Tag Archives: Latin American Literature

The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos

The Book of Lamentations51ZXl5Fj7ML._SL500_AA300_[1]

Translated by Esther Allen, Marsilio Publishing 1996 pages 400

Exactly twenty years ago, the world became aware of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Though the immediate reason for the revolt was the NAFTA treaty that opened the floodgates for US-manufactured goods into Mexico, it was one among a series of previous revolts in the area since the 18th century. Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel before her death at the age of 49 in 1974 is based on these revolts and located in the early 20th century. The title of the novel recalls the Jewish text also called The Book of Lamentations,a collection of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.

The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in the novel. Spurred on by an honest and gritty land inspector, Fernando Ulloa and the millenarian prophecies of an Indian woman, Catalina Diaz Puilja, the indigenous Tzotzil-speaking Mayan people of the region rise up against the Ladinos, the landowners of Spanish descent. The end is a bloody defeat of the rebels and Fernando’s calamitous death at the hands of the Ladinos- led by Leonardo Cifuentes, the devious representative of the land-rich ranchers. These three characters form the fulcrum of the story, though there are at least a dozen important characters in the novel.

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The Dream of the Celt

The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.

As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.

Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.

His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently. Continue reading

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Exasperatingly Long Wait

Five years ago, when the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked his opinion on the possibility of his winning the Nobel prize were, he replied:

“Let us not even think of it…”

Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn at the Nobel has come in exasperatingly late, when not only him, but many of his admirers had given up on the honour coming his way.

In the words of Carlos Fuentes, when Garcia Marquez (Gabo) won the award in 1982, he won it ‘on behalf of all writers of his generation from Latin America.’ Twenty-eight years later, the Nobel to MVL is a restatement of the recognition that the Amazonian flow of literature from Latin America- during and after Gabo’s generation so richly deserves.

Llosa’s relative lack of recognition in the English-speaking world is probably the reason that I came so late to his writings, a decade after discovering and relishing Gabo’s writings.

A few years ago, while on a short visit to the US, I came across a book on the Zapatistas. In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marco explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, despite his ideas.

This last observation flummoxed me. How can an author influence one’s mind despite his ideas?
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European Left, Blogging Soviet life, Borges, Savi Savarkar, Discount Books

Former left wing dissident, Boris Kagarlitsky, assesses the changes in the European Left over the last two decades.
A decade ago, the triumph of liberalism in Europe was so overwhelming that even parties that traced their political lineage to the early 20th-century revolutionary working class movement did not to speak openly about the radical transformation of society. Communist parties closed down or hastily reinvented themselves as Social Democrats, while Social Democratic parties became liberal parties.

In the same newspaper, Victor Sonkin, writes on the nostalgic blogging of the Soviet years.

The sub genre of literature blogs seem especially interesting. One blog consists of short memoirs of not very distant times, which are now becoming increasingly “retro.” Before reading the website I thought that most mundane details of everyday life escaped attention, were forgotten and eventually lost. How, for example, did one pay the fare for a Moscow streetcar in 1979?

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A biographical sketch of Luis Jorge Borges at The Garden of Forking Paths.
“Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”

As a bonus, the article also gives the correct pronunciation of Borges’ name!

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On a dark winter night, as mists slowly swirled around us, a bearded man and I got talking in the dhaba where we were having a late night dinner. The man turned out to be a painter and took me to see his paintings in his studio in the nearby Sukhrali village, now engulfed within Gurgaon. His paintings were full of angst and we had a long discussion on Hinduism, Dalits, Ambedkar and Marxism. Over a decade after that it makes me very happy to see that Savi Savarkar is getting his due as the most eminent Dalit artist of our age. His paintings were exhibited last week at Ravindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi.
A repeated use of red, blue, yellow and black is a striking feature of Sawarkar’s work. Colour activates the surface of the piece, as if there was a fierce struggle between the figure and the surface grounding it. To borrow a phrase from Mikhail Bakhtin, you might even call Sawarkar’s art a “carnival of the grotesque”. He keeps returning to the fact that what we often recognise as normal — whether it is the human body or human ways of thinking — must take into account the grotesquerie that is an everyday experience for many people.(link)

Check out the gallery at his site. The paintings that I saw in his studio were very scathing, the ones at his site look relatively more tempered. One that is etched in my mind specifically is where a dalit man is carrying the village waste (night soil) on two pots hanging at the two ends of a stick, and is spitting into one of them.

The pot that he is spitting into is marked with the swastika and below it reads the word: “Om”.

Link via Subaltern Studies

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A lot of books at a discount sale from Columbia University Press. Most books are at 50% discount, some at even 80%. Quite a few books on Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian) history and literature. Nothing, alas, on Latin American literature, though.
(via email from Philip Leventhal of the Columbia University Press)

May 68, More on Behenji, Moderate Islam, New Wave Latin American Literature

The BBC’s Philosophy in the Streets recalls the last upheaval of the Left in the West. The point that the radio talk makes is that the Left’s politics may have died out, but the schools of philosophy that were the offshoot of May 1968 still carry on- if that is a consolation. I felt that the programme is a little unkind to Sartre’s role during the student revolt, though it ties with my own observation that Sartre has become less relevant today compared to Camus, to say nothing of Foucault and Derrida. The talk is about 25 minutes long and well worth the time.

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Rediff has an interview with Ajoy Bose, author of Mayawati Kumari’s biography “Behenji”, as she is popularly known. Some of his observations are quite insightful, for example, this one about how the BSP’s politics is different from most other parties in India today:

The significance of Mayawati is that she is completely different from everybody else in any ways. She doesn’t belong to any old political formations.

In most parties there is a political leadership structure. There is a ladder which you climb in the party hierarchy. In the Bahujan Samaj Party there is Mayawati on top and then, there are some functional people. You find Satish Mishra, Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Baburam Kushwaha but they are not leaders fitted somewhere in the hierarchy. You can’t say that this particular BSP leader is moving up, this particular MLA will become MP one day. There is absolutely nothing like that.

(Link via Mayawatijee)

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Tarek Fatah’s book Chasing a Mirage: The The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State , has been expectedly getting good reviews in the Western press, it remains to be seen how it will be received in Pakistan and the (so- called) Muslim world. A review in The Star from Toronto.

Writing of Saudi Arabia, he says that 95 per cent of Mecca’s heritage buildings have been destroyed in the last two decades, mostly to build lucrative highrises overlooking the Ka’aba, or Grand Mosque.

Lost structures include the house of the Prophet’s wife Khadijah, demolished to make way for public toilets, and the house of Abu-Bakr, the Prophet’s successor, for a Hilton Hotel.

Even the Prophet’s 1,400-year-old home is under threat, he says, quoting London’s Independent newspaper and other sources, for a project known as the Jabal Omar Scheme, which includes seven apartment towers and two 50-storey hotels.

(Link via HD)

A more critical review at the Amazon.

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This PEN discussion at the Literary Review brings a focus on a number of new writers from Latin America, and notes how much a big elephant Garcia Marquez is in the Latin American literary room:

Reviewers and readers, he complained, expect a certain pattern from Spanish and Latin American fiction — but expectations of a particular style or kind of fiction seem to be an issue in Spain and Latin America, too. Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez noted that for decades Colombian authors found it almost impossible to get around the overwhelming figure of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No country, he suggested, has had such a dominant literary figure, and the effect was in many respects stifling, as readers came to expect everything to follow in that same magical realism-mode.

Link via Conversational Reading

Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

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