Tag Archives: Latin America

Affections

Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)

This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindwhich I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horseanother short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.

Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.

The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.

Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.

There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).

The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:

It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)

Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)

I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)

The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.

I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.

There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”

Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:

Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)

Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:

Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)

Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?

I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.

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Some contemporary Latin American fiction

Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)

I’ve been dying to read this book for ages (I’ve loved her short stories for years). Hence, it’s become yet another book purchased in my never-ending, uncontrollable kindle-addiction.

This novel has been highly acclaimed, deservedly so, and I eagerly await to see if it ends up on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The plot is difficult to describe. It appears to be a (psychic? imagined?) conversation taking place between a hospitalized woman in a coma and a young boy sitting on the edge of her bed. The question of how she ended up there, and what her connection is with the boy, is what propels the narrative forward. Here’s the opening:

They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.
It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Why?
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.

As you may have guessed, the novel is deeply strange and hallucinatory. Almost a horror story. You definitely read it more for the mood and the suspense, than for specific answers. If you like books where everything is explained at the end, then this is not for you. The prose felt very cinematic to me, which makes sense, given the author’s background in screenwriting. As a reader, you are keep turning the pages due to the most base of desires: you want to find out what happens next. But be forewarned: the answers will not be specific. I’ve become less patient than I used to be with novels that withhold information and don’t explain everything, but I feel like the answers for this one are there, if you’re willing to stop and think.

The other hook in this book is the hypnotic repetition of certain phrases. Like “the worms” in the opening passage. Another is the search for “the important thing.” An obsession of a rope or “rescue distance” between a mother and daughter is another–or the time it would take the mother to rescue the daughter from danger:

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.

“The worms” — what is up with that? Aliens? An ecological disaster? They seem to be connected with creepy white spots and flakey pink skin. And crippled distorted children. An “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” motif. That one scene with the can of peas, a brand the mother would never buy, is SO freaking disturbing. Who would have thought?

I want to read this again.

Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)

What a great book! So sad, so funny. It almost read like a book of poetry at times. I liked the Reading Comprehension questions the best, maybe because they were a bit longer, so there was more to unpack. But yeah, you can definitely pick out some themes from this: death, getting old, cancer, children, angry children, angry parents, bad fathers, bad marriages, divorce (I had no idea it was illegal to get a divorce in Chile until 2004–2004!!!!)… Good stuff. Highly recommended. Definitely a great example of a book that’s “pushing the form,” “exploring the potential of writing,” etc.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (Horacio Castellanos Moya)

What an angry, bitter book. I LOVED IT. I want to get coffee with the narrator. What does that say about me?

This book was famously written in the 90’s by Moya, in an attempt to imitate the style of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (who I’m not familiar with). The narrator of the book is Edgardo Vega, who addresses Moya directly throughout the narrative in an angry rant. Nothing escapes his withering gaze: car thieves, plane rides, men wearing sombreros picking their noses, chubby women wiping sweat off their necks with towels that they then squeeze out, mosquitos, “sluggish servants,” writing culture, master degrees in business, “diarrhea-inducing beer,” a touristy seaport, pupusas, newspapers, the lack of arts and culture (his description of this really made me laugh).

Some of his most scathing moments are in reference to:

  • the city of San Salvador (“one of the filthiest and most hostile cities, a city designed for animals, not human beings, a city that converted its historical center into a garbage dump“)
  • bus drivers (“It’s incredible, Moya, the bus drivers have been pathological criminals since birth, criminals converted into salaried bus drivers, said Vega, they’re guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war and now they’re recycled as bus drivers… It’s terrifying, Moya, an experience that’s not recommended for cardiac patients; no one in their right mind could travel every day on a bus in this city, one would have to be permanently and sadistically degraded in spirit to travel every day with these recycled criminals who drive the buses”)
  • the university campus (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa: crumbling buildings, a ton of overcrowded, infested wooden constructions, and defecation in the hallways of buildings that were still standing, human defecation in the University of El Salvador’s hallways”),
  • and the country itself (“I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world.”)

As Moya writers in the afterword, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I had fun writing this novel, in which I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador… with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.” (86) The public reaction was intense–a friend’s wife threw the book out of the window in rage against the book’s rant against pupusas. And more seriously, while working as a journalist in Guatemala, Moya’s mother received threatening phone calls, which prevented Moya’s return to El Salvador country for years.

