Category Archives: Rio Plata

Die, My Love

Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)

It’s Week 4 of the teaching semester and Week 6 of my Magic Mountain book club, and I am kind of/sort of/maybe starting to feel the tiredness kick in? It probably mainly has to do with me going to London this weekend for a wedding, which was VERY fun – the bride and groom’s first dance was to an Aphex Twin song! Very cool, and nice to catch up with people. However, being in my thirties has made spending the night in hostels increasingly less appealing to me – I’m talking to YOU, Italian ladies, who somehow thought it was appropriate to talk to each other at 4 in the morning, thus inspiring everyone else in the room to hiss and screech at them!

Along with my weekly intake of Thomas Mann (Knasgaard, I have put aside for now – I’m saving him for a long plane journey), it’s been fun to read some shorter books. This article (which is seriously probably the most fascinating pieces of literary criticism I have ever read!) inspired me to (re?)-read Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” series – they’re SO GOOD! I can’t believe I’ve never read them before! Or have I?! I distinctly REMEMBER seeing his books lying around the house in Colombia, but they belonged to my older brother, and he only had the first and fifth one, so maybe I never got around to reading them because I didn’t see the point of starting a series and not finishing it…? I definitely read SOME of the first one, at the very least. Anyway, I have REALLY been enjoying them – a terrific discovery.

And then there’s Die My Love by Ariana Harwicz, which is definitely in the territory of ADULT FICTION. And for very specific adults too – I would definitely NOT give this to any expectant or new mothers!!

This was a fascinating book to read after having finish Jessie Greengrass’ Sight – they make for interesting counter-balances. While the style in Sight is very essayistic, Die My Love is more like a hot, sweaty monologue. This was probably my favorite thing about the book – it reminded me of Mary Ruefle, in the way that sentences jumped from one topic to another so rapidly. The paragraphs are long, but the chapters are never more than three pages. And at barely over a hundred pages total, this is one fast read. It’s almost like a book of poetry, or a collection of monologues, or stream-of-consciousness angry rants. But it’s not boring or annoying at all, mainly due to the crazed voice, which I found absolutely HILARIOUS (in a very dark way).

The story follows a foreign woman (Argentinean? We’re never told), living in rural France (also never specified – I’d have NEVER guessed it was France without the blurb on the back). She’s newly married with her long-time partner, with a newborn son. And she finds herself wondering: “How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of these two individuals? What was I going to do? … I dropped the knife and went to hang out the washing like nothing had happened.” (1)

And so we see that she is slowly losing her grip. Or maybe she’s having a reasonable response to the disarming situation she’s in, that of being in a foreign land with a newborn child. She’s constantly comparing herself with other mothers, judging herself, and having strange fantasies like walking through the patio door glass: “I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish. Here we are, all three of us together for a family portrait.” (3) The frenzied, raw energy reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Darkly provocative stuff, but I honestly found the darkness of it (and sheer outrageousness at times) very funny!

Themes throughout include nature, human vs. animal, desire, what does it mean to have different selves (wife, mother, daughter). I underlined SO many sentences in this. And there were some sequences (like when they hit a stag with the car, and the dog licks the remains off the bonnet, and they christen the unnamed dog Bloody) read almost as slapstick; they seemingly come out of left field.

Highly recommend this. Here are some quotes I underlined (so hard to choose! These are just from the first thirty pages!):

We don’t hold hands either, we’re always pushing the buggy or carrying the baby instead.” (5)

Why won’t he stop crying? What does he want? You’re his mother, you should know. But I don’t know, I say, I haven’t the faintest idea...” (6)

You all have your dark side. But I’m thinking about pacing up and down with the baby in my arms, hour after hour of tedious choreography, from the exhaustion to screaming, screaming to exhaustion. And I think about how a child is a wild animal, about another person carrying your heart forever.” (6)

How does a wild boar ejaculate?“(8)

I organise his action figures in order of their arrival in our lives.” (9)

Why do we women ask our husbands what they ate? What the hell are we hoping to find out by asking what they ate? If they’ve slept with someone else? If they’re unhappy with us? If they’re planning to leave us one day when they say they’re going out for an ice cream?” (10)

If I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will.” (11)

Personally, I think if your husband or father beats you up it’s your call to tough it out.” (12)

If I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.” (13)

I’m one person, my body is two.” (15)

I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance.” (15)

“I’ve built up so much rage that I could drink until I have a heart attack. That’s what I tell myself bu tit’s not true. I couldn’t even down half a bottle. My days are all like this. Endlessly stagnant. A slow downfall.” (16)

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things. Spiders appear in the sink as I’m having my morning coffee, and they drown as soon as I turn on the tap. The stronger ones manage to resist for a while, folding into themselves like tight little flowers. They’re the ones that provoke me to run the hot water to destroy them. The flies’ turn comes when I’m spreading the quince jelly. They’ve been following us around since prehistoric times and it’s about time they died out.” (29)

Some people need to be able to see the ocean, but I need to be able to see a firearm.” (33)

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Filed under books, consciousness, fiction, Rio Plata, translation, women writers

Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.

Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review


This latest little recently translated gem by Cesar Aira is only 89 pages long but packs in more fanciful ideas and crazy images than you would find in most 200+ page novels. This book took me about an hour to read (maybe a little less) and by the end I felt like I’d just woken up from a really trippy, weird food inspired dream.

The basic plot of the book concerns the titular character, Varamo, a 1920’s government employee in Panama. In the opening scenes of the novel, he is handed his paycheck, which unfortunately turns out to be counterfeit money. In the last pages of the book, he sits down and writes “the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy,” despite having never previously written or read a single line of poetry or any form of literature.

The way that Varamo gets from Point A (counterfeit money) to Point B (literary infamy) is the the book’s main subject. Aira has a lot of fun with this idea of sequences–in a way it’s the perfect subject for him, because a lot of his fiction plays with how one thing can lead to the next. Aira is famous for his writing style, in which nothing is discarded but instead he just keeps the pen moving and goes on to the next page. It’s like all his books are one giant freewrite. This occasionally gives his books a slightly improvisatory feel–in the middle of reading a page you sometimes you feel like you’re “reading” the act of him coming up with his ideas.

The best example of this is the scene with Varamo in a house that is vaguely cluttered, which he initially ignores before realizing that it’s because of all the golf clubs that are lying around. This leads to a long sequence that explains how the sisters that live in the house make their living by smuggling in golf clubs for all the French, British and American people working on the canal (smuggling, counterfeit and illegal activities is a reoccurring motif through the book). It was mentioned earlier that one of the sisters had a prosthetic leg, so she is able to smuggle the golf clubs off the ship one at a time by pretending that they were a strange kind of new walking stick that the customs officials don’t recognize. The golf clubs also explain why everyone in the town thinks that the sisters work in another kind of highly illicit business: “smuggling in putters” sounds uncomfortably like “smuggling in putas.” Nevermind if this isn’t wholly believable (so nobody would notice the same woman walking up and down a gangplank thousands of times with a peculiarly shaped walking stick?)–what counts is the buildup with the unexpected payoff. It’s a dream-like logic, in which everything in isolation is totally weird and doesn’t make any sense (prosthetic leg + golf clubs + rumored whore house), but when you put it all together, it somehow all fits.

Another great example of this “one thing leads to another” method is the sequence in which we learn about Varamo’s side hobby: embalming dead mutant animals. First of all, the idea of embalming as a hobby is just plain hilarious. I also liked how Aira uses the description of embalming as way to mention all the pollution and toxic metals that are getting thrown into the water by the foreign companies digging the canal (it’s a great way to make an important point without hitting us over the head with a long political rant). I loved his description of how he tries to embalm a fish to look  like it’s playing a miniature piano, before he realizes (what a mistake!) that fish have no arms, so then he’s stuck with trying to make it look like it’s playing a wind instrument instead.

