The Ropewalker

September 3, 2017

Jaan Kross probably remains Estonia’s most famous writer, his availability in English largely down to a period in the mid- 1990s which saw The Czar’s Madman, Professor Marten’s Departure, and the short story collection The Conspiracy published. Two more novels have followed but his first major work, the four-volume Between the Plagues, has remained out of reach until last year when the first two volumes appeared under the title The Ropewalker, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher. For those who fear approaching any series in translation until there is some certainty that it can be read in full, the third volume, A People Without a Past, was published last month, and the final part is scheduled to appear next year.

The Ropewalker is a historical novel which begins in the 1550s, a period which English writers never tire of writing about, ending as it does with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Its setting, however, (in European terms) could hardly be further away, lying as it does at the other edge of Europe in Livonia. Livonia, a land which does not even have the advantage of still existing, was to be found where much of present-day Estonia is but also included part of Latvia, including Riga. As the novel opens, Livonia is under the rule of the Order which, though it may sound a little science fiction, is, in fact, a group of knights supported by the German nobility. (‘Rule’ is perhaps an exaggeration as large parts of the country are owned by the Catholic Church, and large towns have their own political structures). The language of the ruling class was therefore German, excluding most of the inhabitants of Livonia who were peasants. In The Ropewalker we see the power of the Order wane, creating a vacuum which surrounding states – Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark – attempt to fill.

The attraction of this period to Kross is obvious: he lived through Estonia’s occupation during World War Two by, first, the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviets again. He also chooses as his protagonist a historical figure, Balthasar Russow (or Bal), author of the Chronicle of the Province of Livonia which charts the area’s history from 1156 to 1583, suggesting that in his own chronicling of Livonia’s history he is picking up Russow’s mantle. (All historical writing is political, but the very act of recording the history of a small nation, particularly one other states wish to absorb, is political in itself). We first meet Bal as he attempts to get a closer look at a group of (tight)ropewalkers who have suspended a rope above the town “like a silver strand of hair, stretching from the steeple to somewhere far beyond the town walls.” The dangerous manoeuvres of the rope dancers foreshadow Bal’s later adventures and the metaphorical tightrope he must walk between the different powers in the land and their representatives, but we also see here his lively curiosity and determination to discover things for himself.

Bal’s father is a wagoner and therefore a step above the peasantry; he is able to pay for Bal’s education and, unusually, has also had his daughter, Annika, educated. The story of Bal’s impressive sounding name is telling:

“His mother expressed some doubt over a name so exalted, for might it not seem as if they were prodding Our Lord to take notice of this child born to simple folk…? But his father replied, ‘Every name is a kind of prod…Since it’s a prod in any case, better that He raise our boy up a bit than push his nose down into the dirt.”

It is Bal’s aptitude for languages which first gets him noticed when a merchant asks him to write a letter in German. This is also his first introduction to ‘diplomacy’ as the letter is a fake – supposedly written by a (dead) German merchant in order to dissuade other German merchants from coming to Livonia and taking business away from the locals. Later, when Bal arrives in Stettin to further his education, the rector immediately tests his Latin:

“…as if out of spite, the rector continues in Latin and asks now about Balthasar’s studies. And he proceeds ever more quickly and aggressively, barely giving Balthasar a chance to answer before posing the next question.”

He survives the inquisition, but on another occasion, when he is sent with a letter for Duke Johan, he fears that admitting his knowledge of Latin may be a disadvantage:

“He tried at lightning speed to weigh the consequences of a ‘yes’ and the dangers of a false ‘no’ which might later be discovered.”

With quick wits he answers, “Verba quidem, sed non sentiam.” (I understand the words, but not the meaning). Towards the novel’s end, when he finds himself embroiled in the Peasants’ Revolt ( a sign he cannot leave his background behind), he is asked to accompany a delegation of peasants into Tallinn and listen to what the council members say amongst themselves (believing the peasants will not understand). Language is political in a way we might only understand with reference to the Norman Conquest or the Highland Clearances in our own country.

