Archive for July, 2020

Seven Books of Summer

July 31, 2020

Now we are in the very midst of summer, it seemed an appropriate time to suggest some summer reading, but, rather than choosing books based only on the pleasure to be had from reading them (which would presumably be unchanged even in deepest winter) here are seven which are specifically about summer and holidays…

Agostino by Alberto Moravia, translated by Michael F Moore

Agostino, Alberto Moravia’s fourth novel, written in 1942 but refused publication in fascist Italy, is set almost entirely on the beach. And when not on the beach, the characters are most likely to be found at sea. It’s a coming of age story in which the title character suddenly realises that his mother exists outwith her role as his mother a she pursues an affair with a “tanned, dark-haired young man” she has met. Meanwhile Agostino demonstrates some independence of his own as he joins a gang of rougher boys who roam the coast.

In summery: “The two of them would dry themselves languorously in the sun, which became more ardent with the approach of midday.”

Any clouds on the horizon? It’s suggested that Saro, the boatman is a paedophile – after Agostino has been out on his boat with him, he cannot convince the other boys he hasn’t been ‘interfered with’.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home was Deborah Levy’s sixth novel (if you include Diary of a Steak) but its Booker nomination catapulted her to deservedly wider acclaim. Poet Joe Jacobs is holidaying with his family in a villa near Nice. The idyllic setting is in contrast to the cast of damaged individuals and failing relationships paraded across it, not helped by the arrival of Kitty Finch, a young women who believes she has a special connection with Jacobs.

In summery: “Two plump bumblebees crawled down the yellow curtains searching for an open window.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The novel begins with a body in the pool. This is a false alarm, but also a warning of what is to come.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale

Ana Maria Matute’s 1960 novel, The Island, recently issued in a new translation by Laura Lonsdale, is set on the island of Mallorca, now a popular holiday destination, though not so much at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War when the action takes place. The story is told from the point of view of Matia, a fourteen-year-old girl, who is staying on the island with her grandmother as her mother is dead, she has been expelled from her convent school, and her father has abandoned her to fight for the Republic. Over the course of the novel she is exposed to the prejudices and violence of the island.

In summery: “Santa Catalina had a very small beach with a fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge, and the seashells cracked under our feet as we leapt from the boat, shattering like bits of crockery.”

Any clouds on the horizon? Though the war is distant, the island does not escape its repercussions. Matia and her friend Borja discover a body on the beach one day…

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, written prior to her Neapolitan quartet, tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Leda, who feels liberated when her daughters leave home and decides to take a holiday by the sea in southern Italy. Once there, though she finds herself observing a young mother and her child. When the child goes missing it is Leda who finds her and, mysteriously, keeps hold of the girl’s doll.

In summery: “The sand was white powder, I took a long swim in transparent water, and sat in the sun.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The missing child may seem like the novel’s most dramatic moment, but Leda ahs a secret in her past to be discovered.

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Anyone of a certain age will remember the eerily hot summer of 1976 where Roland Buti sets his coming of age story, Year of the Drought. For thirteen-year-old Gus, the sun is not a pleasure as his father is a farmer who recently bought hundreds of chickens which are now dying in the intense heat. This is not his father, or Gus’, only worry as a newcomer to the village has developed a very close friendship with Gus’ mother, and his parents’ marriage is under threat.

In summery: “The heat that had accumulated during the day now rose freely up to the sky. A warm wind, sequinned with burning particles, swooped down from the mountains like the breath of a huge animal crouching in the shadows.”

Any clouds on the horizon? The scene where Gus helps his dad clear out the dead chickens is far from pleasant.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds…” doesn’t immediately suggest ‘summer holiday’ but Spark’s 1970 novel begins with Lise shopping for holiday clothes before she flies to a city in southern Europe (probably Rome) in search of the ‘right man’. Of course, in Lise’s case, she means the right man to kill her. Spark described the novel as a ‘whydunnit’ but don’t imagine that question will receive an answer.

In summery: “…they stand on the pavement in the centre of the foreign city, in need of coffee and a sandwich, accustoming themselves to the layout, the traffic crossings, the busy residents, the ambling tourists and the worried tourists, and such of the unencumbered youth who swing and thread through the crowds like antelopes whose heads, invisibly antlered, are airborne high to sniff the prevailing winds, and who so appear to own the terrain beneath their feet that they never look at it.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As is often the case with Spark’s novels, we are well aware of what is on the horizon long before we reach it.

Holiday Heart by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe

Don’t be fooled by the apparently happy-go-lucky title – holiday heart is, in fact, a heart condition caused by over-indulging while on vacation. In Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel it might also suggest that Pablo and Lucia, married nineteen years, find that their own hearts have left home. Pablo finds solace in other women as Lucia becomes colder. He is in danger of losing his job, she of losing touch with her children.