This little pet interest of Varamo’s reminded me of the narrator of The Literary Conference and his mad scientist hobby of cloning famous Latin American authors. In these two works Aira obviously is interested in incorporating the scientific progress alongside long philosophical reflections on the nature of literature (kind of a thinking man’s science fiction). The very scientific, precise way that Varamo works on his embalming (step one leading to step two to step three) is paralleled with the search for literary inspiration. Anyway, Aira’s writing in this section was a big inspiration for me; I would love to be able to do what he does in sequences like this one.

The other aspect I enjoyed most about this book was the way that things that appear in earlier pages reappear later on in the book in unexpected and delightful (or sometimes just plain weird) ways. A candy that Varamo throws away in a bush in the main square, for example, reappears on the next to last page as the inspiration for Varamo’s last epiphany before he heads home to start work on his masterpiece. Birds swoop around the bush, delicately pecking at the candy and eating it one piece at a time, in a scene that strikes Varamo as unexpectedly and poetically beautiful, what he calls a “writerly experience”:

“For him, everything was “writerly” now. Poision or elixir, narcotic or aphrodisiac, whatever it was, this flower [the melted candy stuck to the bush], relic of a day in the life of an accidental writer, an inadvertent counterfeiter leaving his traces in code, the birds were coming to try it, performing a dance for no one and flying up toward the moon.” (88)

There were a lot of ideas I loved in this book, and I don’t have enough time to cite or fully describe them all. I do need to namecheck regularity racing, a concept that is just plain delightful. Regularity racing is a form of auto racing that Varamo witnesses, in which the winner is the person who drives the most punctually at the most average speed on the race course and reaches the top-secret checkpoints at pre-determined times. “In fact,” Aira writes, “competing in a regularity rally was so nerve-wracking that it could turn a normal and previously law-abiding citizen into an anarchist.”

I could go on and on about things I liked about this book; Aira is always like a rich little treasure trove for me. I don’t know if I could recommend him to everyone; there are some parts of his books that are a little philosophical, Big Idea heavy that read like very intense digressions. A good example of this in Varamo is the section about Varamo’s mother:

“But how could he have a civilized conversation with that barbarous, instinctive, inhuman being: The Mother? How had other men managed in the past? A mother was a creature made up of superimposed layers of life: before and after giving birth, but also the befores and afters of all the other life-changing events, still present within her. Anything he said would have to be multiplied by all those layers of existential representation.”

Like, you read these asides in the middle of a long paragraph, and then you’re like, “I could stop and give that idea intense thought and reflection… but then I might go insane, so I think I’ll just keep reading.” Not a bad strategy.

The biggest punchline book comes at the very end. If you haven’t read this book yet and you plan to, consider this an official SPOILER ALERT: it turns out that Varamo’s epic, critically acclaimed poem is just a word for word transcription of all the papers the Varamo collected in his pockets over the course of the day.

The first thing that this made me think of, of course, was Borges’ Pierre Menard, in which a word-for-word transcription is also highly praised and critically acclaimed as this transcendental work of art (“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer”). We never get to see Varamo’s poem, but Aira to me seems to be making fun of or commenting on the idea of how you represent realism in fiction. The reason I think this is because in an earlier section, right before Varamo runs home to write, he’s in a cafe talking to some book publishers who make money publishing counterfeit books by revered literary heroes like Darío (there you go again with the illegality motif!):

“In fact, the publishers admitted that over the last few years they had simply been turning out the same kind of product; they needed to provide a new generation of readers with something really new to read. Perhaps, said one, “the time had come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.” (78)

This section made me think about a topic that I never got to write about for my undergraduate senior year thesis (so much for too much coffee and poor time management, LOL–whatever, maybe I’ll get to do it in graduate school!). There was supposedly going to be a big section in my thesis about literary realism. I was gonna read the works by this homeboy called Lukács, and talk about how in his POV, the modernist, subjective ways of depicting reality (a la Kafka, Joyce, etc) were decidedly inferior to the traditional ways of realism (a la Balzac). The main reason that Lukács thought that realism in modernist literature kind of sucked (based on my memory and wikipedia, two not super good resources) was that it wasn’t effective at confronting objective reality, specifically the capitalist totality that underlies all of our puny existences (important to note homeboy Lukács was obviously a Marxist).

The reason why I think this is interesting in connection to Varamo, is that Aira seems to be parodying this idea of Varamo having created great art using just these very raw materials from this capitalist world he moves through: receipts, gambling notes, etc. Like, there is NOTHING subjective about this kind of art; it is PURE objective reality. But would this kind of poem really be this transcendental, avant-garde, revolutionary work of art, or is it just this hapless dude dutifully typing up his notes as he was instructed to do by the book publishers he just met?

The other thing that I think is interesting is that I do kind of agre with Lukács. Personally, I like books that try to incorporate this greater sense of reality, a tiny slice of the bigger picture that the characters move in. Latin American authors do a good job of this by mentioning political or economic situations: Varamo with the Panama Canal, Bolaño with all his references the Central American revolutions, torture in Chile or violence at the Mexican border, not to mention ORWELL (the undisputed King of the lot). To me, a work of fiction is all the more powerful and better if it tries to make some kind of commentary or point something out about the bigger world we all move in. It’s fine that there are books that are just for entertainment value only, books that just try to tell a good story, but as Rodolfo Walsh once wrote, “These are different times, and this is a time for a bigger undertaking.” Does this mean that I don’t like my modernist parche, my Kafka and Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner? No…. there’s a time and place for subjectivity… and I DON’T agree that subjective modernist works can’t make a big point about our messed up capitalist world the way more traditionally realist works can…. but that’s a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book, as well as the  ““Realism in the Balance” (1938)—Lukács’ defence of literary realism” section of the Lukács wikipedia article. Two interesting reads for a sleepy Sunday morning.

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Filed under Aira, books, review, Rio Plata

They’re Here

37 boxes of books arrived today from Colombia.

And the bookshelves, of course.

I’m reading Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference. It’s hilarious and I love it. The first chapter involves the solving of an ancient pirate riddle and finding secret treasure. The next few chapters describe the narrator’s dream of World Domination, in the best Mad Scientist sense, and his plan to do so (which involves cloning the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes). It is just glorious, glorious stuff. I wish I could be reading it in Spanish, but I can’t figure out how to order them via Interlibrary Loan (the regular library system hardly ever has the books I want). I need to fiddle with that tomorrow, since the quality of my Spanish is sinking to despicable levels, and there’s only so much that talking to the parents at the elementary school where I’m working now can do for me.

