Archive for July, 2015


July 31, 2015


In moving from Contempt to Boredom in my relationship with Alberto Moravia I can’t help but feel I am that I am following the path of a love affair he might have described. As with Contempt, Boredom’s male narrator seeks to understand the woman who loves him, the desperation of his efforts being inversely proportionate to his success. Dino is thirty-five years old and proclaims himself bored with life. He has abandoned the wealth of his mother (unless he is in need of a handout) and taken up the life of an artist, only to find himself equally unfulfilled:

“…slowly but surely boredom had come to be the companion of my work during the last six months, until finally it had brought it to a full stop on that afternoon when I slashed my canvas to tatters.”

Boredom, Dino goes onto explain, has haunted him throughout his life:

“The feeling of boredom originates for me in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to convince me of its own effective existence.”

Having given up painting, Dino instead takes up with Cecilia, the seventeen year old mistress of his recently deceased neighbour and fellow artist, Balestrieri. It is fair to say that it is not love at first sight:

“In the first place, I am not given to such adventures… In the second place, the girl did not attract me… Finally, there was a third reason…and that was the feeling of nausea that assailed me every time I imagined myself approaching her, speaking to her, and – inevitable consequence – making love to her.”

When she first visits Dino in his studio he spends his time neither painting her nor making love to her, but instead questions her at length about her relationship with Balestrieri – “I realised I was cross-examining her almost like a policeman” – something that will characterise all their future conversations, for shortly after this they will become lovers. Of course, Dino is soon bored and planning to end their relationship, until one day she fails to turn up at the appointed time. Suddenly he is less certain of her love for him (there is no question in his mind that he feels little for her):

“Certainly the fact that she had given herself to me and had shown that she found pleasure with me might be equivalent to a declaration of love. But it was also possible, as I at once realised, that it meant nothing at all.”

From that point on, Dino becomes increasingly obsessed with Cecilia. Rather than loving her it is as if he wishes to possess her, not simply in a physical sense but in obtaining an understanding of her superior to her own self-awareness. This explains his endless questioning, and his irritation with Cecilia’s vague replies. This is, of course, simply not possible and he becomes increasingly frustrated.

Boredom was first published in English under the title The Empty Canvas (unsurprisingly it was felt that the title Boredom was not an ideal selling point) and this image occurs throughout. Until he sees her naked, Dino cannot match her “slender and childish” figure with that of Balestrieri’s paintings – “It’s not possible, I can’t believe it!” This clearly prefigures his inability to truly see her, something echoed in the image of the empty canvas itself. Shortly before the affair begins, he dreams of painting a young woman:

“Finally, after a very long sitting, the picture was finished and I moved back a step or two so as to contemplate it at leisure. To my amazement, the canvas was empty, blank, clean; no female nude was visible upon it, either drawn or painted; I had certainly been working, but I had done nothing.”

Later, Dino himself links the canvas with the relationship:

“I said to myself that if I perhaps could manage to cover the canvas that still stood prominently on my easel I would have, if nothing else, a further reason for parting from Cecilia.”

He cannot because “in reality I had at that moment only one relationship… with any object of any kind, and that was my relationship with Cecilia.” In his attempt to convince himself of Cecilia’s reality (or rather, to make Cecilia convince him) in order to assuage his boredom, he fails to see that it is caused by his own inability to look beyond himself. The novel works perfectly as a monologue because that is how Dino sees his life. Even when questioning Cecilia about herself he is searching only for the answers that will satisfy him. Once again Moravia shows himself the master at portraying the deluded male who thinks he can understand the heart of a woman using his superior intelligence as a collector might use a pin on a butterfly.

Down the Rabbit Hole

July 27, 2015

down the rabbit hole

Tochtli, the child narrator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, wants for nothing. Even when he decides the must-have pet is an all but extinct Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, his dreams do not exceed the possibilities of his rarefied life in the luxury hideout of his father, who is clearly something important in drugs and violence. The title’s reference to Alice in Wonderland suggests the alternate reality within which he lives with a surfeit of possessions but a lack of people (including a mother): he claims to know only thirteen or fourteen, including his father, Yolcaut, and his tutor Mazatzin.

