Posts Tagged ‘spanish lit month’

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.


July 16, 2017

Hernan Rosino’s novella Glaxo (translated by Samuel Rutter) begins with the railway line to the small Argentinian town where it is set being dismantled:

“One day the trains stop coming. Then a work team arrives. Six or seven men get out of a truck. They begin pulling up the tracks.”

Or rather, these are the opening lines; the beginning perhaps lies fifteen years before on those very same rail tracks:

“Things began to change one morning in ‘58, October of ’58. The ten o’clock train came in slowly, as usual, the engine spat out thick black smoke that blocked out the view of the silos at the mills. A few minutes later, from this very train, Ramon Folcada, stepped off onto the platform, a group of policemen waiting warmly for him and his wife, La Negra Miranda, who was barely twenty-eight years old and had unforgettable legs.”

This scene appears later, as retold by Miguelito Barrios in 1966. The novella runs not along the straight tracks of time, but moving backwards and forwards with gaps in between like tunnels: four chapters, four stations. 1973, 1984, 1966, 1959; and each time a different voice.

The first chapter presents a picture of decay and sickness. Vardemann, the narrator and town barber, observes his father, “bent over in the corner, distant and old, worn down like a bone that has been picked over.” Miguelito Barrios, a contemporary of Vardemann, returns from hospital, “holding himself up on their unfinished wall, walking with difficulty, pallid and thin.” At first it seems this is the story of industrial poisoning (a la Fever Dream) with the Glaxo factory looming over the town, and the frequently mentioned blackened metal drums burning all night, but in the final pages Vardemann visits Barrios who begs forgiveness for an unspecified offence, and we suspect that the poisoning may, in fact, be moral.

In 1984 Bicho Souza, another of “the boys from the neighbourhood”, tells of meeting La Negra Miranda, who disappeared from town many years before:

“…one morning she couldn’t stand it anymore: that night Folcada beat her, and while he beat her he told her what he had done in the clearing, he told her what Miguelito had told him, and so that very same night, she wrote a terrible letter to Migueltio Barrios, and pushed it under his door, she pushed it under before leaving…”

Souza also introduces the Western Last Train from Gun Hill, which they all watched together as kids, into the narrative. Friendly shoot-outs as children will be echoed in the tensions which develop later, particularly in Barrios’ description of Vardemann stepping off a train at the beginning of the third section in 1966. In the final chapter – told from Folcada’s point of view, opening with his abrasive, “Someone’s fucking La Negra” – the Western genre is to the fore, but, in the violence, revenge and double-crossing, it looks increasingly unlikely that the good guys will win.

At under a hundred pages, Glaxo is designed to be read in one sitting, and this allows it to work brilliantly as a mystery – the mystery being as much about the nature of the crime as the perpetrator(s). It’s also an admirable technical feat – four distinct voices across four decades. The fractured narrative, however, is not simply there for our post-modern pleasure: it places the emphasis on the effects as much as the causes of evil and leaves us with injustice rather than healing.

The Children

July 6, 2017

Laura lives in fear. She regularly gives money to the woman outside the supermarket to watch her car. (“But Laura was not sure whether the woman really did watch the cars. She knew that when she had finished her shopping, she gave her some coins as if to pay her, and that her car had never gone missing.”) When strangers ask the name of her dog, she always gives a different answer. (“By doing this she thought she was protecting him: that it was less likely someone would snatch him from outside the supermarket entrance or anywhere else.”) When the supermarket woman is replaced by someone younger, and she cannot think of a false name for her dog, she simply doesn’t enter the supermarket:

“For the next two days, she did not buy any food, and she did not eat.”

That her life changes with the arrival of the child is not immediately obvious, but then little is in Columbian author Carolina Sanin’s The Children (translated by Nick Caistor).

