miércoles, 29 de setiembre de 2010

The Laughing Policeman

The Laughing Policeman [Den skrattande polisen] (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009)
by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö [translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair]
Sweden, 1968

Considering it's taken me nearly a full year to recover from that lumbering, overwrought, 1,124-page historical fiction hissy fit otherwise known as the Kristin frickin' Lavransdatter trilogy, I'm happy to report that all Scandinavian novelists not named Sigrid Undset and I are finally back on speaking terms after my long-overdue introduction to the Sjöwall/Wahlöö wife/husband crime-writing duö.  It's about time.  Although The Laughing Policeman may be (no, is) a little lacking in the writing pyrotechnics department compared to other works I've been reading of late, this fourth volume in the highly-regarded Swede police procedural series featuring detective Martin Beck more than makes up for it with a taut, stripped down tale focusing on the investigation into a mass murder on a Stockholm bus.  The novel's just expertly paced.  Other things I thought were kind of cool:  Sjöwall and Wahlöö, both Marxists from what I understand, work in at least two jabs at "consumer society" during the otherwise no-nonsense telling of their three-umlauts story.  In other words, the expected genre grittiness is accompanied by a different vibe than usual here.  Things I didn't think were kind of cool: Nothing, really.  However, it's kind of depressing to be reminded that the scientific study of mass murderers and sex crimes was still in its infancy in the '60s.  Is the world really all that much more evil today or does it only seem so?  Whatever, easily the "weakest" thing I've read all month and yet still entertaining enough to induce me to sacrifice the dinner part of my dinner break to see what happens at the end.  Yeah. (http://www.blacklizardcrime.com/)

Per Wahlöö (left) and Maj Sjöwall

viernes, 24 de setiembre de 2010

Santa Evita

Santa Evita (Punto de Lectura, 2005)
por Tomás Eloy Martínez
Argentina, 1995

"Incómodo estar vivo/muerto al mismo tiempo".
Augusto Roa Bastos, Yo el Supremo, 1973

"En esta novela poblada por personajes reales, los únicos a los que no conocí fueron Evita y el Coronel.  A Evita la vi sólo de lejos, en Tucumán, una mañana de fiesta patria; del coronel Moori Koenig encontré un par de fotos y unos pocos rastros.  Los diarios de la época lo mencionan de modo escueto y, con frecuencia, despectivo".
Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita, 1995

No tengo la menor idea de lo que sea falso y lo que sea verdad en esta obra, pero eso no me importa.  Me encantó.  A pesar de presentarse como una especie de historia novelada en cuanto a lo que pasó al cuerpo de Eva Perón después de su muerte, embalsamamiento y secuestro en los años '50, Santa Evita realmente llama la atención a las fronteras entre la historia y el mito, entre la realidad y la ficción, de manera genial.  En lo que a veces se parece a un laberinto borgesiano construido sobre una basa de verdades, mitad-verdades, mentiras, y chismes extravagantes, Eloy Martínez hace alarde de narrar una historia que es totalmente increíble --la gira mundial que hizo el cuerpo de Evita después de su "secuestro" por parte del ejército argentino-- al mismo tiempo que puebla su novela con personajes reales y hechos históricos confiables.  El resultado es una "historia verdadera" (ojo) que juega con nuestras expectativas en cuanto a lo que esperamos en las biografías y las novelas.

En líneas generales, el hilo narrativo sobre lo que pasa a las cuatro "Evitas" (o sea, la momia oficial autorizada por Perón y las tres copias en cera creadas por un embalsamador gallego) ocupa el primer término.  Con una inversión del género de la furta sacra, es una historia divertidísima en cual los secuestradores de la difunta están perseguidos por una mala suerte parecida a la que siguió a Lord Carnavon después del descubrimiento de la tumba de Tutankamón.  También es una historia malsana en lo que refiere al "amor obsesivo" que lleva el Coronel Moori Koenig, el encargado de secuestrar al cadáver de Evita, por la primera dama difunta (que se llamaría Ella, EM [Esa Mujer], o Persona según las circunstancias).  Qué lástima, pues, que no tenga tiempo para hablar del igualmente pintoresco "Comando de la Venganza" o de las flores y las velas que aparecen milagrosamente siempre que el cuerpo de Evita se traslada de un lugar a otro.