Tochtli’s immersion in his father’s macho culture is quickly obvious:

“If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots.”

Mazatzin has influenced him in his love of Japanese culture (he calls him Usagi, Japanese for rabbit – also the meaning of Tochtli), and he is immediately attracted to the idea of the samurai. The violence of his father’s life is not hidden from him:

“There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.”

The animals the pygmy hippos will join include a lion and two tigers, kept for more practical reasons – to dispose of the corpses.

“Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.”

Tochtli’s anxiety surfaces in pains in his stomach which his father assuages by giving him a new hat for his collection. The hats seem to represent a series of male stereotypes, and also allow Tochtli an imaginative escape from the palace which he rarely leaves. When he is briefly acquainted with reality it disappoints:

“In any case, Miztli was really happy to show me his so called charro [a Mexican cowboy] village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village.”

Tochtli’s isolation is emphasised by the rarity of direct speech. Silence is an important aspect of the novel. Tochtli claims to know three mutes, though the likelihood is that fear is keeping them quiet:

“Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths.”

Tochtli, however, sees silence as powerful and will later use it against his father. At one point, Yolcaut allows two other boys into the palace to play with Tochtli in an effort to get him to speak, but Tochtli cannot relate to them. He describes the Star Wars figure one of them brings as “pathetic” – “it wasn’t an original, it was a fake one from the market.”

Despite this, we retain sympathy for Tochtli, so clearly a victim of his upbringing, while at the same time we are aware that this coming-of-age novel is one in which the narrator’s maturity relates only to the world of his father. Villalobos recreates the violent scenes Tochtli sees portrayed on television in miniature in his own life, for example when, having stolen a small pistol, he shoots one of the lovebirds they keep as pets. When he does finally acquire the pygmy hippos he does so in such a way as to symbolise his acceptance of his inheritance.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a wonderful example of the child narrator: it does everything you could possibly hope for in such a slim volume. Tochtli remains a credible creation throughout, and Villalobos uses his childish enthusiasms to both illustrate the society he lives in and demonstrate the development of his character. That this is so perfectly conveyed in the novel’s voice must also be due to the excellent work of the translator, Rosalind Harvey. This is one of a number of short novels I have read recently which demonstrate that the power of literature is not measured in pages.

Reasons of State

July 23, 2015

reasons of state

While complaining about the frequently inadequate and imperfect democracy of the UK, it is easy to forget that for most of the human race politics is experienced via a series of interchangeable dictatorships. As Western Europe (more slowly than we like to recall) exorcised such totalitarian leaders in the aftermath of World War Two, the cruellest and most flamboyant tyrannies were often to be found in Latin America, a continent which for a while became synonymous with dictatorship. The story goes that two Latin American writers, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, felt a fictional reaction to this was imperative and invited a number of other writers to contribute novellas on the theme to an anthology. Although this ultimately proved impossible to coordinate, three of the writers went on to write full length novels on the subject: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch); Augusto Roa Bastos (I, the Supreme); and Alejo Carpentier (Reasons of State). (I believe the Vargas Llosa story ‘The Cubs’ also arose from this project).

Recently I discussed Fuentes’ already diminishing fame in the English-speaking world, but Carpentier is a writer whose literary renown outside of his own continent (though born in Europe, he regarded himself as Cuban) was only sporadic in the first place despite his association with the development of magical realism. Reasons of State, published in 1974 and almost immediately translated in to English by Frances Partridge in 1976, has long been out of print – until, that is, the intervention of Melville House last year.

The novel begins in Paris where our dictator / narrator lives in comfort – sleeping in a hammock but waking to the sight of the Arc de Triomphe. A typical morning is described: visits from his barber and tailor, his advisor Peralta, and an intellectual he dubs the Distinguished Academician. The clumsy notes of his daughter, Ofelia’s, piano playing drift down and fall flat in the midst of their erudite conversation. (It seems plausible that the names – Peralta / Polonius, Ofelia / Ophelia – are intended to remind us of another ‘rotten’ state). The Head of State is in self-congratulatory mood:

“I was proud – very proud – of the fact that, after a half century of tumult and uprisings, my own country had brought the cycle of revolutions to an end.”