Laura first meets the child, six and a half year old Fidel, one night when she hears him crying and finds him outside her window looking up:

“The boy had a shaven head and big eyes. There was so much black emptiness in his gaze that it seemed as through his face had interrupted the night and the night had begun again in his look.”

She takes him up to her apartment and, of course, attempts to inform the appropriate authorities, openly to be told she must contact the National Family Welfare Institute which will not open until Monday (it’s Saturday night) as “it’s closed at the weekend for stock-taking”. (We see here an early use of italics to highlight the jarring jargon of bureaucracy). She takes Fidel to the Institute as instructed, but when she later enquires as to his welfare she can find no trace of him. Only months later does she relocate him and begin to invite him into her life.

This uneventful summary, however, hides many levels of disconcerting strangeness. Partly this is down to the reshaping of narratives which takes place within the novel. Laura herself is guilty of this, telling the Institute that she found Fidel outside the supermarket. His name, too, is her creation – adapted from Elvis Fider Loreto Membrives; later she will create a birthday for him. She thinks, “she could pretend that others have asked her to take care of the boy.” (She aklso rearranges other stories, for example, one night she tells him a version of Great Expectations set in Bogota). This is already part of her character before Fidel’s appearance: she works as cleaner though she has no need of the money, taking the bus to work rather than driving so her employers believe she is poor. While cleaning, she builds a house in her mind:

“Between the dining room and the bedrooms she planted a garden with a curving stream that carried along with it ordinary stones and precious stones.”

When she hires someone to discover where Fidel is, this creates another version of the story:

“Apparently Elvis, a child like so many others, presumably in a state of great distress, wrote to Laura searching for protection, aid and warmth because he recalled having seen her take part in the children’s television show ‘Treasure Haunt and concluded she felt empathy towards little ones.”

(Or perhaps versions of the story, the italics suggesting that this has already been patched together from two voices). When Fidel is with her he, too, exists between two narratives – at night dreaming of a beauty parlour:

“On the fourth night, Fidel said he was in the beauty parlour, but they were still calling him to go there. He said that the parlour – although he did not say the parlour but Parlour like a proper noun – that in Parlour there was a place further inside…”

He asks Laura “if this was a dream or reality.”

Laura is certainly searching for something with Fidel – frequent references to Moby Dick tell us so – but she is also reluctant to commit to this quest, as her difficulty reading the novel attests to. She appears slightly detached from reality, and talks of having created an island:

“In it, neither dead nor alive, just about to say farewell, were all those who had loved her and were no longer with her, those who had departed, those she herself had loved and left behind.”

This makes commitment to Fidel difficult:

“What would happen if after two days she did not know what to do with the child? And if she wanted to keep him after three months had passed and she was not permitted to? Anyway, death would arrive soon enough to separate them forever.”

The novel speaks of a gap in understanding between adult and child. The novel’s own strangeness perhaps reflects the strangeness of childhood through adult eyes. Certainly, expect nothing to be resolved, either for Laura or the reader. The acceptance of that, though, is not unlike the acceptance of a child into your life.

The Blue Hour

July 4, 2017

Alonso Cueto is a Peruvian writer who, on the evidence of The Blue Hour, remains strangely unavailable in English. The novel had already won the Premio Herralde (for the best original novel in the Spanish Language) in 2006, and its translation by Frank Wynne went on be shortlisted for the 2013 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize; despite this, The Blue Hour stubbornly retains its position as Cueto’s only novel to have been translated.

This is surprising because it is both accessible and readable, with the page turning power of a thriller, and an opening gambit that has been used by many a Hollywood movie. It may, in its subject matter, be facing up to Peru’s past – in particular the conflict between the government and the Shining Path in Ayacucho during the 1980s – but an extensive knowledge of, or even interest in, Latin American history is not necessary for thorough involvement in the narrative. It begins with that time-honoured trope of the man who has it all until he discovers something unexpected about who he really is… Adrian Ormache is a wealthy lawyer with a beautiful wife, a beautiful house, and two beautiful daughters:

“I remember back then a friend telling me that every time he saw me I looked happier.”

