was probably my favorite hysterical subplot. And then there’s the similes! The language! The noonday sun bursting into the room “like an explosion.” The two cot beds next to an enormous brand-new mattress, “like flimsy sailboats next to a transatlantic liner.” A fried egg on top of a mountain of rice, “glittering like a star.” The “mummified” hand of an old rich man, with “badly sunburnt thighs thickly smeared with milk of magnesia.”

What I also relished about this book is the slow, sneaky way it drops hints throughout the narrative–not just of the darkness surrounding the characters’ past, but of what is to come. We get a throwaway reference to Elena’s brother “in his prison cell,” a brief mention of their former Medellín partying days filled with cocaine and alcohol. And then on pg 34 (in my kindle edition) we get this bombshell: “The other bedroom, where they would later open up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed…” WHAT. Talk about getting your reader’s attention! This kind of moment happens again and again as the book progresses, but never reaches the point of being heavy-handed. Rather, it creates a deeply unsettling experience as a reader: you realize the narrator knows more than you, but is deliberately not telling. And you realize that time in this book is not unfolding in the typical way you expect it to when you read (as in one thing happens, then the next, then the next). Everything in this book is being narrated from a retrospective, inevitable perspective, which in the end casts an aura of melancholy around everything that ultimately happens.

There is a lot of social commentary going on in this book, a lot to unpack here in terms of Colombian social history: the relationship between locals and landlords, the city and the country, rich vs. poor, intellectuals vs. farmers. You could easily see the final moment of violence at the end as a sad parable for the country’s long bloody history–an inevitable consequence that comes from the refusal (inability?) to understand another so different from you, the complete and utter failure to communicate. As characters, J. and Elena are consistently dislikable yet compelling–we understand better than them why they act like they do, and despite all their flaws we can’t help but sympathize.

My one problem with this book was the ending–it had been built up so much, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed/underwhelmed in the way that it unfolded. I feel absolutely terrible writing that, especially having just read online that apparently this novel is based on something that actually happened to the author’s brother (I’m not going to provide a link because I don’t want to directly give away spoilers; if you’re deeply curious, you can ask Google yourself). Still, even with the knowledge that this is based on a factual event, as a reader of fiction I still don’t know if I actually needed to “see” it happen–for me, just seeing the aftermath would have been enough. I liked the feeling of being intrigued, of wondering and being curious throughout this novel, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what finally ended up happening–as though it couldn’t possibly live up to what I had imagined. It’s tricky–in a way, the mystery you imagine is always more satisfying than the final concrete answer. I’ve never seen the TV series Lost, but I’ve heard that this is something a lot of people found frustrating about it. But on the other hand, I can see other readers being annoyed about not finding out “exactly” what happened. Again, it’s tricky ground, and I seriously might change my mind about it in just a few weeks… but for now, it is what it is.

Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this book. I want to read more of this author and DEFINITELY more of him should be translated into English. ¡Viva la literatura colombiana!!!


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On Gabo


On Pablo Escobar’s influence on Colombian culture: Easy money … was injected into the national culture. The idea prospered: The law is the greatest obstacle to happiness, it is a waste of time learning how to read and write, you can live a better, more secure life as a criminal than as a law-abiding citizen — this was the social breakdown typical of all undeclared wars.

On the relationship between journalism and literatureThat supposedly bad influence that journalism has on literature isn’t so certain. First of all, because I don’t think anything destroys the writer, not even hunger. Secondly, because journalism helps you stay in touch with reality, which is essential for working in literature.

On writing and realityIt always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality… That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you… The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed. [There’s also lots of good quotes in this article about the writing process itself]

On the traditional conception of his so-called “magical realism“: The safe and pretty version of magical realism—Magical Realism Lite—has little to do with the more vigorous Garcíamarquian version in which skulls sprout hair and sunflowers grow out of sores… The true texture of Colombia’s beauty comes not by pretending its problems are wholly over, but in seeing how darkness is interwoven with the light. García Márquez knows this. There’s no denying that for all its hyperfabulism, his fiction is stained with the ink of Colombia’s most despairing headlines.

On reality, history & subjectivityPoetry, Auden said, makes nothing happen. It is not a revolution, not an election, not even a platform. García Márquez understood that the highest service literature can perform is to give people an image of their historical reality, especially the way that reality has shaped their souls. One Hundred Years of Solitude is political for the same reason neorealism is: it shows us not only the lives of ordinary people but also the political context that creates them and the historical context that creates that.

Me, reading in Nuevo Laredo and Campeche.

And hanging out with Julio Cortázar.