The tone changes dramatically, however, when he receives a telegram informing him that one of his many generals has rebelled:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State, hurling the cables to the ground.”

Interestingly, Carpentier also changes from first to third person at this point (the telegram is the dividing line) allowing him to use the phrase “the Dictator” in the final sentence of the chapter. The first person is how the Dictator wants to be seen; the third person represents him as he is.

The Dictator returns home and ruthlessly suppresses the rebellion, starting with students who have shut themselves in the university:

“And if some are killed…none of these solemn funerals… Just give the stiff to the family and let them bury it without weeping and wailing, because if they do otherwise the whole family, mother, grandparents, and their brats too, will go to prison.”

The general’s eventual, defeat is a massacre:

“And then all hell was let loose; free and uncontrollable, the troops abandoned themselves to hunting men and women, with bayonet, machete, or knife, throwing corpses into the streets, pierced through, cut open, beheaded, and mutilated, to warn the rest.”

Once the rebellion is defeated, he returns to Paris, but to a much cooler welcome. French newspapers have reported the savagery and, although the photographer is soon hunted down and killed, the photographic evidence is damning. As a fellow countryman tells him:

“ ‘I know there’s a lot of exaggeration in it, compatriot…You wouldn’t be capable…Of course it’s all false.’ But he couldn’t dine with him at Larue that night.”

Luckily it seems World War One will intercede and distract Europe from distant bloodshed… and then our Dictator receives another telegram:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State.”

Carpentier does not skimp on his portrayal of the Dictator; at this point we are merely one third of the way through the novel. We will follow out protagonist right to the end. Carpentier is lavish with his detail and seems particularly intent to contrast Paris with the Dictator’s homeland. Chapters are generally prefaced by a quotation from Descartes, and (as hinted at in the title) there seems to be a dichotomy between the enlightened reason of Europe (which the Dictator insists he admires) and the superstitions of the tropics – the Dictator blames the first rebellion on the fact that the prostitute he slept with the previous night was dressed as a nun.

Reasons of State is a wonderful addition to the literature of dictatorship (my personal favourite remains Marion Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat). It is to be hoped that it will lead more readers to explore Alejo Carpentier’s work.

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata

July 17, 2015


Spanish Lit Month hosts, Richard and Stu, have chosen Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel as the group read title this year: a fantastic choice but unfortunately one which I have read and reviewed only recently. Not wanting to miss out entirely I decided to participate by reading another of Casares’ novels, the last, in fact, to be translated into English (by Suzanne Jill Levine), The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, which he wrote in 1989, almost fifty years after Morel. It tells the story of a young photographer, Nicolasito Almanza, who is despatched to La Plata on a commission to photograph the town. (Casares himself was a very keen photographer). He lodges with an old friend, Mascardi, but also becomes involved with a family who arrive in town at the same time as him, feeling dutiful towards the father, Don Juan Lombardo, and attraction towards his two daughters, Griselda and Julia. Is he, though, the victim of a plot against his life? Who can he trust, if anyone?

Almanza’s chance meeting with the Lombardos as he arrives in La Plata is quickly revealed to be less than coincidental, though not before he has helped them with their luggage and donated blood after Don Juan falls ill:

“When we told you we waved at you because we took you for an outsider, that wasn’t the truth…We suspected that you were from out of town, but why deny it, I thought that you looked the spitting image of my son.”

Don Juan recounts the story of his missing son: an argument originating in his decision to insure his son’s life led to him leaving home; Don Juan has not heard from him since. “He’s probably dead, but that’s not enough to collect the insurance.” From this point on, Don Juan insist on treating Almanza like a son, but whether this is a sentimental attachment caused by regret or a plan to use him to claim the life insurance is unclear. Almanza is not short of voices warning him to be careful, beginning with Mascardi:

“The outsider should watch his steps…For some time now we’ve been noticing what we call down at headquarters a new kind of foul play. A family, which is really a gang of dubious individuals with a long record. They establish a relationship with the victim…and the whole thing ends up in a swindle or worse.”