Brought up largely by his mother – who divorces when he is a child – he gives his father little thought:

“And so for many years I lived with the certainty that my father had been in Ayacucho in the early eighties waging war against the communist terrorists of Sendero Luminoso, that he had done something to defend our country and that, for this, we owed him our respect.”

Only after his mother’s death, with his father already dead, does he discover more about that time from his brother:

“Shit, I don’t know, you probably know all this stuff already, but the old man sometimes had to kill terrorists. But he didn’t just kill them right off. The men, well, he’d have them worked over…to make them talk. And the women, well, you know, sometimes he’d fuck the women and sometimes he’d let the rest of the troops fuck them before he put a bullet in their heads.”

One of the women, his brother tells him, escaped, and suddenly his father’s last words to him – “There’s a girl, a woman I knew a long time ago…I don’t know, maybe you can find her” – begin to make sense. With only her name, Miriam, as a starting point, Ormache begins to hunt for the woman. This is where the novel exercise its grip: both in the search, and in the effect this begins to have on Ormache and his relationship with his family.

This attempt to find the hidden side of his father’s life also brings him into contact with a side of his own country which has been hidden from him. It takes him, for example, into the less desirable districts of Lima:

“We passed houses of cement block and iron bars, a beauty salon and in the window a hairdresser setting a woman’s hair in rollers, a pack of drowsy dogs, children squatting in the dirt playing marbles.”

Eventually, he visits Ayacucho, missing a family holiday in the Caribbean to do so. A woman he meets there tells him:

“The people round here aren’t like people elsewhere… Nobody here believes that life is a normal state. Here, they know that life is a shadow.”

She points to a boy washing dishes:

“He might only be a few feet from you, but right now the distance between you is greater than the distance between the earth and the sun.”

This lack of understanding applies not only to the people who live there but to his father:

“Not that I could understand them, I would never really know them. Nor could I understand the soldiers, not my father, not Guayo or Chacho.”

The novel, of course, also raises questions of how far we are responsible for the sins of our fathers’. This is not foremost in Ormache’s mind – he has always felt distant from his father – but a friend insists, “We’re all responsible for our parents’ sins, and our children’s too.” It might feel easy to dismiss this sentiment as irrational, but, as the novel demonstrates, the children of those sinned against must carry that burden.

I raced through The Blue Hour, finding it hard to put down at times, though this meant that the relatively unshowy ending was initially disappointing, if realistic, seeming somehow to underline a bleaker message while attempting to leave the reader smiling. If you’re looking for a riveting summer read, though, you could do a lot worse.

Field of Honour

July 2, 2017

Perhaps we should get Max Aub’s astonishing biography out of the way first: born to a German father and a French Jewish mother who immigrated to Spain at the beginning of World War One, he took Spanish citizenship at the age of eighteen. As a socialist he supported the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War to the point he was regarded as an enemy of the state by Franco, who denounced him as a German Jew to the Vichy government in France in 1940. He was imprisoned in France and then Algeria, but managed to escape to Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote prolifically – novels, plays, screenplays – but is largely untranslated into English. Field of Honour, translated by Gerald Martin, is only the second of his novels to appear – sixty-six years after its original publication.

Field of Honour is only the first part of a six volume series (The Magic Labyrinth) which tells the story of the Spanish Civil War – which means, of course, that the conflict is only just beginning by its end. It was published by Verso in 2009, and there’s no sign of the second volume being available any time soon. (This raises the question of whether it can be fairly judged as a stand-alone novel, though it seems that the main character, Rafael Serrador, is not followed throughout the sequence). Aub’s purpose in Field of Honour is to set the scene leading up to the outbreak of the civil war – a time of competing ideologies. However, he cleverly seeks to establish Serrador’s character before immersing him into the political maelstrom that is 1930s Barcelona.