There are so many passages I could choose as gems from this book. Though some people might not see the point of this book (it’s basically an angry, bitter rant), I find a lot of value in it due to its ANGER. And the prose is mesmerizing and FUNNY: long sentences that build and build and build. Moya NEEDED to write this, and in turn, it needed to be read.

What taste the people of this country have for living in fear, Moya, such a morbid taste for living terrorized lives, what a perverted taste for the terror of the war turned into the terror of delinquency these people have, a pathological, morbid vice to make terror their permanent way of life. (75)

Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)

I loved this book!

Beatriz, a famous Brazilian author, climbs a tree with her suitcase while smoking a cigar, thus disappearing from the lives of her family and the Brazilian literary scene. Her Pittsburg-based translator journeys to Brazil in order to track her down and meets with a man with a trash can tattooed on his neck, who claims that Beatriz owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she borrowed to fuel an online poker addiction. And that’s just in the first eleven pages!

This book moves quickly, with the momentum of a bullet. I loved the news stories and dictionary entries it provided, and the descriptions of Beatriz’s books (I always love plot summaries of books that don’t actually exist).

I loved the descriptions of Brazil: “When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeao International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the stick sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.” (10)

I loved the interactions between Emma and Beatriz’s children, and how during Emma’s visit, “the living room would begin to reek of those American sunscreen lotions with an excess of zinc.” (14)

I loved the themes of translation, creativity, and foreigness:

“At first, all she could do was stare at the wall and feel futile, but that was something. Wasn’t the despair of feeling useless central to the modern human condition? Wasn’t that what Don Quijote was all about?” (82)

Obrigada. Emma thanked him, hearing the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” (131)

“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.” (164)

The ending was a bit sad, but I suppose I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Overall, this reminded me of Ali Smith, in terms of its joyous celebration and attention to language. I’m definitely very much inspired by the quick way it kept the plot moving forward, and its short chapters. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.

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“Enjoy your youth / sounds like a threat / But I will anyway”

(Title courtesy of Regina Spektor)

Boy, do I feel the weight of time passing sometimes. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s fresher’s week. Or because I’m almost done with rereading The Savage Detectives and I just realized that the last time I read it was SEVEN YEARS AGO (?!), when I was living in Mexico. Re-reading it this time has sure made me feel old and melancholic. I’ll never forget how the first time I read it in, what, 2007? 2008?–what struck me most about it was its life, its vitality, its obsession with Paris and travel, cigarettes, and cups of black coffee. Reading it this time, what strikes me most about it is its incredible sense of melancholy and nostalgia–the pain of faded youth.

What else struck me about this book, during this re-read?

— > Its obsession with walking, with street names and neighborhoods. As though characters were using the city’s names and landmarks as a way to orient themselves in an unknowable world (most memorably by the architect father, following his release from the mental institution).

—> The way certain sections read as individual short stories. There’s the refugee who settles in Spain and makes a ton of money by predicting lottery numbers, or Belano’s bodybuilding female roomamate, who possibly provides the strongest moral compass of the book, with her emphasis on habit and hard work, or what she calls “life’s responsibilities, the things I believed in and clung to in order to keep breathing.(556) There’s Edith Oster’s story (the anorexic, unstable girl Belano falls in love with), and Daniel Grossman’s final encounter with his friend Norman and their bitter reminisces about their days as visceral realists (maybe the saddest part of the book for me), and Octavio Paz’s secretary. There’s the hypnotically whacko monologue by the seriously disturbed Austrian that Ulises meets in a jail cell in Israel, and there’s also the triple-whammy of Belano stories at the end: his duel, cave descent, and voyage to Africa (all of which add up to my favorite parts of the book). I can’t believe I never realized this before–that The Savage Detectives is basically linked short stories.

—> The role of inconclusiveness, desperation, and rising tension. I frequently felt like something AWFUL was going to happen, especially in the chapter with the hitchhiking British girl, picking grapes in France.

—> The perspective of the book (in terms of who is narrating) is deeply provocative. I can definitely understand and even sympathize with someone who would read this and just find all the young poets incredibly irritating. If you had them in a university classroom, yeah, you probably would want to punch them. And despite all their talk and obsession with poetry, none of them end up being successful in a traditional, published-author, hot-shot literary figure sense. And yet this is one of the themes that resonates most deeply with me. What does it mean to BE a writer, vs. to write? Are they “failures” if they never publish or become famous? How do you live with your life not turning out the way you wanted it to be? What is the definition of “success”?

