viernes, 25 de marzo de 2011

Conversación en La Catedral

Conversación en La Catedral (Punto de Lectura, 2010)
por Mario Vargas Llosa
Perú, 1969

"¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?" se pregunta Santiago, que tiene 30 años, al principio de Conversación en La Catedral.  ¿Y en qué momento se había jodido el personaje?  Aunque las respuestas a estas dos preguntas sólo vendrán después de 700 y pico páginas, los lectores que desfrutan de un estilo narrativo poco tradicional y/o una experienca de lectura más interactiva de lo normal van a estar encantados con el resultado.  Por supuesto, Vargas Llosa no permite muchas alternativas: es una dura y exigente novela política, ambientada en el Perú de los cincuenta bajo la dictadura militar de general Manuel Apolonario Odrías, que se narra con diálogos y monólogos interiores más que la exposición.  Además, los pensamientos y las palabras de los personajes vienen en transiciones tan rápidas y repentinas que siempre hay que estar alerta a quién está formulando las preguntas y respuestas.  La experiencia, embriagadora cuando uno se acostumbra al estilo, es como escuchar dos conversaciones, uno hablado y el otro pensado, a la vez.  Dado el acercamiento elíptico y fragmentario que se usa a lo largo de la novela, probablemente debo mencionar que la Catedral del título es un bar de obreros donde el periodista Santiago y un viejo conocido suyo que se llama Ambrosio tienen una conversación más y más borracha.  En su turno, esta conversación conduce a una teleraña de otros recuerdos e historias interconectados que examinan la decadencia económica y moral del Perú y, por extensión, de Latinoamérica.  Aunque su retrato de la corrupción y de la atapía, del racismo y de la conciencia de clase puede ser demasiado pesimista para algunos, me gustó Conversación en la Catedral a causa de su visión intransigente y, especialmente, su estilo narrativo experimental.  Un libro especialmente bueno para los que, como yo, no tienen ningún interés en el realismo mágico.  (

Conversation in the Cathedral (Harper Perennial, 2005)
by Mario Vargas Llosa [translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa]
Peru, 1969

"At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" the 30-year old Santiago asks himself at the very beginning of Conversation in the Cathedral.  And at what precise moment had the character fucked his own life up?  Although the answers to these two questions come something like 600 bleak pages in the making, readers who appreciate a non-trad storytelling style and/or a reading experience more interactive than usual may find a treat in store for themselves here.  Of course, it's not like they really have any choice--Vargas Llosa's dark and demanding political novel, mostly set in 1950s Peru during the military dictatorship of General Manuel Apolinario Odría, is long on dialogue and interior monologues and short on exposition.  What's more, the characters' words and thoughts are often presented in such quick, abrupt transitions that you have to scramble to stay on top of who's asking the questions and who's answering them.  The end result, highly intoxicating once you get used to it, is akin to eavesdropping on two conversations, one spoken and one comprised of the individual's (or individuals') thoughts, at the same time.  Given the elliptical, fragmentary approach employed throughout the novel, I should probably mention that the Cathedral of the title refers to a working class bar in Lima where an increasingly drunken conversation between the newspaperman Santiago and an old acquaintance named Ambrosio leads to a spider's web of interconnected memories and stories exposing some of the reasons for Peru's--and by extension, Latin America's--economic and moral decline.  Conversation in the Cathedral's vivid portrayal of corruption and apathy, racism and class divisions, and the sense of defeat that pervades a work in which the central metaphor is that of life as a brothel may be too strong for some; however, I embrace its uncompromising vision and, especially, its experimental style.  In other words, a nice palate cleanser for anyone sick and tired of hearing about magical realism.  (