In fact, the novel begins in picaresque fashion with a strong focus on sexual adventure. Apprenticed to a jeweller, “life is flat and Rafael is only troubled or surprised when, from time to time, his willy stands on end.” He loses his innocence at the hands (or rather the thighs) of the widow Marieta:

“’Haven’t you done it before?’
And as he just slightly shook his head, the brazen hussy started to twist and turn like some wild bobbin, to the great shock of the beginner who didn’t know which saint to commend himself to.”

Unfortunately he is beaten up by the widow’s jealous boyfriend, and then expelled by the jeweller as a trouble maker. At the age of sixteen he heads to Barcelona, finding work in a hardware store. Again he is the victim of circumstances as a newspaper he’s given ridiculing his boss is found in his pocket and he loses his job. It is this casual treatment of labour which feeds the anger which leads him into politics, though this means little more than being is a willing listener to the incessant debating between the various factions in the city.

These arguments take up much of Part Two, certainly a test for anyone not interested in the minutia of political debate at the time, though Aub livens it up with punchy dialogue and entertaining descriptions of those involved:

“Gonzalez Cantos was a dirty looking character who had spent a lot of time abroad, spoke good French and was very close to Durrutti… He always wore short-sleeved shirts and scruffy trousers that kept falling down, whereupon he’d hoist them up with a violent tug from left to right, then scratch himself around the crotch and sniff in noisily, wiping his hand across his prominent nostrils.”

This section probably explains why it has taken so long for Field of Honour to be translated, though Aub’s determination to paint a true picture of events impressed me. In particular, Serrador is far from a hero. Instead he is a confused young man – at one point making lists under the heading ‘What am I?’ – who joins the (right-wing) Falangists, and only ends up defending the Republic at the last moment. In one particularly dark scene, he kills a suspected informer entirely of his own volition.

The novel really comes to life in Part Three, when the military coup takes place. Aub dramatizes it through a series of short conversations (much like Shakespeare). It’s an extensive cast of characters (luckily the novel is equipped with a list at the end) but it gives a realistic impression of the constantly changing situation as we move from the view at the top to ground level and back again. The final conflict, securing Barcelona, takes place at the docks, where bales of paper are used to defend the Republican fighters from the machine guns of the remaining Falangist forces.

The novel ends with Barcelona in the hands of the Republic but the fate of the rest of Spain largely unknown. Aub began the novel in Serrador’s childhood, describing the tradition of the fire bull in which a bull with burning horns (they are coated in tar and set alight) is released into the streets. Serrador remembers this as the novel ends:

“A world over-flowing, beside itself, without direction. Leaning against a drainpipe, Rafael Serrador thinks about water, wild water, savagely charging, swift, insistent, irresistible: like a fire bull, a rainbow of fire, above the triumphant city.”

The novel has ended but the war has only begun. How wonderful it would be the see the rest of Aub’s The Magic Labyrinth translated.


July 21, 2016


Umami, if (like me) you didn’t know, is a flavour:

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s Umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

So explains Alfonso, an anthropologist who has spent his life studying diet, and owner of Belldrop Mews, the setting of Laia Jufresa’s novel, which he has divided into houses each named after one of the five flavours. That the novel bears the name of a difficult to identify taste seems appropriate as what we experience with umami on the palate, it achieves tonally. Written with a deceptive lightness, and some humour, it is, at heart, about grief and loss.

Alfonso is among those who lose someone close to them (his wife, Noelia) but the death which resonates through the novel most powerfully is that of a child, Luz. Her sister, Ana, makes a comparison between Alfonso’s grief and her mother’s:

“He carries his grief better than my mom. He doesn’t act like a ghost, or go totally nuts over songs. At least not in front of me he doesn’t.”

Alonso also makes the comparison:

“…in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.”