I read this interesting interview with Aira a while back, and the main part that has stuck with me was his description of his writing style: “”writing by picking up with the last line written the day before, planting something implausible in the work, and then continuing to write until he has made the implausible believable.” It sounds so fun and liberating, which makes sense, since those are the qualities I enjoy the most in his work. His books just make me LAUGH out loud, and I’m a hard person to make laugh!  I can’t quite explain what it is about his work I find so hystiercal. For example, the most recent part that made me LOL hard and long was when the narrator talks about the effects of his divorce: “I began to develop rather grotesque symptons; the worst was a contraction of my left leg, which began to behave as if it were eight inches shoter than my right; as faras I know, my two legs are exactly the same length, but for months I was going around with quite a conspicuous limp. This, on top of everything else, led me to take drugs (the only time in my life I’ve ever done so. I became addicted to proxidine and so severely abused it that I would have died of an overdose if I had not finally found a way out.” (51)

Proxidine! LOL! I just love the fact that the narrator is a self-described Mad Scientist hell-bent on world domination. That the way in which he steals a cell from Carlos Fuentes’ body is by sending a genetically engineered wasp he’s designed solely for the purpose of plucking it from Fuentes’ body. The wasp inspires several interesting and surprisingly moving passages: “I needed somebody to get me a cell belonging to Carlos Fuentes, and for that reason, and no other, I created a being within which converged millions of years and many more millions of fine points of selection, adaptation, and evolution… to carry out a unique service and thereby complete its purpose; a throw-away creature, as if the miracle that is man had been created one afternoon just so he could walk over to the door to look outside and see if it were raining, and once this task had been accomplished, he would be annihilated.” (39-40) I love Aira’s combination of Phillip K Dick-ish insanity with Borgeisan philosophical musings… that is really the best description I can think of for him.

Anyway, I’m about halfway through and the narrator is only just about to arrive at the titular literary conference, so we’ll see what insane shinanignas happen next.

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Filed under Aira, books, Rio Plata


The opening lines of this book are as follows: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”

So what is this crime? No questions in Bolaño’s books ever come with easy answers, but what first comes to mind is the most obvious scenario, the central scene around which the rest of the story rotates: Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s narrator and self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry”, is reading a book of poems in her lap while sitting on the toilet of the fourth floor of a Mexico City University, when the army and the riot police invade campus and start seizing students and professors. Auxilio (whose name translates into the Spanish phrase for “help me!”), an illegal immigrant in Mexico without a real job, spends twelve days hiding out in the woman’s bathroom, eating toilet paper, reading poems, watching the moon move across the tiles and remembering scenes from her bohemian past, as well as dream-like hallucinatory visions of the future.

Bolaño’s narrative voice is very strong throughout this novel… it feels a lot more like the rolling and rollicking Bolaño of The Savage Detectives and 2666, as opposed to, say, By Night in Chile or Nazi Literature of the Americas. The latter two are also good books, but read more like Bolaño learning how to write in the style of what we would now consider “Bolaño-esque” , via the lens of Borges and Cortazar. In Amulet, it really feels like he’s hitting his stride, as though he’s like “I know what my themes are, I know what my style is, and I am gonna show it off and make it shine in yer faces, bee-yatches!” It’s quite glorious, really. I would definitely consider Amulet as the first in a trilogy, followed by The Savage Detectives (which has a chapter that basically tells the same story as Amulet) and concluding with 2666, which is eerily referenced here in a section where the main characters are walking down Avenida Guerrero (every city in Mexico has a street with this name): “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968 or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” (86) Who knows what this passage means, in terms of Bolaño’s future works, and the apparently very personal significance of the numbers 2666? The reference to the “eyelid of a corpse” makes me think of all those bodies, listed one after another, in that Juarez-like section of 2666

I’ve been really fascinated by the poet/artist archetype figure lately. Maybe it comes from having rewatched I’m Not There again recently; still a good movie upon third viewing. This time around I was especially into the Arthur Rimbaud character, who serves as a narrator of sorts throughout the film.

The monologue from this clip is based on passages from this Bob Dylan poem, which has the wonderful title of “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday.”

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking recently about The Poet and Artists As An Archetypal Figure, and lately Rimbaud has been the subject of that interest. When I was in high school I used to jokingly say that while I had crushes on Franz Kafka and Holden Caufield, I would never want to date them, because they would probably make horrible, horrible boyfriends. I don’t know much about Rimbaud, but I have a feeling he would probably fall in the same “do-not-date” category, even without the whole gay thing. Anyway… it’s interesting to me, thinking about Artists and Poets, since my whole New Year’s Resolution this year was to Make More Art. I’ve sort of gotten that off the ground with my weekly Wednesday writing class, which definitely has and will continue to feel like a really big and important step to me. And, of course, Bolaño is always one of *the* authors to read, when thinking about Art and Poetry and Life and Violence and how it all fits together.  For instance: Auxilio spends the entirety of the Tlatelolc massacre hiding in the bathroom, reading poetry: was this cowardly of her? Or was it (considering the circumstances) the only thing she COULD do, the only thing that makes sense? Why not spend a massacre, one that will go down in history as one of the most horrifying events to have happened in Mexico, reading poetry? When I was in Nuevo Laredo, I read Henry James and John Steinbeck, and ate spaghetti with meatballs and vegetarian sopes. My sister spends her job reading all day about crime rates and gang activity in Colombia and the Mexican border, and informed me recently that if she knew then what she knows now about what’s currently going on in Nuevo Laredo, she would have been like “OMG ARE YOU CRAZY.” But you know, I was there for three whole months… I’m not saying I should have gone out to actively fight poverty or crime whatever instead of reading The Wings of the Dove, but that’s what’s interesting to me about reading and writing and literature: it can just seem and feel so DISCONNECTED sometimes what’s going on in the world! People getting killed, raped, murdered, the oil spill, etc. But maybe literature is the only effective filter there is that will help us absorb these horrible experiences. Maybe that’s the point Bolaño was trying to get at with that horrifying section in 2666, mechanically naming dead body after dead body, until I would just put the book down in my lap and stare numbly out the Max train window, the Hillsboro scenery rushing by.

That’s why it’s interesting how in Amulet, the writing style is less like a newspaper reporter, and more like a helicopter or a camera lens, endlessly circling and circling around its central subject (the massacre) without directly naming it (the word “Tlatelolc” appears nowhere within these pages). It’s like what Auxilio says about Arturo Belano (the stand-in Bolaño character who also appears in Detectives) after he returns from his arrest and imprisonment in Chile under Pinochet: “What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people had expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.” (77) I feel like this sentence describes EXACTLY what Bolaño does stylistically in Amulet: he denies us our gratification for “news from the Horror Zone,” and instead delves into a technique that’s a lot more interesting, one that doesn’t refer directly to the horror of which it speaks. It reminds me a lot of Piglia’s approach in Artificial Respiration, which is best summed up by the Wittgenstein quote that is used extensively throughout that novel: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Piglia used this sentence in AR as a way to encapsulate the novel’s approach to history, in the sense that there are some things that are just so horrible, so inexplicable and incomprehensible, that words cannot do them justice. Thus in the same way AR avoided making any references to torture victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship being thrown out of airplanes, Amulet makes no reference of university students being massacred, or of Belano’s experience in prison under Pinochet, or any other violence that is so fundamental and key to Latin American history. It’s an interesting technique, to tell a horror story by not talking about the horror…

There’s definitely plenty of references to the role of violence in Latin American history throughout the book. Even Che Guevara has a walk-in part: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know. Lilian said something I couldn’t hear. What? I said. What? What? Normal, said Lilian, staring at the creased surface of her folder… I admit I would have liked to know what Che Guevara was like in bed. So he was normal, OK, but normal how?” (122-123) At another point Auxilio refers to what she calls “another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it’s not there. That’s just our luck.” (67) She’s specifically referring to being unable to find her knife in her purse while walking the Mexico City streets at night (oh how this reminds me of frantically fumbling for my pepper spray on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, every time a too-dark or looming figure crossed over to my side of the street!), but she could be talking about the role of writing in terms to violence in the novel. Can poetry and writing be a weapon against the horrors of our modern age? Or is it just a salve, a way to numb and distract ourselves, a pretty lie? (“Beautiful bourgeois art,” says the Rodolfo Walsh quote in the sidebar of this blog).