In summery: “He rubbed his eyes. They were still dazzled from the glare of the afternoon sun bouncing off the sand, white and burning like dry ice.”

Any clouds on the horizon? As well as Pablo’s possibly life-threatening heart condition, there are numerous uncomfortable scenes, including their young son declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.”

Lost Books – The Devil’s Trill

July 27, 2020

In his obituary for Daniel Moyano in 1992, Andrew Graham-Yooll (who had interviewed Moyano for his book After the Despots) described him as “one of the lesser known of the best of Latin American writers”. He goes on to tell how Moyano won the magazine Primera Plana’s annual literary prize in 1967 for his novel El Oscuro, judged by no less than Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar. That novel, like most of Moyano’s work, has still not been translated into English. In fact, all we have is his 1974 novel, The Devil’s Trill, translated by Giovanni Pontiero in 1988. The novel is a playful satire which uses music to explore the role of art.

The novel begins with the founding of the city of Todos los santos de la Nueva Rioja in 1591, in the wrong place due to a clerical error:

“The city’s location in the middle of the desert would make it both hard to reach and hard to leave. The people would find no work there, food would be scarce and the more ferocious among them would take up arms against the central government.”

The challenges of survival are borne out in the experiences of Triclinio’s family: first their cow dies, then their goat, and finally the father turns to bee-keeping to survive, a strategy hampered by the scarcity of flowers. The story of Pagnini in a magazine convinces him that Triclinio’s salvation lies in learning to play the violin:

“This secret desire absorbed the old man’s thoughts of making it possible for Triclinio to study something before the bees, which were becoming ever more translucent, should finally turn into air and vanish forever.”

Fortuitously there is a violin teacher in the city, but Triclinio’s talent does him little good as a “decree specified that La Rioja was to concentrate on folk music, thus reserving for cosmopolitan Buenos Aires all other types of music.” And so, Triclinio heads for the capital with his violin, surprised to find that he is no longer alone, as the landlord of his boarding-house tells him:

“Here everyone is a violinist, all these boarding-houses cater for violinists, as do some of the hotels… In Buenos Aires everyone pays the violin but not to earn a living as you seem to think… Here people earn their living in the meat trade and only play the violin to combat what you might call a sort of spleen…”

In this way Monyano explores the purpose of art in a light-hearted, almost absurdist manner. Later a character will tell him that both the inhabitants of La Rioja and Buenos Aires have it wrong as:

“Come what may, we need beauty in order to exist, for beauty is the human dimension of reality.”

Triclinio remains an innocent: his desire is only to play his violin He is not a man of ideas, as Monyano explicitly states – his head is too full of noises:

“For some time now he had wanted to know about the world and himself, without the terrifying abstractions of rhythms and notes, but on the rare occasion when he succeeded, he could not clarify his thoughts for instead of sounds, words throbbed through his head, phrases which he had heard or which had occurred to him or which were inspired by statues and monuments; resounding words that embellished history and served no real purpose.”

This allows Monyano to approach politics with Triclinio’s wide-eyed innocence, revealing then absurdity behind Argentina’s often cruel and chaotic history. A letter to the president gains Triclinio an invitation to the presidential palace when there is (naturally) a coup. He leaves via the gallery of deposed presidents:

“Tricliano caught a glimpse of an artist concealed behind a pile of books who was furtively committing to canvas the physical traits of the reigning president.”

He becomes involved in a protest when he is distracted by the legs of a choir of factory girls and finds himself water-cannoned out of the city and into the exile of Violinville, a violin shaped shanty town on the outskirts. There he begins a relationship with the daughter of a powerful man, though she tells him:

“I shall only be able to love you when the country gains some stability and that strikes me as being extremely unlikely, if not impossible.”

What is most striking about Monyano is his gentle humour which frequently veers towards the ridiculous but is never simply silly. He’s not adverse to poking fun at his forebears, at one point describing Triclinio walking “with his violin and the bees which often followed him from home all the way to the Conservatoire as in a story buy Garcia Marquez.” If anything, his own imagination is more outlandish, as when the city of La Rioja is “covered with a huge circus tent with the mountains of Velasco and Famatina as supports. Anyone who wanted to know what was happening in the province had to pay an entrance fee.” The novel also includes an Australian opera featuring a kangaroo and a platypus. And yet it is quite clear throughout that Monyano is using this to comment on life in Argentina, particularly for artists. The Devil’s Trill is a short, endearing novel that deserves to be more widely read. Unfortunately for us, Monyano’s imagination is only restrained by a lack of translation.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

July 23, 2020

What plot there is in Javier Marias’ novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (published in 1994 and translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 1996 and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year) is largely at the beginning and the end, and even then it is as much about what doesn’t happen as what does. The novel opens with our narrator, Victor, in bed with another man’s wife. The woman in question, however is dead, as we discover from the first sentence, which, typically, is posed as an abstract thought rather than a moment of panic:

“No one ever expects that they might someday find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again but whose name they will remember.”