We know what both Ana and Alfonso think as this is a novel of many voices scattered across time. The novel itself doesn’t quite “tell it backwards” as the quote from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post suggests, but each of four sections do, beginning in 2004 and retreating towards 2000, the year before the deaths took place. This has the effect of focusing on the grieving process before exploring the causes; the novel is concerned with the living rather than the dead. (Jufresa has said that the five year time period leads us towards the end of grief, and that the structure reflects the waves of grief as those who have lost someone return to the same memories again and again).

Other characters in the novel have also suffered losses, for example Ana’s best friend, Pina. Her mother left her without warning and she has heard nothing from her since. In Marina’s case (the occupier of ‘Bitter’), the separation is voluntary:

“It was the first time she’d left her parents’ home, where she’d lived all nineteen years of her life… She didn’t want her family to know where she was, not yet, so she mustered all her charm and said she found the house names to be very original…”

Marina, however, struggles to escape her past: in and out of therapy, and hospitalised at one point as the result of an eating disorder. An artists who is unable to paint, she instead names the colours she finds around her:

“…a hard, futuristic light appears, as pristine as the pills she takes. This one, she decides, is called whozac.”

As the novel opens in 2004 Ana is intent on creating her own garden: “A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash.” The project suggests a renewal of life, but one which is connected to the past. The novel’s structure prevents this becoming the predictable culmination of an obvious story arc, emphasising that the grief will never entirely disappear, but demonstrating why the novel does not appear gloomy or depressing despite its subject matter. This optimistic tone is also created by the wonderful chorus of voices which Jufresa has created – not only unique to each of the five characters which narrate, but also changing according to the year. (This is, of course, particularly true of Ana who develops from a child to a young adult in this time). In this she is ably supported by translator Sophie Hughes.

Umami is an extremely accomplished first novel which tackles it subject in a way that is neither sentimental nor despondent. In it we enter a community in troubled times, and leave feeling, perhaps more hopeful, but certainly more human.

The She-Devil in the Mirror

July 18, 2016

she devil

Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadorian novelist who has had a number of his novels translated into English (with Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador due out next month) and published by New Directions in the US; only one has so far made to the UK, The She-Devil in the Mirror, which was released in 2010 by Alma Books in the same translation by Katherine Silver which had appeared across the Atlantic the year before. It’s impossible to say whether this is typical of Moya’s work as he has made it clear (here) he feels a writer’s style should change according to his subject:

“I think the one who most influenced my idea of literature was Elias Canetti, with his conception of the writer as a “custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has to be able to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are. And so it is that, in my case, every novel has its own stylistic requirements born out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.”

The She-Devil in the Mirror certainly has a particular style, both in terms of its structure and voice. In some ways a murder mystery, it is presented as a series of monologues from the victim, Olga Maria’s, friend, Laura Riveria. Laura is not ‘investigating’ the crime; she is inquisitive in a gossipy way, her breathless narration a series of confidences liberally interspersed with opinion.

Laura is there from the moment she hears of Olga’s death – literally there, as she rushes to the scene:

“But there was her body, stretched out on the living-room rug next to the sofa in a pool of blood, covered in a white sheet. I knelt down and lifted the edge of the sheet: the hole in her head was small, but all the brains had poured out the back. Oh, my dear, I felt horrible – I even felt like vomiting.”

Laura’s murder, originally classed as a robbery gone wrong, soon seems more suspicious, particularly when we discover “they didn’t steal anything, they didn’t even try to.” Laura, however, part of the country’s wealthy elite, is reluctant to help with the police investigation:

“I’m not just some nobody, they couldn’t mess with me, they’d better be very careful and show more respect or they’d soon find out who they were dealing with.”