Throughout the novel there is, of course, a great deal of ‘right time, right place’ as far as Bal is concerned, but so credibly is his character developed that this never seems forced. This allows Kross to present the history of the period without having to pan back into explanatory prose. It also means that what seems complicated in summary does not feel so in reading as the narrative carries the reader along. The Ropewalker is a classic historical novel, and also an important landmark in the subgenre of writer’s in totalitarian states using the past to write about the present (see also Ismail Kadare). Above all, it is a wonderful, immersive read.

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Die, My Love

August 30, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh launch of Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American fiction which is based in the city. (Charco is apparently Spanish for puddle, so Scotland would seem to be the ideal location). The authors of its two launch publications, Ariana Harwicz (Die, My Love), and Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Slum Virgin), were both in attendance, as was co-founder and translator Carolina Orloff; the enthusiasm of all three (and of hosts, Golden Hare Books) was wonderful to behold, and I began reading Die, My Love (translated by Carolina and Sarah Moses) on the train home.

Die, My Love is a fierce, unsettling novel about motherhood and marriage. Its Argentinian author, Harwicz, spoke of writing the book while living in France with her husband and first child, explaining to some extent the sense of foreignness and isolation of the narrator. Further blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, she confessed that when she began she did not know that she was writing a novel. The novel’s searing honesty is quickly apparent as the narrator considers the need to acquire a cake for her son’s six-month ‘birthday’:

“Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead suddenly turning me over and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.”

Her husband remains a distant figure in the novel. His love of the night sky might suggest he is looking in the wrong direction, particularly as his wife remains uninterested in the meteorites he watches through his telescope, thinking only that she’d like to be on “any mission to outer space.” She fails to share his love of the outdoors:

“Personally, I don’t give a damn if I’m under the open sky or shut up in a trunk.”

His distance, though, is also a reflection of her own isolation: in the opening pages it is she who keeps herself apart from her husband and son, and throughout the novel she will frequently retreat to the woods. Her husband’s patience magnifies her own inadequacies:

“The most aggressive thing he’d said to me in seven years was ‘Go and get yourself checked out.’ I’d said to him ‘You’re a dead man’ during the first month of our relationship.”

Harwicz captures the constant anxiety which can accompany having a child. In the narrator’s earliest memory after giving birth she is “afraid of the harm she could cause the newborn.” She frequently thinks she hears her child crying only to find him lying silently – this too, of course, causing worry:

“Why does he sleep so much? Why doesn’t he stir?”

The novel’s honesty also extends to the narrator’s sex life, and the waves of desire which come over her. She becomes fixated on a neighbour, at one point writing in his voice (“Now I’m speaking as him”):

“I think about her and heave with desire.”

She haunts his home, where he stays with his wife and daughter, her sexual fantasies (“Such delicious luxury to have a man pressing on my guts”) finally fulfilled, though such is the intensity of the narrative that this is only the likeliest possibility rather than a certainty. Animal imagery describes their coupling:

“In one feline motion, I turn over and climb on top of him.”

It’s not uncommon for the narrator to compare herself to an animal, and real animals also occur again and again the narrative. The couple’s car hitting a stag is one example, a brief instance where the underlying violence of the voice punches through. (The stag survives and will be seen again by the narrator – “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden” – inhabiting the same borderline between domesticity and wildness as she does.) Their dog is injured in the accident, and the narrator’s inability to cope with it whimpering in pain (she asks her husband to kill it) seems to echo her response to her child.

Die, My Love is a powerful exploration of the rage and loneliness which can accompany motherhood. Such feelings may not be universal (though many of her thoughts will have occurred to some in diluted form) but neither is it unique. The novel also questions the direction and purpose of relationships, and our roles within them, the narrator’s faltering marriage set against the marriage of her in-laws. It does all this in wild phrases which bite and cut at the consciousness of the reader: Harwicz spoke of a realist novel where the fantastic element lies in the language. Harwicz also said that writing a novel is a matter of life and death, and that is certainly how this novel feels.

Cleaned Out

August 19, 2017

Annie Ernaux’s Cleaned Out (translated by Carol Sanders) begins with an illegal abortion (first published in 1974, this scene takes place in 1960). Ernaux spares no detail – the story, as with most of her work, is autobiographical:

“I was on the table, all I could see between my legs was her grey hair and the red snake she was brandishing with a pair of forceps. It disappeared. Unbearable pain. I shouted at the old woman who was stuffing in cotton wool to keep it in place.”

