jueves, 2 de febrero de 2017

La Chanson de Roland

La Chanson de Roland (GF Flammarion, 2004)
Anonymous [bilingual edition translated into modern French from the old French by Jean Dufournet]
France, ca. 1100

Since I think I'm finally up to the challenge of waging some sort of a longue durée survey of French and Francophone literature over the course of the year, I decided a reread of La Chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland] was really the only way to kick things off reading project-wise w/anything like the requisite amount of style demanded by our programming.  My geekly instincts, as it turns out, aren't always bad.  A few quick hits on matters of language, content and style.  1) Given the # of times I've suffered through various stilted English translations of the poem in the past, it was a real rush to read Jean Dufournet's modern French translation w/the original old French on the facing text.  Perhaps vivid battle poetry having to do with combatants' vows to render their swords "bright red with hot blood" [Dufournet: "nous les rendrons vermeilles de sang chaud"; original text: "Nus les feruns vermeilles de chald sanc"] (laisse 76) and descriptions of meadows full of flowers turned "bright red with the blood of our barons!" [Dufournet: "les fleurs/sont vermeilles du sang de nos barons !"; original: "les flors,/Ki sunt vermeilz del sanc de noz baronz !"] (laisse 205) to cite just two variations on a vermilion theme would convey a sense of urgency in any language even sans that exclamation point at the end of the latter verse; however, I'd maintain that Dufournet's rousing Roland has an unmistakable energy and flow to it even in its less blood-spattered moments.  2) As many of you no doubt know, La Chanson de Roland was at least partly inspired by a real life battle in the year 778 in which the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was ambushed by Basques at Ronceveaux Pass in the Pyrenees.  However, somewhere along the line Muslims from Spain replaced the Basques as the villains of the pro-French pseudo-historical epic that has come down to us.  In his introduction to the work, Dufournet speculates that the Roland poet was a learned cleric "tout imprégné de l'atmosphère de la croisade" ["imbued with the crusading spirit"] (19) whose authorship of the poem likely consisted in reshaping extant traditional material associated with Roland and converting it into something artistically unique and of its time--what the medievalist elsewhere hails as "le texte fondateur de notre histoire et de notre culture, en même temps que la première manifestation créatrice de notre langue" ["the foundational text of our history and culture and, at the same time, the first creative manifestation of our language"] (10).  Without getting into the nitty gritty of Dufournet's case for this, which would deserve a post or twelve of its own given the thorny literary and historical contexts under consideration, suffice it to say that one of the most convincing manifestations of a crusading ideology in the poem is its retrospective equation of the enemies of Charlemagne with the enemies of Christendom.  The Saracens, for example, are commonly referred to as félons ["traitors" or, in feudal terminology, "vassals disloyal to one's lord"], pagans, and as members of a "criminal race" [Dufournet: "la race criminelle"; original: "la gent criminel"] (laisse 179).  Beyond this, the figure of the Archbishop Turpin sends the Franks out to battle under the Urban II-like promise that "Si vous mourez, vous serez de saints martyrs" [original: "Se vos murez, esterez seinz martirs"; "If you die, you will become holy martyrs"] (laisse 89) and in a later scene on the sacking of Zaragoza we learn that both synagogues and mosques are destroyed at the hands of the revenge-minded Christians.  In fact, lest there be any doubt about whose side God is on in the holy war portrayed in the poem, the poet sings of miracles like the day God stopped the sun in the sky so that Charlemagne could pursue the vanquished pagans who had left the battlefield in flight and of one disgraced Muslim leader who literally surrenders his soul to demons at the moment of his death [Dufournet: "il rend son âme aux diables en personne"; original: "L'anme de lui as vifs diables dunet"] (laisse 264)--a colorful moment that!  Poetic matters aside, this demonization of the enemy and the exaltation of the Christian hordes from douce France will no doubt sound very familiar to anybody who's ever chanced to dip into the contemporary crusade chronicles.  3) On that note, one of the most interesting things about La Chanson de Roland to me from a style standpoint this time around and one in which I had either totally forgotten about or somehow not really noticed before was the evident tension between the Chanson as a consciously poetic product and the written documents that had supposedly preceded its gestation.  That is, La Chanson de Roland deliberately positions itself both as a type of metafictional song--the "mauvaise chanson" [bad song] that Roland tells Olivier won't be sung about their trusty swords so long as Durendal and Hauteclaire are allowed to perform their usual handiwork [Dufournet: "L'on ne doit pas sur elles chanter de mauvaise chanson"; original: "Male chançune n'en deit estre cantee"] (laisse 112)--and as an assonant chanson informed by prose precedents in lines like "Il est écrit dans l'ancienne chronique/que Charles convoqua des vassaux de nombreuses terres" [original: "Il est escrit en l'anciene geste/Que Carles mandet humes de plusurs teres"; "It is written in the old chronicle/that Charles summoned vassals from numerous lands"] (laisse 271).  Whether this appeal to written authority is real--i.e. if the poem is occasionally premised on historical sources that are now mostly lost to us--or just imagined for literary sakes hardly matters in the end; for when Roland encourages Olivier to strike their adversaries dead with great blows "pour qu'on ne chante pas sur nous de funeste chanson !" [original: "Que malvaise cançun de nus chantet ne seit !"; "so that a distressing song not be sung about us!"] (laisse 79), the impact is such that it's an impressive feat even to those who already know the heroes are doomed.  AOI.