When asked about Olga (any enemies? any extra-marital relationships?) she explodes: “how could he suspect such an honest, honourable woman, someone so devoted to her family and her work, what a scandalous insinuation.” Unwilling to talk to the police, Laura soon reveals to the reader that Olga was not, in fact, averse to an extra-marital relationship, first with a colleague of her husband’s, Julio Iglesias, and then with a photographer, Jose Carlos:

“There it was again, that gleam in her eyes I was telling you about, that same gleam I saw when we were at the American School, that she got whenever she’d start to get interested in a class-mate, the same gleam I saw with that Julio Iglesias.”

It’s her affair with an old friend, Yuca, now an important politician, that is the most likely to have placed her in danger, however.

The She-Devil in the Mirror works surprisingly well as a mystery, despite its narrator showing more interest in ensuring she has the latest gossip than in searching for the truth, upset when the police discover something she thinks only she knows or (worse) she doesn’t. Her indiscretions, though, are as revealing as any investigation, made all the more amusing by her self-absorbed, faux-emotional style. Both Laura and Olga’s unpleasantness are slowly uncovered, Laura happily sleeping with Olga’s ex-lovers while hypocritically mourning her to be sure of knowing what’s going on:

“A moment later we were at it again, hard and fast, there in the hammock, but more intensely, as if remembering Olga Maria had injected us with renewed passion, something delicious, something I’ve never felt before.”

Rather than being an unreliable narrator, Laura is a too reliable narrator, over-sharing whenever she can.

As the title suggests, there is a vanity to her, accompanied with an inability to see herself as she is, that reflects the society around her. This world of illusions is mirrored in the collapse of the fraudulent financial scheme her husband has been selling. The She-Devil in the Mirror is a brilliant example of how flexible the crime genre can be, working here as both a first-person character assassination and a political satire, while still containing the tension of a thriller.


July 16, 2016


What motivates writers to borrow their stories from reality? Perhaps a need to understand a particular person or event; sometimes simply the pleasure of recreation, to novelise hostory; and on other occasions, to provide the anchor for formal daring, in the same way that landscape once allowed painters the licence to look beyond the photographic towards the impressionistic. Rodrigo Hasbun’s second novel, Affections (the first to be translated into English, by Sophie Hughes) falls into the latter category. Its ‘real-life’ character is Hans Ertl, a German film-maker who left Germany in 1952 for Bolivia having been too closely associated with the Nazi regime as a war photographer (he also worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia, and was her lover for a while). He continued to film in Bolivia until he lost his most recent work when a bridge collapsed in 1961 and promptly turned to farming instead, living until the year 2000. (For a more detailed account of his life you can read The Last Days of a Nazi-Era Photographer here – in an interesting link to Hasbun’s novel it refers to Ertl as an “unaffectionate” father).

His role as a father is central to the story Hasbun tells: Affections concerns itself largely with Ertl’s family, his wife and three daughters, and, in particular, the eldest, Monika, as her sister, Heidi recognises:

“With her recurring panic attacks, she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters.”

The novel is largely told in the voices of the daughters, in chapters which often address the reader directly, but not each other. Only when we reach Monika’s consciousness are we kept at one person remove:

“You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally.”

Monika’s character is presented in such divided terms from the start:

“On the days when she was in good spirits, I envied my sister’s lightness, her ability to make friends with anyone. I couldn’t understand how her good nature could have such a terrible flipside. It didn’t make sense to me that the sunny and despairing girl were one and the same.”

Monika marries but the marriage is a failure, leading only to a miscarriage and an affair with her brother-in-law:

“I wanted to believe that what happened later wouldn’t have if she had become a mother.”

For Monika has her own Wikipedia entry as a guerrilla fighter (and assassin of an army Colonel). Monika, like her father, is attracted to extremes, though in Bolivia, Ertl had withdrawn from politics, and refuses to help the guerrilla movement when Monika asks him. Such connections with the past are perhaps best seen in Trixi who is offered her first cigarette by her mother when she is twelve, and continues with the habit:

“…to fill Mama’s shoes for the duration of those cigarettes, because it was when I smoked that I was most like her.”