Before they can make love, Marta feels unwell (“I feel absolutely deathly,” she says) and can only lie on the bed half-undressed hoping her indisposition passes quickly. Even as it becomes clear that her condition is worsening, Victor does nothing but hold her:

“I obeyed, I waited, I did nothing and I phoned no one, I just returned to my place on the bed, which was not really my place, though it was mine that night, I lay down by her side again…”

Once he realises Marta is dead he must again decide whether to act, getting as far as phoning the hotel in London where her husband, Dean, is staying only to find that they have no guest of that name. Eventually he leaves, aware that Marta’s two-year-old son will wake the next day to find his mother dead, but reassured “this child will not recognise me if he sees me again in the distant future.” He leaves with the father’s contact details, the tape from the answering machine, and Marta’s bra, heedlessly stuffed in his pocket earlier, for all the world like a killer.

From this point, the novel largely tells of Victor’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Marta’s family, like a creepy stalker in an eighties thriller. Firstly, an appearance at her funeral, but later through using a contact to gain an opportunity to work with her father, Tellez, as a speechwriter for the king. (It’s no surprise that Victor is a ghost writer in a story full of ghosts, as well as a scriptwriter for television shows which don’t get made). This entails Victor’s presence at a family dinner with Tellez, Dean and Marta’s sister, Luisa, where Marta’s death and the custody of her son is discussed, with Tellez commenting bitterly to Marta’s husband:

“I’m not so unreasonable to blame you for not having saved her when no salvation was possible, I blame you for the fact that Marta died alone.”

Though Dean may suspect, even know, that Marta was not alone, he is unable to tell her father. Meanwhile Victor sits silently, like the ghost at the feast. Inexorably, the novel moves towards the point where Victor will tell Dean about the night his wife died and Dean, in turn, will tell Victor a secret of his own.

Of course, with Marias, the journey is more important than the destination, with long, meandering sentences that wind their way through two or three ideas before reaching their full stop. Marias reveals one of his main concerns, the border land between thought and memory, at the end of the first chapter:

“’Tomorrow on the battle think on me,’ I thought or, rather, remembered.”

he quotation, which forms the novel’s title, is from the final act of Richard III on the night before the Battel of Bosworth Field, when Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed wishing defeat on him. It is, in part, a dream of guilt, the guilt that Victor perhaps feels on abandoning Marta, but it also is both a memory (of his victims) and a thought (that is, they have not actually said those words to him). In the novel this difficulty in distinguishing between memory and thought extends to an uncertainty regarding how well we know others. When Victor visits the palace, the King – who already has to speak the words others write for him – complains about how little known he is for all that he is “under the microscope”:

“…despite all this vigilance and study, they still don’t really know me, my personality is still as vague as ever…”

Victor, meanwhile, is there under the name of his friend, Ruiberriz, through whom he gained the commission (there is a scene later featuring both of them at the race track where Ruiberriz has to assume Victor’s name in turn). This preoccupation goes some way to explaining a long scene in which Victor picks up a prostitute convinced that she is his ex-wife (while giving her another assumed name, Javier):

“…she still looked too much like Celia for me to feel distrustful or to decide that it wasn’t her. Anyway, it was her, even if it wasn’t.”

These confusions within the narrative destabilise identity and force the reader to question how they ‘know’ people, a mixture of memory and thought. We realise not only how reliant we are on the narrator of this story, but on the narrator of our own.

Javier Marias was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for the second part of the Your Face Tomorrow (a phrase that crops up here) trilogy and long-listed in 2010 for part three. As a major European novelist it is could be regarded as strange that he has never won it, but perhaps that is because this would have been the year. 

Beauty Salon

July 21, 2020

When Mario Bellatin’s 1994 novel Beauty Salon was reprinted in 2015 he had a very pubic falling out with his Spanish publisher: “Published without authorization and against the explicit will of its author.” This was not so much because he had disowned the novel, but because he had wanted it republished in a new form, rewritten to take account of “everything that happened during the twenty years past since the first publication of the book; a reflection on its current validity, but also an account of what happened with my life, with the elements that were part of it when the book was written.” (You can read more about this here.) For Bellatin, no work is ever finished, and transformation is constant, as can be seen in the English-language edition of Jacob the Mutant (mutation being another form of transformation) where the original text (which purports to be about a lost Joseph Roth novel) is accompanied by a longer text, ‘Could There Have Been a Reason for Writing Jacob the Mutant?’, and a further addition from the translator Jacob Steinberg. In the meantime we have the 2009 translation of Beauty Salon by Kurt Hollander which, at sixty-three pages, can barely lay claim to being a novella.

