sábado, 29 de diciembre de 2012

War and Peace

War and Peace [Voina i mir] (Vintage Classics, 2007)
by Leo Tolstoy [translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]
Russia, 1869

Thinking she was sure to turn my wiseacre 1,215 page proposal down, I challenged Nicole from bibliographing to read War and Peace with me as part of her 2011 bibliographing Reading Challenge in which followers of her blog were encouraged to participate in a personalized one-book, pre-1939 shared read with her.  Unfortunately for the good sport Nicole, she took me up on the dare and pretty much hated the work.  Unfortunately for the spoilsport me, starting and then finishing the work over a full year after my challenge partner did still left me little time to say anything much about it until I return to Caravana de recuerdos headquarters sometime next week.  What follows will have to suffice as an inadequate intro for now.
Whatever its apparent flaws (an annoying opening party sequence, its occasional bloated masterpiece tendencies, that anti-climactic epilogue in which stirring novelistic narration abruptly yields to dry essayistic argument), War and Peace was probably about as satisfying a way to end the reading year for me as anything I could have asked for.  In fact, I'm sure it was because the book version of post-partum depression that kicked in once I lay the work down felt nearly as crushing as it did after I finished 2666 (my usual yardstick for measuring these sorts of things).  I never get that feeling from lesser novels.  So what will I miss most about the chunkster until I can make time for the inevitable reread?  For starters, I loved how Tolstoy went to war on the idea and form of historical fiction itself.  In a work dominated by Napoleon's invasion of Russia, you might reasonably expect a great writer to set down memorable battle scenes that admirably capture the fog of war.  Check.  You might also expect the characterization of real-life field marshal rivals like Bonaparte and Kutuzov to be as "realistically" fleshed out as the characterization of the fictional Prince Andrei, Count Bezukhov, and Natasha Rostov.  Check.  But what you couldn't have expected--or at least, what I didn't expect in my W&P naïvety--was to find a novel that also doubles as an inquiry into the nature of history and its methods.  While not exactly a case of Man vs. Novel, War and Peace's envelope-pushing novel/history hybrid continually begs the question: novel + history = what exactly?  Beats the hell out of me, but I was both surprised and delighted by the genre mashing even though I readily admit that the epilogue's attempt to come to grips with the root cause of the Napoleonic wars is less successful from an entertainment standpoint than the very story it serves as a commentary on.  Another thing I'll miss are all the unresolved tensions in the work.  Tolstoy spends much of the epilogue arguing against the great man theory of history, for example, in effect declaring that the decisions of the Napoleons and Alexanders of the world are as nothing compared to the unknown forces that move millions of men to act in a certain way.  While trying to arrive at a philosophical explanation of what moves men to go to war with each other against their own self-interests, Tolstoy at one time even blames "the spread of printing" for being "that most powerful tool of ignorance" in our "self-confident time of the popularization of knowledge" (1202).  Pot calling the kettle black or a thinker who is raising the bar on his medium of choice?  For me, I found Tolstoy an arresting thinker even when I disagreed with him.  Finally, I'll definitely miss Tolstoy's storytelling--both the sweep of the narrative and the often seamless segueways between exposition and meditation, epic similes and historical self-examination.  I'll try to provide a few examples of this in my follow-up post, but I was almost never bored by his writing and I was frequently moved by many individual scenes.  For me at least, a work that lives up to its canonical hype for sure.

Tolstoy in 1856

sábado, 15 de diciembre de 2012

The Cameraman's Revenge

The Cameraman's Revenge [Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora]
Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz
Russia, 1912