The abortion, however, is the novel’s endpoint rather than its subject. Ernaux is instead intent on exploring the journey which has taken her narrator, Denise Lesur, from childhood to this moment:

“First I was the storekeeper’s daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”

It’s the story of a young woman caught between two cultures – her working class background and the middle class world she has entered via education – but belonging to neither of them:

“I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people. I’m sick to death of them.”

Her parents own a store and bar in a poor neighbourhood, providing a level of prosperity which sets them above their customers. Denise’s childhood is a happy one – “I was like a fish in water” – the store means she never has to want for anything on its shelves, and the bar provides her with all the adult attention, unsavoury as some of it is, she needs. She is sent to a private school – a claim on entering the middle classes which her parents shrug off with, “not that we’re snobs, but the private school is nearer.” Though uneducated (or perhaps because they are), her parents place their faith in education – her father pronounces ‘school’ in the same tone as ‘church’. Denise is studious, but finds school “strange, indescribable, I was completely disorientated.” School and home seem like two different worlds: “Not even the same language.”

Denise, of course, does not fit in with the other pupils:

“In feel clumsy and awkward in comparison with the private-school girls, who are confident, who know just what to do.”

Her stories from home are “in poor taste.” Her marks, however, continue to be high:

“The others recognised that I got good marks and was at the top of the class. That knowledge made me feel free, warm, protected.”

The better she does at school, however, the more distant she feels from her life at home:

“I’m not like them. I’m different. I have nothing to say to them.”

School and home also create another dichotomy in Denise’s life. Her sordid origins become connected in her mind with sex; school, on the other hand, represents purity. As her sexual desire develops she sees it as something else that singles her out, a view exacerbated by her Catholic upbringing:

“There’s a monster growing between my legs, a flat, red cockroach, unclean. Don’t ever look at it, don’t ever touch it, don’t let anyone see it, the Devil’s down there…”

She sees her sexuality as something to resist, and her inability to resist it a sign of her own inadequacy, her true, inherited nature which she cannot escape through learning.

Cleaned Out is a fierce, physical book. In Ernaux’s hands, Denise’s emotions are often tangible, spreading through her senses. In an afterword, she talks of, “describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays…” It’s a coming of age story, but also a coming to terms, in which Denise must wrestle with who she is before she can decide who she wants to be.

The Back Room

August 13, 2017

Carmen Martin Gaite’s The Back Room is the only one of the five of her novels to have been translated into English still in print, though it is, perhaps, not the ideal starting point. Written in the middle of a writing career which lasted forty years, it features a writer who we take to be the author (there are references, for example, to her first novel The Spa) reflecting on her childhood in the company of a stranger who arrives one night shortly after midnight, and might be anything from a journalist to the devil; perhaps simply a dream.

The novel begins one sleepless night and the narrator’s mind is already very much on her childhood – “the little girl form the provinces who can’t manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp.” We also sense a restlessness in the untidiness of the rooms and a lack of focus in her writing. At one point she loses her footing over a copy of Todorov’s Introduction to Fantastic Literature:

“When I finished it I wrote in a notebook: ‘I swear I’m going to write a fantastic novel.’ I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o’-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then one’s enthusiasm flags…”

The ringing of a telephone wakes her (the novel is full of awakenings, making the differentiation of dream and reality difficult). The visitor claims he is expected though the narrator is less certain (“I don’t know what interview he’s talking about but I don’t dare admit this.”) He quickly brings doubt to his existence, commenting on the narrator’s fear of a cockroach she has sighted in the kitchen:

“They’re mysterious….Like all apparitions. Don’t you like mystery stories?”

Later she will find with a print of ‘Luther’s Discussion with the Devil’ which was earlier pinned up in her bedroom in his hand; looking at it then she had felt “it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering into it.”

Her visitor (“the man in black” she calls him) prompts her to further memories of her youth, though in no particular order, beginning with her departure from Spain on a scholarship to study in Portugal. Her memories take place partly in the images she recalls to her mind, partly in what she tells him. At times, for example when she goes to the kitchen to make him tea, her memories are entirely separate from their conversation. This jumble of memories she associates with the back room:

“I also imagine it as the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms by a curtain that is only occasionally pulled back. The memories that may come to us as something of a surprise live hiding in the back room.”

