lunes, 28 de febrero de 2011

The Cairo Trilogy III: Sugar Street

Sugar Street [Al-Sukkariyya] (Doubleday, 1992)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan]
Egypt, 1957

Although I certainly enjoyed most of The Cairo Trilogy as a spectacle (Mahfouz can be a funny guy with his wordplay and that whole panorama of Egyptian society over a 25-year span definitely has its moments early on), I think I began to lose interest in it even on this level of reduced expectations somewhere near the end of the second volume.  Would Mahfouz rally and redeem himself with a grand finale?  In a word, no.  While the concluding novel in the trilogy ends with one key character dead and another one on her deathbed, I got the sense that this was less an organic ending to an epic tale hundreds of pages in the making and more a case of Mahfouz finally running out of things to endlessly wring his hands about as puppetmaster in chief.  For far too much of Sugar Street is devoted to sad sack bachelor Kamal's loss of faith and lack of interest in getting married, two potentially interesting topics dumbed down by she loves me, she loves me not scenarios played out for chapters on end in the most uninteresting of fashions (note: that kind of creepy subplot in which Kamal falls in love with the younger sister of a long ago crush, last seen by him as a toddler and now viewed by him as a romantic prospect, doesn't help in this regard).  "He felt scorched by a burning sensation that seemed a symptom of his profound pain," Mahfouz writes of Kamal at one point, the "pain" in question stemming from the middle-aged Kamal seeing a girl he had already rejected arm in arm on the street with another man (264).  I, too, felt that burning sensation, though probably less from the emotions conjured up by such Nobel Prize-winning prose than by my immune system's response to confronting such vapid howlers and unimaginably tedious interior monologues while trying to fight off a miserable cold this past week.  Fuck you, cold.  Fuck you, Sugar Street, too.  (

Naguib Mahfouz

sábado, 26 de febrero de 2011

To Each His Own

To Each His Own [A ciascuno il suo] (NYRB Classics, 2000)
by Leonardo Sciascia [translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke]
Italy, 1966

In a small Sicilian town, an affable pharmacist receives an anonymous letter that's brief and exceedingly to the point: "This letter is your death sentence.  To avenge what you have done, you will die."  When the pharmacist and a friend are shot and killed soon thereafter while on a hunting trip, Sciascia's arch crime novella zooms in on Italian history and lit liceo teacher Professor Laurana as he pursues an unofficial investigation into the murders--an investigation which, while not all that compelling from a detective fiction point of view, at least allows the novelist to drop tasty tidbits on Dante, Manzoni, and Pirandello into the mix alongside his usual observations on mafia culture and the nature of justice in Sicily.  Not my favorite Sciascia by a long stretch--but wryly observed, as in this passage on the return of the braying hunting dogs from the scene of the crime: "This return of the dogs set the whole town to disputing for days and days (as will happen when people discuss the nature of dogs) about the order of Creation, since it is not at all fair that dogs should lack the gift of speech.  No account was taken, in the Creator's defense, that even had they had the gift of speech, the dogs would, in the given circumstances, have become so many mutes both with regard to the identity of the murderers and in testifying before the marshal of the carabinieri" (14).  (

Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989)

viernes, 18 de febrero de 2011

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (University of Nebraska Press, 2008)
by Mari Sandoz
USA, 1942