While I've been a lame, absentee landlord of a host for the Caravana de recuerdos Foreign Film Festival for much of the year, Tom from Wuthering Expectations was kind enough to overlook that and challenged me to watch The Cameraman's Revenge with him as part of the "movie challenge" portion of the festivitivies.  Leave it to Tom, the only person audacious enough to challenge me to a watchalong all year, to select the best insect-acted silent film I've ever seen!  Mest' kinematograficheskogo operatora, as it was originally called at the time of its 1912 release barring an unnoticed typo or two from me, is a stupendous 12-minute stop-action animation feature which takes that hoariest of silent movie clichés--infidelity among insects--and turns it into a gripping arthropod revenge fantasy.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle appear to have a perfect relationship at the outset.  At least, that is what it seems until Mr. Beetle takes his hard, manly exoskeleton and his Russian beetle pheromones and swaggers over to the Gay Dragonfly night club to meet his sultry young dragonfly lover.  Unfortunately for the two invertebrate lovebirds, an altercation between the beetle and a mysterious grasshopper will have grave consequences for the philandering husband; as the intertitle silently stresses, "Mr. Beetle should have guessed that the aggressive grasshopper was a movie cameraman."  To say anything more about the plot would do a disservice to my many readers and to the even more numerous anonymous spammers who often pose as my readers, so I'll merely draw your attention to a few non-story highlights from Starewicz's cautionary tale: 1) the insect cabaret scene is to die for; 2) the sequence where the grasshopper films Mr. Beetle wooing his dragonfly lover through a keyhole at the HOTEL d'AMOUR offers up a nice visual commentary on how the beetle has stolen the keys to his mistress' heart while foreshadowing a later revelation in a movie theater in which we learn that "the projectionist is none other than the vengeful cameraman"; 3) the insect love scenes, the stunts involving various kind of insect mayhem and grasshopper bicycle riding, and even the showy set piece where an artist insect paints a canvas with his long arthropod arms are all top notch on the wow, giggle, and combined wow-giggle meters.  A big high five to Tom for bringing this amusing and just generally delightful pre-Battleship Potemkin visual oddity to my grateful but undeserving attention.

Starewicz at work with "the talent"
Tom's post
Archive.org's link to the film (dug up by Tom)

