domingo, 20 de septiembre de 2020


by César Aira
Argentina, 1993

An appreciation of Argentinean Literature of Doom great Roberto Arlt penned by fellow Argentinean Literature of Doom great César Aira?  Sort of!  While I'm not sure what prompted Aira (above, photographer unknown) to take up this possibly spurious exercise in literary criticism, he begins his essay with a definition of the methodologies of expressionism and impressionism which I won't go into here.  Arlt, "torturado y pensativo como un alemán" ["pensive and tortured like a German"] (55), is an expressionist, though--the "like a German" line supposedly owing itself to a quote of Goethe's on the nature of the Teutonic temperament.  Moving from the general to the specific, Aira then zeroes in on the theme of "la traición' ["treachery, betrayal"] (57) as an example of how Arlt's expressionist tendencies ooze to the surface in his work.  Although Aira cheekily calls this "a random but a central" example  ["uno cualquiera, pero central"], parenthetically adding that "la elección de ejemplos es una trampa que habría que evitar" ["the choice of examples is a trap that should be avoided"] (!) (57), one wonders why the choice of language is so slippery here given that betrayal and treachery are so foundational to Arlt's fiction.  One possible answer: "Cuando uno se pregunta por las intenciones de un artista, es inevitable que se pierda en un laberinto" ["When one wonders about the intentions of an artist, it's inevitable that one get lost in a labyrinth"] (59).  And another: slippery language is foundational to Aira's own obra.  Whatever one's opinions on Arlt's art, of course, one needn't be a fan of either writer to be amused and/or intrigued by Aira's essayistic antics and conclusions.  One of my favorites among the former comes in the paragraph which begins, "Suele decirse 'Arlt, nuestro Flaubert'" ["As the saying goes, 'Arlt, our Flaubert'"].  Although I've actually seen Arlt referred to by Argentines as "our Dostoevsky," I'd be surprised if Aira didn't make up the "our Flaubert" talk altogether.  It's a great set-up line, though, insofar as our critic goes on to hammer home the points that 1) "Creo que la aproximación es inepta, y no sólo por el abismo que hay entre un escritor maduro y burgués, y el adolescente visionario que fue Arlt...  Yo diría 'nuestro Lautréamont'" ["I believe the approximation is inept and not only because of the gulf that there is between a mature, bourgeois writer and the adolescent visionary that was Arlt...  I would say, 'our Lautréamont'"] and 2) "Lo que en la novela europea se hizo a lo largo de quinientos años y mil escritores, en la Argentina lo hizo Arlt solo, en cinco años" ["What in the European novel was done over the course of five hundred years and by one thousand writers was done in Argentina by Arlt alone in five years"] (63, ellipses added).  Aira, who hides his cards on the matter of how much he esteems Arlt as a stylist or not, loses his poker face when concluding that Arlt's sense of "lo novelesco" ["the novelesque"] has roots in "el folletín truculento" ["the grisly feuilleton"]--something in opposition to "la novela ideológica, la falsa novela" ["the ideological novel, the fake novel"] as practiced by a more conformist writer like Eduardo Mallea: "Es la diferencia entre el gentleman y el Monstruo" ["It's the difference between the gentleman and the Monster"] (62); when pointing out some of the paradoxes of Arlt's style ("Las novelas de Arlt son historias de la inmovilidad, novelas de las que no se sale, pero al mismo tiempo no se explican sino como novelas de viaje" ["Arlt's novels are stories of immobility, novels in which there's no exit, but at the same time can only be explained in terms of travel novels"]) (63); or when finding unexpected parallels between Arlt's suspension of time and sense of perspective and Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass.  "Yo mismo, proponiéndome como ejemplo de la singularidad extenuada del tiempo, trepo a la cinta del continuo y corro tras el Monstruo revestido de la figura irrisoria de la explicación" ["I myself, setting out as an example of the exhausted singularity of time, step onto the treadmill of the continuum and chase after the Monster sheathed in the ridiculous figure of  explanation"], Aira writes, purportedly moved by "la introyección feliz de lo imaginario" ["the happy introjection of the imaginary"] and "la recepción del cine mudo de Arlt" ["the reception of Arlt's silent film"] technique, prey to images that dance before his eyes.  "Duchamp la llamó Perspectiva, yo la llamo Inspiración.  Salgo a buscarlas todos los días, en una rutina inmutable, a la perfecta transparencia de lo habitual, a las calles de mi barrio, que es el de Arlt, