jueves, 31 de diciembre de 2009

The Buenos Aires Affair

The Buenos Aires Affair (Seix Barral, 1993)
por Manuel Puig
Argentina, 1973

No sé si voy a escribir un post estilo "fin del año" más tarde, pero les diré ahora que los tres mejores libros que he leído en este año (el mamotreto 2666 de Roberto Bolaño y las novelas Respiración artificial y Plata quemada de Ricardo Piglia) fueron escritos en castellano.  Podría decir lo mismo acerca del cuento ("El orden de las familias" de Jorge Edwards) y de la obra de no ficción (Operación Masacre de Rodofo Walsh) que más me gustaron.  Desgraciadamente, tengo que confesar que me cuesta leer en castellano a veces a causa de mi falta de dominio sobre el lenguaje.  Todo esto es preámbulo, por supuesto, a lo que me pasó durante la lectura de The Buenos Aires Affair de Manuel Puig.  La leí con una facilidad "normal" en cuanto a la prosa, pero sospecho que o perdí algo o no entendí todo en cuanto al argumento.  Sea lo que sea, me gustó la estructura compleja de la novela más que su contenido.  Escrita como una suerte de novela policial, la novela se desarrolla con escenas retrospectivas, narradores distintos, y varios tipos de "datos detectivescos":  transcripciones telefónicas, los acontecimientos principales de las vidas de las protagonistas, entrevistas imaginadas, etcétera.  Además de esto, cada capítulo comienza con un epígrafe cinematográfico que llama la atención a la "acción" que sigue.  Muy genial.  Por otra parte, la trama me decepcionó un poco.  El hilo narrativo tiene que ver con una pareja, la escultora Gladys Hebe D'Onofrio y el crítico de arte Leopoldo Druscovich, y su relación enfermiza.  También tiene que ver con un crimen en el pasado de Leo y la amenaza de otro crimen contra la vida de Gladys.  Aunque diría que los personajes de Gladys y Leo son creíbles dentro del marco novelístico de Puig, no me gustó el ambiente neurótico y claustrofóbico creado por el novelista (o sea, reconozco el talento artístico pero rechazo el efecto como un asunto de gustos).  Quizá debo leer la novela de nuevo.  Mientras tanto, lo siento, no sé cómo explicarlo con precisión, pero pienso que me gustó el estilo de narrar Pop Art de Puig más que la historia misma.  Qué raro.  (http://www.seix-barral.es/)

Manuel Puig

PD: Tengo entendido que The Buenos Aires Affair fue prohibido en Argentina después de su publicación y que Puig empezó a recibir repetidas amenazas telefónicas, provocando su exilio en el extranjero.  ¿Alguién sabe algo sobre todo esto?

miércoles, 30 de diciembre de 2009

The Decameron #2/10

"The Sultan of Babylon sends his daughter off to marry the King of Algarve.  Owing to a series of mishaps, she passes through the hands of nine men in various places within the space of four years.  Finally, having been restored to her father as a virgin, she sets off, as before, to become the King of Algarve's wife."  (Introduction to the Second Day, Seventh Story of The Decameron, p. 125)

Although I'd planned on posting something about Manuel Puig's lurid Pop Art detective story The Buenos Aires Affair (Argentina, 1973) today, I decided a few words on The Decameron might be more in order given my obvious need for a palate cleanser after three months spent with Sigrid Undset and her wooden, faux-medieval prose.  Man, was Boccaccio a nice change of pace!  After finishing up the last few stories at the end of the Second Day's set of tales, I went back and reread one of my favorites in The Decameron so far, the story about the Saracen princess Alatiel whose "ill-starred beauty" causes her "to be newly married on nine separate occasions" before she's eventually united with her betrothed (126).  Suffice it to say that Boccaccio's concerns with purity and sexuality are far different from Undset's, as is quickly apparent when Alatiel loses her virginity: "She had no conception of the kind of horn men do their butting with, and when she felt what was happening, it was almost as though she regretted having turned a deaf ear to Pericone's flattery, and could not see why she had waited for an invitation before spending her nights so agreeably" (130).  The story that follows is one of the funniest in the book thus far, with suitor after suitor either killing or disabling their romantic predecessor in order to enjoy Alatiel's favors.  With Undset's obsession with sexuality-as-sin so fresh in my mind, it's impossible to ignore the differences in Boccaccio's authentically medieval approach.  He's not above a bawdy phallic joke or two if that gives you any idea of where he's coming from (Saint Stiffen-in-the-Hand and Saint Stiffen-in-the-Hollows make their appearances on pages 131 and 145), and he even ends his riotous story about Alatiel with a priceless double entendre of a proverb that manages to sum up the character's romantic escapades without moralizing: "A kissed mouth doesn't lose its freshness: like the moon it comes up fresh again" (147-148).  I can't expect to top that ending, so I will exit with a question instead: why in the hell would you want to read any fake historical fiction set in medieval times when you could just read real medieval fiction instead?  It boggles the mind!