Mario y Patricia Vargas Llosa

Desde la puerta de La Crónica Santiago mira la avenida Tacna, sin amor: automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina, el mediodía gris.  ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?  Los canillitas merodean entre los vehículos detenido por el semáforo de Wilson voceando los diarios de la tarde y él echa a andar, despacio, hacia la Colmena.  Las manos en los bolsillos, cabizbajo, va escoltado por transeúntes que avanzan, también, hacia la plaza San Martín.  Él era como el Perú, Zavalita, se había jodido en algún momento.  Piensa: ¿en cuál?  Frente al Hotel Crillón un perro viene a lamerle los pies: no vayas a estar rabioso, fuera de aquí.  El Perú jodido, piensa, Carlitos jodido, todos jodidos.  Piensa: no hay solución.  Ve una larga cola en el paradero de los colectivos a Miraflores, cruza la plaza y ahí está Norwin, hola hermano, en una mesa del Bar Zela, siéntate Zavalita, manoseando un chilcano y haciéndose lustrar los zapatos, le invitaba un trago.  No parece borracho todavía y Santiago se sienta, indica al lustrabotas que también le lustra los zapatos a él.  Listo jefe, ahoritita jefe, se los dejaría como espejos, jefe.
(Conversación en La Catedral, 15)
From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday.  At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?  The newsboys weave in and out among the vehicles halted by the red light on Wilson, hawking the afternoon papers, and he starts to walk slowly toward Colmena.  His hands in his pockets, head down, he goes along escorted by people who are also going in the direction of the Plaza San Martín.  He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he'd fucked himself up somewhere along the line.  He thinks: when?  Across from the Hotel Crillón a dog comes over to lick his feet: don't get your rabies on me, get away.  Peru all fucked up, Carlitos all fucked up, everybody all fucked up.  He thinks: there's no solution.  He sees a long line at the taxi stop for Miraflores, he crosses the square, and there's Norwin, hello, at a table in the Zela Bar, have a seat, Zavalita, fondling a chilcano and having his shoes shined, he invites him to have a drink.  He doesn't look drunk yet and Santiago sits down, tells the bootblack to shine his shoes too.  Yes, sir, boss, right away, boss, they'll look like a mirror, boss.
(Conversation in the Cathedral [translated by Gregory Rabassa], 3)


viernes, 18 de marzo de 2011

Swann's Way

Swann's Way [Du côté de chez Swann] (Penguin Classics, 2004)
by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by Lydia Davis]
France, 1913

No doubt, by virtue of having forever indissolubly united in me different impressions merely because they had made me experience them at the same time, the Méséglise way and the Guermantes way exposed me, for the future, to many disappointments and even to many mistakes.  For often I have wanted to see a person again without discerning that it was simply because she reminded me of a hedge of hawthorns, and I have been led to believe, to make someone else believe, in a revival of affection, by what was simply a desire to travel.  But because of that very fact, too, and by persisting in those of my impressions of today to which they may be connected, they give them foundations, depth, a dimension lacking from the others.  They add to them, too, a charm, a meaning that is for me alone.  When on summer evenings the melodious sky growls like a wild animal and everyone grumbles at the storm, it is because of the Méséglise way that I am the only one in ecstasy inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs.
(Swann's Way, 189-190)

I'll probably regret this later, but may I share a personal anecdote with you?  The morning after finally finishing Swann's Way, I was telling my boss about how much I'd loved it and how it was even more spectacular than I'd suspected it would be.  After poking fun at myself for how ridiculous it was to be surprised by any of all this--In Search of Lost Time's first volume does have something of a reputation after all--I found myself almost tearing up talking about the many things that Proust does so beautifully in the novel.  Thank God my boss is a bibliophile and understood the point I was feebly trying to make: this book got to me.  Why it got to me would probably be more easily explained in person, of course, but I think the three things that stand out about it the most are Proust's skills as an observer, his unexpected humor, and that justly celebrated all-enveloping prose which wraps you up in its velvety grip.  Examples.  In Swann in Love, in the midst of the book within a book chronicling Charles Swann's tumultuous love affair with the not quite to be trusted Odette de Crécy (a segment itself surrounded by the first and third sections of the novel that focus on the narrator's childhood memories of life at Combray and his own first impressions of how the clingy love for his mother would eventually be joined by the romantic feelings felt for Swann's daughter Gilberte), the reader is party to an agonizing close-up of the highs and lows of that "holy evil" also known as love (239).  Although the narrator proves himself to be an astute observer of the arts of deception and self-deception practiced by lovers everywhere, he saves one of his absolute best descriptive moments for Swann's non-romantic encounter with a footman at a party: "One of them, of a particularly ferocious aspect and rather like the executioner in certain Renaissance paintings which depict scenes of torture, advanced upon him with an implacable air to take his things.  But the hardness of his steely gaze was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so that as he approached Swann he seemed to be showing contempt for his person and consideration for his hat" (336).  Just love those Proustian juxtapositions!