—> What an unconventional book this is, really.  Boy, was Bolaño influenced by French surrealism (not that I know much about it, I just get a real vibe for Rimbaud-ish weirdness during this reread). Disappearances and absences to play a big role, most notably in Juan García Madero’s complete disappearance from the middle section. What happened to him? Where did he go? Such a key question for so many other Latin American artists and intellectuals, working in the 50’s through the 70’s.

—> I think the most inspiring sentence in this book for me this time around is this one, in the section narrated by Xóchitl García, who keeps trying to write despite all odds: “María and I looked at each other, not pretending anymore but serious, tired but ready to go on, and after a few seconds I got up and turned on the light.”  (396)

“Tired but ready to go on.” That feels like enough of a mantra for me, for now.

Other quotes:

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I try to do things right but everything turns out wrong, I should go back to Peru, this city is fucking killing me, I’m not the same person I used to be. (239)

I was suddenly overcome by the full horror of Paris, the full horror of the French language, the poetry scene, our state as unwanted guests, the sad, hopeless state of South Americans lost in Europe, lost in the world. (243)

Being alone makes us stronger. That’s the honest truth. (315)

You have to live your life, that’s all there is to it. A drunk I met the other day on my way out of the bar La Mala Senda told me so. Literature is crap. (316)

Don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die. (360)

I would think about my next article, about the story I was planning to write… and the time would fly. (393)

I was still myself. Not the self I’d gotten used to, for better or for worse, but myself. (396)

Then, humbled and confused and in a burst of utter Mexican-ness, I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm, and I knew that only the cleverest, myself certainly not included, would stay afloat much longer. (406)

I set out to dissect what had become of my youth. And I concluded that everything had to change, even if I wasn’t sure just then how to go about it or what path to take. (407)

Don’t tempt fate, you lucky bastard, be happy with what you’ve got… We aren’t given much time on this earth. We have to pray and work. (415)

Belano, I said, the heart of the matter is knowing whether evil (or sin or crime or whatever you want to call it) is random or purposeful. If it’s purposeful, we can fight it, it’s hard to defeat, but we have a chance, like two boxers in the same weight class, more or less. If it’s random, on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ll just have to hope that God, if He exists, has mercy on us. And that’s what it all comes down to. (420)

We weren’t writing for publication but to understand ourselves better or just to see how far we could go. (435)

It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it, and what we can regain. So what can we regain? I said. What we’ve lost, said Norman, we can get it back intact. (481)

The search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind. (488)

She doesn’t see, she never sees, the fool, the idiot, the innocent, this woman who’s come too late, who’s interested in literature with no idea of the hells lurking beneath the tainted or pristine pages, who loves flowers and doesn’t realize there’s a monster in the bottom of the vase. (526)

I’m basically a fighter. I try to stay positive. Things don’t have to be bad or inevitable. (545)

I know the secret of life isn’t in books. But I also know that it’s good to read, that it can be instructive, or relaxing: we agree about that. (551)

Norwegian Wood (Murakami)

Unlike The Savage Detectives, I’d never read this book before, but also ended up completely loving it. Similarly to Detectives, I was intensely impacted by Norwegian Wood’s pervasive feeling of melancholy and nostalgia, and its depiction of being young. Coincidentally, two of Murakami’s main characters are also obsessive walkers of Tokyo, tying in with Detectives’ use of street names and neighborhoods as a contrast to its characters’ disorientation.

Oh, this book is so sad! It’s very different from the other Murakami books I’ve read (Sheep Chase, Kakfa, 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird, After the Quake, Colorless TI think that’s it), in the sense that it’s a very straightforward, realistic story. It begins simply enough, with our narrator-hero Toru Watanabe on a plane landing in Germany and hearing the faintest strains of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” playing on the speakers. And just like we’re transported back to his days in university in Tokyo, narrated in a decidedly detached, passive style. Toru is unimpressed by university and ends up finding his most formative experiences outside the classroom: “By the second week in September I reached the conclusion that a university education was meaningless. I decided to think of it as a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.” (62)

I was very impressed by the structure of this book. Like The Savage Detectives, it’s filled with stories that other characters tell the narrator, who is fundamentally a blank slate. Two characters, Midori (a main love interest) and Reiko (an older woman he meets) verge on being Manic Pixie Dream Girls (and probably would be in the hands of a lesser writer), but are thankfully given a rough rawness that serve to combat any potential Pixie-ness. A lot of this rawness is related to sex, which is another thing that surprised me about this book–I was definitely not expecting Murakami to be this graphic in parts!