Al fondo, por supuesto, hay una crónica más o menos tradicional acerca del ascenso de Eva Duarte de Perón y de cómo su vida vino a ser asociada con el destino de una nación por sus admiradores y sus detractores.  No he leído mucho sobre la Evita histórica, pero pienso que Eloy Martínez explica la manera en cual la gente la amó o la odió bastante bien.  Finalmente, en otro plano, hay un tercer centro de atención en la obra: el donde el novelista habla de cómo su obsesión con el misterio del cuerpo de Evita se convertió en ser la novela que leemos.  El donde el autor nos pregunta (162-163): "Si la historia es --como parece-- otro de los géneros literarios, ¿por qué privarla de la imaginación, el desatino, la indelicadeza, la exageración y la derrota que son la materia prima sin la cual no se concibe la literatura?"  En resumen, una novela argentina típica.  Un gran placer.  (http://www.puntodelectura.com/)
*
Santa Evita (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)
by Tomás Eloy Martínez [translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane]
Argentina, 1995

"It's awkward being alive and dead at the same time."
Augusto Roa Bastos [translated by Helen Lane], I the Supreme, 1973

"In this novel peopled by real characters, the only ones I never met were Evita and the Colonel.  I saw Evita only from a distance, in Tucumán, one morning on a national holiday; as for Colonel Moori Koenig, I found a couple of photos and a few traces of him.  The newspapers of the period mention him openly and, often, disparagingly."
Tomás Eloy Martínez [translated by Helen Lane], Santa Evita, 1995

I don't have the slightest idea how much is true and how much is false in this work, but that really doesn't matter to me.  I loved it!  In spite of passing itself off as a sort of novelized history having to do with the strange tale of what befell Eva Perón's corpse after her death, embalming, and kidnapping in the 1950s, Santa Evita really zeroes in on the boundaries between history and myth, between reality and fiction, in an inspired way.  In what at times resembles a Borgesian labyrinth constructed out of various truths, half truths, lies, and outlandish gossip, Eloy Martínez makes a great show out of narrating an absolutely unbelievable tale--the world tour undertaken by Evita's corpse after its "kidnapping" by the Argentinean army--while peopling it with real characters and historically trustworthy facts.  The result's a "true story" (careful now!) that plays with our expectations in terms of what we might expect from biographies and novels.

In general terms, the narrative thread about what happens to the four "Evitas" (i.e. the official mummy authorized by Perón and the three wax copies made by a Spanish embalmer) occupies center stage in the work.  A wild inversion of the furta sacra genre, it's a delicious story in which the kidnappers of the deceased all seem to be haunted by the sort of horrific bad luck that plagued Lord Carnavon after the discovery of King Tut's tomb.  It's also an ickily morbid story having to do with the "obsessive love" that Colonel Moori Koenig, the man put in charge of the kidnapping of Evita's cadaver, begins to feel for the departed first lady (who is variously known as She, EM [Esa Mujer or That Woman], or Person according to the circumstances) over time.  What a shame, then, that I don't have time to write about the equally colorful "Commando of Vengeance" squad or of the flowers and votive candles that miraculously appear whenever Evita's body is moved from one place to another.

In the background, of course, there's the more or less traditional chronicle about Eva Duarte de Perón's rise to power and about how her life came to be associated with the fate of a nation by her enemies and admirers alike.  Although I haven't read much else about the real life Evita to date, I think Eloy Martínez does a pretty good job at explaining why she was both loved and loathed in her own time.  Finally, in yet another plane, there's a third center of attention in the work--the one in which the novelist owns up to how his own obsession with the mystery of Evita's corpse was transformed into the novel that we're discussing at the moment.  And the one in which he asks us (129): "If history--as appears to be the case--is just another literary genre, why take away from it the imagination, the foolishness, the indiscretion, the exaggeration, and the defeat that are the raw material without which literature is inconceivable?"  In short, a typical Argentinean novel.  Lots of fun.  (http://www.randomhouse.com/)

Evita

Aunque Eloy Martínez es muy juguetón como narrador y el argumento de Santa Evita es suficientemente jugoso en si mismo, me gustó la metaficción sobre "la realidad" y la representación de la realidad dentro de la panorama de las letras argentinas acá.  Por ejemplo, la escritura de Arlt, Borges, y Cortázar hacen entradas en escenas que llaman la atención a los vínculos entre los mundos de la literatura y la política.  Dado que el libro trata de una cierta época histórica, no es sorprendente ver que las sombras de los desparecidos y de los exiliados están presentes también (se notará que el cuerpo de Evita anticipa los años de los desaparecidos en Argentina y que el novelista fue forzado pasar muchos años en el extranjero durante la dictadura militar de los setenta).  A continuación, véase dos ejemplos más sobre la intersección entre la literatura y la política en la novela en estos párrafos que tienen que ver con un relato de Rodolfo Walsh ("Esa Mujer") que apareció en 1965:

En los diez años que siguieron al secuestro, nadie publicó una sola línea sobre el cadáver de Evita.  El primero que lo hizo fue Rodolfo Walsh en "Esa mujer", pero la palabra Evita no aparece en el texto.  Se la merodea, se la alude, se la invoca, y sin embargo nadie la pronuncia.  La palabra no dicha era en ese momento la descripción perfecta del cuerpo que había desaparecido" (339).