Previous posts on The Decameron

domingo, 27 de diciembre de 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross

"'Kristin, my dearest love,' begged Erlend in despair.  'Oh, Kristin, I know I've come to you much too late...'
Again a tremor passed over his wife's face.
'It's not too late,' she said, her voice low and harsh.  She stared down at her son, who lay in a swoon in her arms.  'Our last child is already in the ground, and now it's Lavrans's turn.  Gaute has been banished by the Church, and our other sons...  But the two of us still own much that can be ruined, Erlend!'"  (Kristin Lavransdatter, p. 973)

Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics, 2005)
by Sigrid Undset (translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally)
Norway, 1920-22

While I must have spent hundreds of Kristin Lavransdatter's 1124 pages trying to figure out whether inept storyteller Sigrid Undset was a bigger embarrassment to Scandinavian culture than lame-o pretentious pop star Bjork, I've decided to try to shy away from personal attacks now that Undset's historical fiction Beaches has finally reached its long drawn out tear-jerker of a conclusion.  Still, what exactly have I taken from this experience?  First, for all the people who seem to want to fawn over her for merely having created a birth-to-death portrait of a fictional woman with "realistic" flaws, Undset strikes me as an extraordinarily lazy writer.  Probably because she's so bad at dialogue, she spends endless amounts of time laboriously filling the reader in on what each character thinks and what each person looks like.  Very boring.  Second, Undset apparently never met a contrived situation she didn't like--in the key reunion between Kristin and Erlend in the passage above and in Kristin's final saintly acts when the Black Death comes to her convent, I was actually moved to laughter by Undset's cheap, Spielbergian theatrics.  No sense of subtlety whatsoever.  And even though The Cross was probably a slightly less annoying reading experience for me than either The Wreath or The Wife, I'm tempted to suggest that some of that sense of "improvement" was only noticeable due to the fact that the preceding books in the trilogy set the bar so low.  In short, a tedious and manipulative story unimaginatively told.  Refund! (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Sigrid "Woe is Me" Undset

Non-Satanic Devil's Advocates
I'll link other Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross readalong posts below as soon as I can get to them, but thanks to everybody who read along with Emily and me and/or visited the various readalong blogs to join in on the discussions.  It was a lot of fun despite the novel in question!  If you've read the trilogy, please let me what you think of it--and if you haven't, please be aware that a certain online bookseller giant's website (let's call it Big Mythological Warrior Gal.com for the moment since this isn't one of those whorish book blogs that tries to pimp books for money) is actually full of raves of KL along the likes of the following:  "The saga covers every human emotion and possibility that can occur to a human being."  OK, I stand corrected!  I wasn't bored to death by Undset after all!!  Psyche!!!

Emily (Evening All Afternoon)
Amy (New Century Reading)
Claire (kiss a cloud)
Gavin (Page247)
Jill (Rhapsody in Books)
Sarah (what we have here is a failure to communicate)
Softdrink (Fizzy Thoughts)
Valerie (Life Is a Patchwork Quilt)

sábado, 19 de diciembre de 2009

The Moro Affair

The Moro Affair [L'Affaire Moro] (NYRB Classics, 2004)
by Leonardo Sciascia (translated from the Italian by Sacha Rabinovitch)
Italy, 1978