She compares memory to the childhood game of Red Light where the participants attempt to approach one child who has their back turned, freezing when they turn and say ‘Red Light!’

“…time steals by so furtively that we don’t even notice it, we don’t see it passing. But all of sudden we turn around and find images that have moved behind our backs, frozen photographs that bear no dates, like the figures of the children in the game of Red Light, who could never be caught moving.”

To some extent her recollections focus on her development as a writer: “That child and her mania for sitting reading with her face glued to the balcony!” She talks of the romance novels she loved, and her own childish romances. But her memories are also a record of Franco’s dictatorship, a point she makes by describing two moments when she saw Franco’s daughter, Carmencita (who is of a similar age) – as a child and at Franco’s funeral:

“We’ve grown up and lived in the same years. She was the daughter of an army officer from the provinces. We’ve been the victims of the same manners and mores, we’ve read the same magazines and seen the same movies.”

At one point they are interrupted by a phone call from a woman claiming to be her visitor’s girlfriend. She also claims to have discovered love letters from the narrator (signed with a C) – though the narrator has no memory of them. (Missing letters, and other papers, are another recurrent motif of the novel). In the final chapter, we are given a strong impression that the novel is a dream –the narrator is awoken by her daughter’s kiss – but how much of it? And in what way does that explain the manuscript she finds:

“The place formerly occupied by Todorov’s book is now occupied by a pile of numbered pages, one hundred and eighty-two of them. On the first line is written, in capital letters with a black ballpoint pen: THE BACK ROOM.”

As the man in black reminds us:

“Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature… Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, and never finding out.”

The Back Room is both puzzling and prepossessing, marking Gaite out as an intriguing writer who deserves attention.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.

A Broken Mirror

August 1, 2017

That the final chapter of Merce Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror is told from the point of view of a rat gives some indication of how far behind she had left the first person narration of her previous novels by the time she came to write her ninth, her first to be published since her return to Catalonia in 1972. “A novel is a mirror carried along a road,” claimed Stendahl, warning his reader that it is as likely to reflect the mud beneath as the blue skies above. Rodoreda certainly shares Stendahl’s intent to show us the high and the low, but her fractured viewpoints suggest that what appears in the guise of a nineteenth century novel is in fact its epitaph.

The novel opens as a young wife, Teresa, is presented with a brooch – “a bouquet of flowers made with diamonds and as big as the palm of his hand” – by her elderly husband, Nicolau Rovira. Teresa is not of the same class – the daughter of a fishmonger – and already has an illegitimate child by a married man. She later returns to the jeweller and asks him to buy back the brooch, using the money to pay the father to adopt the child, telling her husband she has lost the brooch while at the same time arranging to become her son’s godmother, “a rather mature infant who had no mother, poor little thing, she’d died in the hospital in childbirth.” Teresa is no Becky Sharp, however: she is simply practical, contriving the best outcome for all concerned, a cool-headed capability that will be shared by many of the women in this novel of three generations. Neither is her married lover a cad (she remembers him fondly on her death bed) nor her aged husband a breathless letch; from its opening pages, Rodoreda’s humanity shines through. Her characters have flaws and failings, but we will not be expected to boo and hiss from the stalls as they pantomime their way through a nineteenth century melodrama.

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We also quickly learn how quickly she will turn our heads. We have only just begun to follow Teresa with our eyes when we must look to Salvador Valldaura, who makes his entrance trailing a seven page love story that ends tragically, only to be introduced to Teresa, “the widow of the financier Nicolau Rovira.” (We only looked away a moment!) Rodoreda flits between her characters’ feelings with ease, as we see in the obligatory ball scene where they fall in love:

“If I could, Valldaura thought, I would take her to the end of the world. The applause was deafening. Teresa, panting, her head thrown back, was telling herself that she’d never known a night like this one. She was hot. She took of her gloves slowly – they seemed endless – and wiped her face with her hand.”

By the time we reach the phrase “they are endless” we are no longer even certain whose consciousness we inhabit. Rodoreda is equally at home with the servants. In one memorable scene, in the heat of the summer, they undress in the yard and cool themselves with water sprayed from a hose:

“Since the hose was very long, Armanda started to chase the terrace, and for a long time they did not stop running and screaming.”