Top moments of my childhood:

  • The diorama of “100 Years of Solitude” that my sister made in Art Class–the figures she made of Rebecca (eating dirt) and Jose Arcadio (the patriarch, tied to the tree) were particularly impressive.
  • Watching the movie Milagro en Roma for Spanish class and being FREAKED OUT BEYOND BELIEF by that creepy toy monkey, let alone the girl’s non-decomposing body. Gah, what was the teacher THINKING?
  • The way we get to calculate what grade we’re in by what García Márquez novel/short story we read that year: sixth grade, short stories like “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and “Eyes of a Blue Dog.” Eighth grade, “Crónica de una muerte anunciada.” And of course, EVERYBODY looked forward to senior year, because that’s when we finally, finally, finally got to spend an entire semester focusing on “Cien años de soledad.” That’s how you really KNEW you were finally a Young Adult. Thank God for Ms. Aguirre and that family tree she drew us that I still have sketched in on the first page of my copy.

And finally from “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

“The world must be all fucked up… when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”

“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

“Things have a life of their own… it’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

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Filed under colombia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Informers

Wow could I eat the themes of this book up with a spoon. Testimony, truth-telling, the role of the novelist, making sense of horrific past events, overcoming violent traumas… Good God, am I going to have to include this book in my dissertation?! Probably. I mean it even deals with the Holocaust.

“The Informers” is written by the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose “The Sound of Things Falling” I also loved. This book I may have loved even more, I think, because I feel like it does something even more surprising and challenging, by writing about an unexplored and relatively unknown (at least by me) facet of Colombian history–that of its WWII relationship with the Axis/Allies powers and its blacklisting of German immigrants.

This is a hard book to summarize because part of the pleasure of reading it is having absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. The basic gist is that the narrator, Gabriel Santoro, publishes a book based on the testimony of a longterm family friend, a Jewish-German exile living in Bogotá. His father (a renown professor of rhetoric, who in classic Colombian tradition has the exact same name as his son) publishes a review trashing the book, which of course leads to much hurt and confusion of Gabriel’s part. Then Gabriel’s father ends up having a series of health problems, which leads to him re-opening the doors of communication, which then leads to… that’s probably as far as I can go. But needless to say much Atonement-like madness take place.

There are many things to admire about this book. The plot is as tight as a drum–it’s like a classic detective story in which the perpetrator of the crime is also the victim; you want to keep reading for the good ol’ fashioned reason that you are desperate to know what happens next. Eleanor Catton (author of The Luminaries, a book I read earlier this year) gave a talk here recently and one of the many illuminating and helpful things she said was that the purpose of novels is to entertain. Not in a cheap way (it’s sad that the word “entertain” can sound so negative), but in the sense that every book is a promise to a reader, driven by a central question that the entirety of the book is attempting to answer. And it’s the way in which that question is resolved that creates suspense, and hence (ta-dah!) makes the reader want to keep reading. IDK, I think it’s an interesting thing to think about. I mean for example, the other book that’s been on my bedside table for weeks are the collected stories of Lydia Davis, and while I’ve definitely learned a LOT from them, it’s not like I sat down and devoured her book in a day the way I did with this one. And yet at the same time I still totally respect and understand (sort of…?) what she’s doing, in terms of writing fiction that is so challenging and weird and innovative, as opposed to “entertaining.” Anyway more on Lydia Davis later, maybe.

The other thing I admired about this book was its use of precise details. The coffee-colored sofas, the parrot endlessly screaming the name “Roberto” even though no one had any idea why, the pronunciation of the word bellísimo, crappy Cartagena T-shirts with blurry photographs and phrases like Colombia es nuestra, very long surnames, radio plays of La vorágine. Vasquez is obviously very aware of the looming shadow that García Márquez casts over Colombian literary history (he even includes a reference to Leaf Storm) and the complicated role of “the Colombian author” trying to make sense and narrate Colombia’s messy, messy present, observing at one point “how impossible it was to understand Colombia, how illusory, how ingenuous was any intention of trying to do so by writing books that very few would read and did nothing but create problems for those who wrote them.” (269) I think the way that the book uses the violence of 1980’s-90’s Colombia is very ingenious–assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, drug cartels and guerrilla forces are always in the background, an uneasy backdrop to the discussion of Axis powers and WWII concentration camp lists that is the book’s central focus. At one point when a character is asked about a death of a lover, she says “There was a fight and guns came out and he got shot, nothing more. The most normal thing in the world.”

