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.

Related Posts on Roberto Bolano

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How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira

First published in Spanish in 1998, Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun was received with critical acclaim. It’s English translation became available last year.

The novel is about the story of a six year old girl caught in the body of a boy, who tastes strawberry ice cream only to fall into a state of mental delirium emerging from it at the end by having to taste the same ice cream again, this time culminating in a macabre end.

Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girlpublished earlier this year in its English translation, that too has got impressive reviews, I feel disappointed by Nun after having been bedazzled by Aira’s two previous works translated into English till now- An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.

The only passage that I found noteworthy, however does not appear in any of the online reviews, that is where Cesar Aira (the six year old girl/ boy protagonist) listens to the radio broadcasts about the astrological predictions of the day.

If the short novella was intended to, as other reviewers have noted, explore the inner workings of the mind of an artist or a writer and their capacity to imagine, the novella is not convincing, even distracing at places.

Other
reviews. The one that I agree with is the one at NYT.

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The Year of Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano’s posthumous onslaught on the US literary scene continues. Boston Review has published a poem My Life in the Tubes of Survival.

Dreaming
That the saucer and I had finished our ridiculous dance,
Our humble critique of Reality, in a painless, anonymous
Crash in one of the planet’s deserts. Death
That brought me no peace, so after my flesh had rotted
I still went on dreaming.read the full poem

The New Yorker has a superb short story about a fictitious Argentinian author:Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey.

It has all the elements of a Roberto Bolano story- fast paced sequences written in exquisite prose and an ending with a dramatic twist. A short extract from the story:

But the action of that sinister and eminently sardonic character Time has prompted a reconsideration of Rousselot’s apparent simplicity. Perhaps he was complicated. By which I mean more complicated than we had imagined. Or, there is an alternative explanation: perhaps he was simply another victim of chance.

Such cases are not unusual among lovers of literature like Rousselot. In fact, they are not unusual among lovers of anything. read the full story (about 10 pages long)

Related posts on Roberto Bolano on this blog.

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The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Bad Girl is unlike the typical Llosa. The structure is linear and he avoids the interplay with time and space that he normally brings into the novel and that is his hallmark. Perhaps because it is meant as a kind of 20th century Madame Bovary, a novel that Llosa admires much and has written a whole book on (The Perpetual Orgy.)

Llosa’s The Bad Girl, unlike Flaubert’s immortal creation, is unlikely to be counted as among the most significant of own novels- part of the reason is that despite its occasional flashes of brilliance and a most dramatic and contemporary theme, the novelist expects too much from the reader to believe in the many coincidences in the story, and there are just too many pages of dark prose.

I read it over a weekend and it was only my fawning admiration and confidence in Llosa’s previous works that kept me going (this is the 18th book by Llosa that I read, not counting 2 incomplete ones.) The prose is good in the beginning of the novel and towards the end, and while it is rather dreary in the big middle chunk, he manages to keep the determined reader engrossed in dramatic- or perhaps over dramatic- sequences leading to its ominous and disturbing end.

Not bad for a weekend read.

Review of The Bad Girl at SFGate (link via SPLALit).

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“Scent of Chile at Daybreak”

“Scent of Chile at Daybreak” by Marjorie Agosín

this daybreak
here on a foreign
shore
on the other half
of the world,
and on another ocean
I felt that the sea
smelled like Chile
after the ruthless
rains,
or the days of fog
when ghosts
and those blessed by miracles come out
to haunt among the hills

and I smelled my little homeland
with its fissures like stories
and I sensed the old women of the town
returning in the afternoons to gaze at the sea

little by little
my homeland
opened up for me
like a diaphanous
bouquet
like a path
to travel
in the delight of the air

and this sea that smelled like Chile
brought back childhood and fear
the violence of the flight
the violence of the return . . .
but also this
intangible thing called
home
kitchen
precious scents
intangible memories

here on the coasts of Maine
I returned to Isla Negra
to those encounters with poetry and
his words rocking gently between the waves
the sea smelled like Chile
I write it now in order to speak

[Marjorie Agosín's family migrated to the US to escape the military coup that toppled Salvador Allende's Socialist government and inaugurated the long dark years of Augusto Pinochet]

(Translated by Roberta Gordenstein)

The Virginia Quarterly Review’s Fall issue is on the theme Latin America in the 21st Century. Among other writings is an excerpt from Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

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The Shortest Story

One of the best short stories is just one sentence long- The Dinosaur by Augusto Monterroso. Here it goes:
When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

This enigmatic short story, considered to be the shortest one ever written, has inspired many a doctoral thesis!