Beauty Salon, too, is about transformation – the title itself suggesting as much. Yet the transformation that occurs within its walls is no longer that of beautifying, but quite the reverse, “now that the salon has become the Terminal, where people who have nowhere to die end their days.” Those in the salon – that narrator and salon owner refers to them as ‘guests’ – are suffering from a nameless disease from which no-one recovers. There is a general terror of the disease as can be seen from the reaction of those who live near the salon:

“The neighbours tried to burn down the beauty salon, claiming that the place was a breeding ground for infection and that the plague had spread to their homes.”

The narrator, too, has changed in his new role of tending to the dying. He describes his life before as ‘dissipated’:

“I couldn’t wait for the days we hit the streets dressed as women.”

He tells how he and the other salon staff would head into town and, once there, change into women’s clothing in parks and gardens (“The whole transformation must be carried out there, hidden from sight”) and pick up men. Now, however, “I no longer have the energy to go out at night and cruise for men”:

“When the beauty salon changed I also felt an inner transformation.”

Much of Beauty Salon is taken up with the narrator’s introduction of tropical fish to the salon. He talks at length of the difficulties of keeping them alive, alternately tending them dearly and neglecting them (“Without any feelings of remorse I gradually stopped feeding them and hoped they would eat each other”). This, first of all, introduces the idea of nature as something cruel and merciless; when one fish gives birth another female fish tries to eat the babies. It also echoes the narrator’s treatment of the dying. One guest in particular he develops a closer relationship with:

“I guess I felt something special towards him, for I stopped looking after the other guests and throughout his time of suffering I only cared for him.”

Yet later, “From one minute to the next I completely lost interest in him.” When he dies he comments, “By that time the boy’s body was just another body I had to discard,” the word ‘discard’ linking him to the dead fish he removes from the tanks. Strangely, rather than make the narrator seem cruel this gives the impression he is suited to his task.

Beauty Salon is a very powerful and moving story, its more surreal elements only enhancing the tragedy at its centre. Though there is no direct link, it is difficult not to associate the nameless disease with AIDS (1994 was the year that AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans aged 22 -44) adding a layer of bitter reality to the tale, especially when the narrator too succumbs to the disease. It proves that, beyond his textual trickery, Bellatin has an emotional core. Unfortunately the English translation of Beauty Salon has fallen out of print and we can only hope it meets with the reissue it deserves, even if this may well be in an entirely different version.

A Silent Fury

July 17, 2020

Yuri Herrera’s latest book, A Silent Fury, (translated once again by Lisa Dillman) is, as the sub-title tells us, about the El Bordo Mine Fire in which eighty-seven miners lost their lives. That this happened over a hundred years ago (on 10th March 1920) might make us wonder why Herrera, whose novels have exposed and explored the crises of contemporary Mexico, should now look back in time to recount an event of which records are incomplete and unreliable:

“Traces of this history are few: the Pachuca 1920-66 case file, a handful of news stories, and a metal plaque that talks about something else.”

And yet, that is the point: Herrera is less interested in the disaster itself than in the aftermath, both the immediate aftermath in which the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen while at the same time preventing any survivors (and there were survivors) from escaping, and the inadequate investigation which followed into the events of that day.

It is uncertain when the fire started but it was six o’clock in the morning that the alarm was raised and by seven the cages were being sent down to allow the men to get out. By midday however, the superintendent for the company, an American, J F Berry, was certain all the survivors had escaped, the number of dead was ten, and the fire was out – while at the same time announcing that they would seal the El Bordo shaft to ensure that “the fire was completely extinguished.” In fact, it’s possible that the shaft was sealed as early as twenty past seven – twenty minutes after the rescue attempts had begun. There’s no way of knowing now how many of those left in the mine were alive when the shaft was sealed, but it’s certain that some of them were as seven were still alive when it was opened six days later.

The cover-up begins with the investigation which is limits itself into how the fire started, not how eighty-seven men died. The judge:

“…did not instruct him [the public prosecutor] to determine whether the administrators had been criminally negligent in ordering the shafts sealed while there were people still alive inside, as, indeed, there were.”

Those investigating the fire did not go into the mine until it had been cleaned (and, in some areas, miners had begun working again) and, unsurprisingly, found everything in working order. It was now not possible to discover how the fire had started, but it was conveniently suggested that it had been caused by a worker:

“What’s certain is that the inspector fulfilled his directive: he looked at some things, neglected to look at others, and unreservedly exculpated the mine owners and administrators.” 