I could say a lot more about Amulet, easily: about Auxilio’s hallucinatory, Phillip K. Dick-like visions of the apocalyptic future (Dick’s influence is insanely prominent through Amulet!). I especially love the passages describing what books and authors will be read, and when, and how: “Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076.” (159) About the crazy section in which Auxilia meets a character called Carlos Coffen Serpas, who spends at least a chapter and a half summarizing the Greek story of  Erigone to her. About the surreal final passage, in which Auxilio has a vision of hundreds of children, marching towards an abyss (another must-have image for Bolaño bing0!) , while singing songs: “And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.” (184) Hmmmmmm.

But instead I’m going to end with two things: 1) a quote about books from Amulet that I really liked, and 2) an excerpt from an exercise written in my Wednesday writing class, written in response to a prompt in which we were asked to envision two characters getting off of a bus together, who have come to give a gift.

(I) Quote

Leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, how right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning… I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it)…  the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life. (5)

(II) Exercise

“Poems. I have a ton of poems for you. Pages and pages of them.” The skinny, Arthur Rimbaud-like young man, in his scruffy woolen suit, the sleeves ending far above his wrists (his bones look like small bumpy sparrow heads), his hair like a tousled bird’s nest, pulls out sheets of typed white paper from a white manilla folder tucked into his armpit. It’s hard for him to do so, due to the small blond girl he’s holding in his other arm. “Stop squirming now,” he says into her ear and ends up with a mouthful of blond hair.

I sigh. It is exceedingly hot on this stretch of the highway and I have to hold my hand over my eyes like the visor of a cap.

“Oh man, I just know I had more of them here somewhere. If you could just–” and he pushes the sheets into my hand, where they crumple lightly in a sound reminiscent of Christmas wrapping paper. “Celia, shake your book up and down.” The little blond girl obliges, shaking the pages of her book violently up and down, just aggressively enough to make me wince a little at seeing a book treated that way. I can’t read the title but it’s a small paperback book with yellowing pages and a picture of a brown terrier dog on the cover.

“Nothing,” the girl, Celia, says. I take a second to admire her blue dress and the white apron thing she’s wearing on top. I envy her rocking Alice in Wonderland look.

“Damn–I mean, darn.” He pulls his black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stands there blinking in the bright sunlight. They both stand there without saying anything, looking expectantly at me.

“Okay–gee, you guys–thanks–” I slowly shuffle through the papers. The paper is very thin-feeling, like the kind of paper a receipt is printed on, and the font is just small enough to make it hard for me to read.

“They’re all for you!” the little girl shouts, and the poet, Arthur, flashes me and embarrassed grin full of crooked teeth with rounded edges.

“Well, sort of. There’s one in there that I really like. It’s called ‘Advice for Margarine on her 23rd Birthday. It’s written list-style, like, and it’s got a whole bunch of surreal images and crazy language in it.” He pauses. “I’m really quite proud of it, actually,” he says, sounding almost surprised. His tone catches me off guard, and makes me wonder when was the last time I said the same thing in the same tone about myself.

“Thanks,” I say again, feeling a little dumb for not being able to think of anything wittier to say. Neither of them say anything for a moment and instead they both just stand there smiling at me. The little girl swings her leg lazily back and forth like a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, Arthur the poet holding her casually with one arm at his hip, and her black buckle shoes accidentally kick into his hip bone.

“Ouch,” he says. “Careful there, girl.”

I start folding the pages, getting ready to put them away somewhere, even if it’s just to stuff them into my sports bra. Too bad I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have any pockets. There won’t be another bus here for hours and hours, probably. It’s just the three of us, standing by the grey concrete highway, desert scrubland all around us, like someone plucked us up and plopped us into the middle of a dramatic photograph of American desert scenery.

“I actually think that might be a line in the poem,” he says, looking up at the sky. “Careful there girl!”

“Good advice,” I say, finally able to think of something. I turn my body slightly more in the direction of the little girl: “Can I see your book?”

Without a word she hands it over to me; I let out a cry of surprise when I read the author’s name. “Oh wow! This guy is one of my favorites! I read him all the time when I was a kid.” I flip through the yellowing pages. It even reminds me of the same copy I myself used to own, with the red splotches from spaghetti sauce (eating at the dinner table was perhaps not the best habit for my siblings and I), pieces of dried food clinging to the pages like petrified insect eggs and holes through which termites had eaten their way through the paper. When I flipped the pages I could see an animated movie of their journey, burrowing through.

“Maybe it is your copy,” the little girl says, and I don’t respond, don’t want to tell her the other reason why this book might represent so much to me: at the age of 7, I wrote the writer a letter, postmarked from Colombia to England, in which I drew a picture of one of his main characters (a Tawny Owl) and wrote “When I grow up I want to be an Arthur like you.” Author, A-R-T-H-U-R.

The writer at age 23

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Filed under apocalypse, Bolaño, books, fiction, Mexico, Rio Plata, writing


the English edition has a pretty cool cover

Horacios Quiroga’s “Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte” (Stories of love, madness and death—how can you resist that combination?) had the privilege of being my Jammed Book, an honor previously bestowed upon Onetti’s “El astillero” in Nuevo Laredo. My Jammed books are the books I read while my computer is jammed for one reason or the other: my mouse freezes in place, my Internet browser crashes, the text I type refuses to appear, and my favorite, the ever-present hovering, all-seeing like the eye of Sauron hourglass (yeah, don’t tell me… I really need to get a new laptop). It’s nice to use Spanish books as my Jammed books, because they are small, light and fit easily into my ginormous Fred Meyer recycled plastic kitty cat bag.

Anyway, the problem with reading books in the office is that the reading sessions are somewhat fragmented, as I’m constantly having to put the book down during the magical moments in which my mouse can freely move across the screen again, only to pick the book up again when the screen inevitably freezes. I also had the same problem that I experienced while reading La casa verde: this book is so full of archaic jungle lingo that I’m constantly feeling lost and confused (and as my computer is jammed, is a no-no). Did you know that achucahdo is Quechua for “fever”? Or that “barigui” is guarani for small mosquito? That “catigua” is a kind of tree and “carpincho” is a kind a fish? Yeah, me neither. Fortunately my edition had a little vocabulary list at the back, which helped quite a bit.

Obscure vocabulary withstanding, over the past three weeks I’ve successfully managed to work my way through Quiroga’s book (a testament to my computer’s uselessness more than my reading ability). You can count this book as another in the series of Latin American novels dealing with the conflicts and anxieties caused by deep jungle habitats. Most of these short stories would make excellent Herzogian films, especially the one in which the sickly bride is convinced that something is sucking her blood at night in the ominous “The Feather Pillow” (a tale that puts the Poe in the Poe-esque), or the wonderfully titled opening story “The Decapitated Chicken” (how could Herzog not want to make a movie involving four mentally handicapped children, a jungle setting, a bloody murder and a headless chicken?).