Such moments of joy stand out as the overall atmosphere of the novel is elegiac. It’s one of a number of scenes which are repeated either exactly or in echo, an inescapable recurrence which suggests that, for all its wealth, the family are trapped within a life which changes little. Attempts at wilful independence (see Teresa’s grandson, Ramon, and the ‘adopted’ (another illegitimate child) Maria) tends to end badly. As Teresa ages she loses the use of her legs, a paralysis which further emphasises a frozen existence. There is little sense, however, that Rodoreda therefore approves of the violence which will sweep it away. The civil war provides the novel’s endpoint but hardly features of itself, perhaps because it is a topic Rodoreda has explored elsewhere, but also, I think, to emphasise that her characters are largely detached from politics, and, indeed, the twentieth century. Teresa’s daughter, Sofia, leaves Spain, and when the house is taken over, even Armanda moves out:

“She spent the remaining wartime in an apartment very near the villa, an apartment that after the war would become hers… As soon as the war ended she went to see the villa.”

In these few sentences the war is over and Sofia returns, but with no intention of returning to the life she led before. Perhaps that is why the novel ends with Armanda recalling an act of disobedience from Sofia’s childhood, walking the gardens of the villa where only ghosts are left:

“…very near her, level with her eyes, the black trees as background, something drew her attention: a shard of mist almost nothing, hesitant, a transparent wing that moved away and finally vanished as if the earth had sucked it up.”

Even the rat dies.

The Cowboy Bible

July 25, 2017

A certain wildness is to be expected when a book cover looks like a biker’s jacket, but even that might not prepare the reader for Carlos Velazquez’s The Cowboy Bible, a collection of short stories which will not sit sweetly in their in their cages but instead roam freely across the fictional town of PopSTock, their characters and phrases turning up untidily on their neighbour’s lawns. Nominally divided into three sections – fiction, non-fiction, and neither fiction nor non-fiction – even these barriers seem designed to display the content’s contempt for anything that might define it. Into this mix Velazquez throws everything we might expect of Mexico: wrestlers, narcos, corridos, and burritos, not to mention the devil, blended into a surreal cocktail that is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste.

The title story, about wrestling – “I was born in a corner. In a wrestling ring,” its narrator declares – seems obvious enough. Except it soon becomes clear that when the word wrestling is used it simply means something different:

“That’s when I discovered my wrestling style, what would later be called Neo Vulgar Retro Kitsch. The kind of experimentation that had me playing Ministry with Rocio Banquells and Los Angeles Negros…”

‘Wrestling’ is somehow DJ-ing, and Velazquez runs the language of both genres together throughout:

“There’ll be two or three takedowns with no time limits to win the national welterweight championship.”

The narrator loses the competition, however:

“My opponent wiped the floor with me… His collection of European vinyl was his advantage.”

‘The Cowboy Bible’ is amusing but it is not the strongest story in the collection. The Bible itself makes its first appearance, a good luck charm that seems almost incidental to the story. Though abandoned by the narrator at the end, it is not abandoned by Velazquez, and will reappear throughout the collection in various guises, its ability to transform suggesting that its pages contain the multifarious soul of Mexico.

Velazquez has been compared to Bukowski and Burroughs, two writers I know little about, but I do see something of the early Irvine Welsh. ‘Cooler Burritos’ is one story which invites the comparison, the tale of a drinking contest where gangsters attempt to rig the betting. Here, the Cowboy Bible is a character:

“Everybody knew The Cowboy Bible was unbeatable in any duel that involved swigging the special brew…”

The criminals enlist the help of his neglected wife who resents the being left to single-handedly sweat over her burgeoning burrito business while he perfects his drinking. In a similar vein, ‘Like ‘Em Fat’ recounts the efforts of its narrator to sleep with a fat girl:

“I was particularly fascinated by the myths about men who slept with fat girls: Fat girls were said to rekindle their faith in love. The overweight woman was attributed prowess and sexual expertise that are not to be found in the rest of her gender.”

He is no longer able to sleep with his own wife because, against his wishes, she went to a dance and “ran into the devil”:

“The place started to smell of smoke and all hell broke loose. My wife turned up burned to crisp in the Red Cross emergency room.”