lunes, 10 de diciembre de 2012

El Fiord

"El Fiord"
by Osvaldo Lamborghini
Argentina, 1969

With the Argentinean Literature of Doom liturgical calendar year rapidly winding down to its increasingly alienating end, I thought I'd better stop putting off writing about Osvaldo Lamborghini--the unofficial dead calendar boy for the event and a "mysterious" figure who's at least somewhat famous in certain hobbyist circles for having made Roberto Bolaño deem his oeuvre "excruciating"--while I still have any readers left.  Of course, a post about Lamborghini's infamous 1969 short story "El Fiord" ["The Fiord"] just might take care of my "reader problem" for me for once and for all anyway.  You've been warned.  A mindbogglingly violent sado-masochistic allegory about the labor movement in Argentina in the late 1960s, "El Fiord" (sometimes referred to as a novel but here mercifully only about 15 pages in length) certainly lives up to its rep as an extremist's delight.  In point of fact, the work was supposedly considered so extreme in its time that its "distribution" was pretty much limited to behind the counter sales at a lone bookstore on the Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires and the sharing of mimeographed copies of the manuscript among Lamborghini's friends.  Since most of "El Fiord"'s more obscure political references are beyond me, how much of the piece's underground classic status is due to its stomach-turning qualities as opposed to its politics isn't quite clear to me.  However, César Aira, a longtime Lamborghini enthusiast who's been overseeing the posthumous publication of the writer's complete art terrorist works for the Editorial Sudamericana, has a perceptive comment about the specific avant-garde literary and political context of "El Fiord" in his compiler's note at the end of Lamborghini's Novelas y Cuentos I: "Si el comienzo de la literatura argentina fue El Matadero de Echeverría, el comienzo de su obra fue su propio 'Matadero'" ["If the beginning of Argentinean literature was Echeverria's 'El Matadero,' the beginning of Lamborghini's work was his own 'Matadero'"] (300).  A matadero, for those who don't know Spanish, is a slaughterhouse, and a slaughterhouse is exactly what "El Fiord" seems to want to replicate in terms of its vile assault on the senses.  To what end, I'm not sure.  However, to help explain the story's intrinsic gross-out wrongness, I should probably note that it begins with a character named Carla Greta Terón (supposedly a stand-in for former first lady Eva Perón) who is struggling to give birth to an "engendro remolón" ["stubborn monstrosity"] in a room full of hangers-on, onlookers, birds of prey, and cockroaches (9).  After an orgy of bloodshed (literally and figuratively) that gives new meaning to the measuring stick of "over the top," the piece ends at a political demonstration where flagpoles are planted into human bodies.  As you might suspect given "Evita"'s presence in the text, one of the other key characters is a man variously referred to as El Loco Rodríguez, "nuestro Patrón" ["our Master"] (11) and "nuestro abusivo Dueño y Señor" ["our abusive Lord and Savior"] (12-13): a malicious tip of the hat to President Juan Domingo Perón, who soon after he's introduced displays his abrasive love of country and lust for power by whipping Carla Greta Terón in the eyes as she tries to give birth and then sodomizing the narrator.  Later the "monstrosity" named Atilio Tancredo Vacán (possibly named in honor of labor leader Augusto Timoteo Vandor, a Perón opponent who was assassinated the same year "El Fiord" was published) is delivered among rivers of blood and shit and semen and vaginal fluids, and the rest of the story sees the characters subjected to beheadings, being burned alive, genital dismemberings (no pun intended), and the surrealistic like.  OK, I know, enough already, but Lamborghini is nothing if not consistent.  Sane readers may wonder at this point why anybody would want to read something like this or, even worse, why anybody would want to review something like this for an audience of practically zero. Good points! While I wouldn't presume to answer for you, I have to say that I personally was curious about the story's alleged artistry (Aira, I believe without joking, even refers to the "uniforme densidad poética del texto" ["uniform poetic density of the text"]) (301) and I wanted to see for myself why other admired writers like Fogwill speak so warmly about the assiduously repulsive Lamborghini.  Although I'm not really sure I found what I came for, I suppose I was impressed with the occasional striking image (the description of the nude Perón  gleaming with "un brillo de fraude y neón" or "a lustre of fraudulence and neon" caught my attention, for example [10]) and I did find what Bolaño found insofar as "El Fiord" seems like must reading for anybody who's serious about wanting to get his/her disgust on.  Plus I can now scratch another work off Ignacio Echevarría's list of the essential books in Spanish-language literature since the 1950s.  O happy day.

"El Fiord," a real crowd-pleaser to be sure, appears on pages 7-25 of the César Aira-curated Lamborghini collection, Novelas y cuentos I.  Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2003.

sábado, 8 de diciembre de 2012

La Vida Nueva

La Vida Nueva (Mansalva, 2007)
by César Aira
Argentina, 2007

I read this earlier in the year, enjoyed it a bunch, but then didn't write about it at the time for some reason that's now completely unfathomable to me.  I decided to reread it this week because--what's the technical term?--it's fucking funny, man.  A 77-page Slinky happily tumbling down the stairs of authorial time in a single uncoiled paragraph, La Vida Nueva [The New Life] is César Aira's warm, chatty, intermittently preposterous account of his friendship with his first publisher, Horacio Achával, and of the many, many, many delays that Aira's 1975 debut novel Moreira suffered at the hands of Lacanian proofreaders, high-speed book-delivery motorcyclists, and other pataphysical forces before finally seeing the light of day.  Without wanting to take anything away from Don César and his own impertinent storytelling personality, I have to say that one of the great joys of reading this book is that it made me think of what Dante's La Vita Nuova might have been like had it been written by the narrator of Bolaño's short story "The Insufferable Gaucho."  Wild!  In addition to providing a fun "autobiographical" goof, however, this novel should also be of interest to at least two Caravana readers on account of its entertaining look at the Argentinean writing life from both sides of the new author/small publisher divide from 1969 up till the present day.  How much of what the 2007 version of Aira says about his younger self is true rather than mere leg-pulling is rather difficult to ascertain, of course, but that shouldn't stop anybody from enjoying the local publishing industry color or laughing at the first-time novelist's alleged doubts about whether a print run of 1,000 copies was way too high of a number for his prospective audience given the well-known anecdote that Borges himself only sold 64 copies of his first book.  Achával, "un típico espécimen, quizás el más típico, del mundo de las editoriales de izquierda, con sus cuantiosas tiradas populares" ["a typical specimen, perhaps the most typical specimen, of the world of leftist publishing houses with their massive populist print runs"] naturally tells the young Aira that "no quería saber nada de esos derrotismos de élite" ["he didn't want to hear anything about that elitist defeatism"] (30) and for good reason; for, as he mentions with exquisite irony elsewhere, Aira's novel is "un arma de grueso calibre contra el cinismo rampante del postmodernismo" ["a high-caliber weapon against postmodernism's rampant cynicism"] (50) and, more to the point, "no había que subestimar al público, que siempre estaba a punto de cansarse de lo convencional y previsible y predigerido, del realismo chato y los sermones bienpensantes" ["there was no reason to underestimate the public, which was always on the verge of losing its patience with the conventional and the predictable and the predigested, of cheap realism and right-thinking sermons"] (12).