Tal como él lo habia advertido en un breve prólogo, "Esa mujer"  fue escrito no como un cuento sino como la transcripción de un diálogo con Moori Koenig en su departamento de Callao y Santa Fe.  De aquel encuentro tenso, Walsh había sacado en limpio sólo un par de datos: el cadáver había sido enterrado fuera de la Argentina, de pie, "en un jardín donde llueve día por medio".  Y el Coronel, en las interminables vigilias junto al cuerpo, se había dejado llevar por una pasión necrofílica.  Todo lo que el cuento decía era verdadero, pero había sido publicado como ficción y los lectores queríamos creer también que era ficción.  Pensábamos que ningún desvarío de la realidad podía tener cabida en la Argentina, que se vanagloriaba de ser cartesiana y europea (342).
*
Although Eloy Martínez is a very playful narrator and Santa Evita's plot is sufficiently juicy in and of itself, I just loved the metafiction touches having to do with "reality" and the representation of reality within the panorama of Argentinean letters.  For example, the writings of Arlt, Borges, and Cortázar all make cameos here in scenes that call attention to the links between the world of literature and the world of politics.  Given that the book deals with a certain historic time and place, it's not surprising to see that the shadows of "the disappeared" and the exiles are also present (it will be noted that Evita's corpse foreshadows the years of "the disappeared" in Argentina and that the novelist himself was forced to spend many years abroad as an exile during the military dictatorship of the '70s).  Below, you'll see two more examples of the intersection between literature and politics in the novel in two paragraphs that have to do with a story by Rodolfo Walsh ("That Woman") that appeared in 1965:

"In the ten years that followed the hijack, nobody published a single line about Evita's corpse.  The first one to do so was Rodolfo Walsh in 'That Woman,' but the word Evita doesn't appear in it.  The text prowls about it, alludes to it, invokes it, and yet nobody ever utters it.  The word left unspoken was at that moment the perfect description of the body that had disappeared" (281).

"As he had put the reader on notice in a brief foreward, 'That Woman' was written not as a short story but as the transcription of a dialogue with Moori Koenig in his apartment on the corner of Callao and Santa Fe.  During that tense meeting, Walsh had managed to get only a couple of things out of him: the corpse had been buried outside of Argentina, standing up, 'in a garden where it rains every other day.'  And the Colonel, sitting alongside the corpse during his endless watches, had allowed himself to be carried away by a necrophiliac passion.  Everything in his account was true, but it had been published as fiction, and we readers also wanted to believe that it was fiction.  We thought that in Argentina, which prided itself on being Cartesian and European, there was no place for any delirious notions of reality" (283-284 [all English translations by Helen Lane]).
*
Haz clic acá para leer a "Esa mujer", de Rodolfo Walsh./Click above to read Rodolfo Walsh's "Esa mujer" ["That Woman"] in Spanish.

Tomás Eloy Martínez

viernes, 17 de setiembre de 2010

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #3

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [Os Sertões] (Penguin, 2010)
by Euclides da Cunha [translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe]
Brazil, 1902

At this point we must interrupt our search through the debris and focus our attention on a certain similarity between the events at Rua do Ouvidor and an incident in the caatinga, both of them equally savage.  Backlands violence was making its mark on history and was a harbinger of social unrest that was not just found in a corner of Bahia but was spreading to the capitals of the Brazilian coast.  The man of the backlands, a crude figure in leather, had partners in crime who were potentially more dangerous than he was.  Do we need to be more blunt?

This environment was producing, through the process of heredity, a generation of new, albeit developed, cavemen.  They wore gloves and had a veneer of culture, but they were complete troglodytes.  Civilization generally weeds out such peoples but occasionally a traumatic event will bring them back.  When they return, new lawlessness ensues. These people lack significance other than to give us perspective.  They remind us to stress this point:  To attribute the crisis in the backlands to a political conspiracy is to show ignorance of our race.

This situation is much more complex and interesting.  It has to do with circumstances that have nothing to do with dreams of returning monarchies.  Not understanding these facts has worse consequences than wiping out three expeditions.  It proves that we are not much more civilized than our backward countrymen.  At least they were logical.  Isolated both in space and time, the jagunço could only behave as he did.  He was compelled to put up a terrible fight against the country that, after having ignored him for three centuries, tried to civilize him at gunpoint.
(Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, 280-281)