Quiroga’s life is also decidedly Herzogian, as well as fun to summarize:

Lived in Paris before decided that the “bohemian” life was not for him

Accidentally shot his best friend, felt guilty about it for the rest of his life

Friends with Lugones, future fascist Argentinean poet, who encouraged him to start afresh in the jungle, where he ended up living for most of his life

Married three times; fond of girls 30+ years younger than him; first wife committed suicide by drinking mercury poison

Committed suicide by drinking cyanide


While reading this book it was impossible not to think of other man-versus-nature tales such as “Into the Wild” or “Aguirre Wrath of God.” In all these kinds of stories, it seems like the common theme is always man’s search for knowledge, truth of himself (in the case of the first) or material wealth (in the case of the second). Quiroga’s characters tend to fall more into the second category than the first, like the men who plan to start an orange fermentation business in order to make orange wine. Overall, nature is definitely an intense place in Quiroga’s world. It’s definitely hostile towards men while at the same time being indifferent. Quiroga intriguingly adapts this indifferent point of view in stories such as “The Dead Man,” in which a man falls on top of his machete in the opening sentence and spends the rest of the story dealing with his impending death, on in “Drifting,” in which a man steps on a poisonous snake and decides to ride a canoe five hours down river for help. There’s also “Sunstroke,” (these story titles remind me of NIN songs) which is narrated from the point of view of some dogs as they watch their owner struggle with the heat (while staying wisely in the shade themselves, of course). These were probably my favorite stories, the ones that used narrative voice in a way I’d never seen before—the only other narrated-by-a-dog story I can think of is that one by Dave Eggers. Quiroga also has another story called “Anaconda” which is narrated from the POV of guess what, but I think I’m going to have to reread that one.

Overall I enjoyed the shorter stories more than I did the longer ones because they were easier to absorb. I’d definitely like to read these again in English, just because it’s always a different reading experience, reading the translation. I find it terribly funny and more than a little ironic that I read all these life-and-death struggling with nature stories within the sterile confines of an office, my computer humming before me, my empty espresso cup on one side and my glass of water on the other. Anyway. I definitely look forward to not working again in an office for a while.


shrimp-shaped seeds pods that I always see everywhere

fuzzy mushrooms! you'd think I'd know the names of these after dating a mycologist for almost three years now...

mystery yellow flowers the botanist was unable to identify

crazy red palm fruit that looked like radishes

orange flowers everywhere! littering the ground like cigarette butts in a city gutter

oh, that pesky human presence

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Filed under books, colombia, nature, Rio Plata

the circle game

There is always something terrifying about purchasing plane tickets, in all their stark finality:

September 12th- Fly from PDX to L.A.
– Visit Cara, Laura, other California people (Ana?)
September 16th- bus to San Luis Obispo to visit my Grandma
September 20th- bus to San Francisco
September 21st-25th- Intern training in San Francisco
September 26th- Fly from L.A. to Laredo
11pm that night CROSS BORDER INTO MEXICO (either that or sleep in the airport)
December 23rd- Fly from Laredo to PDX

August and September are gonna be some crazy months. Corey and I leave for England on August 17th. We get back on September 2nd. I work for one more week, and then I leave. AAAAAAH! Change can be scary. But change is good, I think.

I’ve been doing this thing since April where every day I write down in a little notebook What I Did That Day. No analysis, no introspection, just bare naked facts. My drive to record things amazes me, sometimes: how much do I really need? Paper journal, livejournal, this blog, and this notebook? Anyway, it’s interesting to flip backwards and see What I Did on a certain day of the month. For example, here is What I Did on the 9th:

April 9th- sick day. Sleep a lot.

May 9th- Wake up early to go to coast with Solange and Aiden [visiting friends from Paris]. Long drive to Cannon beach. Play music from ipod. Beach windy, weather beautiful. Farmer’s market in morning. Gumbo for dinner delish. Catch 4 fat mice in traps.

June 9th- Wake up from nightmare of falling in black void. Corey comforts me. Alarm at 6.20 AM. Roll out of bed and catch Max. Buy sandwiches at Safeway, $33. Big sandwich makes me sick, leave it by library for homeless. Arrive at work, program planning with Allie + Jose in Learning Center. All computers broken, I greedily grab #9, the only one that works. Trip to Starbucks with Alex for a soy latte. Talk about her caffeine overdose and hospitalization.

July 9th- Wake up late, 6.20. Bagel + coffee breakfast. Write sketch of book review and start typing up story. Take kids to Shute Park, Plaid Pantry field trip to buy seeds for bird feeders. Animal presentation by Zoo people underwhelming. Take 10-12 year olds to park in afternoon, Alexis left behind, cries. Long Max journey home. Caught without ticket by Max officer, given ticket. Cry hysterically on phone with Corey, feel better. Hang out with Laura at Laughing Planet and Hotboxx as she leaves for CA the next day.

And for an even more entertaining reference, here is What I Did in August of 2008, when we were in Ecuador!

August 9th- Rainy in morning. Wet boat ride to Cojimies, [seaside town where the Corvina or Sea Bass festival was taking place] meet up with Mariana [our tour guide friend]. 4-hour lunch. Beer and rum. [I didn’t mention this, but Corey had the most amazing lunch, a soup filled with lobsters and crab and shrimp and Queen conch. Mmmmmmmmmmm.] B+J [Travel mates] leave for Quito. Corey and I watch volleyball game, dance to salsa band. Chris [other travel mate] harassed by drunk man. Bed early at 12:30pm.

Man, isn’t the passage of time crazy?! I’ve been really fascinated with that lately: how time passes, who you were three months ago, three years ago, ten years ago. I was talking with my sister yesterday about 1999 and it’s interesting the things we came up with when discussing what that year meant to us. The year we got really into movies saw Fight Club, American Beauty, Boys Don’t Cry. The year we first started listening to Tori Amos. The start of 8th grade. Oh man. What do you think of, when you think of who and where you were in 1999?

Tori Amos’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” started playing on my shuffle just now as I type this, which is a little eerie. “We’re captive on a carousel of time,” indeed. I like this quote from this NY Times blog on happiness, on the difficulty of happiness and being in time:

“To really live is to accept that you live “for the time being,” and to fully enter that moment of time. Living is that, not building up an identity or a set of accomplishments or relationships, though of course we do that too. But primarily, fundamentally, to live is to embrace each moment as if it were the first, last, and all moments of time… I find it impressive how thoroughly normal it is be so tentative about the time of our lives, or so asleep within it, that we miss it entirely. Most of us don’t know what it actually feels like to be alive. We know about our problems, our desires, our goals and accomplishments, but we don’t know much about our lives.”

This emphasis on the present moment links in nicely with the quote from Rayuela which I used to close the last entry: “We must establish ourselves in the present once more.” I think the central struggle of “Rayuela” (which I finally finished last week) is exactly that, how to fully enter the present moment of time. Oh god, I don’t even know where to begin saying even a quarter of what there is to say about this book. (I feel like so many of my reviews begin with that sentiment.) I do know that I am definitely going to have to read this again. (Again, another phrase that is popping up more and more often here.) What do I say about Morelli, the author-like figure who dominates the 99 “expendable” chapters that readers “hopscotch” through?

My favorite thing about this novel was definitely the rapport between the groups of friends. Cortázar does an excellent job of capturing the rambling dialogue of friendships that have lasted a long time. This characteristic is closely related to the other aspect I liked best about the novel, which was how much it reminded me of Bolaño. As I wrote earlier, characters sitting around, drinking, bitching, wandering, pontificating: it all feels very relevant to the mid-20’s, post-college lifestyle.

I have no idea where I read this (somewhere online–I swear!), but I read a quote by Cortázar, in which he said that “Rayuela” was his homage to people of his bohemian generation, and how they dealt with whole getting old and feeling irrelevant and purposeless. He also said that it was interesting that it was the young Latin American youth of the 60’s who ended up really connecting with his book, as opposed to his generation. (I am gonna try to find the source for this quote, I swear.)

