After a very very long time, Mario Vargas Llosa has written a novel that reminds us what a great writer he once was.
“Harsh Times” plays with time, simultaneous and disjointed at once through a collage of episodic narratives to recall the coup that overthrew the Guatemalan October Revolution in 1954. Both in form and content, Llosa makes a comeback with this novel that intersperses factual history and imaginative fiction to expose the role of the CIA and the United States in destabilizing democratically elected governments and in propping up dictators to serve the cause of US corporations in Latin America (The United Fruit Company in this case). The last La Dictadura novel that Llosa wrote was The Feast of the Goat (2000) and there are some characters from that work that show up in this novel too, most prominently Rafael Leónidas Trujillo and his henchman Johny Abbes García.
Without doubt, the best read of the year was Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, a result of the young Indian journalist’s investigation into the extrajudicial killings of Sohrabbudin and others and its cover up by a network of government functionaries, civil and police officials and the majority of the mainstream media. Indeed, the key change in the last few years has been the throttling of the media as it has become corporatized and aligned with the government in power. Ayyub took on the identity of an Indian American filmmaker to gain access to middle and senior level officials.
Her own employer recalled her just when she was about to get direct access to the Chief Minister of Gujarat (and now the Prime Minister of India), Narendra Modi. The key person allegedly involved in the execution of the extrajudicial killings by the police was the then Home Minister of Gujarat and the current national president of the ruling Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s not just the courage of the journalist and the depth of her findings but also the breezy narration, which reads like a crime thriller, that makes Gujarat Files such an engrossing read. In more open times, a book like this would have shaken the government.
On a related note, the 84 page booklet The Amit Shah School of Election Management by another young journalist Prashant Jha provides a number of insights on how the far right Modi- Shah election machine continues to roll on- with the BJP being the ruling party in 18 out of 29 states in India this year.
A book I picked up randomly just because I haven’t read recent Russian literature for a while was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. The novel is about the late Soviet period, a time that hasn’t inspired any great works of literature. The Queue is a notable exception. The book is a subtle take on the dreary years of scarcity in the last few years of the USSR and an insightful look into the lives and minds of the ordinary citizens. The absurdity of the situation is revealed in the dramatic end, as funny as it is ironic. Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2017”
My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.
All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired. Continue reading “Fragments of a life”
Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, though his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.
In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.
While the life stories of each of the men are different in many ways, what unites them is the disappointment that their sons turn out to be. The optimism of the hard-working fathers is offset by the pessimism of their descendants. The perceived optimism is limited to that of the two businessmen fathers enriched during Peru’s neoliberal upturn in the 1990s. Continue reading “The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies”
The Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War gives a glimpse of the deep involvement of poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes that “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”.
Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure.
I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.
Among the writers who have looked at the impact political dictatorship in suppressing natural human instincts is Manuel Puig (1932-1990). One of the first post-Boom writers, he’s best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Llosa once said about him,
Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig.
The plot of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, Manuel’s first novel in English, is seemingly straightforward. Ramirez, an Argentinian trade union-organizer and revolutionary, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization and is provided an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous stream of dialogue between the two, as the attendant, Larry takes Ramirez around New York. Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A Literary journey to Latin America – II”
Latin American Literature is like the Amazon river, massive in its expanse and meandering across many thematic streams. The most well known of these is its association with magical realism and what has come to be called the “dictatorship novels.” But there is more to it. It has explored fantasy, the eternal theme of love as well as that of sexual suppression and, of late, the psychological life of the individual as the collective village communities give way to urban angst.
There is a lot more to Latin American literature than magical realism.
My obituary on Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6, 1927- 17-April-2014), at DNAIndia.
My Nobel is in the pocket of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” (Carlos Fuentes) said, adding, “the prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez was for my whole generation. We celebrated. We will go on celebrating it.”
With Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death last week, a day before Good Friday, the world lost the most well-known Spanish writer after Miguel Cervantes. Gabo to his admirers, Marquez was the star of the Boom generation of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 40, his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published. This book catapulted him to world fame, selling 50 million copies worldwide since.
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.
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 “The Dream of the Celt”
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.
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.
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?
“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!
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”.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Girl, published 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 Painterand 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.
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
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.
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.
here on a foreign
on the other half
of the world,
and on another ocean
I felt that the sea
smelled like Chile
after the ruthless
or the days of fog
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
opened up for me
like a diaphanous
like a path
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
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 governmentand inaugurated the long dark years of Augusto Pinochet]
(Translated by Roberta Gordenstein)
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.
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.