At great personal cost to me in terms of the overall quality of this post, I've decided not to lead off with a perfect quote from Euclides da Cunha on the finale of the Canudos campaign--just in case any of you choose to read da Cunha yourself some day.  It will make a great surprise for you if you ever get around to it.  In the meantime, I hope you appreciate my discretion!  While I'll return to the extended passage above in a moment, my goals today are rather simple: to provide an idea of the flavor of da Cunha's writing on the battle in his own sublimely visceral words.  Before I start, though, I'd like to clarify a few things that may not be evident from my two previous posts on the work.  First, I think I've already mentioned that da Cunha was an eyewitness to the campaign.  Although this is true, in reality he was only at the front for about a month or so in his guise as a war reporter.  However, he apparently saw enough in that short amount of time to traumatize him: Os Sertões might be seen as his attempt to write himself out of that profound psychological funk.  Secondly, speaking of a single "campaign" in relation to Canudos isn't really accurate.  The Brazilian government sent out four armed expeditions, increasingly larger in size, from 1896-1897 to subdue the rebellion, and the first three were crushed against all expectations.  The passage above touches on the coastal elites' reaction to the defeat of the "invincible" Moreira César campaign and how this supposedly inexplicable setback led to false rumors that outside agitators with monarchist sympathies must have been supporting the backlanders in an attempt to overthrow the republic.  While the fourth army expedition finally achieved its objectives--wiping a settlement of some 5,000 mud huts off the map--da Cunha tells us that the resistance was so fierce that it took three months for this modern army to subdue the last 100 yards of Canudos' remaining holdout.  Finally, I'm not sure I've emphasized enough just how much I enjoyed Elizabeth Lowe's translation of this work.  It reads beautifully and captures nuances of tone that I imagine must trace back to the original.  And while I hope I don't cost Backlands any new readers by saying this, there was more than one occasion where I felt that the da Cunha/Lowe writer/translation team in combination with the theme of the senseless horrors of war reminded me of nothing so much as Thucydides on the Sicilian expedition.  I won't, but I could easily spend another week posting on this new favorite of mine.  A few sample da Cunha quotes to follow.  (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Canudos and the sertão in NE Brazil (click to enlarge image)

Da Cunha's attitude to the enemy seems as if it were in a constant state of flux throughout the work.  However, the six chapters in Part II on "The Battle" reveal a writer who increasingly comes to esteem his opponent despite his obvious distaste for their backward ways.  In the passage above, da Cunha subverts his caveman/civilization comparison to declare that the national war frenzy was just as retrograde as the backlanders' lifestyle.  In the two passages that follow, he'll maintain that the army's goals and actions were just as "mad" as Antônio Conselheiro's.  Who is more at fault for the War of Canudos then?  A lone individual or an entire government that's willing to massacre its own citizens?  Da Cunha spends much of the second part of Backlands grappling with these questions.  I'll give you two hints as to his possible answers.  The first passage comes from page 363.  Having already described rebel leader Pajehú as "evil and childlike, instinctively chivalrous, a hero without knowing it" and "an excellent example of recessive atavism, stalking his prey straight on two feet with the same drive with which he defended his cave with a stone hatchet" (227), da Cunha here lauds the backlanders as a whole for their primitive tenacity in defending what he elsewhere calls a "Babylonian weed patch" in "a biblical landscape" (342).  The second passage appears on pages 453-454.  Da Cunha uses this moment to describe the brute force required to subdue the besieged backlanders during the last days of their resistance to the inevitable :

(1) But the jagunço did not know anything about regulation fighting.  He was not really an enemy, which in this context was a euphemism for "bandit," as he was called in the form of martial literature titled the orders of the day.  The sertanejo was simply defending his home.  As long as his aggressors kept their distance, he would simply surround them with traps to stop them.  But if they crashed through his gates and attacked him with rifle butts, he would confront them face-to-face with all he had, unblinking resistance, both for self-defense and to uphold his honor.  Canudos could only be taken in a house-to-house search.  The entire army expedition would take three months to cross the hundred yards separating them from the new church.  On the last day of this unimaginable resistance, which has few like it in history, the last defenders, three or four starving, nameless Titans dressed in rags, would spend their last cartridges on an army of six thousand men!

(2) It was not enough that [the army soldiers] had six thousand rifles and six thousand swords; the strength of twelve thousand arms, the thud of twelve thousand boots, six thousand revolvers and twenty cannons, thousands of grenades and shells--all were of no use.  The executions and fires, the hunger and thirst they had thrown on the enemy were not doing the job.  What had they gained in ten months of fighting and one hundred days of endless bombing?  What use to them were the mountains of ruins, the destroyed churches, and the rubble of broken images, crushed altars, and shattered saints?  All of this had occurred under a bright, serene sky that cast doubt on their obsession with crushing a form of deeply rooted religious belief that brought comfort to their fellow human beings.

Other measures were needed.  The opponent was immune to all the forces of nature and adept at havoc and destruction.  They had made plans for such an emergency and had foreseen this awful epilogue to the drama.  A lieutenant, an orderly of the headquarters staff, ordered up dozens of dynamite bombs from the camp.  This was the only thing left to be done.  The sertanejos had defied all the psychology of ordinary warfare.  Their resistance was emboldened by defeat and they were strengthened by starvation.