I dunno, it all makes me think of this letter from my favorite advice column, and how the advice he gives is really true. When I read old entries from this blog, or my paper journal, or my livejournal, or any of the 1001 ways that I’ve tried to record all the craziness that goes on in the small box of consciousness that I call Myself and My World, what keeps coming up for me, again and again, is how I’ve changed. In this case, change is definitely, definitely a good thing. I am so unspeakably and inexplicably glad and relieved that for whatever reason, over the past year I have significantly drifted away from the crushing pressure of the assumptions that Cary Tennis critiques in his column. Doing well at tasks does notbring us happiness. These preconceived, ridiculous standards and notions of what it means to “succeed” and be a successful college graduate are just… they make me want to vomit in my mouth a little. I’m smart enough to know now that it’s not a game… but if it were, I’d definitely say that I’m winning. (And not in what you’d consider the traditional way, either.)

And so again: here’s to not always looking to the future and instead embracing the prsent. It’s Wacky Water Week with the 8 & 9-year-olds this week at the Club, and it’s gonna be a week they’ll never forget.

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Filed under books, Cortázar, perspective, really deep thoughts, Rio Plata, time

Rayuela, Part I

It’s so hot in Portland right now there’s little else I want to do other than sit in front of the fan and eat popsicles from the little Mexican tiendita. Corey and I will probably swallow our hypochondria and go swimming in the public pool down the street later this afternoon.

In a way, I guess it’s good that this feels like an exceptionally hot summer in Portland (according to Corey and other long-time PDX dwellers; this is only the second summer I’ve spent in Portland). Last week I learned that for my internship in the fall with Kiva, I’ll be interning with Fundación para la Vivienda Progresiva (FVP), in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. So it looks like I’m heading back to the U.S.-Mexican border after all… interesting how these things work out. I’m going to have to make myself some cut-offs and buy some more wife-beaters to prepare for life in the desert.

I like how my life’s narrative is increasingly becoming defined by the quest for the random and marginal… I’m not exactly sure how all these experiences I’m seeking are supposed to add up to make a coherent, cohesive whole, but then again I’m not sure if I want it to.

This quest for the weird and marginal feels particularly relevant to me, maybe due to the current Big Book I’m reading, Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (or Hopscotch). My sister read this book way back in the day in high school, and then read it again three years ago in Spain. She told me that although she enjoyed it when she read it the first time and knew with certainty that it was a great book, she didn’t “get it.” As I read it for myself now, I can easily see how there’s a lot of stuff here that would make a nice big whooshing sound as it flew over a ninth-grader’s head (like what happenned to me and Lolita when I read it in eighth grade and totally didn’t “get” the beautiful, erotic love story). I’ve been reading it in Spanish, and while it’s been slow going, almost frustratingly so at times, it’s been much more rewarding than reading it in English.

The most exciting aspect of this book is its similarity to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. As the little note by the author on the first page informs us, there are two different ways of reading the novel. In Reading #1, you can read it straight through to Chapter 56, “at the close of which are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End.” (All excerpts from the novel in English are taken from Gregory Rabassa’s 1986 translation.) In Reading #2, you begin with Chapter 73 and then hop around the chapters (including Chapters 57-155, described as “expendable), based on the little number printed at the end of each chapter. If you confront the list at the beginning, the one that lists the order in which you’ll read all the chapters for Reading #2, you’ll discover that you’ll eventually be suspended in an infinite loop, hopping back and forth between Chapter 58 and Chapter 131. I’m only on Chapter 37, ending Park One (Del lado de alla/“From the Other Side”) and beginning Part Two (Del lado de aca/“From This Side”), but I’m interested in seeing where I’m going to end up inevitably suspended. It’s all really quite ingenious.

Other competitors for the Trippy WTF literary devices category include chapter 28, which skips from page 162 to page 179, without explanation. As this is the chapter when an important character is found dead, I’m assuming these missing pages have something to do with this. To make things even weirder, in the English translation I have checked out for reference, these pages are included. I haven’t read them for fear of “spoiling” something that will later be revealed to me as the book progresses, but still, how strange! Where did these pages come from? Are they still waiting for me somewhere, lurking in the back of the pages I have yet to read? Where on earth did the English translator get them from? What a weird situation. At least it highlights the dramatic contrasts that can be found between reading a book in the original language versus the translation (the other translation problem I have with is the translation of “papas fritas” as “fried potatoes”–wouldn’t this be French fries? What do you call “fried potatoes” in France?).

Chapter 34 is also an excellent candidate for one of the weirdest reading experiences of my life. So that you can try it out for yourself, here’s an excerpt:

“IN September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
AND the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
like this. To think that she’s spent hours on end reading tasteless
as that of my own; I liquidated all the credits I could, rent out
stuff like this and plenty of other incredible things, Elle and
the properties, transferred my holdings and inventories, and
France Soir, those sad magazines Babs lends her. And moved to
moved to Madrid to take up residence there. My uncle (in truth
Madrid to take up residence there, I can see how after you swal-
my father’s first cousin), Don Rafael Bueno de Guzman y Ataide,
low four or five pages you get in the groove and can’t stop read-“

(Rabassa 191) If you figured out that you’re supposed to read this by skipping every other line, then you’re a lot smarter than me (to be fair I was reading it in Spanish, and I kept plunging gamely on with the hope that this was some kind of avant-garde rap and that it would begin to make sense to me eventually. The broken-up words like “swal-” and “read-” were what eventually gave it away). How clever, no? As you go on reading this chapter, you realize that the odd lines are from one of the trashy novels that Magda loves to read, and the even lines are Horacio’s interior monologue as he reads the very same lines that you’ve just read, criticizing the book as he reads it (like with the Madrid sentence in the passage above). How clever, no? I don’t know if I’ve ever come across a better attempt to reproduce the experience of reading, by means of spatial arrangement right there on the page. On the last page the lines from the trashy novel drop off and you’re left with Horacio, imagining himself and Magda wandering around the city but never meeting, “two points lost in Paris that go from here to there, from there to here, drawing their picture, putting on a dance for nobody, not even for themselves, an interminable pattern without any meaning.” (197) There you have Part 1 of Rayuela in a nutshell: aimless wanderings, a quest for a missing center, the lack of meaning, the concern with geometry.

This is a good book to be reading following the graduation of college. There’s a lot of sitting around and Bolano-esque talking, smoking cigarettes, drinking, wandering through the streets of Paris and the eating of fried eggs and potatoes (I love it when authors inform us of what their characters like to eat; Bolano and Murakami are masters of this). There’s a lot in the book about wandering around without any direction. The main narrator so far is Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian writer who lives in Paris with his Uruguayan girlfriend, La Maga. He spends a lot of time either walking around Paris with la Maga, hanging out with his group of bohemian friends who call themselves “El Club,” and having weird and random adventures, like in Chapter 23 when he attends a concert by an eccentric modernist pianist. Part 1 ends with a death, Maga’s disappearance, and Horacio’s Dante-like descent into degradation and sordidness, which ends with him getting deported back to Argentina. We’ll see what Part 2 has in store for him.