I was also deeply affected by the novel’s themes of regret, death, and loss. There’s a scene involving a firefly in a jar that could potentially be corny, but ended up reading as tragically transcendent to me, almost Gatsby-esque (which is fittingly one of Toru’s favorite books). I liked the different examples that Toru witnesses of adulthood, like his friend who is obsessed with acquiring women and power, and an old man who passes away with very little to show for it (in regards to this latter character, Toru wonders, “what had he left behind? A nothing-much bookshop in a nothing-much neighborhood and two daughters, at least one of whom was more than a little strange. What kind of life was that?”) (261)

(The rest of this review contains SPOILERS so stop reading now if you’d rather not know details of the book’s plot, which is actually something I recommend–it was fun for me to read this book and be surprised!)

In terms of the themes of death and loss, both appear early on in the earliest chapters, when Toru’s 17-year-old best friend Kizuki inexplicably commits suicide. This drives Toru into the arms of Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko, who is (to put it simply) somewhat troubled (this theme of madness is another crazy link with Savage Detectives that I just noticed! I wonder why both authors focused so much on the idea of sanity when writing about youth… I guess because it’s a very intense time). Naoko eventually retreats to a rural sanctuary in the countryside for other people like her, who are finding life a bit too intense and difficult to deal with (I liked how the novel pointedly notes that it was only people with money who were able to go there). Toru regularly visits her and becomes friends with her roommate Reiko, an older woman who used to be a classical pianist before (as they say) things went wrong. As Reiko puts it, “Something inside me had vanished. Some jewel of energy or something had disappeared – evaporated – from my body… Here I was in my early twenties and the best part of my life was over.” (155)

But then Toru meets Midori, a fellow university student: vivacious, wild-mouth and vibrant, Midori is the type of character who says things like “The saddest thing in the world is wearing a damp bra. I’d walk around with tears pouring from my eyes.” (90) Intense and vibrant, the contrast between the two is pretty clear: Midori = life, Naoko = death.

And so the main decision for Toru is set up. And in the background to all this is Toru’s flat, tasteless, and solitary life in university, in which he describes getting up every morning as “winding up a spring.” I found these descriptions of his struggle to get through the day-to-day motions of “normal” living very affecting: “How many Sundays – how many hundreds of Sundays like this – lay ahead of me?” (262)

I also found how Murakami depicted the culture of the 60’s (in terms of its daily protests and obsession with revolution) very interesting, via the lens of Toru’s disillusioned perspective. Watching the everyday scenes of his university campus, Toru experiences severe dislocation: “The more I watched, the more confused I became. What the hell was this all about? I wondered. What could it possibly mean?” (218) KEY QUESTIONS FOR US ALL. “Hey, Kizuki,” Toru thinks at another point, mentally addressing his dead friend, “you’re not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their own disgusting image.” (62)

What doe Toru want from society? What does Toru want from life? What kind of person does he want to be? These are clearly the more important questions that propel the narrative in the book, rather than the question of whether he will choose This Girl or That Girl. Early on, he warns Naoko, “You’re letting yourself be scared by too many things. The dark, bad dreams, the power of the dead,” (193) and this perhaps is the best articulation of the danger he faces. Will he let himself be consumed by the darkness? How does he want to see the world? In another passage I found extremely moving, Naoko says to him (speaking of Kizuki): “We had to pay the world back what we owed it… The pain of growing up. We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due… We were like kids who grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we’d just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we’d go to sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing doesn’t last forever. We grew up fast and had to enter society.” (169)

But does it always have to be like that? Is Toru going to adopt a similar view, in which “entering society” leads to a sacrifice of something you’ll never recuperate? Can you ever get back what you think you’ve lost? In contrast to Naoko’s somewhat glum view, there are also perspectives like Reiko’s, who perhaps more than anyone else in the novel tries her hardest to see the best in things: “So what if I had spent time in mental hospitals? My life hadn’t ended. Life was still full of wonderful things I hadn’t experienced.” (156-157) However, she also goes on to pointedly say, “I sure don’t wish I was younger again… Because it’s such a pain in the neck!” (178)

In the end, Toru has to learn to live with himself and his memories, and by the end of the book, when he’s able to say, “Every once in a while, I think about myself, ‘What the hell, I’ll do,'” (301) it feels like a tremendous victory–the biggest one possible, to be able to look at yourself and say, “I’ll do.”