The cover of César Aira's Moreira as published by Achával Solo in 1975.  The blurb at the bottom reads: "Un día, de madrugada, por las lomas inmóviles del Pensamiento bajaba montado en potro amarillo un horrible gaucho" ["One day, early in the morning, mounted on a yellow colt, a horrible gaucho was descending through the motionless hillocks of the Mind"].

miércoles, 5 de diciembre de 2012

Cómo me hice monja

Cómo me hice monja (Debolsillo, 2006)
por César Aira
Argentina, 1993

"Cómo me hice monja es mi autobiografía, parcial porque trata sólo de un año de mi vida, entre los seis y los siete, empieza cuando pruebo un helado por primera vez, y termina cuando me asesina la viuda del heladero."
(César Aira, desde la contrasolapa de su "autobiografía")
Cómo me hice monja, si no literalmente una autobiografía, es, digamos, una especie de Künstlerroman disparatada en que "el niño César Aira" cuenta una historia en que su yo femenino (o sea la niña César Aira) afirma narrar "la historia de 'cómo me hice monja'" (11) con una circularidad muy admirable e inventiva.  En otras palabras, es un dedo en los ojos del lector incauto y/o taradito.  La historia, o mejor dicho, la falsedad empieza cuando la supuesta narradora relata, en un comienzo a caballo entre la comedia y el horror, su inolvidable introducción al mundo de helado de frutilla a la edad de seis años.  ¿El giro imprevisto?  "Yo había sido víctima de los temibles ciánidos alimenticios... la gran marea de intoxicaciones letales que aquel año barría la Argentina y países vecinos" (26).  Aunque la niña sobrevive al envenenamiento después de un rato en el hospital, resulta que sus arcadas y su delirio se contagian a lo que queda de sus memorias: de hecho, el novelista se aprovecha de la situación para decirnos no cómo la niña César Aira tomó los hábitos sino sí cómo el niño César Aira aprendió convertirse en escritor en edad temprana (según cabe presumir, el pibe Aira ya era l'enfant terrible de su escuela y un bromista de primera categoría incluso en aquel entonces).  Por supuesto, un torrente de mentiras más una historia de venganza siguen según las reglas del juego en esta serie de besos mandada en honor del oficio de escribir y de la figura del narrador de poca confianza.  Beso #1: "Tendría que haber sido un monstruo para mentir por gusto" (15).  Beso #2: "El mentiroso experimentado sabe que la clave del éxito está en fingir bien la ignorancia de ciertas cosas.  Por ejemplo de las consecuencias de lo que está diciendo" (61).  Beso #3: "Todo este relato que he emprendido se basa en mi memoria perfecta.  La memoria me ha permitido atesorar cada instante que pasó.  También los instantes eternos, los que no pasaron, que encierran en su cápsula de oro a los otros.  Y los que se repitieron, que por supuesto son los más" (63).  ¿La moraleja? Confusion Is Sex.

el niño/la niña Aira