On March 16, 1978, Aldo Moro, then president of the Christian Democratic Party and a former two-time Prime Minister of Italy, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades in an operation that left five of Moro's bodyguards dead.  From his place of detention, Moro was permitted to send several letters to his family, various politicians, and the Pope requesting that something be done to enable his release or he would soon die at the hands of his captors.  Since many of the letters were published in the press, Moro's fate quickly became a national spectacle. Within two months, the once powerful politician was assassinated after the Italian government made it abundantly clear to the Brigate Rosse that they weren't about to participate in a prisoner exchange with terrorists.  A matter of principle for the government or just a shameful waste of a life?  This is the key question for Sciascia at the heart of The Moro Affair.   While he doesn't spare the Red Brigades his wrath over the injustice they've committed, he's equally scornful about the state's intransigence in allowing this apparently preventable death to take place.  Taking both the killers and the politicians to task for their actions, he delivers a withering broadside aimed at Italian politics--and by extension, society--that's delivered with an almost Ciceronian insistence.  A penetrating look at a horrible chapter in recent Italian history, Sciascia's report is, somewhat surprisingly given the pessimistic context, also effectively informed by a range of literary references (Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," Martín Luis Guzmán's The Eagle and the Serpent, Pasolini, Pirandello, Tolstoy, etc.) on life imitating art.  Brutal.  Depressing.  Recommended.  (NYRB Classics)
El caso Aldo Moro [L'Affaire Moro]
por Leonardo Sciascia
Italia, 1978

En el 16 de marzo de 1978, Aldo Moro, el presidente del partido Democracia Cristiana Italiana en aquel entonces e un ex-primer ministro de Italia, fue secuestrado por las Brigadas Rojas en una operación que dejó muertos los cinco escoltas  de Moro.  Desde su lugar de detención, Moro fue permitido mandar varias cartas a su familia, a otros políticos, y al Papa buscando ayuda--porque sin un acuerdo, él iba a morir a las manos de sus apresadores.  Porque muchas de las cartas fueron publicadas en los periódicos, el destino de Moro se convertió en un espectáculo nacional. Dentro de dos meses, el político antiguamente poderoso fue asesinado cuando el gobierno italiano decidió que no iban a negociar con los terroristas de las Brigate Rosse en cuanto a un canje de prisioneros.  ¿Un asunto entendible de principios nobles o un acto vergonzoso por parte del gobierno?  Ésta es la pregunta clave para Sciascia al centro de El caso Aldo Moro.  Mientras que él no exculpa a las Brigadas Rojas por su responsibilidad en cometer la injusticia, también desdeña la intransigencia del Estado por permitirla pasar una muerte aparentemente "evitable".  Criticando a los dos grupos de asesinos y de políticos por sus acciones, él pronuncia un andanada verbal contra el sistema político italiano--y por extensión, la sociedad italiana--que es casi Ciceroniano en su insistencia.  Una mirada aguda a un capítulo horrible de historia italiana reciente, el informe de Sciascia es, sorprendentemente dado el contexto pesimista de la obra, también efectivamente informado por un abanico de referencias literarias ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" de Borges, El Águila y el Serpiente de Martín Luis Guzmán, Pasolini, Pirandello, Tolstoy, etcétera) sobre el arte y la vida.  Brutal.  Deprimente.  Recomendado.  (N.B.  Para una edición de esta obra en castellano, veáse el libro publicado por Ediciones Destino.)

Leonardo Sciascia

The U.S. edition of Sciascia's The Moro Affair (L'Affaire Moro) actually contains two superb history pieces written by the Sicilian novelist: the 1978 title essay and a second work from 1975 translated here as The Mystery of Majorana (La Scomparsa di Majorana).  Somewhat more speculative in nature than The Moro Affair, The Mystery of Majorana concerns a famous physicist who disappeared during Mussolini's reign--perhaps, Sciascia suggests, because he saw the future of the atomic bomb and didn't want to be part of such a science anymore.  Intriguing.
La edición estadounidense de El caso Aldo Moro (The Moro Affair [L'Affaire Moro]) de Sciascia incluye dos ensayos históricos escritos por el novelista siciliana: lo del título y otro que se llama La desaparición de Majorana (The Mystery of Majorana [La Scomparsa di Majorana]).  Un poco más especulativo que El caso Aldo Moro, La desaparición de Majorana trata de un físico famoso que desapareció durante el regno de Mussolini--quizá, sugiere Sciascia, porque anticipara el futuro de la bomba atómica y no quiso ser parte de un tal ciencia.  Interesante.

viernes, 11 de diciembre de 2009

The Satyricon

The Satyricon (Oxford University Press, 2009)
by Petronius (translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh)
Rome, c. 63-65