The troops were attacking the very bedrock of our race.  Dynamite was the only suitable weapon.  It was a tribute.

Prisoners of war from Canudos

Da Cunha concludes Backlands: The Canudos Campaign with a particularly wrenching account of how the last four fighters ("an old man, two full-grown men, and a child") chose to die facing "a raging army of five thousand soldiers" rather than surrender: "Should we test the incredulity of future generations by going into detail about the women who flung themselves on their burning homes, with their children in their arms?" (463).  Canudos was then leveled, and prisoners of war were beheaded en masse with the complicity of army leaders.  Antônio Conselheiro's body was exhumed, and the decomposing head was decapitated before being taken in triumph to the coast by the victorious army.  There, da Cunha writes, linking one man's folly with a nation's, "it was greeted by crowds dancing in the streets in impromptu carnival celebrations.  Let science have the last words.  There, in plain sight, was the evidence of crime and madness" (464).

miércoles, 15 de setiembre de 2010

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #2

"We are condemned to civilization.  Either we progress or we will become extinct.  That much is certain."
(Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, 62)

As anyone who has seen Antônio Conselheiro's infamous death photo can attest, the apocalyptic firebrand and spiritual leader of the backlands rebellion didn't survive the final siege at Canudos.  But what inspired this itinerant ascetic to take on the Brazilian army?  And why was he so successful at rallying the poor and the criminal to his cause?  Euclides da Cunha's answers are fascinating both for their ambivalence and for what they tell us about the Brazil of his time.  Classifying Conselheiro as "a second-century heretic in the modern age" (143), the writer presents the urban/victors' side of the story by diagnosing the zealot as a religiously deranged product of his backlands environment.  "Antônio Conselheiro was a type of antihero whose sick mysticism was a compendium of all the superstitions and errors that have debased our nationality," he writes.  "He attracted the people of the backlands, not because he dominated them, but because their aberrations dominated him.  The environment worked in his favor, and he had a grasp of the practicality of the absurd.  He obeyed the irresistible finality of old ancestral impulses and while gripped by these impulses he had the outward appearance of a confident evangelist.  It was this confidence that disguised his insanity" (147).

Elsewhere, as in this opening salvo from a section titled Antônio Conselheiro: A Misfit Turns Back the Historical Clock, da Cunha is even stronger in his denunciation of Conselheiro as an atavistic lunatic:

It was not surprising that our deep ethnic strata pushed up the extraordinary figure of Antônio Conselheiro, "the Counselor."  He is like a fossil.  Just as the geologist can reconstruct the inclination and orientation of very old formations from truncated strata and build models of ancient mountains, so can the historian deduce something about the society that produced this man, who himself is of little worth.  Under normal circumstances, this man would have been diagnosed as a neurotic with progressive psychosis.  However, in his social context he becomes an alarming anomaly.  The stages of his career do not parallel a serious illness; however they do give us the profile of a grave social disorder.  This man was driven by forces larger than he was, to lead a conflict with an entire civilization and to go down in history when he should have gone to a mental hospital.  For the historian, however, he is not someone with mental illness; he represents the integration of various social traits, which would not be perceived had he remained anonymous, but were forceful and well defined when this man came to represent a social movement (124).

I've quoted this paragraph in its entirety because it says quite a bit about da Cunha's aims, biases, and methodology.  Note that he doesn't just dismiss Conselheiro as a madman--he argues that the Counselor represents a non-mainstream stratum of Brazilian society that's out of time with the present.  While it's easy to take da Cunha to task today for his 19th-century, Sarmiento-like civilization and barbarism biases, dismissing those tendencies out of hand does a real disservice to the investigatory nature of his efforts.  Da Cunha seems to have seen the Canudos war as a horrific example of two worlds in collision, and his "scientific" attempt to understand both sides of the story is responsible for much of the moral tension that informs the work.  Reading him, I sometimes felt like I was in the presence of a Brazilian Thucydides.