When he takes his film to be developed, the owner of the shop similarly warns him: “Outsiders should be careful.” Of course, one might question whether Almanza can entirely trust Mascardi who, unbeknownst to many of his student friends, is now a policeman:

“If someone comes over to chat with us, don’t even remember I’m with the police.”

Later, he is accused of sending a friend to jail; Almanza also suspects he is following him.

Almanza is generally unfazed, however; an innocent adventurer, in stark contrast to the loveable rogue of the picaresque (“He’s a man who does not expect people to lie.”), he calmly continues his relationship with the family, finding time to sleep with both Griselda and Julia:

“Maybe I like both, but as far as loving goes, perhaps only one. I don’t know.”

His only worry is that the cheque he has been promised for his photographs has not arrived, a mixture of poverty and pride reducing his diet to the point that he begins to hallucinate (at least, that would be the rational explanation for the novel’s dream sequences). For the most part, like a camera, he perceives everything from the outside. When it is suggested to him that he is an artist, he says, “Only a photographer.” This might explain the gift he receives at the end, a kaleidoscope, inviting him to look at the world a different way.

The novel itself is not unlike a kaleidoscope, its different parts turning to create new patterns: conversations in cafes; perambulations with camera; enquiries regarding the post; phone messages; Don Juan’s requests… The novel repeats its scenes like a series of stills. Almanza even expects his own feelings to be judged through a lens:

“…if Julia had followed him from afar (he clarified: “with a telescope”) along a good part of his last afternoon in La Plata, she would think that she wouldn’t matter to him.”

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata resists attempts to reach beyond the surface. A mystery where there may be no mystery; a love story where we are never certain of the love; the novel of a photographer, not an artist.

A Brief History of Portable Literature

July 15, 2015

portable literature

Enrique Vila-Matas has always been a writer who writes about writers – writers who cannot write (Bartleby & Co); writers who confuse fiction and reality (Montano); writers who have not yet started to write (Never Any End to Paris) – and his latest novella to appear in English, A Brief History of Portable Literature, is perhaps his most intensively writerly yet. (This does not indicate a progression in his style – though only recently translated by Anne Maclean and Thomas Bunstead, it was first published in 1985). It features a gallimaufry of authors and other artists linked by their membership of a secret club which bears the name of that most playful of novels, the Shandies.

Vila-Matas establishes the qualities necessary to be accepted as a Shandy early on: “high grade madness”; “the fact one’s work mustn’t weigh very much and should easily fit into a suitcase”; and a lack of conventional ties – Shandies should not only remain single but should act as a “bachelor machine.” Other characteristics are ‘advisable’ rather than essential:

“…an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”

Vila- Matas goes on, as the title suggests, to recount the society’s history in a series of brief chapters. Founded by Duchamp (and presumable inspired but Duchamp’s boite en valise, a suitcase which contained sixty-nine miniature reproductions of the artist’s work), the Shandies sojourn in a variety of literary locations around the globe, beginning on the coast of Africa, but including Vienna and Prague, before settling in a submarine named after a German railway station. While some members are ever-present most are transitory: F. Scott Fitzgerald invited to a party, accommodation in Prague sought in Gustav Meyrink’s neighbourhood, Paul Klee making dutiful notations in the submarine’s log. This can make the text feel like a veritable blitz of name-dropping, though some chapters take a little time to focus on a particular member: one deals with the origins of the stories in Blaise Cendras’ Anthologie nègre, another takes the form of a postcard from Aleister Crowley.

Be warned, however, it probably sounds a lot more fun than it is (if it doesn’t even sound like fun, I would not recommend it). If Vila-Matas’ intention is simply to amuse then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there might be three or four individuals with the requisite knowledge to find the whole thing thigh-slappingly funny but, otherwise, what might sound like a book lover’s delight is a little like offering someone with a sweet tooth a cup of sugar to munch through. The novella is not simply a humorous skit, though, but can also be read as an imaginative essay in literary criticism.

Duchamp’s position as the society’s founder is not only based on his artistic luggage, but on his reputation as cheerleader of the avant-garde. Vila-Matas’ focuses on artists and writers born towards the end of the 19th century who made their mark in the opening decades of the twentieth. His fondness for them is tempered by ridicule. Take, for example, his description of the departure for Nigeria:

“At the time they didn’t know exactly what this plot would entail, but they had no doubt that clearly it ought to come to light in the darkness of a continent darker than the still-opaque portable spirit.”