What most resonated with me about this novel (as I said earlier) were its themes. One of its central question seemed to be what right, if any, to we have to narrate stories that are not our own. Are there some stories that don’t deserve to be told? (Again I’m reminded of Elizabeth Costelloanother book I’m probably going to have to reassess due to the number of times I keep bringing it up.) At one point the father says “Keeping silent is not agreeable, it demands character,” (64) a sentiment that runs contrary to the traditional talk-show, confessional memoir notion that it is through TELLING that we are exorcized, liberated, set free from the past. Again and again this book raises questions about the morality of telling certain stories, of putting everything out on the table as opposed to letting some things be. As one friend puts it to Gabriel, “You’ve got every right, Gabriel, you’ve got every right in the world to tell whatever you like. But I felt strange, as if I’d walked into your room and seen you fucking someone. By accident, without meaning to. Reading the book I felt embarrassed, and I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of. You oblige people to know what they might not want to know. Why?” (262-263) Gabriel himself even observes, “Maybe transforming the private into the public was a perversion—accepted, it’s true, in these days of voyeurs and busybodies, of gossips, of indiscretion—and publishing a confession of any sort was, deep down, a behavior as sick as that of a man who exposes his thick cock to women in the street just for the pleasure of shocking them.” (262)

What ultimately really pushed the book up to a whole ‘nother level for me was the ending, in which we are blatantly left with a fictional recreation, a speculation, the narration of an event via a direct perspective of someone the narrator has no access to (here’s where the parallel with McEwan’s Atonement makes the most sense). Because maybe that’s all we can do in the end. Invent little stories because because sometimes looking at the raw reality of things, the heart of the matter, is just too painful. In that sense, the order of a fictional story (even though the notion of order it’s proposing is a lie) will always inevitably trump the chaos and messiness that is life.

Later in books we see the important things. But by the time we see them it’s already too late. That’s the trouble, Gabriel, forgive my frankness, but that’s the fucking trouble with books. (299)

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The Sound of Things Falling

I was really affected by this book, to the point that it was difficult for me to finish. I left it sitting on the windowsill by my bed for weeks and weeks. At times, it was painful for me to read. Why was this the case?

Well, I guess it just reminded me a lot of my childhood and Colombia in general, which for whatever reason I’ve been missing a lot lately. I look at old photos and I marvel at the green, the color, the flowers, the yellowness of the sunshine (is it just winter in England that’s been getting under my skin? The temperature was -3 degrees last night!!). When I tell people about growing up in Colombia, I tend to speak in a half-amused tone of voice and say things like When I read non-fiction now about what life was like there in the 80’s and 90’s, sometimes I wonder what were my parents THINKING, raising a family there! It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I know the answer. You raise a family there in the same way you would raise a family any other place. You keep your head down and your nose clean. We got up in the mornings and went to school, and when school was over we came home. “It must have been a very sheltered existence,” said the person who leant me this book, and what else could I do but agree, in the most neutral way possible. What would be the point (especially now) of criticizing it?

This book is, at its essence, a detective story, a mystery about a man name Ricardo Laverde. The narrator is Antonio Yammara, a lawyer who opens the novel by reading in the newspaper about the shooting of Pepe, Pablo Escobar’s infamous hippopotamuses, shot and killed by the army (already discussed and marveled over by me in this blog). The article leads him to a series of reminiscences about past encounters with Laverde, whom he used to play pool with in a sketchy Bogota bar in the mid-90’s. One day Laverde shows up with a cassette tape and asks Yammara for help in finding a place for him to listen to it. Shortly afterwards, Laverde is shot dead on the street by a motorcycle-riding assassin. The driving force of the story then becomes Antonio’s attempts to figure out the story behind Laverde: who he was, what was on the tape, why he was killed. Some of these questions are answered, others aren’t.

There are a lot of things to commend about this book. I think my favorite parts of this book were descriptions of Colombian scenery and well-chosen details, of city versus country life, the distinctiveness of bogotanos. Guavas on the ground half-eaten by ants, soldiers with weapons hanging around their necks “like sleeping animals”, guanabana trees, sandals made from old tires, freshly squeezed orange juice, cicadas and crickets. God, I just wanted to keep a list of it all! I felt at times like I was watching a film or flipping through a book of photos. I also really appreciated the moment in which an American Peace Corps volunteer receives a copy of Cien años de soledad as a gift, and later complains that it’s too hard to read; “everybody has the same name.” (179) It was also fascinating for me to read passages like the one I’ll quote below, summaries of things that were going on in my childhood that I didn’t have the words or knowledge to comprehend at the time: (Alma Guillermoprieto articles are also great at evoking this same feeling in me):