Whatever your take on the "1st century" culture wars that would eventually usher in a new holiday shopping season for much of mankind, you have to admit that the ancient Romans were at least a good twelve or thirteen hundred years ahead of the curve on the Christians in combining comedy with sleaze.  Petronius' raunchy The Satyricon (what P.G. Walsh translates as "a recital of lecherous happenings" on page xv of his very useful introduction) is of course one of the classic cases in point, a bisexual love triangle-cum-road movie hybrid (so to speak) sometimes hailed as the oldest extant novel. Does it live up to all the hype?  Yes and no but mostly yes.  While the missing portions of the text and some of the inside jokes make for a choppy reading experience at times, the author's comic sensibilities and the episodic nature of the plot--with events set in motion by the narrator Encolpius' unexplained offense committed against the revenge-minded god Priapus--are pretty much a perfect match in terms of the amusement opportunities they generate.  The chapter on the "Dinner at Trimalchio's," an extended send-up of a vulgar freedman-turned-nouveau riche who hosts a ridiculously extravagant banquet, is Hall of Fame material as satire, but Petronius is also quite the comedic stud lampooning intellectual posturers, mischievously questioning whether true love is really just lust most of the time, and mixing poetry with prose with freewheeling élan.  Although it's too bad that more literature from the Age of Nero hasn't survived, anybody who knows how and why Petronius died will understand at least one root cause of the problem.  A "naughty" classic.  (www.oup.com/worldsclassics)

Petronius Arbiter

"Petronius deserves a brief obituary.  He spent his days sleeping, his nights working and enjoying himself.  Others achieve fame by energy, Petronius by laziness.  Yet he was not, like others who waste their resources, regarded as dissipated or extravagant, but as a refined voluptuary.  People liked the apparent freshness of his unconventional and unselfconscious sayings and doings.  Nevertheless, as governor of Bithynia and later as consul, he had displayed a capacity for business.

Then, reverting to a vicious or ostensibly vicious way of life, he had been admitted into the small circle of Nero's intimates, as Arbiter of Taste: to the blasé emperor nothing was smart and elegant unless Petronius had given it his approval.  So Tigellinus, loathing him as a rival and a more expert hedonist, denounced him on the grounds of his friendship with Flavius Scaevinus.  This appealed to the emperor's outstanding passion--his cruelty.  A slave was bribed to incriminate Petronius.  No defence was heard.  Indeed, most of his household were under arrest..."  (Tacitus [translated by Michael Grant], The Annals of Imperial Rome, XVI [London: Penguin Classics, 1996, pp. 389-390])

viernes, 4 de diciembre de 2009

La Virgen de los Sicarios

La Virgen de los Sicarios (Punto de Lectura, 2006)
por Fernando Vallejo
México, 1994

Luego de leer la nefasta segunda parte de la telenovela en prosa que se llama Kristin Lavransdatter (Noruega, 1920-22), me era grato poder leer la sumamente atrevida La Virgen de los Sicarios de Fernando Vallejo.  Una especie de jeremiada contra la violencia colombiana ambientada en los '90, esta novela breve sigue en los pasos del narrador, otro Fernando, recién llegado a su ciudad natal de Medellín después de una ausencia de muchos años en el extranjero.  Enamorándose con un teenager de arrabal que trabaja como sicario, o asesino a sueldo, el cincuentón Fernando cuenta su historia de amor con Alexis mientras que lanza denuncia tras denuncia contra sus prójimos, el gobierno y Dios durante sus recorridos a lo largo de la ciudad.  Mientras tanto, el joven Alexis sigue asesinando a docenas de víctimas con toda la impunidad de un Ángel Éxterminador: casi si fuera cumpliendo las esperanzas de Fernando, que se limita a la violencia verbal como el buen gramático que lo es.  Aunque el punto de vista del narrador es nihilista en sumo grado, me gustaron su retrato del caos urbano (lo cual me pareció fidedigno) y el poder desenfrenado de su lenguaje (de hecho, la novela se lee como un Trópico de Cáncer dedicado a la rabia).  No sé si el autor sea tan misantrópico como su tocayo, pero el realismo y el pesimiso de este librazo probablemente se deben al hecho de que Vallejo mismo creció en Medellín antes de mudarse a México para siempre.  Un éxito vituperioso.  (http://www.puntodelectura.com/)
Our Lady of the Assassins [La Virgen de los Sicarios] (Serpent's Tail, 2001)
by Fernando Vallejo (translated from the Spanish by Paul Hammond)
Mexico, 1994