As if to demonstrate that the hilarity of this moment isn't incidental to his larger objectives in the novel, Proust provides us with at least two superb examples of elaborate and totally unexpected sources of humor that originate early on in Part I's Combray.  In the first instance, a scene poking fun at both the hypocrisy of the family maid and the narrator as a young man takes place in which the beheading of a chicken as preparation for the evening meal ends with the servant frantically shouting "Vile creature!  Vile creature!" at the unfortunate chicken, troubled by the animal's understandable resistance to its impending demise (124).  Even after the chicken has been dispatched with, though, Françoise feels the need to insult it one more time.  "Vile creature!"  Over 150 pages later, with this amusing scene long forgotten, poor Swann himself will be labeled a "vile creature" by a third party, Mme. Verdurin, upset at his possessive streak in regard to Odette.  This situation provides the narrator with an opportunity to reflect on the two characters' defensive need to justify themselves with "the same words which the last twitches of an inoffensive animal in its death throes wring from the countryman who is killing it"--and, by extension, to compare Swann's fate in love with that of the chicken's.  Just brutal!  In the second instance I wanted to talk about, the narrator finds a unique way to comment on the strange ways of his class by developing a parallel--this one some 50 pages apart--between the actions of a certain M. Vinteuil and the behavior of his daughter soon after his death.  While I can't hope to do justice to the exquisiteness of the joke, the humor revolves around M. Vinteuil's strategic positioning of a piece of music on the piano just prior to the arrival of the narrator's family (he wants to be recognized for his musical talents while simultaneously affecting to be too modest to acknowledge them) and the daughter's parallel placement of a photo of her deceased father on a table in the piano room as she hears the sound of an approaching carriage bearing her lesbian lover. "Oh!  That picture of my father is looking at us.  I don't know who could have put it there.  I've told them a dozen times that it doesn't belong there,"  Mlle. Vinteuil showily feigns, inducing a confession from "her friend" that she'd like to spit on the portrait of "the ugly old monkey" (165-167).  The extended joke, not to put too fine a spin on it, is typical of Proust's pattern of finding humor in the weakest human frailties and propensities for deceit.

As for Proust's all-enveloping prose, that's thankfully "all too typical" of the novelist as well.  In a work in which various places and objects--churches and the countryside in Combray, the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and most famously the taste of a humble madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea--trigger powerful memories of the past and lead to meditations upon how our memories of the past interact with and transform the present, some of the most affecting writing within the entire novel concerns the narrator's youthful love of hawthorns.  I love, for example, the exuberance and the extravagance of this recollection of a pink hawthorn pointed out to the narrator by his grandfather: "Inserted into the hedge, but as different from it as a young girl in a party dress among people in everyday clothes who are staying at home, the shrub was all ready for Mary's month, and seemed to form a part of it already, shining there, smiling in its fresh pink outfit, catholic and delicious" (143).  So, so poetic, no?  And I'm basically reduced to tears whenever I reread the young Marcel's farewell to the hawthorns, the precise moment where he talks about "putting my arms around the prickly branches," prior to his family's unexpectedly early return to Paris one year.

My mother was not moved by my tears, but she could not suppress a cry at the sight of my crushed hat and ruined coat.  I did not hear it:  "Oh, my poor little hawthorns," I said weeping, "you're not the ones trying to make me unhappy, you aren't forcing me to leave.  You've never hurt me!  So I will always love you.  And drying my tears, I promised them that when I was grown up I would not let my life be like the senseless lives of other men and that even in Paris, on spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would go out into the countryside to see the first hawthorns (148).

Given the narrator's association of hawthorns with the human and non-human symbols of his childhood past, has there ever been a better evocation of the innocence of youth paired with a foreshadowing of the loss of the young self to be found in adulthood?  If so, I'd sure like to hear about it.  In the meantime, even though it's early in the year, I suspect that I've finally found another title to add to my all-time favorites list.  Absolutely brilliant and maybe even worth a good cry for all you sentimental types out there.  (

Marcel Proust

lunes, 14 de marzo de 2011


PJ Harvey, "Dress" (1992)