Horacio is definitely looking for something. As la Maga tells him, “I think I understand you… You’re looking for something you don’t know. I’ve been doing the same thing and I don’t know what it is either. But they’re two different things.” (76) I like the part when Horacio ponders that “this mate might show me where the center is.” (78) There’s this the very Borges-esque thread running throughout the novel, the Argentinean preoccupation with the search for an absent center, the desire to come back to an origin, the desire to understand, the desire for meaning. Ironically enough, while searching for these very structured concepts, Horacio also stubbornly rejects “the idea of unity [which] was worrying to him because it seemed so easy to fall into the worst traps.” (79) Much is made of Maga’s lack of intellectualism, but as Oliviera observes, while he imposes “the false order that hides chaos, pretending that I was dedicated to a profound existence while all the time it was one that barely dipped it toes into the terrible waters. There are metaphysical rivers, she swims in them … I describe and define and desire those rivers, but she swims in them. I look for them, find them, observe them from the bridge, but she swims in them. And she doesn’t know it.” (95) There’s a lot to unpack there, but suffice it to say, it sure does sound pretty. There’s also a lot of Buddhist-related meditations on death and connectedness and the importance of the present moment, which surprised me.

There’s lots more I could say about this, but I think I’ll leave it at that, mainly it’s currently the hottest part of the day and it looks like we’ll be going swimming after all. Time to return to the present moment.

My hand pokes around the bookcase… I take down Roberto Arlt… Today fascinates me, but always from the point of view of yesterday (did I say phascinate?), and that’s how at my age the past becomes present and the present is a strange and confused future where boys in baggy sweaters and long-haired girls drink their cafes-cremes and pet each other with the slow gracefulness of cats or plants.
We must fight against this.
We must establish ourselves in the present once more
.” (94)

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Filed under books, Cortázar, Dear Diary, labyrinths, Rio Plata, truth

Aira’s ghosties

Little kids used to scare me. Though maybe “intimidate” is a better word. Kids are so emotional, you know? These little events upset us so much and remain deeply ingrained in our memories and psyches as moments of momentous injustice that we never, ever forget. I remember crying as a 5-year-old when a girl wouldn’t share her potato chips with me (we’re friends now on a social networking site, another testament to the weirdness that is the Internet). I guess I really, really wanted those potato chips (it was also the first day of kindergarten, so I was probably already pretty emotionally drained). There are so many moments at my job when I’m dealing with a kid who is just incredibly upset by something that seems so trivial to an adult (someone cutting ahead of you in a line is a big one).

The kids themselves in this novel aren’t as scary as the situation they’re in. Childhood was an important theme in Aira’s How I Became a Nun (perhaps more important than I realized when I first read it) and plays a similarly prominent role in the most recent of his works that I’ve read,Ghosts. Ghosts is my favorite of the three Aira novles I’ve read, maybe because it’s the one written in the most realistic tone. The focus of the novel is on a Chilean immigrant family living in an apartment building under construction. The father is the night watchmen. A lot of references are made to his heavy drinking, but all in all, this feels like a happy family. The children run up and down the stairs, play in the empty swimming pool, but an uneasy, ominous feeling hangs over everything.

And then there are the ghosts. Aira’s treatment of the ghosts is what makes this novella worth reading. It’s an understatement to say that I’ve never read anything quite like it before. They first appear sitting on the sharp metallic edge of the giant satellite dish, “on which no bird would have dared to perch, three completely naked men were sitting, with their faces turned up to the mdday sun; no one saw them, of course.” Here is the first full descriptive passages of the titular ghosts, from page 12:

The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small feet, and rough hands. Their toes were spread widely, like wild men’s toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. A builder who happenned to be passing by with a bucketful of rubble on the way to the skip stretched out his free hand and, without stopping, grasped the penis of one of the naked men and kept walking. The member stretched out to a length of two yards, and then three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When he let it go, it slapped back into place with a noise whose weird harmonics went on echoing off the unplastered concrete walls… The two ghosts laughed more loudly and frenetically than ever.


It feels significant that the rich folks that are being given a tour of their future apartment can’t see the ghosts, but the workers can. Aira never explains where the ghosts come from, how the workers first saw them, or how long it took for them to get used to naked men floating around the air and through walls. In a way, this is probably the best way to handle the ghosts. It’s like an extreme version of Kafka or Garcia Marquez, where we come to accept the fantastical elements of a story because they’re written in such a matter-of-fact, realistic way. In the end, we accept the ghosts because the characters accept them in such an unquestioning, logical fashion. For instance, the next passage in which the ghosts appear (after the member-pulling) concerns the father’s innovative wine-cooling system: “It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.” (29) How practical!

The sense of impending doom (or “climate of malevolence”) (67) that hangs like a cloud over the children throughout the novel comes not so much from the ghosts (who come off more like a “flying puppet show” than a genuine menance or threat), but from how dangerous it is to have the children roaming around unsupervised in a roofless building with exposed electrical wiring. During a standard trip to the supermarket, the mother is described as “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.” (23) Is this attitude is an effect of becoming numb to the presence of the ghosts? Needless to say, we’re being set up: by the novel’s end, one of these kids is done for.

In David Lodge’s essay “The Novelist Today: Still at the Crossroads?” from his book The Practice of Writing (I’ve been on a huge David Lodge kick lately and have several of his lit theory books lying around the house for Corey to trip over and curse), he writes about how fabulation in works such as The Satanic Verses “aims to entertain us with the humorous extravagance and inventiveness of its story while offering this as a kind of metaphor… for the extreme contrasts and conflicts of modern experience.” (7) This could be applied very aptly to Aira, especially since humor plays such an important role in his fiction. My favorite character in Ghosts is Abel Reyes, the night watchman’s nephew, who embarks upon a Kafkaesque grocery shopping quest to buy lunch for the workmen. I love how he obstinately refuses to use a shopping basket and with arms full of bread and meat picks up the Coca Cola bottles with the index finger and thumb of each hand, “which was all he had free.” (20) I’m tempted to type up the entire passage that describes him: he is described as looking eleven years old despite being fifteen, “thin, ugly, awkward.” Much is made of his long gross hair that makes him look like a girl: “Being young, foreign and therefore naive, he didn’t realize that the Argentineans with long hair belonged to the lowest social stratum, and were precisely those who had condemned themselves to never escape from it… In Chile, [with hair that long] he would have been interviewed on television, or, more likely, thrown into prison.” (18) It’s funny, but “thrown into prison” catches us off guard slightly, as we ponder how true this might be.

Even though Abdul Reyes sadly disappears from the pages of Ghosts following his shopping expedition, I think his appearence sets up the subplot of Patri, the teenage daughter, whose musings and interactions with the ghosts comes to dominate the second half of the book. The other characters are consistently reminding Patri that she is reaching a “marriageable” age and worrying aloud about her lack of a social life, neither of which seem to interest her much. When her choice of men are people like Abdul Reyes, it’s unsurprising that Patri’s interest is piqued by the “virility” of the ghosts, who invite her to a party. The results of said party are not spoiler-friendly, and I leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover for yourself. I will say that Patri’s interactions with the ghosts definitely represents a sort of crossing-over journey for her, from childhood to womanhood.

That’s why I feel like childhood is one of the more important themes of the book. The children are made to seem just as freaky and otherwordly as the ghosts in this novel: “compared to an adult, they were always tiny. They were human in every way, but on another scale. And that alone could render them unrecognizable, or give the impression that they had been produced by the baffling distortions of a dream.” (51) For Patri, the ghosts also appear to her “as the opposite of obscenity, as a kind of innocence.” (54) I won’t attempt to unpack the long interlude about Australian aborigenes and Polynesian interactions with sleep, dreams and rite of passage that takes up a good 10-15 pages in the middle of the book, but anyway, it all feels connected in an important, obscure way (while simultaneously feeling quite random and disorienting).