‘Sympathy for negritude’ seems more than faintly ridiculous now, as does an attraction to the occult, which Vila-Matas pokes fun at in the form of Odradeks (a creature borrowed from Kafka) who naturally come to the fore in Prague, city not only of Kafka, but of Golems. They are, according to Duchamp, “dark occupants lodged within each of the portables’ inner labyrinths.” Similarly the insistence that Shandies be bachelor machines, and the reduction of women to femme fatales. Even the idea of the society itself is a subtle mockery of artists and writers who are regarded as the apogee of individualism. Vila-Matas’ celebration, then, is also a dismissal – the words ‘brief’ and ‘portable’ in the title suggest something intriguing but ultimately less significant than it felt at the time:

“Only because the past is dead are we able to read it.”

A Brief History of Portable Literature is not an ideal starting point for those unacquainted with Vila-Matas but for those of us who have already learned to love him, we can only take delight that more of his work is becoming available in English.

Out in the Open

July 11, 2015

out in the open

Like Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, Jesus Carrasco’s Out in the Open is a relentless story of survival, similarly almost entirely focussed on two characters, a young boy and an ageing goatherd. As its title suggests, rather than the claustrophobic confinement of the well, they are faced with the equally unforgiving emptiness of a barren plain. The novel begins with the boy in hiding, hunted for some nameless crime. The desperation with which he hides, in a hole covered in branches and twigs, is revealed when the schoolmaster (the entire village are involved in the search) pisses on his hiding place:

“Nothing, not even the hours spent underground or the teacher’s urine still sticky in his hair or the hunger which was, for the first time, pricking him hard, nothing was enough now to weaken his resolve, because the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach.”

The boy’s chances of survival are slim. He has no water and the heat of the sun is ferocious, on a flatland with little shade. Though we soon learn that the boy is being hunted by the bailiff, he is also pitted against the landscape itself. When he dozes off in the sun he awakens two hours later to find:

“His skin, from his chin to his scalp, felt strangely taut. Every hair follicle quivered with microscopic anguish, which multiplied a hundredfold, provoked in him a feeling of stiff bewilderment. His brain burned and buzzed with a kind of cobalt-blue electricity and his head felt as if it were about to explode.”

Only his chance meeting with the goatherd saves him. The goatherd accepts him into his company unquestioningly:

“You know, it’s all the same to me whether you’ve run away or if you’re simply lost.”

He feeds the boy; in return the boy helps him to tend the goats. They learn to trust each other in a world of threats, their humanity as rare, and as vital, as water. The sincerity of their relationship is shown when the bailiff catches up with them, as is the fact that it is two sided.

Like The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, the setting in both time and place of Out in the Open is vague. It would seem logical to assume we are in Spain, though it could equally be the Middle East, (the novel, at times, has a Biblical feel). Carrasco was born in 1972, and it seems unlikely that, if set in Spain, the novel is set during his lifetime:

“The bailiff was the only one in the region to own a motorised vehicle and the governor was the only one to own a vehicle of the four-wheeled variety.”

The lack of names, and use instead of occupations which have existed for hundreds of years, also allows the story to feel to some extent timeless. Out in the Open is not a historical novel, then, but perhaps it might be described as a geographical one: that is, one where the particular geography of the setting is a vital component though it is not necessarily set in a place we can identify and visit. Instead the confinement of the setting is used as testing ground for the characters, in this case to examine how human beings can either help or harm each other.

In the end, the novel suggest this is not about motivation: we never learn why the bailiff and, by extension, the village wish to harm the boy, nor why the goatherd helps him. The goatherd lives by a code he does not feel it necessary to articulate; one of the first things he says to the boy is, “Help me up,” – though the boy needs his help far more, he establishes their relationship as one of mutual support. As events unfold, they will be vital to each other at different points.

Both The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Out in the Open are fantastic new novels from young Spanish writers, suggesting a bright future for Spanish fiction.