martes, 8 de marzo de 2011


A mi amiga Emily

Nada (Ediciones Destino, 2006)
por Carmen Laforet
España, 1945

Para ser completamente franco, no podría imaginar por qué Nada es estimada como una de las obras canónicas de la literatura española del siglo XX desde un mero resumen del argumento.  Andrea, una huérfana de 18 años,  llega a Barcelona para estudiar Letras en la universidad.  Al vivir con sus parientes en una casa mugrienta y lóbrega donde prevalecen un ambiente de represión gótica e incluso una sombra de violencia (un hogar donde el tío Juan siempre pega a su mujer, el tío Román está orgulloso de ser el malo maquiavélico de toda la familia, y el descenso de la prosperidad en la posguerra barcelonés se puede medir por la venta de los muebles que pertenecen a la abuela para poner comida en las bocas), la chica pasa un año en que la libertad de su vida universitaria y la amistad con una compañera de clase carismática que se llama Ena ponen de relieve la falta de libertad, la "soledad espiritual" (253), y la desperación que la afligen en la casa de la calle de Aribau.  Es todo, más o menos, y sin embargo ¡qué librazo! Pienso que un razón por el éxito de la novela es que Andrea es un personaje convincente cuya voz parece ser totalmente auténtica en la prosa sencilla y comedida de Laforet.  La chica es una observadora extraordinaria también, como se nota en esta escena sobre la despedida de la tia Angustias que ocurre antes de que la tía se hace una monja: "Como una bandada de cuervos posados en las ramas del árbol del ahorcado, así las amigas de Angustias estaban sentadas, vestidas de negro, en su cuarto aquellos días.  Angustias era el único ser que se conservaba asido desesperadamente a la sociedad, en la casa nuestra" (98).  En otra parte, la intrevertida Andrea usa sus facultades de observación como persona independiente para examinar a sí misma de manera asombrosa.  "Parecía ahogarme tanta luz, tanta sed abrasadora de asfalto y piedras.  Estaba caminando como si recorriera el propio camino de mi vida, desierto.  Mirando las sombras de las gentes que a mi lado se escapaban sin poder asirlas.  Abocando en cada instante, irremediablemente, en la soledad" (208).  Las páginas de la obra están impregnadas con este sentido de una soledad que es casi palpable, un estado de tristeza que contrasta con los eventos en el "manicomio" que es la vida familiar del protagonista.  ¿Es Andrea capaz de escaparse de la situación o va a hundirse en el miasma neurótico de la casa en la calle de Aribau?  No me corresponde a mí decir pero en una obra que se parece a una carta de amor a la interioridad femenina y en una obra donde la Barcelona de los años después de la guerra civil española se ve como una ciudad fantasmal de la muerte, sí les voy a decir que el desenlace de Nada me conmovió tanto que les di un aplauso espontaneo para la novelista y para la protagonista adolescente al final.  ¡Detonante!  (

Nada (Modern Library Classics, 2008)
by Carmen Laforet [translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman]
Spain, 1945

To be brutally honest, I don't think I'd have any idea why Nada's considered to be one of the canonical works in 20th century Spanish literature from a mere plot summary alone.  Andrea, an 18-year old orphan, arrives in Barcelona to study literature at the university.  Living with relatives in a squalid, gloomy house where a sort of gothic repression and the very real specter of physical violence reign supreme (it's a home where her uncle Juan is constantly beating up his wife, her uncle Román brags about being the Machiavellian mind manipulator who controls all the family members' actions, and the decline in the family's prosperity in the postwar period can be measured by the amount of the grandmother's furniture that's sold just to keep food on the table), the girl spends a year in which the relative freedom of her school life and an on-again/off-again friendship with a charismatic classmate named Ena underscore the lack of freedom, the "spiritual solitude" (224), and the desperation that are slowly crushing her spirit at the house on the Calle de Aribau.  That's it, more or less, and yet, what a book!  Part of why the novel's so successful, I think, is that Andrea's a completely convincing character whose voice rings true in Laforet's simple, understated prose.  She's an arresting observer, too, as in this bit on her bitter aunt Angustias' extended farewell to her friends prior to joining a convent at an advanced age: "Like a flock of crows perching on the branches of the tree where a dead man hangs, Angustias' friends, dressed in black, sat in her room during this time.  Angustias was the only person in our house who still grasped desperately at society" (83).  Elsewhere, the introverted Andrea turns her outsider's powers of observation inward to striking effect.  "So much light, so much burning thirst of asphalt and stone seemed to choke me.  I walked as if I were travelling over the deserted road of my own life.  Looking at the shadows of people who fled my side, unable to grasp them.  Constantly, irremediably, chewing on solitude" (183).  This sense of an almost palpable solitude permeates the pages of the work and contrasts with the increasingly insane asylum-like ambience of the narrator's home life.  Will Andrea find a way to escape from the situation at hand or will she succumb to the neurotic miasma that is life in the house on the Calle de Aribau?  Not for me to say, but in what's something of a love letter to female interiority and a work in which post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona is portrayed as a phantasmal city of death, I was so moved by the outcome that I actually gave Laforet and her teenaged protagonist an impromptu round of applause at the end.  Just blew my mind.  (