So what are we left with in the end? Are the ghosts an appropriate metaphor for the impossibility of coping with the modern experience? Are the ghosts spirits of laborers or immigrants who died working on the building, or in one of Argentina’s military regimes? The last sentence of the novel is “Man and ghost stared at each other,” (139) and apart from Patri, it could be the first time that any of the characters really “sees” the ghosts (and, more significantly, the ghosts see the living). There are quite a number of scenes concerned with “seeing” throughout the novel, such as when the characters turn off the lights during the New Year’s Eve party in order to see the stars, or on the next to last sentence of the book, when one of the ghosts hands over a pair of glasses.

Lodge writes that one of the prominent marks of contemporary writing is a pronounced concern with communication, as opposed to self-expression (as with the romantic writers) or with innovation and creation of symbols (as with the modernists). Maybe this concern with communication is the result of genuine communication becoming an illusion; maybe it’s the result of the saturation of communications: internet, phones, twitter, blogging, Skype, faxes, e-mail… on and on and on. We live in a hyper-communicative age. I like to think that, like anything, this is a power that can be used for good just as easily as it can be used for evil. For better or worse, it’s the world we live in.

We’ll just have to see, I guess.

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Filed under Aira, kids, modernity, Rio Plata

mad clubbing

This week has been full of

  • Seemingly endless shopping for supplies at the Dollar Tree and Fred Meyer: measuring spoons, alka seltzer, baking soda, white vinegar, corn starch, half-and-half, plastic zip lock bags…
  • Playing in the fountain in downtown Hillsboro and getting head-to-toe soaking wet, much to the delight of the kids
  • Breaking up a fight started by this foster home kid who’d entered this obstinate Beserker rage that reminded me of the Bloodwrath of the badgers from Salamandastron in the Redwall novels.
  • Life-saving yoga classes in the evening on Alberta street.
  • Dodging and praying not to run into Max ticket officers. It’s like clockwork: I don’t buy one, I get checked, I buy one, I’m never checked. I’m just waiting for Laura to get back from Montana so she can help me arrange having one of her college student housemates buy me one for 1/2 the price.
  • Dealing with the wrath of the kitchen lady (NEVER borrow a kitchen lady’s garbage can, and then forget to return it.)
  • Daily 6AM wake-ups.
  • Missing Corey, in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker until Thursday.
  • Missing talking to my sister about stupid stuff.
  • Getting tons of e-mails now from Kiva. The internship has officially begun. It’s both exciting and a little scary at the same time. Another new chapter and crazy adventure is coming up here pretty soon…
  • Half-heartedly applying for part-time jobs, even though I really really enjoy my current schedule of 30-35 hours per week. I have yet to work the “standard” 40-hour a week job; those hours sound so crazy and soul-sucking to me…
  • Learning to play “Once Upon a Dream” from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty movie on the keyboards, as well as playing the babyfied version of Moonlight Sonata over and over and over and over again.
  • Getting helped out by A., probably the Club’s biggest problem child, while making ice cream (he helped bring ice cubes from the kitchen). VICTORY! Small steps! Small steps!
  • Never-ending program planning and refining. Animal Camp is next week for 10-12 year olds and it’s been a nightmare to plan for, especially after the two field trip places I had lined up canceled on me. Groan…

I’ve also been reading Arlt’s The Seven Madmen, the 1984 edition translated by Naomi Lindstrom. (Arlt is really ripe for a rippingly good, modern-day translation, in the style of “The Savage Detectives” or Elizabeth Grossman’s “Don Quixote.”) I’ve only read Part I, but some stuff has really stood out for me. In Piglia’s Respiracion artificial, one of his characters has a long rant about how Arlt is a bad writer, but how that’s ok (it goes much more in depth than that). But yeah, that was definitely my first impression of this novel: I could never have gotten away with using some of these similes in the few creative writing classes I took. Take this gem of a sentence: “He felt each spasm of grief hopping like an owl from branch to branch in his misery.” (25) How visual is that? Or how about this one: “Like a horse with its guts torn out by a bull, mucking around in its own viscera, every step he took drained his lungs of their lifeblood.” (17) O dear.

Strangely enough, the book this has reminded me the most of is Fight Club. The main character, Erdosain, is fired from his dead-end job as a bill collector for embezzling six hundred pesos and seven centavos on the same day that his wife leaves him for a creepy dude called El Capitan. In order to get the money he needs to avoid jail, as well as refind structure and sense to his life, he turns to a strange figure called the Astrologer, who is this book’s Tyler Durden mastermind character. The Astrologer has this ridiculously convuluted plan that is never clear: we’re not sure if it involves the Ku Klux Klan or Lenin-loving Marxists. In the words of the book cover summary, his plan is “a terrorist conspiracy to help the unemployed that will lure workers to mountain stronghold factories and enslave them. For start-up capital, a chain of bordellos is proposed. To finance these, the murder of Erdosain’s wife’s rich cousin is planned.” Believe me, it’s never made as clear as all that.

The main character, Erdosain, reminds me of a hero from a novel by Camus or Satre, bringing way back to memories of middle and high school days of me lying on my stomach on my bed reading dusty, battered books pulled out of my parents’ shelves, based on how interesting the cover art looked to me, as well as the novel’s fame (Nausea, the Stranger). On page 6, Erdosain is already asking of himself, “What am I doing with my life? What kind of soul do I have? What have I made of my life?” (6-7, 12) That ought to be the first indication that this novel isn’t going to be your regular, run-of-the-mill crime caper or pulp fiction that Arlt supposedly adored.

Anyway, in the one of his ponderings, Erdosain makes an interesting point:

I’m nothing in everyone’s eyes. But still, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or murder Barsut, [his wife’s rich cousin] suddenly I’m everything, the man who exists, the man for whom generations of criminologists have prepared punishments, jails, and theories… That’s really weird! And yet, only crime can affirm my existence, just as evil is all that affirms the presence of man on earth.. Really, this is all so weird. Still, despite everything, there is darkness and mankind’s soul is sad. Infinitely sad. But that can’t be how life is. If tomorow I figured out why that can’t be how life is, I’d pinch myself and disinflate like a balloon spewing out all these lies I’m filled with.” (81)

Depressingly enough, this reminded me of the whole Michael Jackson debacle. I can’t believe how swiftly news of the frontlines of Iran has been banished from headlines to make room for story after story of a dead entertainer (the L.A. Times receives a particularly big FAIL in this regard–I mean, I know it’s L.A., but come on! Seriously?). Also, somewhat depressingly, this passage made me think of some kids where I work. It’s tough dealing with troubled individuals from what are defnitely some very messed-up home lives, because so much of your time and energy and attention and focus goes into trying to prevent these kids from having one of their explosive temper tantrums or freakouts (or calming them down when they do). This summer, it feels like there’s just been an explosion of eccentric individuals (all worthy of their own novel) at the workplace. Isn’t it weird how, in the end, these are the kids who seem to “exist” the most strongly for me, the ones who take up my daytime time and attention to the point where they’ve even started making appearences in my dreams?

The other thing the novel touches upon that I found interesting (which I won’t write about too much now because it’s nearing 10:30 and I’m exhausted and need to get to bed) is the characters’ search for truth and (in Erdosain’s own words) that wonderful phrase, “the meaning of life.” Ha! Let me end this with a quote from the Astrologer:

In the old days we could have taken refuge in a monastery or traveled to unknown and marvelous lands. But today you can eat a morning sherbet in Patagonia and be eating bananas in Brazil in the afternoon. [This book was published in 1929, mind you.] What are we supposed to do? I read a good deal, and believe me, in every book from Europe now I find that same undercurrent of pain and bitterness you describe in your own life.” (87)

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Filed under Arlt, books, Dear Diary, modernity, Rio Plata