Although I've been dipping into and out of a number of interesting Native American-themed works of late (part of a longstanding but until recently rather hazily defined plan to read up on and explore American Indian history in all its geographic and temporal vastness), I'm not sure I could have found a much more compelling first read for my project than Mari Sandoz's so-called "difficult," "mystical" and "classic" biography of the iconic Sioux leader Crazy Horse--even if that last description is the only one of the three that makes any sense to me.  What a fantastic book.  I should start by pointing out that there's no shortage of page-turning entertainment here, the narrative being rich in jaw-dropping and novelistic anecdotes like the one in which a Cheyenne war party, emboldened by a traditional bullet-proofing ceremony, bravely goes out unarmed to confront a white cavalry contingent only to have the horse soldiers lower their weapons to apply bayonets for a bullet-less charge instead (97).  Other moments, while much less surrealistic in their depiction of the clash of cultures which Crazy Horse lived through and was in a sense a martyr to, are almost equally striking in their evocation of a Sioux society in transition from the pre-white man freedom of the hunting and roaming days to the post-white man bondage of "civilized" reservation life.  Interestingly, one of the things that made this tick as a reading experience for me wasn't just what Sandoz shared or the memorable life story of the person she was writing about but an unusual choice she made about how to present her narrative.  In a work seemingly lacking in all proper distance between the biographer and her subject, the white Sandoz notes that she intentionally went out of her way to write her story "us[ing] the simplest words possible, hoping by idiom and figures and the underlying rhythm pattern to say some of the things of the Indians for which there are no white-man words" (xxii).  Sound like a bad idea to you?  Well, that's what I thought at first until I settled into Sandoz's rhythm and discovered that the end result of her linguistic gambit wasn't the patronizing attitude toward Indians that I'd feared but rather a novel way for non-natives to appreciate the Oglalas from something approximating an insider's perspective.  In point of fact, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas is so consistently "Oglala" in its POV that it neither glosses over what some might view as its hero's faults (e.g. shooting a woman in the back as his first war kill) nor bothers to justify the Oglalas' seemingly petty but murderous warfare with historic enemies the Crows and the Snakes (the author seems to accept this bloodsport as a fact of life not worthy of further explanation).  In any event, I really enjoyed my time with this intimate, surprisingly affecting portrait--and, ugly New Age cover aside, I was sorry to put it down when I got to the end.  (

Mari Sandoz (1896-1966)

jueves, 10 de febrero de 2011

Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí

Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Debolsillo, 2009)
por Javier Marías
España, 1994

"Nadie piensa nunca que pueda ir a encontrarse con una muerta entre los brazos y que ya no verá más su rostro cuyo nombre recuerda.  Nadie piensa nunca que nadie vaya a morir en el momento más inadecuado a pesar de que eso sucede todo el tiempo, y creemos que nadie que no esté previsto habrá de morir junto a nosotros" (15).  Así comienza Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, una novela cuya meditación sobre el azar y las bifurcaciones metafísicas se centra en lo que pasa al escritor Víctor Francés después de la noche en que la casada Marta Téllez muere en los brazos del hombre justo antes de consumar el adulterio.  "Ay Dios, y el niño", Marta lamenta al final, dejando atrás el protagonista y el niño de dos años en la casa y el marido afuera del país en un viaje de negocios (46).   Aunque Marías toma este principio trágico y eventualmente se lo convierte en algo aún más devastador con respecto a la tensión psicológica, su estilo lento --cerca de Proust y Sebald en su énfasis sobre la interioridad, la digresión, y la intersección del tiempo y de la memoria y totalmente lleno de párrafos de cinco páginas y más-- a veces pide un poco de paciencia al lector.  Después de un rato, me encantó.  Como corresponde a una obra donde el narrador es un esritor profesional (la ironía: es un negro o un escritor fantasma), la escritura es pulida e hermosa.  Como corresponde a una obra en cual la relación entre los vivos y los muertos es un centro de atención, el narrador comparte no sólo sus propios monólogos interiores sino los de los otros personajes como imaginados por él.  Aunque el libro por cierto tiene sus momentos de humor, lo que más me impactó en sus páginas fue la capacidad de Marías para evocar almas en pena sin ser cursi en el proceso.  No habiendo leído nada del novelista desde El hombre sentimental hace años, supongo que ahora tendré que leer todos los tres tomos de su elogiado Tu rostro mañana antes del fin del año.  Mientras tanto, qué buen libro es éste y qué melancólico también.  "Y mientras tanto un día más, qué desventura, un día más, qué suerte.  Sólo entonces dejaré de ser el hilo de la continuidad, el hilo de seda sin guía, cuando mi voluntad se retire cansada y ya no quiera querer ni quiera nada, y no sea 'aún no, aún no' sino 'no puedo más' lo que prevalezca, cuando me interrumpa y transite sólo por el revés del tiempo, o por su negra espalda donde no habrá escrúpulo ni error ni esfuerzo" (305). (

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (New Directions, 2001)
by Javier Marías [translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa]
Spain, 1994