I highly recommend this book, due to its poignant and painfully sad examination of what it means to grow up, particularly in terms of the consequences of deciding how you want to view the world.

Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course. Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt. (355)

Sometimes I feel like the caretaker of a museum–a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself. (364)

 

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The Cartel

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

This book is utterly gripping and irresistibly page-turning, as well as extremely violent. It provides a fascinating contrast to Bolaño’s 2666, which was written pre-Mexican drug war, but is similarly interested in violence, the visual, and the language and structure of thrillers and crime novels.

This book is a highly commendable achievement: a novelization of the Mexican drug war, weaving fact with fiction, bringing news stories to life. I felt like I learned so much from it, that it really “showed” me things that had previously just been headlines or statistics. Talk about proving the power of fiction. The research for this book must have been no joke (I’m definitely going to explore some of the books he lists in the acknowledgements). Most notably, this novel deserves major respect for how it depicts the most troubling of topics: the existence of undeniable, apocalyptic evil. There are some people in this world who are just plain bad. You can try to analyse it: they want power, they want money, they’re messed up in the head from being militarized in the army, violence is all-consuming and soul-killing, etc. But as a co-worker in Nuevo Laredo once said to me, Hay gente muy malo en este mundo. And that’s just the way it is.

Following the news can sometimes feel like plod. On this day, this happened. This guy escaped from prison. This election, this mass grave, this murdered journalist. The advantage that this book has over non-fiction is that of foresight and form. I’ve always loved Bolaño’s quote from this interview about form vs. plot: “Form is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Through linking together individual stories in an intentional way that non-fiction wouldn’t be able to do, The Cartel is able to use the form of fiction to make us notice wider patterns and causes, to learn things that we might otherwise not realize from simply reading the news.

While the “I don’t play by the rules” DEA Agent Art Keller and his obsessive revenge-plot with the head gangster is engaging enough, and certainly serves as a way of driving the plot forward, the book’s real strength for me are its supporting characters. The stories of Chuy the child-sicario, Pablo the journalist, the borderland ranch owner taking a stand against the Zeta’s seizure of his land, and  the solo female police chief will stay with me a long time, and are by far the main reason for reading this book. An interesting parallel to The Cartel would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which similarly try to turn this massive historical event into this very personal, human-level story driven by person-to-person interactions. The Cartel is as deliciously suspenseful as any classic Michael Crichton novel, but what was notable to me were the individual human stories, and how it turned what would otherwise be an atrocity headline into a narrative. 

It’s SO interesting to me that to a certain extent, Bolaño’s 2666 doesn’t do that. The focus in 2666 (at least in the famous Part IV) is on a mass scale, on overwhelming accumulation, as opposed to individual human stories. Bolaño’s fiction is also much more driven by experiences of interruption and suspension rather than narrative satisfaction. There’s a key image at the very end of The Cartel (you’ll know it when you read it–trust me) that emphasizes the “face” of evil being exposed (brutally so). There is undeniably a sense of satisfaction with this ending, despite its terrible violence. It’s the kind of satisfaction that you come to expect (even crave) with thrillers and crime novels–a clear resolution that’s not necessarily happy, but in which major threads are definitely resolved. This is not a clear-cut satisfaction we get from Bolaño, or from authors like Evelio Rosero, whose emphasis is on abrupt disappearances and absences. 

The other strength of the book for me was its analysis of the drug war. I found its discussion of the increasing visualization of violence and atrocities fascinating, in terms of gangs now broadcasting their beheadings and tortures online, and the parallels between Central American narco gangs and ISIS, in terms of online propaganda and recruitment. How it’s not enough to commit a violent act anymore, it has to be publicized and broadcast. I also found it very interesting to read about certain gangs’ movement towards trafficking gasoline and oil (and how this has piqued the interest of the U.S. more than if it were “just” drugs), as well as the emphasis on the trafficking route rather than the product. 