First page of the Oxford manuscript of La Chanson de Roland

viernes, 20 de enero de 2017

El entenado

El entenado (Seix Barral, 2004)
por Juan José Saer
Francia, 1983

El entenado = una "novela histórica" falsa que en realidad es una fábula filosófica sobre la escritura y la memoria y una especie de mito de origen sobre la conquista española y el cosmos saeriano a la vez.  Amateur Reader (Tom) lo describe más sucintamente como "una novela de ideas hecho y derecho, subcategoría: lingüística y antropológica", lo que sin duda es mucho más útil.  En todo caso, se trata de las memorias, narradas 60 años después de los sucesos contados, de un grumete español que llega a las orillas del río Paraná como parte de una expedición del siglo XVI.  El único superviviente de un ataque por los indios, el muchacho pasa diez años entre la tribu colastiné donde presencia el comer de sus camaradas de a bordo durante una orgía antropófoga y más tarde funciona como un testigo al estilo de vida y a las preocupaciones metafísicas de los indios.  Aunque sería comprensible si los temas del choque de culturas y en particular el canibalismo tomarían el centro del escenario en los recuerdos del narrador, después de su regreso a España y unas peripecias más bien pícarescas lo que se preocupa a él en su vejez es algo enteramente distinto.  En breve, quiere entender los indios como hombres en vez de salvajes y quiere saber el propósito de su vida.  Él explica, por ejemplo, que "yo crecí con ellos, y puedo decir que, con los años, al horror y a la repugnancia que me inspiraron al principio los fue reemplazando la compasión.  Esa intemperie que los maltrataba, hecha de hambre, lluvias, frío, sequía, inundaciones, enfermadades y muerte, estaba adentro de una más grande, que los gobernaba con un rigor propio y sin medida, contra el que no tenían defensa, ya que por estar oculta no podían construir, como con la otra, armas o abrigos que la atenuaran" (101).  Más tarde, acordándose de las palabras no entendidas Def-ghi, def-ghi usadas reiteradamente por los indios. él añade que, "después de largas reflexiones, deduje que si me habían dado ese nombre, era porque me hacían compartir, con todo lo otro que llamaban de la misma manera, alguna esencia solidaria.  De mí esperaban que duplicara, como el agua, la imagen que daban de sí mismos, que repitiera sus gestos y palabras, que los representara en su ausencia y que fuese capaz, cuando me devolvieran a mis semejantes, de hacer como el espía o el adelantado que, por haber sido testigo de algo que el resto de la tribu todavía no había visto, pudiese volver sobre sus pasos para contárselo en detalle a todos.  Amenazados por todo eso que nos rige desde lo oscuro, manteniéndonos en el aire abierto hasta que un buen día, con un gesto súbito y caprichoso, nos devuelve a lo indistinto, querían que de su pasaje por ese espejismo material quedase un testigo y un sobreviviente que fuese, ante el mundo, su narrador" (162-163).  Dentro de un libro en cual el narrador ya había dicho que aprendiendo a leer y escribir constituyó "el único acto que podía justificar mi vida" (120), hay algo agridulce en esta meditación sobre el impulso de narrar y de rememorar.

Juan José Saer (1937-2005)

jueves, 12 de enero de 2017

Los mares del Sur

Los mares del Sur (Booket, 2016)
by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Spain, 1979

My favorite detective can beat up your favorite detective, got it?  Ace crime caper, situated in late 1970s Barcelona around the dawn of the democratic transition and hence long before the then gritty city was gussied up for the 1992 Summer Olympics, in which the mysterious disappearance--subsequently discovered to be a gruesome murder--of a rich Catalan industrialist and real estate developer leads private detective Pepe Carvalho down a Chandleresque rabbit warren filled with knife-wielding proles and equally cutthroat white collar criminals.  Really enjoyed this punchy, page-turning introduction to the world of Vázquez Montalbán.  Pepe Carvalho, a 40-something foodie, ex-con and former bibliophile who feeds his fireplace with texts from his 2,000 volume personal library since all books are "una chorrada" ["useless clutter"] (27), is an amusing enough center of attention throughout, and Vázquez Montalbán generously seasons the whodunit aspects of his smart and witty story with humor bookish (a send-up of a debate about the origins of the hardboiled novel! in-jokes about Juan Marsé!!) and earthy (a reflection on the advances in "márketing puteril," or streetwalkers' hustling, occasioned by a non-touristy walk down las Ramblas) (90) before the ending shows he's not just fucking around for laughs.  In its world-weary evocation of a troubled time and place, a not unworthy kindred spirit to the likes of Cela's La colmena and Polanski's Chinatown.

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) y amigos

Muchísimas gracias to Paul of By the Firelight for his juicy review of Los mares del Sur [Southern Seas*] here.

*A Gauguin allusion embedded in the title begs the question why the English translation isn't The South Seas rather than the meaningless and nondescript Southern Seas, but go figure.

miércoles, 4 de enero de 2017

2016 Top 12

Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Belarus, 1997)
 
 Charles Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil (France, 1857 & 1861)

Albert Camus' La peste (French Algeria, 1947)
 
Antonio Di Benedetto's Zama (Argentina, 1956)

William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (USA, 1929)

Mouloud Feraoun's Journal.  1955-1962 (Algeria/French Algeria, 1962)
 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust.  A Tragedy (Germany, 1808 & 1832)
 
Ryszard Kapuściński's Un día más con vida (Poland, 1976 & 2000)
 
John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy (England, 1977)

J.M.G. Le Clézio's Le chercheur d'or (France, 1985)

Juan Carlos Onetti's Dejemos hablar al viento (Uruguay, 1979)

Richard Overy's Russia's War (England, 1997)
 
Honorable Mention
Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water (England, 1986); Yuri Herrera's Señales que precederán al fin del mundo (Mexico, 2009); Sergio Pitol's El mago de Viena (Mexico, 2005); Juan Villoro's Dios es redondo (Mexico, 2006).

*in alphabetical order by author [en orden alfabético por autor]*