"No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember.  No one ever expects anybody to die at the least opportune of moments, even though this happens all the time, nor does it ever occur to us that someone entirely unforeseen might die beside us" (3).  So begins Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, a novel whose meditation on chance and the metaphysical forks in the road of life commences with the events that befall writer Victor Francés on the night in which the married Marta Téllez dies in his arms right before the two were about to have sex.  "Oh God, the child" Marta laments as she expires, leaving the protagonist alone in the house with her two year old while her husband is out of the country on a business trip (32).  Although Marías eventually turns this tragic beginning into something even more sobering in terms of the psychological tension on display, his glacial style--replete with paragraphs five pages and more in length and somewhere between Proust and Sebald in terms of its emphasis on interiority, digression, and the intersection between time and memory--may initially demand some patience on the reader's part.  I grew to love it myself.  As befits a work where the narrator's a professional writer (irony: a ghostwriter at that), the writing is beautiful, polished, worked.  As befits a work in which the relationship of the living and the dead is one of the main focuses of attention, the narrator shares not only his own interior monologues but also those of the other characters as imagined by him.  Although the book does have its humorous moments, what most got to me here was Marías' capacity to evoke souls in pain without being cheesy about it in the process.  Not having read anything else by the novelist other than El hombre sentimental [The Man of Feeling] several years ago, I suppose I'll now have to read all three volumes of his heavily hyped Your Face Tomorrow before the end of the year.  In the meantime, what a fine, achingly beautiful effort this is.  "And meanwhile, another day, how dreadful, another day, how fortunate.  Only then will I cease to be the thread of continuity, the silken thread without a guide, when my weary will grows tired and withdraws and no longer wants to want or wants anything, and when what prevails is no longer 'not yet, not yet' but 'I can't take any more of this,' when I interrupt myself and I travel along the reverse side of time, or along its dark back where there will be no room for scruples or error or effort" (271).  (

Javier Marías

Tantas cosas suceden sin que nadie se entere ni las recuerde.  De casi nada hay registro, los pensamientos y movimientos fugaces, los planes y los deseos, la duda secreta, las ensoñaciones, la crueldad y el insulto, las palabras dichas y oídas y luego negadas o malentendidas o tergiversadas, las promesas hechas y no tenidas en cuenta, ni siquiera por aquellos a quienes se hicieron, todo se olvida o prescribe, cuanto se hace a solas y no se anota y también casi todo lo que no es solitario sino en compañía, cuán poco va quedando de cada individuo, de qué poco hay constancia, y de ese poco que queda tanto se calla, y de lo que no se calla se recuerda después tan sólo una mínima parte, y durante poco tiempo, la memoria individual no se transmite ni interesa al que la recibe, que forja y tiene la suya propio.
(Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, 69-70)
So many things happen without anyone realizing or remembering.  There is almost no record of anything, fleeting thoughts and actions, plans and desires, secret doubts, fantasies, acts of cruelty and insults, words said and heard and later denied or misunderstood or distorted, promises made and then overlooked, even by those to whom they were made, everything is forgotten or invalidated, whatever is done alone or not written down, along with everything that is done not alone but in company, how little remains of each individual, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about and, afterwards, one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly, the individual memory is not passed on and is, anyway, of no interest to the person receiving it, who is busy forging his or her own memories.
(Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me [translated by Margaret Jull Costa], 54)

domingo, 6 de febrero de 2011

The TBR Dare: Intermission

Having somehow managed to fulfill my obligations for C.B. James' TBR Dare (I went all of January as per my vow and even two or three days into February as a sort of ostentatious flexing of my newfound book deprivation biceps for all the world to see), I'm now happily ensconced in a non-TBR Dare library read in the form of Mari Sandoz's engrossing Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas.  Since I expect that other library books, a possible purchase or two, and a gift book my dad told me to order at his expense will become part of my new reading during the month of February, I'm officially out of the dare for the moment--but I may "rejoin" it again in spirit in March since the experience has taught me a couple of uncomfortable but valuable lessons about my book-buying/book-hoarding habits.  In the meantime, thanks to C.B. James for coming up with an event that's been way more interesting than the usual challenge fare--I enjoyed it...but I'm also glad that it's over for me!  OK, back to the books, new and old ones this month.