Herrera cannot tell the story entirely in the words of those involved, as, for example, Svetlana Alexievich does, as these words for the most part do not exist, hence the ‘silent fury’ of the title. This phrase occurs in the narrative itself with reference to the seven survivors:

“They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

Their unrecorded words represents a wider omission, not only of the investigation, but of history itself. It’s said that history is written by the winners, but above all history is written by those who can write, and, for much of it, that limits us to a small but powerful class who are particularly ruthless at protecting their own interests. This not unique to Mexico, or to the 1920s, but continues to this day, as we can see, for example, in what happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989 where ninety-six football fans lost their lives. Those responsible, and their allies, used a similar tactic of blaming the supporters and any prosecution was quickly ruled out. It’s not the most recent example, either, as the Grenfell fire demonstrates. As Herrera tells us:

“Silence is not he absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

It could be argued that this is not the job of the novelist, and, in the UK, when fiction writers turn to non-fiction it is often of a personal kind. Yet what Herrera is doing here is reclaiming the story for those who were previously voiceless, and who better to do that than a novelist.

The Trap

July 14, 2020

The Trap is the third novel in Ana Maria Matute’s Los mercaderes (The Merchants) trilogy, the first of which, The Island, was published in a new translation earlier this year. Originally published in 1964, it was translated by Robert Nugent and Maria Jose de la Camara in 1996 and, although it was released by a US university press, I placed it on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of 1996 to ensure there was at least a moderate representation of women writers.

The Trap is a very different book to The Island, written with little regard to plot, and described on the first page as a ‘Disordered Diary’. In the opening chapter Matia is back “in this island within the island” as her grandmother prepares to celebrate her ninety-ninth birthday (or rather celebrate her hundredth birthday on her ninety-ninth). The tone is bitter:

“She is like a stationery mockery of life and death. A sedentary outrage, without any emotion, in the presence of life and death.”

“Ruin is never her ruin,” Matia goes on to say, “Death is never her death… What does not happen to her does not happen to anybody.” (Does the grandmother represent Spain? “I was born in tyranny, I will die in it,” Matia later says). Already we see the novel’s strength and weakness: the language is powerful and emotive but the emotions feel unearned – particularly if you have not read the previous books. Matia also mentions Borja who, in The Island, was a boy only a little older than her:

“The eyes of that boy who cried once, on a certain daybreak, no longer exist. They have turned yellowish with the years. No one could any longer believe them to be golden, or pale green, like this June sky.”

Returning to the island revives a sense of being trapped – “the feeling of a hidden snare does not leave me” – and the diary, in opposition, “would be one of the many free acts of my life.” The novel, then, is Matia trying to make sense of her life, and in particular her relationship with her son, Bear, who is at the centre of the next chapter. However, Matia herself is almost entirely absent from the chapter, appearing at the end as ‘the Mother’, when she meets Bear, who has apparently been in the care of his grandparents in America, after he travels to Europe on finishing high school. This change in focus is indicated by the chapter title, ‘Wasting Time’ – as we shall see, these titles repeat and each one suggests a particular perspective. ‘In This City’ is from the point of view of Isa, ‘Three Days of Love’ from that of the man she loves, Mario. All are connected to each other, yet these connections need unpicked by the reader. Thus the novel is not simply a ‘disordered diary’ but a shifting sands of narratives which hint at a whole we never quite arrive at.

The Bear chapters often concern his relationship with Borja after arriving on the island, echoing Matia’s relationship with Borja in The Island which was a complicated one. The chapter title suggests that Bear is using his time there as a ‘pause’ in his life, perhaps deciding what to do next, rejecting his education in the way Matia once did. Borja tells him:

“But, Bear, you must realise how you are wasting your time. If you want to put the world in order, first you must finish your degree.”

At the heart of the novel is Matia’s concern about her son, and her relationship with him:

“What have I ever known about the maternal purpose? It is painful to think about it now, when I see him grown up, absolutely alien. His youth pains me, as it once pained me to see him advancing clumsily on his two-year-old legs; with a handful of dry leaves in his hands.”

Meanwhile, in the Isa chapters we discover that Mario is missing, and in the Mario chapters that he is being hidden by Matia (part of the difficulty in deciphering this can be seen in the fact that neither knows the other’s name). Matia is hiding him as he is a friend of Bear’s, and the suggestion is that they are involved in acting against the state. This becomes a little clearer in the final chapters when there is a plan to shoot a man.

The Trap is a novel which benefits from an attentive, indeed a note-taking, reader – there are no concessions to ‘readability’ in what is, at times, a sea of unattributed pronouns. Ultimately it is less than the sum of its parts as those parts don’t obviously add up. The absence of a UK publication is now less of a mystery.

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me

July 10, 2020

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos’ fourth novel, all of which have now been issued in the UK by And Other Stories. On this occasion there is a change of translator as Rosalind Harvey makes way for Daniel Hahn, who handles the various voices in the narrative with great skill. Villalobos novels typically mix humour with social commentary: Down the Rabbit Hole is written from the perspective of the child of a drug lord; Quesadillas is a coming of age story which also examines the effects of poverty; I’ll Sell You a Dog is the story of a man who gave up his dream of being an artist to sell tacos. This latest novel returns to the organised crime of Down the Rabbit Hole: packed with petty criminals and gangsters, and with its fair share of violence, it also finds the time to indulge in literary theory.

The main character is Juan Pablo, a Mexican writer, with the very question of how much of the narrative is true and how much has been embellished to create a novel central to the plot. Juan is leaving for Barcelona, with his girlfriend Valentina, to begin his PhD (“It’s about the limits of humour in Latin American literature in the 20th century”) when his cousin tells him that he has “a very, very, total, gold-plated motherfucker of a plan.” It quickly becomes apparent that the cousin’s plan involves a criminal element:

“My naiveté in business matters was so great that I didn’t know investor meetings were held in the basements of lap-dancing clubs and with one partner tied to a chair…”

By the end of the meeting the cousin is dead and Juan is embroiled in a plan of which he knows very little, so much so that he immediately breaks up with Valentina to protect her, only to be told that she has to go with him:

“If you want to protect her what you need to do right now is convince her to get on that plane.”

Juan’s task when in Barcelona is to befriend the daughter of a rich Catalan businessman, Laia, who is a student at the same university:

“What we need is to get into Laia’s inner circle, and the quickest and simplest way to do that is through sex.”

Valentina is needed as all Laia’s previous relationships have been with women, but, understandably she is barely talking to Juan (or he to her). Luckily the reader has an insight into her life, which soon takes her different direction to Juan’s, as the novel also includes sections of her diary. (Other texts included are letters from the cousin, one written in case of his death, and letters from Juan’s mother, with such ironic statements as, “And to see you now! With a European girlfriend!”). She further complicates matters when she becomes friendly with an Italian beggar, Jimmy, whose attempts to scare Juan for abandoning her lead his associates to believe that the mafia are attempting to muscle in on their job.

The elements of farce which surround the criminals’ scheme is made more amusing by Juan/Villalobos’ self-referential literary asides. In reference to his continual confusion, Juan says:

“I’m normally a fan of stories that start in media res… but to tell the truth, when you’re talking about real life, I’d honestly rather have things explained to me properly, starting at the beginning.”

When, having befriended Laia, Juan is told “now you bang her” he comments:

“…If he’d asked me to kill her, or kidnap her, or to torture her, or to extort her, or to blackmail her, say, that would have more diegetic coherence, bearing in mind what had come before.”

Villalobos also uses this idea more seriously, questioning the nature of comedy in his comedic novel – in effect, asking the reader why they are laughing:

“Baudelaire said that laughter was satanic because it arises from the idea of its own superiority.”

This is perhaps most evident in a scene that begins, “There’s a Mexican, a Chinaman and a Muslim…” When another man is brought in, Juan realises, “there’s no way he’s getting out of this joke alive.”

The novel also has a number of running jokes, including variations on the title, as different characters realise they are unlikely to be believed. When Valentina shows Juan’ autobiographical novel to as policewoman she says “it’s too twisted, too implausible.” Her own diary she describes as having “so much plot it’s started looking like a novel.” Another running joke is Juan’s skin disease which almost every other character comments on at one time or another, most suggesting it is “dermatitis nervosa,” something Juan is at pains to deny.

The novel, then, can be very funny, though at almost three hundred pages it’s much longer than anything Villalobos has written before, and I was beginning to feel its cast of eccentrics had outstayed their welcome by the final third. Having said this, everything is redeemed by an ending that is both clever and poignant, and occurs just at the point you cannot see how Villalobos might end it. This is novel which is much more sophisticated than its often rough language and farcical humour might suggest, and demonstrates again Villalobos’ talent for exposing the flaws and hypocrisies of our time.