Mario Vargas Llosa, the master Peruvian storyteller, uses the story as an illustration in some of his Letters to a Young Novelist. Here is an extract from the letter titled Levels of Reality.

What is the point of view in terms of level of reality in this story? You’ll agree that the narrative is situated in the plane of the fantastic, since in the real world you and I inhabit, it is improbable that prehistoric animals that appeared in our dreams–or in our nightmares–would turn up as an objective reality, and that we should encounter them in the flesh at the foot of our beds when we opened our eyes. It’s clear, then, that the level of reality of the narrative is an imaginary or fantastic reality. Is the narrator (omniscient and impersonal) situated on the same plane? I’d venture to say that he is not, that he establishes himself instead on a real or realist plane–in other words, one that is essentially opposite and contrary to that of the narrative. How do I know this? By the tiniest but most unmistakable of indications, a signal or hint that the careful narrator gives the reader as he tells his pared-clown tale: the adverb still. The word doesn’t just define an objective temporal circumstance, indicating a miraculous occurrence (the passage of the dinosaur from a dreamworld to objective reality). It is also a call to attention, a display of surprise or astonishment at the remarkable event. Monterroso’s still is flanked by invisible exclamation points and implicitly urges us to be surprised by the amazing thing that has happened. (“Notice, all of you, what is going on: the dinosaur is still there, when it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be, since in true reality things like this don’t happen; they are only possible in a fantastic reality.”) This is how we know the narrator is narrating from an objective reality; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t induce us through the knowing use of an amphibious adverb to take note of the transition of the dinosaur from dream to life, from the imaginary to the tangible.

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A Short Story By Roberto Bolano

Long time readers of this blog may be aware of the admiration that this blogger has for nearly all the works by Roberto Bolaño that have been translated into English. A poem by Bolaño appeared here a few posts below. This week’s issue of the New Yorker carries a story by the late Mexican, Chilean, Latin American writer who died prematurely at he age of 50 in 2003.

This short story, like much of Bolaño’s works, lies at the intersection of literature and politics and the ease with which the personal and the political blend effortlessly in his hands, as indeed they do in real life, is amazing.

I would not rate the story as one of his finest ones, but the prose is imaginative and exquisite and that alone would make it worth reading. Here is an excerpt:

When the lawyer’s two or three close friends asked him why he remained single, his response was always that he didn’t want to impose the unbearable burden (as he put it) of a stepmother on his offspring. In Pereda’s opinion, most of Argentina’s recent problems could be traced to the figure of the stepmother. We never had a mother, as a nation, he would say; or, she was never there; or, she left us on the doorstep of the orphanage. But we’ve had plenty of stepmothers, all sorts, starting with the great Peronist stepmother. And he would conclude: Of all the countries in Latin America, we’re the experts on stepmothers.

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‘You either listen or you don’t, and I listened’

Roberto Bolaño has in recent years won posthumous fame as a novelist. However he considered himself to be above all a poet, and poetry to be a higher form of literature as compared to the novel. This poem is an illustration of his breathtaking repertoire.

‘Self Portrait at Twenty Years’ by Roberto Bola
ño

I set off, I took up the march and never knew
where it might take me. I went full of fear,
my stomach dropped, my head was buzzing:
I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
I don’t know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
to leave so soon, but at the same time
I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
You either listen or you don’t, and I listened
and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
born on the air and in the sea.
A sword and shield. And then,
despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
against death’s cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.

—Roberto Bolaño (translated by Laura Healy, The Romantic Dogs, his first collection of poetry to be translated into English)

Source: The Threepenny Review  via Literary Saloon

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More on The Savage Detectives

The Quarterly Conversation has a few articles on Roberto Bolaño, including one on his recently translated novel The Savage Detectives (my review here). It reproduces a poem by the mysterious founder of the “visceral realist” movement Cesarea Tinajero in whose search the two “detectives” in the novel set out for. The only published poem by Tinajero, and which perplexes the two is:

Javier Moreno observes that one needs to see Bolaño’s work as a whole, rather than individual works:

None of Bolaño’s books can be seen as an island, completely isolated from the rest. Each one is crucial to the overall goal in its own right. There is a constant and intense dialog among the novellas, short stories, and novels. Figuring out the precise shapes and natures of these links should be an occupation for the interested reader.

Scott Esposito explains the posthumous popularity of Bolaño:

To a very large degree, Americans are preoccupied with questions of what future they are passing on to the next generation. Bolaño shows us how these questions work on a personal level, and By Night in Chile especially shows us the enduring humanistic fibers that link our 9/11 to Chile’s 9/11. There is much talk about Americans writing the post-9/11 novel these days, but perhaps the post-9/11 novel has, thus far, best been written by a Chilean.

There is also an interview with Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Savage Detectives into English:

 

Q: And lastly, which of Bolaño’s novels is your favorite?

 

A:That’s easy–The Savage Detectives. The others all have their own appeal, but The Savage Detectives is just the easiest one to fall for. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. There’s a reason that it made Bolaño a cult figure, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the most autobiographical.

Chris Andrews who has translated both Bolaño as well as Cesar Airas comments about translating Bolaño:

One difficulty that crops up frequently in Bolaño is how to translate regional familiar language: Mexican or Chilean slang, for example. If you use regional terms in English it can be confusing for the reader, because they will hear the Chilean or Mexican character as an Australian, say. So you have to try to respect the level of informality, make the expression fit with the character as he or she has been constructed, and rely on other markers of locality in the context. Just occasionally, I think, the best solution is to leave the word in Spanish, but only very occasionally (as with chido in Amulet).

The new issue of the excellent World Literature magazine has a good collection of a number of Latin American authors, including Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun, Bolano’s Amulet, Eduardo Galeano’s Voices in Time (warning: pdf format). The issue’s main focus is, however, a review of Chinese literature.

Update: The New York Review of Books has a review essay by Francisco Goldman on all the novels by Bolaño available in English:

In Garcìa Márquez’s writings, wrote Vargas Llosa in 1971, the “social and political theme, although essential to those fictions…appears in an oblique manner.”[4] (The famous scene of the massacre of the banana plantation workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude passes like a brief hallucination within the spectacular whirl of that novel, yet we never doubt Garcìa Márquez’s political sympathies with them.) Such a novelist, wrote Vargas Llosa, declares war on mundane reality and attempts to supplant it: “To write novels is an act of rebellion against reality…. Every novel is a secret deicide, is a symbolic assassin of reality.”

Bolaño did write about political violence directly, though in a way that couldn’t have been further from the literature of “denunciation” that Garcìa Márquez condemned. He even claimed that violence functioned in his writings “in an accidental way, which is how violence functions everywhere.”

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

While we were still under the spell of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a new generation of Latin American writers arrived.

A scintillating star in the galaxy of this new generation undoubtedly is Roberto Bolaño, who died at the age of 50 four years ago. Principally a poet, he increasingly has been recognized as an important contemporary novelist. Starting with By Night, in Chile to the most recently translated work The Savage Detectives, and the much awaited translation of his longest work 2066, his voice is very unique, and imploring to be heard. When The Savage Detectives was published nine years ago in its original Spanish version, it was hailed by some as the greatest thing to happen in the Spanish speaking world since Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bolaño was born in Chile,but lived most of his life in Mexico, briefly going back to Chile when Salvadore Allende came to power, and returning after the infamous September 11 coup.

The novel is unduly long, 575 pages filled in a most unusual way, violating some of the most fundamental “rules” of writing, and especially novel writing. Except for complaining about the length of the novel- about 400 pages would have been ideal and the first part that is filled with excruciating, even nauseating details of the sexual proclivities of the “visceral realists”, there is little to complain about the novel, and much to deliberate over.

Divided into three parts, the bulky middle one- titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico”- is sandwiched between two rather thin ones. Part one introduces us to some of the central characters in the novel- Arturo Belano (an alter ego of the author) and Ulises Lima, both founder poets of the visceral realist movement that set itself the task of transforming the poetry landscape not only in Mexico, but the entire Latin America.

In a way, the novel is autobiographical, not in one, but two ways. It traces the story of Artur Belano, except that instead of him writing his autobiography, it is people that know him who write about him. Each one of the 55 people either write their personal journals at various times between 1975 and 1997, or sometimes converse directly with the reader. The long middle section novel consists of little more these entries, some short, but some rather long so that like Don Quixote, there are stories within stories, between them charting a landscape both fascinating and unexpected in its meanderings.

The other novel that comes to mind is Hopscotch by the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, a novel about a group of Bohemian Latinos in Europe. In the case of the characters in The Savage Detectives, the word Bohemian is an understatement!

There is no plot in the four hundred or so pages in the middle section. In the first section, narrated by a character- with no particular literary qualities, the two protagonists (the “savage detectives”) go out in search of an unknown predecessor, Cesárea Tinajero, who after initiating a now forgotten school of poetry in the 1920s has disappeared in the northern borders of the Sonora desert. The novel returns to the theme only in the last part, when the meanderings of the middle part- the umpteen journal entries, become clearer, and the title of the novel begins to make sense.

What emerges, is the story of the “lost” generation of Latin American writers that grew up in the shadow of giants like Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. While the previous generation protested against the existing political and social order they invariably also became part of that system, with those like Garcia Marquez becoming friends with political leaders like Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa himself running for the Peruvian presidential candidacy (though as a candidate of the Right) and Octavio Paz serving the PRI government in Mexico as a diplomat.

At the end, the novel leaves one with images floating across turbulent waters, a mosaic of paintings flitting past speedily. Fifty- five characters speak in their own voices- for the uniqueness of each Bolaño has to be commended. The word that occurs most frequently in the novel is “I”, the breakneck speed of the narrative- not so much action as speed, and the concurrent narrative from multiple geographic places and from various dates on the calendar- in a word, the novel is very much that belongs to our age dominated as it is by accelerated communications around the globe.

Is the novel then a reflection of the senseless chaos that seems to prevail around us? Is it the post modern dystopia- all narrative and no plots, no certainties? At one level, Bolaño’s novel would seem to indicate so. At another level, it pulls the rug from under the feet of such a world.

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Related Posts on Roberto Bolaño at this blog

There have been a plethora of reviews in the last two months of The Savage Detectives, many are available at this excellent site on Spanish literature.

The novel has a site of it’s own. Check out the biographical essay (pdf) in the “About the Author” section.

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Cross- posted at Desicritics 

Mexico City after 1968

Carmen Boullosa recollects the literary scene in Mexico City,which was the meeting point of many writers exiled from South America in the early 1970s, and which forms the backdrop of Roberto Bolano’s recently translated novels Amulet and The Savage Detectives.
Paz or Huerta, that was the question. We never thought about whether we were for or against “magic realism.” There were many stars in our fictional firmament in the early ’70s, and most of them–Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Jorge Ibargüengoitia and García Márquez himself–worked in a variety of genres: realism and journalism as well as imaginative and fantastic literature. And yet there was a division among the fiction writers that paralleled the opposition between Octavian and Efrainite poets. There were those who admired La Onda (The Vibe), a realist literary movement that was Mexico’s version of the Beats, a group of young urban novelists whose prose was the equivalent of Efrainite poetry. On the other side were those who saw themselves as the heirs of Juan José Arreola, Juan Rulfo and Adolfo Bioy Casares; what they espoused wasn’t magic realism but an imaginative frame of mind, open to ghosts, madness and dreams (as in the fictions of Borges, Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel, or the jewel-like short stories of Silvina Ocampo). The members of this second group were, in a sense, the narrative counterparts of the Octavians. Neither of these “schools” required their followers to adopt a linear narrative technique. The better you know the tradition, the better you can subvert it; we knew that.

Two Novels about Mexico, 1968

 

 

 

 

 

1968 for Mexico, as for many countries around the world, marked a year of student protests, culminating in what has come to be known as the Tlatelolco massacres. Wishing to change the oppressive one party rule of the PRI students revolted in the backdrop of persistent, if not rising social inequalities.

Two recently published novels are on this theme: The Uncomfortable Dead by the Mexican writer of mysteries, Paco Ignacio Taibo and the leader of the Chiapas’ revolt, Subcommandante Marcos and the other one is by the Chilean writer who lived in Mexico in those years Roberto Bolaño- Amulet.

Amulet is thematically similar to Distant Stars, another Bolaño novels also published in English last year- both lie at the intersection of literature and politics.

Amulet deals with the generation of Mexican poets that grew up after the 1968 suppression of student revolt. It is narrated by a woman Auxilio Lacouture, an ‘illegal alien’ from Uruguay and who hides in the bathroom of the UNAP university in September ’68 as the military cracks down on the students. She survives to play ‘mother’ to a generation of Mexican poets growing up in the shadow of the aborted revolt.

There is something about Roberto Bolaño that even in translation he is so readable, like Tomas Eloy Martinez, a contemporary Latin American writer from Argentina.

However, compared to Bolaño’s earlier novels published in English- By Night, In Chile and Distant Stars, this Amulet is somewhat disappointing despite a promising start.

It also forms a link to his novel published in English last week The Savage Detectives, which is certainly the longest work by this writer, who died prematurely at the age of 52 couple of years back to be translated into English.

The Uncomfortable Dead, on the other hand, is a uniformly wonderful novel, and combines the narrative of a racy suspense thriller with a deeply social and political perspective- an intersection that a delighted Zizek would term as the ‘Parallax view‘.

Since it is a suspense novel, I’d rather not comment much on this except to point out that Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, is a wonderful Sancho Panza like character who lives much beyond the novel. His first person account of urban Mexico, as well as the Chiapas struggle is both deeply humorous and moving.

This is, for example, how he describe Mexico City- the ‘Monster’:

The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poort. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.

In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.

I found the escapades of this rather subaltern character, that somehow persistently reminded me of The Good Soldier Sjevk, most gripping, and the novel a worthwhile read, even if the rest had not been written as well as it actually is.

There is yet another minor similarity between the two novels- in both the authors themselves appear as characters. Roberto Bolaño appears as Arturo Belano in Amulet and Subcommandante Marcos in The Uncomfortable Dead as himself- the El Sup.

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Belated Happy Birthday, Gabo

During the early, celebratory tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, thirteen writers were invited to spend some time in India for a literary rendezvous.  The event, like its godfather Rajiv Gandhi, is hardly remembered – not even Google finds anything on the event, and you have to trust my memory.

But even then, the event was hardly noticed, though this seven-word-poem captured the attention of a local newspaper, and it remains imprinted on my mind ever since.

United States,

Where liberty is a statue

A person called Gabriel Garcia Marquez quoted these lines penned by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

A few years later, thanks to the attentive eyes of a friend, I got to read a novel by Marquez himself. My friend had found the book in a used books shop in Mcleodganj near Dharamsala. I devoured the book with a raving ferocity. His books were rarely known in India at that time, except perhaps in some highbrow intellectual circles.

To say that I was impressed would be an understatement; I had never read anything like that before. I made notes, the only ones that I ever made on a typewriter, and they appear below, untampered. My enthusiasm has not waned since then.

I went on to read all of Garcia Marquez’s published works, and though I haven’t read any work of fiction by him in the last decade (unless one counts his autobiography as one!) , I must admit that I continue to be fascinated by Gabo, as he is known in Colombia, his native country from where he has lived in exile for many years now.

The next Latin American writer that I read happened to read was Mario Vargas Llosa, whose passing mention in an interview that Garcia Marquez had with the Mexican revolutionary Subcommandante Marcos, invoked my interest. It turned out later that there was an infamous altercation between the two. The Mexican journal La Jornada published a picture of Garcia Marquez with a black eye, apparently taken immediately after the altercation.

Recently one heard, with suffused elation, that the two had made up. Marquez’s agreeing to a new edition of his magnum opus One Hundred Years to have an introduction by Llosa, has been cited as a literary thaw in Latin America.

Belated Happy Birthday Wishes, Gabo. (March 6 was his 80th birthday)

A wonderful site on Gabo that has been around for longer than I can remember.

(Image acknowledgement: Journal Peru)

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(Notes on One Hundred Years of Solitude, I read it in 1991)

This is a masterpiece of a novel by a foremost Latin American novelist in contemporary literature. The story is woven around a family which moves over two centuries of pain, suffering and ecstasy and shares them with the town of Macando founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and who is the first head of the family. Despite the extrovert nature of most of the family members, the successive generations in the family continue to suffer a strange and an almost nauseating feeling of being alone and embracing solitude.

Through the family line, there are two discernible strands of personality symbolized by Arcadio and Aurelanio- the former typifying the extrovert self coupled with an adventurous spirit and the latter embodying a rebellious and subtle spirit. The novel evolves through the contradictions and struggle between the two strands of nature through five generations.

The recurrence of the Arcadios and Aurelanios makes one feel that history is moving in a circle and out of which there seems to be no way out. Yet that is not the case. For the novel is not about a family in the far- off jungles of South America. The family and its experiences are only a metaphor.

The tale that Marquez wants to tell is about our own selves. The trials and tribulations of the family are not new and unrelated but part of our existential set of problems. Arcadio and Aurelanio are not two separate beings but very much the dual personalities within ourselves. Solitude is perhaps the pinnacle of the existential predicament. And as Marquez warns the discerning reader, no race of people is fortunate enough to experience its past again. No man is reborn.

If one has to break the cyclical, aimless wandering of the spirit, it has to be done in the now. In this sense, this novel is a call to action, not a mere novel to be read and forgotten. It is an elixir that has to be absorbed inside the body so that it becomes a part of the Self.

The narrative of the novel is not straightforward but moves through a maze of subtle and often innocuous looking images and metaphors so that one finds ghosts and phantoms of the dead and the forgotten moving and interacting with the living and the real. The transmission of  ideas and inventions from the world outside to the remote village of Macando takes place through wandering gypsies so that what reaches them is
a bunch of scattered and seemingly unrelated ideas.

The formation of the world view of the founder Arcadio Buendia and his successors is expressed using a mixture of myth, fantasy and science that evolve through the corruptions of the spoken word, mingled with songs and tales. Flying carpets and disappearing acts are a part of the hazards.

The untiring and fruitless efforts of  alchemists and the dreams of the pioneers of flying transport one to the times of struggle and hope. Of ecstasy and excitement.

One also shares the rigors and defeats of the Auriliano Buendia, who fights thirty-two battles and loses them all. Naturally, he fights on behalf of the revolutionary forces. But ultimately, his craving for solitude overpowers him, and he surrenders–both in the field as well as spiritually. He ends up a lost man with a lost cause. By the time he realizes his error, it is already too late, and his friends are no more to start a fresh war with the Conservative government. But he, too, leaves behind a rich legacy which his nephew tries to carry forward–with equally disastrous results. And then, the town relapses into obscurity again. Auriliano Buendia, the once legendary hero, too, is forgotten, remembered only by the only great grandchild who survives.

 ***

Update : Gabo takes a walk with Fidel on his birthday last week.

“This morning I had a visit with Gabo, who showed up here. He’s here.”

Link via John Baker.

The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo

Not even a previous reading of Juan Rulfo‘s novel Pedro Paramo could have prepared me for this collection of short stories (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) that read like a novel painting a dark, sombre and chilling picture of Mexican life- more often than not of the underdog, the thief, the bandit, a murderer or a peasant.

The feeling that one gets while reading is of a smoky, dark night filled with suspicious shadows hiding still darker secrets that pour out of the words and sentences of the stories.

See this description of a daybreak (in the story At Daybreak) in which the main character is accused of killing his landowner, even though it was the latter who kicked him, and then died because of a heart attack.

San Gabriel emerges from the fog laden with dew. The clouds of the night slept over the village searching for the warmth of the people. Now the sun is about to come out and the fog rises slowly, rolling up its sheets, leaving white strips over the roof tops. A gray stream hardly visible, rises from the trees and the wet earth, attracted by the clods, but it vanishes immediately. Then the black smoke comes from the kitchens, smelling of burned oak, covering the sky with ashes.In the distance, the mountains are still in shadow.

A swallow swoops across the streets, and then the first peal of dawn rings out.

The lights are turned off. Then an earth- colored spot shrouds the village, which keeps on snoring a little longer, slumbering in the color of the daybreak.

They gave us land is the story of peasants given a piece of land bereft of water.

A big fat drop of water falls, making a hole in the earth and leaving a mark like a pit. It’s the only one that falls.

The opening story Macario is Kafkaesque and is narrated in a monologue of an idiot boy, in fact most stories are in the form of a monologue, of a people trying to know about themselves, of introspecting, searching for an identity, something to hold on to as they are washed up in a river of tumultuous time.

One of the early writings of what came to be called magical realism. The magic still holds. Spellbindingly.

Inside Macondo

Matthew Fishbane explores literature from Colombia beyond the shadow of Gabo, its best known literary icon.

But it’s a truism by now to say that magical realism, which rounded out the postwar writing that became known as the Latin American boom, is just honest reporting in a realm where absurdity reigns. To wit: A station in Bogotá’s cherry-red articulated bus network has been christened “21 Angels” in memory of the schoolchildren who were crushed nearby under a falling hydraulic excavator. It’s not magical realism, see, it’s what actually happened: A flying steam shovel landed on top of a school bus, and 21 children who had nothing to do with war were transformed into angels.