(That particular story is told later in ‘The Post-Norteno Condition’). ‘Like ‘Em Fat’s no-holds-barred narrator makes for an amusingly ribald tale with a frantic, Tarantinoesque conclusion. ‘Notes for a New Theory for Mastering Hair’ also demonstrates a care-free attitude to offence:

“The Cowgirl Bible had huge tits, a greasy face and a mess of hair. From pre-adolescence she had suffered flare-ups of rebellious hair. She learned early that letting loose those tresses was only possible for gals who could afford certain products. From the time she was just twelve or thirteen years old, as she entered the bloom of puberty, she focused blindly on the wild vertical porcupine that had begun to grow between her legs.”

The story goes to describe her career as a pubic beautician, conflating it with that of a rock star (indeed the ‘origin story’ is part of that process). Her razors bear the names of famous guitar makes, her hero is Jaimito Hendrics, and she even names her favourite blade Lucille (famously the name of B. B. King’s guitar). It could be argue that Velazquez is poking fun at so many things – body image, fame, branding – he’s simply waving his stick in the air, but that doesn’t prevent the story from being enormous fun.

Dizzying and disconcerting, The Cowboy Bible may be an uneven collection, but where the stories work they burn like a dance with the devil.

Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name

July 21, 2017

As the titles suggest – Farewells (1954) and A Grave with No Name (1959) – death is ever-present in this volume of two long stories by Juan Carlos Onetti translated by Peter Bush in 1992. In the first a young basketball player retreats to a remote village to die of tuberculosis; in the second a woman is buried as her goat looks on. But mortality is not Onetti’s main concern – above all, these tales are about the impenetrable darkness of other lives, with narrators who strain their eyes to understand the movements in the shadows but see only so much.

The narrator of Farewells is the local shopkeeper who looks at the hands of new arrivals and decides whether they will live or die. In the case of the basketball player, death is not inevitable, but he believes he won’t be cured:

“…he wasn’t going to be cured because he wasn’t bothered about being cured; the nurse and I had known a lot of people like that.”

The basketball player refuses to stay in the sanatorium, living in a hotel instead, sitting in the lobby two or three hours a day, “pretending he believed he had turned incredulousness into an habitual and unambiguous ally, that a studied drama of withdrawal was enough to keep him attached to all that existed before the date of a diagnosis.” The narrator notices that in the letters he receives there are two particular types of envelope which matter to him, and assumes these are from women. One day one of the women appears and moves into the hotel with him. According to the nurse:

“The fellow needed that woman. You can see he can’t stand living apart from her. He’s another man now…”

However, a few weeks later, after she has left, another, younger, woman arrives, and this time he moves with her into a house he has rented nearby, the Portuguese sisters’ chalet. It is immediately assumed the new woman is his mistress:

“And frankly he’s not doing right by her; he’s not very gentlemanly, he shouldn’t have taken her to the hotel where everybody saw him living with the other woman.”

Of course, the story’s conclusion reveals that their suppositions have not been entirely accurate, but this twist is almost incidental. Onetti’s primary concern is the basketball player as observed from outside, not only by the narrator but by the nurse, the maid at the hotel, and the two women. Much of the story is told as the narrator sees it, but he also imagines a number of scenes, interpreting events as a writer would. Onetti gives the impression he distrusts his own craft, placing distance between himself and his characters to suggest we can only know so much for certain.

The same process occurs in A Grave with No Name, the narrator being only tangentially attached to the story, though pursuing the ‘truth’ with greater intent. The story opens with Jorge Malabia, the son of a rich family, organising the burial of a poor woman. Even more bizarrely he follows the funeral carriage with a goat:

“Lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint, the goat had reached the cemetery gate; it was rubbing its nose against the short grass in the ditch but not managing to eat. The Malabias’ lad kept his arms crossed, didn’t let go of the rope, put up with the pulling…”

The narrator determines to discover who the woman is and why Malabia is burying her. The story is told in conversations with Malabia and other characters, but also in chapters composed by the narrator – as he says ate one point, “I started guessing things and wrote them down.” The woman, Rita, is a family servant whom Malabia comes across in more difficult times. But Onetti makes us question whether the woman he buried was Rita or not. Malabia tells him:

“It wasn’t Rita… She was a relative, a cousin… Another woman and practically another story.”