Death in the Andes

July 7, 2020

Death in the Andes, originally published in 1993, was the first novel Mario Vargas Llosa wrote after his failed attempt at the presidency of Peru in 1990. He described it as “a novel, something between a detective story and a fictional fantasy, about cataclysms, human sacrifices, and political crimes in a village in the Andes.” The novel uses one of the characters, Corporal Lituma, from his 1986 novel Who Killed Palomino Molero?, and is also structured as a murder mystery, using the genre as a method to expose the endemic violence in the country as government forces and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas fight out a bitter battle for control. Llosa takes this one step further as he exposes the deeper-lying atavistic impulses of the people living there in a Peruvian Heart of Darkness.

Lituma is half of a two man Civil Guard post in Naccos, a village high in the Andes in south-eastern Peru. Originally from the coast, the mountains feel like a different world:

“In the distance, thunder rolled through the mountains with an intermittent rumbling that rose from the bowels of the earth where the serruchos, these damn mountain people, thought that bulls, serpents, condors and spirits lived.”

Here the people speak a different language – Quechua rather than Spanish – and are deeply suspicious of outsiders, as Lituma discovers when he questions them about three men who have gone missing: “heads shaking no, monosyllables, evasive glances, frowns, pursed lips, a presentiment of menace.” The prime suspects are the guerrillas who live in the mountains; as Lituma tells his right-hand man (indeed, his only man) Tomas:

“You and I won’t get out of here alive. They have us surrounded, what’s the point of kidding ourselves.”

Vargas Llosa does not hide the savagery of the guerrillas: we see them murder two French tourists early in the novel by stoning them to death, and massacre the flock of vicunas tended by the mute ‘half-wit’ Pedro:

“They were shooting them, chasing them, killing off the wounded and dying. It seemed to Pedro Tinoco that night would never come. One of them blew up two calves lying quiet next to their mother, sent them flying with a stick of dynamite.”

Later they kill environmentalist Senora D’Harcourt, who is traveling in the mountains to plan reforestation. She refuses a Civil Guard escort, saying, “We’re not political and we have nothing to do with politics.” She cannot understand why the guerrillas intend to kill her, but, as her engineer tells her:

“They hear but they don’t listen, and they don’t want to understand what you say to them… They’re from another planet.”

As a counterpoint to the death and danger of Lituma and Tomas’ life in the mountains, Vargas Llosa introduces a love story as each night, to distract from their loneliness and fear, Tomas tells Lituma about his ‘girl’, Mercedes. This story, too, begins in violence as Tomas kills the gangster he is meant to be protecting for beating Mercedes:

“I couldn’t take it anymore… I couldn’t stand him hitting you and enjoying it like that. He almost killed you.”

Tomas’ innocence provides welcome relief to the darkness of the rest of the novel, and introduces a note of optimism. Mercedes, far from being pleased at being ‘rescued’, is furious at not only losing the money she was expecting to be paid, but now finding herself on the run(“Who told you to butt in? Who made you my bodyguard, who asked you to protect me?”). Tomas’ innocence is emphasised by Lituma’s running commentary as he tells his story presenting his more cynical world view:

“You didn’t pull out your revolver and shoot him because the stuff he was doing made you sick. Admit that you were jealous.”

One of the most successful formal features of the novel is the way Vargas Llosa tells Tomas’ story as a mixture of Tomas’ speech, Lituma’s interjections, and narrative.

As the novel progresses it becomes less certain that the guerrillas are responsible for the missing men, as Lituma suspected from the beginning – “Does Sendero ever disappear people? They just kill them and leave their leaflets behind to let everybody know who did it.” As it becomes clear that something even darker and more disturbing has occurred, Lituma questions whether discovering the truth is more dangerous than turning a blind eye, in terms of both his life and his sanity.

Death in the Andes (translated by Edith Grossman, who has gone on to translate a further six of Vargas Llosa’s novels) is perhaps not among Vargas Llosa’s very best novels (one candidate for that title would be The Feast of the Goat which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2003) but it is certainly at the top of the next tier. It’s a masterclass in conveying all the complexities of its characters and context without ever seeming laboured or labyrinthine. It both succeeds in portraying a particular place and time in Peru’s history, while at the same time exploring the deeper impulses which lie at the heart of how we live our lives. As a contender for the missing IFFP of 1996, it makes a powerful claim.

Holiday Heart

July 3, 2020

The title of Margarita Garcia Robayo’s novel, Holiday Heart, her second release in English translated by Charlotte Coombe after the stories of Fish Soup, is not that of the original Spanish (Tiempo Muerto – Dead Time), but it is the title Robayo wanted. Its apparent light-heartedness provides an ironic contrast both with its meaning (it is used to describe a heart disease which afflicts those who over-indulge on holiday) and the novel’s exposure of a marriage in crisis. It is also used in the novel in the sense of the heart being on holiday, that is, absent, a metaphor that might apply to both of its main characters, Pablo and Lucia.