After suffering through the dreadful second part of that soap opera in prose known as Kristin Lavransdatter (Norway, 1920-22), it was completely gratifying for me to be able to read Fernando Vallejo's daring Our Lady of the Assassins next.  A sort of jeremiad against Colombian violence set in that country in the '90s, this novella follows in the footsteps of its narrator, another Fernando, who has recently returned to his hometown of Medellín after an absence of many years spent abroad.  Having fallen for a neighborhood teenager who works as a sicario, or an assassin for hire, the 50-something Fernando recounts his doomed love affair with Alexis while launching one diatribe after another against his fellow man, the government, and God during the lovers' walks throughout the city.  Meanwhile, the young Alexis continues killing dozens of victims with all the impunity of an exterminating angel--almost as if he were fulfilling the wishes of Fernando, who tends to limit himself to verbal violence like the good grammarian he is.  Although the narrator's point of view is nihilistic in the extreme, I enjoyed both his portrayal of the urban chaos (very credible, it would seem) and the unrestrained power of his language (imagine a Tropic of Cancer devoted to and consumed with its own wrath).  And while I don't know if the author's as misanthropic as his literary namesake, the heightened realism and the pessismism of this work probably owe a lot to the fact that Vallejo himself grew up in Medellín before moving to Mexico for good.  A vituperative knockout.   (www.serpentstail.com)

Fernando Vallejo

"Saliendo de conocer la iglesia de Robledo (un galponcito desangelado en donde a duras penas se para mi Dios), decidimos seguir pendiente arriba en busca de un mirador en la montaña para divisar a Medellín, para apreciarlo en su conjunto con la objetividad que da la distancia, sin predisposiciones ni amores.  A mano izquierda subiendo, en una finquita vieja, un rodadero con un platanar seco, abandonado, leíase el siguiente anuncio en mayúsculas torcidas y desflecadas, como para cartel de Drácula: SE PROHÍBE ARROJAR CADÁVERES.  ¿Se prohíbe?  ¿Y esos gallinazos qué?  ¿Qué era entonces ese ir y venir de aves negras, brincando, aleteando, picoteando, patrasiándose para sacarle mejor las tripas al muerto?  Como un niño travieso, haga de cuenta usted, jalándole la cuerda a un payasito de cuerda que ya no hará más payasadas en esta vida.  ¿El cadáver de quién?  ¡Y yo qué sé!  Nosotros no lo matamos.  De un hijo de su mamá.  Cuando pasábamos ya estaba ahí, y en plena fiesta los gallinazos e invitando más.  Lo tostaron y ahí lo tiraron violando el anuncio, de donde se deduce que: mientras más se prohibe menos se cumple.  Sería en vida una bellecita?  ¿O un 'man' malevolo?  'Man' aquí significa como en inglés, hombre.  Nuestros manes, pues, no son los espíritus protectores.  Por el contrario, son humanos e hideputas, como dijo Don Quijote".  (La Virgen de los Sicarios, p. 47)

"Coming out of the church in Robledo for the first time (a soulless little shed in which God prospers with great difficulty), we decided to continue up the slope in search of a vantage point on the mountain to see Medellín from, and to admire it as a single entity with the objectivity distance lends, with neither prejudice nor love.  On the left going up, on an old property, a steep bit of hillside with a withered, abandoned banana grove on it, you could read the following notice in crooked and half erased capital letters, like on a Dracula poster: THE DUMPING OF BODIES IS FORBIDDEN.  Forbidden?  What about those turkey buzzards over there?  What was all that toing and froing then of big black birds, hopping about, flapping their wings, pecking, bracing themselves in order to hoick out the dead man's guts more easily?  Like a naughty child, mark you, tugging the string of a little marionette who won't be doing any more clowning in this life.  Whose corpse was it?  How should I know!  We weren't the ones who killed him.  Some mother's son.  When we passed by he was already there, with the buzzards having a great time and inviting others to come join the party.  They did for him and they tossed him there in violation of the notice, from which one deduces that the more one forbids, the less one achieves.  Had he been a hunk in life?  Or a bad man?  Our manes, whether it means men or dead souls, are not protective spirits.  On the contrary, they're humans and whoresons, as Don Quixote said."  (Our Lady of the Assassins, pp. 46-47 [translated by Paul Hammond])