Carmen Laforet

sábado, 5 de marzo de 2011

Our Horses in Egypt

Our Horses in Egypt (Chatto & Windus, 2007)
by Rosalind Belben
England, 2007

To Burdock, cogitating, it seemed that horses appreciated scenery.  Burdock felt sorry that they what had fallen had missed the flowering.  Mighty sorry.  With the flowering had come sand flies.  Despite privation, sand-flies, wounds and the dying, were it nice for an animal to be alive?  Nicer than never to live at all?
Burdock didn't know.
Throughout the afternoon, in a narrow defile, Philomena hung her head.
The rain had stopped and a rainbow stood in the sky.
Led horses were being shelled elsewhere, and going down in a dreadful tangle and panic.  Their vital spark was vanquished in the ubiquitous puffs of smoke.  Here all was peaceful.
Before he was killed Sage had seen her easy and had waited--humble--for that droopy lip and the closeness of nostril and breath that would have told him that his rubbing her down with his fingers gratified her.
Philomena never did reward him.
His teeth had been chattering.
(Our Horses in Egypt, 122 and 180)

At the risk of making Our Horses in Egypt sound something like a highbrow Watership Down (which it isn't!),  I think the easiest way for me to go about describing it is to start by saying that most of the 2007 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction award winner takes place on two different temporal planes and as seen through the eyes of two different species.  In the novel's present, moneyed war widow Griselda Romney sets out from England to Egypt in 1921 to see if she can discover what has become of the lone surviving family horse that was requisitioned by the British army for service in World War I.  In the novel's recent past, Romney's light brown mare, Philomena, witnesses the carnage and suffering of world war in the Middle East from her four-legged vantage point as a non-human participant in the action in Egypt and Palestine.  Near the end of the novel, there's an intersection of the two planes that, while anticipated, was so finely wrought as to leave this misanthrope-in-the-making feeling devastated.  As befits what's both an unusually told and an unusually moving narrative, though, I have unusually mixed feelings regarding Our Horses in Egypt on the whole.  On the one hand, I loved Belben's clipped, vaguely Woolfian storytelling style and the startlingly impersonal POV which would bracingly move from man to beast and back again with nary a slip-up to be found.  On the other hand, I positively hated spending time with many of her upper crust human protagonists--petty, high maintenance whiners for the most part--and was almost equally aggravated by her often arbitrary use of italics.  Too gimmicky, my dear!  While I can think of all sorts of possible reasons for Belben to have portrayed her lead human characters as such annoying creatures as she did, the fact remains that I distinctly would have preferred more of the fine writing on the horses and the unspeakable wartime horrors that they and their revolving door stable of unfortunate riders endured instead.  In short, a powerful but a far from perfect tale.  (

Rosalind Belben

Our Horses in Egypt was the Wolves' book of the month for February 2011 (delayed one weekend).  Here are some other opinions on it for your reading enjoyment:

martes, 1 de marzo de 2011

Conversation in the Cathedral Group Read

English option

Hope some of you will consider joining the she-wolves and me in a reading and discussion of Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en La Catedral) set for the end of the month.  Many consider this thick brick of a 1969 novel to be the 2010 Nobel Prize winner's finest, but we'll be putting that appraisal to the test in a no holds barred discussion of a work said to feature a hard hitting political edge and the usual MVL storytelling dynamics.  Not familiar with Vargas Llosa?  Not a problem.  Based on my limited experience with the Peruvian maestro (three novels, a couple of odds and ends), here's a few things you should be able to reasonably count on getting out of your encounter with him: 1) A great story.  When the guy's on top of his game, he writes these completely juicy stories that make you just want to keep on turning the pages.  2) Wonderful characterization.  Vargas Llosa's characters, like the dictator in The Feast of the Goat or the backlands rebels in The War of the End of The World, tend to be fully formed creations and not the cardboard cutouts that lesser authors have us accustomed to.  Raise the bar!  3) Narrative experimentation.  Despite--or maybe because of--his more traditional storytelling skills, I find that I often enjoy MVL novels even more than I should because of the little things he jazzes things up with: shifts in time, shifts in narrative POV, etc.  OK, so I've already said way more than enough to regret hyping this if the book turns out to be a dud.  Please let me know if you have any questions about participating in the group read--otherwise, just check back here and at the other Wolves' blogs during the last weekend of the month (3/25-3/27) to follow all the discussions as they unfold (I'll provide links to other group read posts once my own review post is up).  ¡Hasta pronto!  See you soon!

Spanish option

Other Readers