Onetti seems to be teasing us with the unattainable nature of truth, placing even this fact just beyond our reach. The narrator’s final comments sum up Onetti’s approach:

“And this is more or less all I had left after the holidays. Nothing really; hopeless confusion, a narrative without a possible conclusion, full of doubtful meanings, belied by the very elements that I had to give it shape. I had personal knowledge only of the last chapter, the hot afternoon in the cemetery. I didn’t know the significance of what I’d seen, I was repelled by finding out and being sure.”

Having read No Man’s Land last year, it is clear Onetti is a difficult but rewarding writer; it is such a pity he is now entirely out of print.

1967 – A Man Asleep

July 18, 2017

My journey into the literature of 1967 this month sees the appearance of another of my favourite writers, Georges Perec. In 1967 Perec’s career was only beginning; his most famous novel, Life: a User’s Manual, was over ten years away, and his first, Things: A Story of the Sixties, had appeared a mere two year before. When the latter was translated into English in 1990 it was partnered with Perec’s 1967 novella, A Man Asleep (translated by Andrew Leak). As with most of Perec’s work, a plot summary is not only challenging but also inconsequential: A Man Asleep is a story where nothing happening is exactly the point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Perec’s obsession with detail, the novella opens with a description of what you see with your eyes shut; not, as you might expect, darkness as:

“…the distribution, the allocation, of the areas of darkness is not homogeneous: the upper area is manifestly darker, whereas the lower area, which, to you, appears nearer… is, on the one hand much greyer, not, that is to say, much more neutral as you initially believe, but actually much whiter…”

However, there is more to the story than a sleeping man: this is a man asleep in spirit as well as body, a state which today we might describe as depression:

“At first it’s just a sort of lassitude or tiredness, as if you suddenly became aware that for a long time, for several hours, you have been succumbing to an insidious, numbing discomfort, not exactly painful but nonetheless intolerable, succumbing to the sickly-sweet and stifling sensation of being without muscles or bones, of being a sack of potatoes surrounded by other sacks of potatoes.”

The central character (not the narrator as the novella is written in second person – in French it uses the less formal tu form – and Perec had sections from the narrative read by a female voice during the film version which he made in 1974) misses his university exam – “not a premeditated action, or rather it’s not an action at all, but an absence of action” – and so begins a prolonged period of stasis. At first he keeps to his room, his only awareness of the outside world the sounds which filter through: his neighbour “coughing, dragging his feet, moving furniture, opening drawers;” his friend – “you will recognise his footfall on the stairs, you will let him knock on your door, wait, knock again, a little louder.” Even when he returns to his parents for a period he recognises them largely through the sounds they make:

“You can hear them moving about the house, going up- and down-stairs, coughing, opening drawers.”

The repetition seems to indicate that all surroundings are somehow the same. In this way Perec encapsulates the futility and meaninglessness of life we can feel when we are young:

“You have hardly started living and yet, all is said, all is done. You are only twenty-five, yet your path is mapped out for you. The roles are prepared and the labels: from the potty of your infancy to the bath chair of your old age, all the seats are ready and waiting their turn.”

This, of course, injects the narrative with a strong dose of self-pity, and perhaps Perec chose second person to make this more palatable and encourage readers to identify points in their life when they have felt the same. This does not mean, however, that the novel is hopeless or nihilistic. The character seems to come to a realisation at the end that his obsession with pointlessness is itself pointless:

“Indifference is futile… You can believe, if you want, that by eating the same meal every day you are making a decisive gesture. But your refusal is futile. Your neutrality is meaningless. Your inertia is just as vain as your anger.”

A Man Asleep reminded me of a more recent novel, Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. Helle’s novel appears superficially (i.e. to me) to be about a woman who is depressed, but Helle herself saw the novel as optimistic, simply about someone who was drifting through life, almost as if this were a necessary stage. While Perec’s novel is apparently based on his own depression when he was twenty, the ending suggests he sees something necessary about that period of his life, and the first sight of an escape. Certainly the novel captures as well as any other what it feels like to be young and paralysed by unhappiness; Perec, for all his technical tricks, understood emotion.