I’ll definitely read The Power of the Dog, the book that was written before this one (The Cartel is apparently its sequel). Overall, this book is an excellent example of fiction’s ability to make the violence we so often skim over in the news digestible and and undeniably memorable, as well as raising important moral questions about the desire for power and how to do what’s “right.” As one narco puts it, “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit. It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” It’s hard to deny that he has a point…

Quotes from this book:

It’s the new face of the narco gang war, isn’t it? They’re becoming media savvy. They used to hide their crimes, now they publicize them. I wonder if they haven’t taken a page from Al Qaeda. What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it? And maybe that’s the lede on my story. “The crimes that used to lurk in the shadows now seek the sunlight,” or is that a little too “pulp”? (309)

It’s not so much that we’ve now defined the narcos as terrorists, Keller thought, but that there’s more of a psychological leak from the war on terror into the war on drugs. The battle against Al Qaeda has redefined what’s thinkable, permissible, and doable. Just as the war on terror has turned the functions of intelligence agencies into military action, the war on drugs has similarly militarized the police… Certainly, Keller thought, my war on drugs has changed over the years. It used to be all about busts and seizures, the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of getting the shit off the street, but now I barely think about the drugs themselves. The actual trafficking is almost irrelevant. I’m not a drug agent anymore, he reflected, I’m a hunter. (392)

Americans take their strength in victories, Mexicans’ strength is in their ability to suffer loss. (403)

“Post-traumatic stress disorder”? There’s nothing “post” about it. Nothing is over, nothing is in the past. We live with this shit every day. And “disorder”? It would be a disorder if we weren’t stressed. (474)

America’s longest war is the war on drugs. Forty years and counting. I was here when it was declared and I’m still here. And drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever. But it’s not about the drugs anymore, anyway, is it? (500)

You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? (511)

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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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Dealing With the Everyday

My Struggle 2: A Man in Love (Knausgaard)

Here are some things I spend a lot of time doing:

  • The dishes
  • Feeding the cat, washing the cat’s bowls
  • Doing laundry, hanging laundry, putting away laundry
  • Cooking enormous amounts of lentils or soup, putting it in freezer
  • Picking clothes off the floor of my bedroom and putting them on my bed
  • Biking to the library for work and paying £2 for porridge because I left the house too late to have breakfast
  • Spending money online on train tickets, hooks for the wall to hang up the clothes I leave on the floor, yoga class, organic hypoallergenic cat food, meditation course, library fines.
  • Buying food to fuel myself, a never-ending process that often feels like the scene in Titanic where the sweaty dust-smeared Irish men are shoveling coal into the constantly hungry, never full burners.

This is my life (or at least what I’m willing to say about it on the Internet ;p). This is my banal, my everyday, what tends to absorb and take me over. This is mainly the stuff that occupies my mind on a daily basis rather than the BIG QUESTIONS that I’m not even going to write out here because I don’t feel like having a panic attack right now, thank you very much!!! :D

But this everyday stuff is very much the concern of A Man in Love, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. In other words, the book is interested in balance between the mundane and what he calls “the sacred,” which for some people might appear as religion, but for him seems to mostly appear as the act of writing.

What happens in this book? He goes to his daughter’s birthday party. He comments on the difference between the Swedish and Norwegians. There’s extended flashback sequences to when he met and fell in love with his wife, had his first child. He struggles to write a novel about angels. He fights with the crazy Russian neighbor lady who may or may not be a prostitute. He suspects his mother-in-law of secretly drinking out of the alcohol bottles on top of the fridge.

If someone had told me four years ago that I would have found this kind of stuff irresistibly compelling, I would have laughed hysterically. But good god, did I ever. I turned the pages with the frenetic urgency of a Michael Crichton novel. How on earth did the author achieve this? I suspect that it’s partly due to the style: it’s very clearly written, reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, with flashes of black Herzogian humor that (just like with Volume I) I found absolutely hysterical. I suspect another reason that I found it so fascinating and compelling is due to a perverse fascinating of reading things that I found so familiar, yet had rarely seen covered in such intense detail. There are just so few books that actually pay attention to these moments, you know? The rituals of making the morning coffee, the commute, the hangover, the dinner party. And yet this is what life is for so many of us. Every once in a while we have The Moments that novel climaxes are made of. But most of the time I’m wiping spilt coffee off the counter.