To give you a better idea of what I mean, I'll close for now with a couple of examples of da Cunha at work late in Chapter II ("Man").  This part of the work is the anthropological and cultural set-up for the six chapters on the battle that will follow.  Da Cunha begins with a typical Euclidean assertion, bold and to the point: "We must insist on this truth: The war of Canudos was a regression in our history.  What we had before us was the unsolicited armed insurgence of an old, dead society, brought back to life by a madman.  We did not recognize this society; it was impossible for us to have known it" (168).  With one fell swoop, the author has stigmatized the backlanders as primitives in opposition to an army that represents the forces of republicanism and modernity.  It's a charge that will be repeated throughout the work, often with racist assumptions attached.  And yet just a single page later, da Cunha's ambivalence is revealed when he attacks the "greed" of the victorious army by contrasting it with the humble lifestyle of the vanquished--a people so poor that their defeat resulted in "one of the most unrewarding spoils of war in history" (169).  The prize spoils in the sacked settlement?  Scraps of paper recording the preaching of Antônio Conselheiro.  "These scraps were worth everything because they were worth nothing...and as one read them over, it was evident just how harmless his sermons really were: They simply reflected the poor man's confusion.  Every line was imbued with the same vague and incongruous religious doctrine.  There was very little of political significance to be found in any of them and nothing that would have supported his messianic cause" (169).  To top it all off, da Cunha even offers a totally unexpected apology for Conselheiro's actions: "If the rebel attacked the government, it was because he believed that the promised kingdom was near at hand" (169).  Suffice it to say that with perspectives like these, this isn't run of the mill history at all.
*****
Given the gripping military narrative I plan to take a look at next, one of the great ironies of Backlands: The Canudos Campaign is that it was written by a pro-army but anti-war observer who felt conflicted about this clash between civilization and what he called "the Jerusalem of mud huts" (176).  Fast-forwarding to the violent end of the conflict from the relatively safe vantage point of Chapter II, da Cunha hints at and finally admits that Conselheiro's provocation "demanded another kind of a response" than the war that would wind up producing thousands of casualties: "Meanwhile we sent them guns and the final, incisive argument of the moralist--bullets" (172).  Gotta love this stuff!
Antônio Conselheiro:
"This man was driven by forces larger than he was, to lead a conflict with an entire civilization and to go down in history when he should have gone to a mental hospital."



lunes, 13 de setiembre de 2010

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #1


Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [Os Sertões] (Penguin, 2010)
by Euclides da Cunha [translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe]
Brazil, 1902

"No hubiera escrito esta novela sin Euclides da Cunha, cuyo libro Os Sertoes me reveló en 1972 la guerra de Canudos, a un personaje trágico y a uno de los mayores narradores latinoamericanos" (Mario Vargas Llosa, Prólogo a La guerra del fin del mundo).

"I wouldn't have written this novel without Euclides da Cunha, whose book Os Sertoes in 1972 revealed to me the war of Canudos, a tragic character, and one of the best Latin American narrators" (Mario Vargas Llosa, Prologue to The War of the End of the World).

Although I'd been wanting to read Euclides da Cunha's 1902 Backlands: The Canudos Campaign ever since I first saw Mario Vargas Llosa raving about it as the source of his 1981 La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] last year, I had no idea what a treasure was in store for me.  Wow!  Wow, wow, wow, in fact.  Da Cunha's idiosyncratic epic, a work of nonfiction devoted to the nascent Brazilian republic's brutal putdown of a millenarian revolt in 1897, is part geography, part anthropology, part military history, and part political treatise.  Doesn't sound like your cup of tea?  I hear you.  But as trying of my patience as the first third of the work turned out to be (50 pages of extremely dry background info on the nature of the Brazilian backlands followed by another 100 pages or so on the bandit culture of the north), the last two thirds of the book on "The Battle" were just about the best thing I've read all year.  An absolutely riveting narrative.  A story about another unnecessary war pitting haves and have nots against each other due to a mutual misunderstanding.  A firsthand account of an apocalyptic civil war in which the "credulous rustics" of a "backwoods Troy" resisted four expeditions from a modern army with faith and primitive weaponry as their only defense against an unyielding future.  From my perspective, da Cunha is every bit the great narrator and master stylist Vargas Llosa made him out to be.  With any luck, I'll be able to prove this to you over the next few posts.  (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Euclides da Cunha

Chapter 1 ("The Land") is tough sledding from an entertainment standpoint.  However, da Cunha's arresting style can still be observed from this excerpt from the Some Unique Hygrometers section on the Canudos region and drought:

The setting sun has cast the broad shadow of the foliage across the ground, and under its protection, arms akimbo, his face turned to the sky, a soldier is resting.
He has been resting for...three months.
He died during the attack of July 18.  The butt of his Mannlicher rifle had been cracked, his cartridge belt and cap tossed to one side, and his uniform was in tatters.  All this pointed to the fact that he had died in hand-to-hand combat against a powerful adversary.  He had fallen, most certainly, from a blow to his forehead, which had left a black scar.  And when the other dead had been buried, days later, he had not been noticed.  He did not share, therefore, the common grave, less than three feet deep, into which, together in one last formation, his comrades fallen in battle had been buried.  The fate that had taken him away from his abandoned home had given him one last concession: It had spared him the gloomy closeness of the repugnant ditch.  It had left him lying there for three months, arms outspread and face to the sky with its burning suns and its pale moons, its gleaming stars....
And he was intact.  He had only withered.  He was mummified, his facial features preserved in such a way as to suggest a weary warrior getting his strength back with a bit of sleep in the shade of that beneficent tree.  No worm, that most common of tragic analysts, had damaged his tissues.  He was being returned to life's whirl without any repugnant decomposition, imperceptibly flushed out.  He was a sort of apparatus that was showing in an absolute but suggestive way the extreme dryness of the air" (Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [translated by Elizabeth Lowe], pp. 28-29).