Pablo and Lucia have been married for nineteen years, and it is soon clear that, over that time, they have drifted apart. As Lucia thinks to herself:

“The really bizarre thing is to look at the other person and wonder who they are, what they’re doing there next to you, when it was that their facial features changed so much.”

Pablo sees the origin of this slow separation with the birth of their children, the twins Tomas and Rosa:

“You excluded me from the pregnancy like a cat with toxoplasmosis.”

He describes his wife as the most intelligent person he knows, and goes onto say:

“Before giving birth, she’d been both the most intelligent and the kindest person he knew.”

This has increasingly driven Pablo into the arms of other women. The novel sees him drunkenly fuck a neighbour, Elisa, at a barbecue (“Did he like Elisa? Not in the slightest.”) before falling down in the street. The students he teaches have written a letter of complaint about his teaching, attendance and personal hygiene. And the novel he has been writing for two years has yet to elicit a positive response from anyone.

“He felt lost and he felt old. A sad old man.”

He has developed a friendship with one of his students, Kelly Jane, who he tells anyone who will listen, he has ‘not touched’, as if that will provide redemption for his other actions. This friendship simply seems to be a safe, undemanding space for him:

“The time he spent with Kelly Jane was comfortable.”

The novel is written in an anarchic, non-chronological style, juxtaposing events before and after Pablo’s heart problems, in a way that initially makes the reader sympathetic towards Lucia, though it soon becomes clear that she, too, has her faults. She has little patience with anyone, including her two children:

“After giving birth she morphed into a person with two increasingly heavy appendages.”

She is both reliant on her parents’ maid, Cindy, to look after them, and resentful:

“Cindy seems hell-bent on subjecting her children to a frenzy of non-stop, noisy vulgarity.”

We discover that she writes a column for Elle in which she describes her family life, featuring increasingly unflattering pictures of Pablo (“Pablo was deeply hurt by it, treating it as the height of injustice”). Whereas Pablo acts out his frustrations, Lucia contains them:

“She goes to such great lengths not to show her family what she is really thinking that it exhausts her.”

Holiday Heart, however, is about more than a disintegrating marriage. Robayo also tackles issues of nationality, immigration and race. Though Pablo and Lucia live in America, Pablo stills holds onto his Chilean nationality. Lucia on the other hand, when the children ask her where she is from, replies, “From here, from our house.”

“Lucia was transplanted like a tree never given time to put down any roots.”

The complexity of this issue is reflected in comments by the children: Rosa asking, “Why don’t Venezuelans live in Venezuela?” and Tomas declaring on the beach, “I don’t like black people.” Both Pablo and Lucia have their own forms of racism. When Pablo’s boss comes over to tell him he’s fired he thinks to himself, “Born Latino, but gringo to the core,” going on to assert:

“Being brown isn’t an advantage… Being black gets you further.”

Meanwhile, when Lucia first meets American sports star David Rodriguez, she is dismissive of his inability to understand Spanish (“Third generation Dominicans in the United States”). Back in his hotel room, she thinks of him as a “black pig”, but when he rapes her it’s unclear if this narrative stereotyping is an ironic commentary on her own stereotyping.

Holiday Heart, like Fish Soup, can be uncomfortable reading at times, not only for the queasy racism on show, but in the way it more generally fillets Pablo and Lucia’s lives, exposing their often unprincipled, excuse-ridden existence. There is often some dark humour in this, though that may well depend on how close it hits to home. What is not in doubt is that it once again demonstrates that Robayo is a fearless writer who refuses to look away.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996

July 1, 2020

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, now the Booker International, has been an important part of my reading life since I first tackled the long list in 2005. The Prize itself began in 1990 and the first winner was Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, translated by Victoria Holbrook. Between 1996 and 2000, however, the award was in abeyance, and it has always struck me that revisiting these years and creating a potential long list, in the manner of the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970, would be a fascinating exercise.

I have attempted to stay true to the rules of the Prize, for example, by not admitting authors who weren’t alive at the time. However, for reasons of simplicity, I have had to ignore the fact that prizes often regard the year as beginning on some arbitrary month and simply admit anything published in 1996. I’ve also bent (okay broken) the rule that allows only British publishers to enter. This was simply to increase (slightly) the number of women writers. To this end I have included two books published only in the US – and even then two thirds of the list is male. There is also a lack of geographical diversity, with only three books originating from outside Europe. Again, I suspect this reflects publishing at the time, but I am still open to suggestions. I’ve also limited the long list to twelve rather than the normal sixteen or more (for reasons of personal sanity).

The long list is as follows:


In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)



Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)


Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)#

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

My aim is read and review every book over the next three months and announce a winner in September. Feel free to join in – perhaps you already have a favourite here – or to suggest anything you think should have been included.