Then came the rest, the other attacks, the other bombs. The DAS one with its hundred dead. That one at the shopping mall with fifteen. Then the other shopping mall with fifteen. A special time, no? Not knowing when it might be your turn. Worrying when someone who was supposed to arrive wasn’t there. Always knowing where the closest pay phone is to let someone know you’re OK. If there were no pay phones, knowing that anybody would lend you their phone, all you had to do was knock on a door. Living like that, always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed, always having to reassure our loved ones so they don’t think we are among the dead. Our lives were conducted inside houses, remember. We avoided the public places. Friends’ houses, friends of friends, houses of distant acquaintances  any house was better than a public place. (263)

Animals are a big motif in this book. So are planes, and accidents. The title refers to the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Cali mountains, killing everybody onboard, the majority of whom were traveling home to see their families for the holidays. One of them was the daughter of my school’s director–I remember making and signing condolence cards for him in my 4th-grade classroom (one of the boys in my class drew a picture of a plane on fire, which the teacher tactfully commented that it might not be the best thing to include).

Vásquez has quite the task before him and he succeeds quite admirably. Any Colombian novelist has two heavy legacies to contend: the long history of violence, kidnappings, cartels, drugs, bombs and shootings, and the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez. The wikipedia article on Juan Gabriel Vásquez includes an interesting comment by Vásquez on dealing with the latter legacy, in which he states that what makes Gabo’s novel interesting is “the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs’ tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth.” I TOTALLY agree with this. (This interview with him also contains some fascinating passages.)

I’d recommend this book to basically anybody, especially those interested in seeing a fictional representation of a country attempting to cope with decades of violence. It’s like a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse; instead, the violent “collapse of society” in question isn’t a singular event, but is rather an ongoing legacy. What’s worse, it’s not even a legacy of violence that’s related to ideology (as in the Holocaust, Vietnam War or even 9/11). What is it related to? Arguably, nothing. Or money. Drug running, cartels, landing strips in the jungle, fields of marijuana and coca leaves (the book proposes that campesinos learned the technique and acquired the technology to process coca leaves into cocaine from U.S. Peace Corps volunteers–interesting, but I wonder if it’s true).

Reading this book felt a lot to me like grieving. Page after page I was just left with the most incredible sadness; a deep sense of melancholy. The book ends with a question: Should I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home, who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out to look for us? (297) This is maybe the only possible way to end a book: leaving us in suspense, unresolved, dangling. What else can you do, right–how do you answer unanswerable questions?

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Filed under books, colombia, fiction

“All of my being is now in pining”: More Tolstoy

 I STILL haven’t finished “War and Peace”!! I have about 155 pages left to read and a long 4-hour layover in Bogota tomorrow, so hopefully I can triumphantly mark it as “read” on Goodreads by the end of the day.

War and Peace is a REALLY good (dare I say great?) book, so I don’t know why the last 300 pages have been such a slog for me. Maybe it’s a syndrome of “too much of a good thing”, as it’s the only book I’ve been reading for the past month (no, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan don’t count). As a way to “reward” myself in between chapters, I’ve been picking up Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a relic from my sister’s freshman year at Wesleyan (the title even refers to War & Peace! How perfect is that?). I remember e-mailing passages from this book about the brutality of drunk Russian men and the woe-is-me folk songs that their abused wives would sing to an ex-friend of mine who was really into Russian culture. Now after reading it in more depth, I’m pleased to say that it really is a most enjoyable, highly recommendable book. The map in the front page was also extraordinarily helpful, as it helped me make more sense of Tolstoy’s historically-based passages (“The French are heading back to Mozhaisk via Smolensk? OMG!”).

I still have a hundred-ish pages to go, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous by stating that one of the major themes (if not THE major theme) of War and Peace is the Search For Truth. This Search is embodied by the main characters, the dashing Prince Andrei Volkonsky (apparently based on Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) and the dour, chubby Pierre (whose life is similar to Tolstoy’s to the point of eeriness). Pierre, in all his clumsiness and WTF-are-you-thinking moments (kind of like a female, Russian, 19th-century Sophie from The Wonder Spot), was definitely the one I related to the most. Pierre is very much a a character who is constantly on a quest throughout the book, in search of something to give his life meaning and purpose:

Whatever he started thinking about, he came back to the same questions, which he could not resolve and could not stop asking himself. It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it. (347)

What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?… And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: ‘You will die—and everything will end. You will die and learn everything—or stop asking.’ But to die was also frightening. (348)

(Here’s another great passage involving Pierre that my sister e-mailed me waaaay back in senior year of college, when she first read it.)