viernes, 10 de setiembre de 2010

An Award, a Challenge, and a Group Read


While many mainstream bloggers appear to be blissfully unaware of the fact, there are indeed a handful of South American writers not named Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, or Walmart inspirational guru Paulo Coelho.  In any event, the Non-Structured Reading Group (Claire of kiss a cloud,  E.L. Fay of This Book and I Could Be Friends, Emily of Evening All Afternoon, Frances of Nonsuch Book, Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate, yours truly, and whatever other readers we can rope into reading along with us in a given month) will be discussing one of these blog phantoms later in the month in the form of a group read of Tomás Eloy Martínez's 1995 Santa Evita.  Feel free to join us if you're interested!  Although I've read at least two other novels by the Argentinean Eloy Martínez (1934-2010) and enjoyed the clever way he mixes fact with fiction, I'm really looking forward to finally reading his signature piece: a semi-true novel about the fate of Eva Perón's cadaver and the multiple "copies" of it that were made in a truth is stranger than fiction epoch of Argentinean history.  The García Márquez blurb on the front of my import copy ("Aquí está, por fin, la novela que siempre quise leer" ["Here, at last, is the novel I always wanted to read"]) may be enough of a come-on for some readers; others may be more enticed by the fact that in 2007 the work was voted the eighth best Spanish language novel of the last 25 years by a Semana.com panel.  Please note that Santa Evita is available in an English translation under the same title (published by Vintage here in the States) and that discussions about the book will take place on participating blogs on or around Friday, 9/24.  Hope you can join us.

In related news, the Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge that I've been "hosting" here every other month is now entering its third month of (theoretical) foreign film fun.  Since I've been the only participant so far, time to move on to the next item on today's agenda!

To wit.  Emily Jane of the new to me Booked All Week blog recently introduced herself by letting me know that she'd selected Caravana de recuerdos as a recipient of the One Lovely Blog Award that you see below.  Although I now have to question my new blogger friend's judgement (ha ha), I do appreciate the acknowledgement and am happy to have discovered Booked All Week this way.  Thanks, Emily Jane!

lunes, 6 de setiembre de 2010

The Divine Comedy III: Paradiso


Paradiso (Anchor Books, 2007)
by Dante Alighieri [translated from the Italian by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander]
Ravenna, 1321

Paradiso.  While I still have Her Fearful Symmetry, a Neil Gaiman book, and, what the hell, another Margo Lanagan YA opus to get around to someday, I finally finished reading the similarly-hyped The Divine Comedy last night.  And all kidding aside, I'm sort of sorry to have to let the poem go.  Although the Paradiso was easily the least intrinsically interesting of all three cantiche in terms of the reading entertainment to be found therein, I thought its flaws as a narrative were more than compensated for by its success as an abstruse, often mystical disquisition on the nature of divinity and eternity.  A vision with scholastic teeth at that.  Description of heaven as a succession of glittering spheres?  Meh.  Interrogation of why all those otherwise virtuous people--whose only failing in life is that they don't know Christ--must suffer in the hereafter?  Priceless.  Even though various aspects of Dante's doctrinal-heavy theology will forever trouble me, I have to say that I thought it was kind of cool to run across folks like Roland, Adam, and Mary in Dante's heaven (no wonder one of my favorite professors once referred to the Commedia as a summa of medieval culture).  And The Song of Roland stuff aside, I have to admit that I was so dazzled by Dante's intellect and the scope of his cosmological vision that I felt both pumped up and humbled at the same time.  Not at all the reaction I was expecting from this third and concluding canticle but just one of many reasons I look forward to wrestling with the poem again.  Hopefully in Italian next time.

Odds and ends.  Thanks to the intrepid few souls (two, three?) who participated in the full readalong with me, all those who joined along for Inferno, and those who commented and/or proffered bibliographical assistance (Amateur Reader, take a bow) along the way.  I had a fun time even though I'm now convinced that it could take a lifetime to get to know this poem properly (not a bad thing if you have the time, I guess).  For just one exceedingly small sliver of the complexity of the full poem's internal structure, see the Hollanders' notes to Paradiso VI where they explain that "the sixth canto in each cantica, as has often been appreciated, is devoted to an increasingly wide political focus: first to Florentine politics, then to Italian politics, and now to Dante's theologically-charged imperial politics" (156).  Other "whoa" moments not involving numerology: each canticle ends with a Barry Seaman-like reference to stelle or stars as the very last word of that section in the poem.  Etc., etc.  I enjoyed all three of the different translators I read and wouldn't hesitate to recommend Pinsky, Merwin or the Hollanders to someone scoping out bilingual editions of the text, readability in English, and so on.  However, even though all the editions I used had helpful footnotes, the Hollanders had the best critical apparatus by far in terms of the volume and the complexity of the notes (a series of pages attached to the end of each canto) and the recommended reading provided.  Will likely be searching out their copies of Inferno and Purgatorio at some point to add to the collection.  (http://www.anchorbooks.com/)