Needless to say I can’t wait to read Volumes III-VI (once all the translations have been released, of course! I believe 1-5 have come out in English so far).

There are many, many quotes that I highlighted while reading this book, but here are a select few:

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. What was the problem? … perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out of the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. (67)

…with Dostoevsky there were no heights, no mountains, there was no divine perspective, everything was in this human domain, wreathed in this characteristically Dostoevskian wretched, dirty, sick, almost contaminated mood that was never too far from hysteria. That was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred. But was this the place to go? Was it necessary to go down on bended knee? (72)

I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminised, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside of me. (90)

Life. Getting through it, that was what I was doing. (134)

It is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it. (271)

I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about the book I’ve written, I don’t give a shit if it wins a prize or not, all I want is to write more. (457)

This was my life. This was what my life was. I had to pull myself together. Chin up. (498)

Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not bloody believe you are somebody. Because you are not… You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience. This was the only true bloody thought I’d ever had. (516)

I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that too. I hate every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. (589)

Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)

Talk about a contrast to Knasgaard! There’s no shortage of decidedly less domestic everyday moments in this book: two best female friends run around Manchester, do drugs, flee from dealers, drink a LOT of wine, wake up from a LOT of soul-crushing hangovers, try to write a novel about a priest with a talking pig, and even ponder religion in a few discordantly intriguing passages. Yes, there were definitely moments in this that struck painfully true chords with certain instances in my own 30-something life. In this interview, the author cites the picaresque novel as an influence, and also calls Animals an “anxious” book, both of which I can definitely see. Overall, I enjoyed the raw cathartic energy of this book, the drive and energy of the prose. I’d rather something be interesting and different, rather than poetically perfect and polished. I also liked that the protagonist was still drinking in the end, and that her journey as a character didn’t necessarily equal complete 100% sobriety. The focus is ultimately on the friendship between the two girls (women?), and this was something I very much appreciated. I love books that are unapologetic and unashamed, something this book had in spades.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez)

So you have the everyday reality of Knausgaard and Animals, and then you have this. Holy ***ing shit. This book has been on my to-read list for years, and even though I haven’t finished it yet (still have two chapters to go), boy, does it provide some brutal perspective. Even Bolaño didn’t delve into darkness this apocalyptically bleak. In brave, uncompromisingly stark prose (captured extremely well by the translation), the book delves into subject matter similar to the film Sin Nombre, that of Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. (focusing primarily on “la bestia” of the title, or the freight trains barreling across Mexico, with migrants clinging on).

As said before… this book goes to some dark places. I think the chapter set in a brothel on the Mexican-Guatemalan border was maybe the most difficult for me. So many brutal moments. We touch upon an expression often used by migrants: cuerpomátic, the body as a credit card (most especially the female body), buying you a little safety, a little bit of cash, the potential that your travel buddies won’t get killed, a more comfortable ride on the train. We learn about the myth of the bra tree–a desert tree draped with bras and panties of migrant women raped by bandits, the underwear kept as trophies (Martínez depressingly clarifies that “I refer to it as a myth not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s not one tree but many.”) (164) It’s a world where talking about the narco’s fees is as common as talking about the rise in the price of tortillas.

I’ll be honest… I read books like this one, and on one hand I’m grateful, blown away, amazed by reporters like Martínez doing this kind of work in the world, bringing these kinds of issues to light. Another part of me is like… oh my god. Me and my stupid, silly, little life. How dare I complain about anything, ever? What am I supposed to do in face of this? How am I supposed to live, to act? What can I do to help, what can I do to make a difference, what can I do that matters, whatcanidowhatcanidowhatcanido. And yeah, I’ll say it: there’s a certain amount of bleak hopelessness too. How did things get this bad? Why did this happen? How can there be a turning point, ever? Is this the kind of world we’re going to live in? Is it like Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” are we all eternally damned, is there no turning back?

Rather than hopeless, though, it might be more accurate to say that this book comes off as brutally realistic. This is the way things are. Never-ending violence as everyday. This is the banal, mundane reality that many, many, many people are living in, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that fact. I really, really don’t.

(It’s worth saying Martínez has a new book out, which needless to say I am highly interested in reading.)