In that same moment of the first cigarette, her mother warns her to be “suspicious of anyone in too much of a hurry”:

“The moment she said this I thought of Papa and maybe Monika too.”

The novel becomes a series of echoes through the generations. This is perhaps why Hasbun almost entirely removes the politics – both from Ertl and Monika. Monika’s motivations remain opaque making her actions seem fated – which, of course, is another reason writers write from reality: there is no escaping the ending, something Ertl realises as he supervises the digging of his own grave.

In discussing his story ‘So Much Water So Far From Home’, Hasbun said, “I think that, ultimately, this is a story about memory, about how we exist in the memories of others and how others (the living and the dead) exist in ours.” This same concern permeates Affections:

“It’s not true our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.”

Affections is a fascinating novel which seems to flicker before the reader’s eyes like a fire, creating as many shadows as it removes.


July 6, 2016


Last July I finally read Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, the story of a young boy’s privileged but isolated upbringing, his wealth and loneliness the result of his father’s senior position in the Mexican underworld. It quickly became one of my favourite books of the year, and it didn’t take me long to acquire a copy of Villalobos’ second novel to be translated by Rosalind Harvey, Quesadillas – though a little longer (okay, a year) to read it. Quesadillas also has a child narrator – or, at least a teenage one – Orestes (all his siblings also have Greek names) or Oreo. The novel is both a coming-of-age story, in which Oreo seeks to discover his place in the world, and a historical novel, as Villalobos recreates the Mexico of the 1980s from the ground up. Above all, though, it is a meditation on poverty.

The novel may be political satire, but it is political satire of the homelier sort, reflections on the state of the economy being measured in the quesadillas of the title:

“We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.”

Oreo’s father is the political commentator of the family, but this mostly consists in throwing insults at the television. Oreo’s own political awakening occurs when he discovers he is poor. When his twin brothers go missing on a shopping expedition, this realisation overwhelms his ability to either worry or look for them:

“The only thing the search achieved was to prove to me that we were poor, really poor, because in the shop were a shitload of things we’d never bought.”

Later his mother insists they are middle class, “as if one’s socio-economic status were a mental state.” (The Greek names now look like a desperate attempt to establish that middle class identity). As Oreo is coming to realise, class has practical implications, emphasised by the arrival of wealthier neighbours. When offered Maria cookies, their son asks, “Don’t you have any Oreos?” only to receive an angry glance from his mother:

“’Hush, they’re poor,’ her whispered stare seemed to shout.”

Oreo’s brother, Aristotle, insists that the twins were kidnapped by aliens and persuades him to accompany him to a well-known extra-terrestrial hot-spot to search for them (after they have stolen provisions from their neighbours first). On the way they join a pilgrimage, but even the sight of the poorer people around them doesn’t comfort Oreo:

“…the poverty of the pilgrims all around us didn’t modify our own. At the most it left us classified as the least poor of this group of poor people, which merely proved that one could always be poorer and poorer still: being poor was a bottomless well.”

It’s on this journey that Oreo decides not to return home, surviving all the world throws at him until he meets a politician:

“I ran as if I were a stray dog fleeing from the blandishments of the town dog-catcher.”

The second half of the novel retains the same comic tone, but we begin to see the more damaging effects of poverty and, in particular, the powerlessness which results. The neighbours arrange for Oreo to spend a night in the cells to teach him a lesson, and then insist he works for the father (who inseminates cows – perhaps a metaphor for what he will do to Oreo’s family). From a middle-class perspective it may seem that Oreo is being ‘helped’, but he has lost control of his own destiny, and meanwhile his (not entirely legal) home is in danger, and not even his father’s indignation can save it.

Quesadillas is another wonderful novel from Villalobos, honest and angry about the poverty of its narrator, but as far from a misery memoir as you could imagine. Often laugh-out-loud funny, we never feel we are laughing at Oreo but laughing with him, all the way to the novel’s uproarious ending.