Now I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it seems that one solution to this problem of meaning that Tolstoy proposes is Love and Compassion, which would definitely get the Pema Chodron stamp of approval. There’s a very moving scene in which one of the main characters (not Pierre!) is on his deathbed, and he forgives his very worst enemy, a person who has committed a horrible betrayal against him, and becomes capable of feeling love and compassion for him. After this realization of the importance Love as “life”, (984) the character experiences “an awakening from life” (985)and begins to drift into death. It’s almost as if by approaching this truth–of loving completely and totally, without reservations–the character can no longer be expected to remain in this world, and instead has to pass on to the next one. In this way Love is presented as the key to meaning, as the way of making sense of one’s life, but it’s as though it’s a meaning you cannot adopt without completely renouncing all earthly things, including the world itself.

(Renunciation is also an interesting theme in Tolstoy, if you consider “Tolstoyism” and his radical anarchist Christian socialism that he adopted later in life and yes, his Into the Wild fanboydom. But that’s a theme for another day.)

It’s interesting to me that Tolstoy uses the deathbed as the ideal moment (indeed, the only moment) in which Truth and Meaning can be revealed to the protagonist.  (Not just in War & Peace, but in Ivan Ilych, the only other work of his that I’ve read, way back in 10th-grade Spanish class.) These kind of death scenes are a far cry from the more “modern” kinds of death that take place in Onetti, or the inexplicable, horrifying ones caused by modern warfare in World War I, II or even the Civil War. It’s especially interesting if you keep in mind that according to Natasha’s Dance, apparently Tolstoy himself was both terrified and fascinated by death, in the best Woody Allen sense:

Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness,’ he wrote in ‘One Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’ Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe. But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter…, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but did not want to admit it.” (345)

 Contrasting Chekhov’s attitude towards death with Tolstoy is also an interesting exercise, as apparently Chekhov had a much more relaxed, down-to-earth attitude. With the moment of his tuberculosis-induced deathbed rapidly encroaching, Chekhov dealt with it by checking into a hotel with his wife and drinking a glass of champagne before expiring. Talk about “a good death,” the proper way to approach your momento moris! We should all be so lucky (the soldiers getting blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely not afforded such a luxury). According to Natasha’s Dance, Chekhov’s understanding of death was closer to the peasant’s understanding: “Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way—for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process.” (348) Tolstoy himself  “long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death.” (353) This reminds me of the people I met and worked with during my oh so brief foray into microfinance, who would definitely be considered peasants on the social-economic scale of things in 19th-century Russia. I’m reminded in the sense that they were accepting of their fates and always spoke of a higher power that guided them (I always wanted to tell them to give themselves more credit!). Death is a firmly established, indisputable ritual, and that’s why there’s no fear or uncertainty: they know how to die. Death is a moment when you need to get your affairs in order, so you don’t leave things in a big mess for your family to deal with after you go. It’s a very simple, practical attitude, as though you’re just walking through an open door to go on a trip somewhere.

Chekhov's calm, appropriately doctorly, all-accepting countenance inspires reassurance

I have to go to bed soon (7AM flight…woooo!) so I’ll keep this brief, but let me just say that if I had to write a college paper about Tolstoy (Ha Ha Ha!) or War and Peace, I’d probably want to write about his attitude towards the peasants. There’s several interesting scenes in War & Peace that could be used for this purpose. The best one is when Pierre meets a peasant who seems to be the embodiment of the simple living and acceptance of meaning that he’s been desperately searching for throughout these 900+ pages:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (lost page number, sorry!)

Karataev appears to Pierre as the embodiment of simplicity and truth because he seems to be very certain of his place in his life, of his membership to a particular community. So in addition to LOVE being one of the key solutions to the Search for Truth, Tolstoy also seems to be saying that COMMUNITY is equally important. As Natasha’s Dance puts it:

“Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry… All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives.” (341)

(I would just substitute the word “truth” for “God” here… aren’t they basically the same thing? IDK)

 I guess I’d like to end this entry with a question about the Eternal, Ever-Present Search for Meaning (LOL) inspired by Chekhov:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four. (Chekhov)

Are we getting closer to that moment, in which we’ll be able to find the Truth by “perceiving clearly,” as clearly as we perceive 2+2 = 4? Is living the simple life, toiling in the soil like a farmer key to this (Tolstoy seemed to think so, with his live-like-a-peasant-and-renounce-everything-Into-the-Wild-style at the end of his life) Or are we still stuck in the guessing and searching stage? Take a wild guess…

(The title for this entry comes from the PJ Harvey song “The Devil,” apparently based on the Tolstoy novella by the same name, which I haven’t read but will have to as Natasha’s Dance refers to it constantly. Polly seems to be quite the Tolstoy fan; the lyrics to “Before Departure” also appear to be based on a kind of Ivan Ilych deathbed realization.)

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Filed under books, colombia, death, poverty, truth