We’re walking among the dead. Life’s value seems reduced, continuously dangled like bait on a fishing line. Killing, dying, raping, or getting raped–the dimensions of these horrors are diminished to points of geography. Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill. (37)

The unspoken question becomes evident. How is it possible that the kidnappings are still happening when the local governments, the countries of origin, the media, the Mexican government, and the US government all know exactly what’s going on? … Everybody knows, nobody acts, and the kidnappings continue. (103)

 

 

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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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Filed under books, colombia, IFFP, review

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

Soundtrack 2014, and some books

In celebration of my recent birthday and the incoming new school year (two things that evoke feelings of New Beginnings and Hello Closure), here is my 2014 soundtrack (i.e. what I mostly listened to on a recent long bike ride):

  1. All Fall Down” (Shawn Colvin)
  2. Let It Go” (Frozen soundtrack)
  3. One More Night” (Maroon 5)
  4. Take Me To Church” (Sinead O’Connor)
  5. All These Things That I’ve Done” (The Killers)
  6. Bailando” (Enrique Iglesias)
  7. Counting Stars” (One Republic)
  8. Freedom” (George Michael)
  9. Pompeii” (Bastille)
  10. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (R.E.M.)
  11. Diane Young” (Vampire Weekend)
  12. Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” (Owen Pallett)
  13. Think of You” (MS MR)
  14. O My Heart” (R.E.M.)
  15. You’re Still A Mystery” (The Bleachers)
  16. Streets of Philadelphia” [live cover] (Tori Amos)

A lot of these songs make think of my summer job in the U.S., running ENDLESS miles for marathon training in England in the spring, or private mini dance breaks in my room year-round. I wonder what fall has in store…

Additionally, here are some good books I’ve read lately: Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Good Offices is a delightfully gothic tale that feels like a closely related cousin to Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, in the sense that both books deal with corrupt priests and combine the genuinely shocking with the darkly funny (it might be a bit TOO dark for animal lovers, though I was okay with it). It also has an absolutely killer opening sentence: “He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” (It’s interesting that the Spanish title of this book is Los almuerzos, the lunches.) This book also deserves mucho respect for being so short, concise, and effective: it knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it gets it done in 150 pages, an easy afternoon read. Sometimes I wonder if it’s harder to write this kind of book than it is to write, say, a 350 page novel.

Marcus’ Leaving the Sea, meanwhile, is one of the strangest collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I started it before I left England in June, so it was a bit of a headtrip to finish it when I came back, as all the most innovative (i.e. just plain weird) stories are (purposefully?) grouped near the end. This deliberate structuring gives the collection a consistent tone, though–you start out nice and slow in familiar and amusingly satirical Jonathan Franzen territory, and then things slowly but surely start dissolving into a bad acid trip with George Saunders mixed with seriously experimental prose-poetry. I think my favorite story overall occurred near the beginning, “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” if only because it was about a writer running a creative writing workshop on a cruise ship. How come more writers don’t write about being writers? I also liked “Rollingwood” (a dystopic nightmare about a single father dealing with a sick child and a hostile workplace), and “The Loyalty Protocol” (another dystopic tale concerning aging parents and apocalyptic gym evacuation drills). I think I can now definitely proclaim that this is the kind of dystopic writing I prefer–the kind that’s ambiguous and leaves much unsaid and unexplained–as opposed to the specific world-building kind.

Leaving the Atocha Station is one of those Sebaldian, Teju Cole-like novels that blurs fact with fiction, includes black and white photographs and mainly involves the first-person, male narrator wandering around a large city. So far I have yet to have a problem with any of those things, though I would love to know if there’s a female author out there somewhere who’s written a similarly-themed book and received the same kind of critical attention and acclaim as Sebald, Cole and Lerner have. My favorite thing about this book was how dislikable, needy and insecure the main character was, and yet… I still really enjoyed spending time with him. Kudos to Lerner for pulling this off. I think if a lot of us were truly honest with ourselves, we would confess to having similar thoughts and feelings as this narrator does (delusions of grandeur, petty jealousies, deliberately lying in an attempt to evoke pity from love interests, etc.). That might be part of the cathartic appeal of this character for me, maybe (there but for the grace go I etc). Lerner’s book will also remain memorable to me for having lots really good quotes and passages about The Point of Art in the World, especially in the Face of Violence and Horror and so on (here’s a good essay about it, and another good essay by the author himself). I’d like to read this one again someday.

“I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium… then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.” (Leaving the Atocha Station, pg. 44-5)

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Filed under books, music, review, short stories

The African Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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