Ritratto di Dante by Luca Signorelli
(Capella di San Bruno, Il Duomo, Orvieto)

Other posts of mine on The Divine Comedy
Inferno
Purgatorio #1, #2 and #3

Other readalong links on Dante
Amanda (Simpler Pastimes)
Inferno
Purgatorio
Paradiso

Avid Reader (The Avid Reader's Musings)
Inferno

Bellezza (Dolce Bellezza)
Inferno

Claire (kiss a cloud)
Inferno

E.L. Fay (This Book and I Could Be Friends)
Inferno, Cantos 1-8
Inferno, Cantos 9-17
Inferno, Cantos 18-26
Inferno, Cantos 27-34
Purgatorio, Part One
Purgatorio, Part Two
Paradiso

Iris (Iris on Books)
Inferno

Rebecca (Rebecca Reads)
Inferno

sábado, 4 de setiembre de 2010

Iggy and the Stooges vs. Céline Dion


Although I was thinking about writing a particular book-related post tonight, truth be told I wasn't really all that geeked up about it.  Fortunately, Simon of Savidge Reads kind of threw down a non-book entertainment gauntlet earlier today by posting about his Desert Island Discs and inviting other bloggers to join him in submitting a post about eight of their favorite songs.  Suffice it to say that I couldn't resist this procrastinatory challenge!  If you want to play along, check out Simon's blog and comment over there if you end up creating a similar post of your own.  Also, please let me know, too.  Because while I suspect that most U.S. book bloggers would end up listing either "Candle in the Wind" or a Céline Dion song among their all-time favorites based on the books that they review, I really do look forward to seeing which tracks you might choose--as well as which Barney and Raffi numbers get selected by the  YA contingent, of course!  In the meantime, here's my mix tape:

1) THE SONICS-"Cinderella" (1966)
Archetypal '60s punk from the Pacific Northwest

2) CHANTAL GOYA-"Laisse-moi" (1966)
French yé-yé queen and Masculin Féminin actress

3) ANDRE WILLIAMS-"Jail Bait" (1957)
A cautionary tale from one of the all-time dirty-minded/mouthed R&B mofos

4) RICHARD HELL & THE VOIDOIDS-"I'm Your Man" (1978)
A lyrical turn from the NYC legend (and fellow Richard) who might have invented punk rock with his "PLEASE KILL ME" t-shirt alone

5) THE UNDERTONES-"Teenage Kicks" (1978)
One of the best pop songs ever from Northern Ireland...or anywhere

6) ELASTICA-"Stutter" (1995)
Anglophilia and literature is pretty tired; Anglophilia and Justine Frischmann is totally understandable!

7) OBLIVIANS-"Christina" (1996)
Memphis goners what perfected the two guitars-and-drums lineup invented by Hound Dog Taylor (i.e. bass is for hippies)

8) IGGY AND THE STOOGES-"Raw Power" (1973)
Bitchslapped all of E.L. Fay's "black metal" favorites way before she and they were even born

9) THE VELVET UNDERGROUND-"Sister Ray" pt.1 & pt. 2 (1968)
Aural "rabbit brain soup with duck liver" selected merely to appease rock/roll gourmet Jill from Rhapsody in Books


Oops, I got nine songs here instead of eight.  [Cough] Now how did that happen?!?

jueves, 2 de setiembre de 2010

Lecturas de septiembre


Lista de los 4 jugadores convocados para la Selección Caravana
1) Dante Alighieri, El paraíso (Italia, en marcha)
2) Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha (España, en marcha)
3) Euclides da Cunha, Los sertones: Campaña de Canudos (Brasil)
4) Tómas Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita (Argentina)

Suplentes
1) Clarice Lispector, La hora de la estrella (Brasil)
2) Sergio Pitol, El arte de la fuga (México)
3) Rodolfo Walsh, ¿Quién mató a Rosendo? (Argentina)


Por fin vuelvo al tema de Canudos un año después de haber leído la re entretenida La guerra del fin del mundo, de Mario Vargas Llosa.  Si las partes del libro de da Cunha que tratan de "La tierra" y "El hombre" siguen ser exigentes y/o aburridas, la tercera parte de la obra que trata de "La lucha" es aún más "jugosa" de lo que esperaba (aviso: estoy leyendo el libro en inglés y en castellano y no en portugués).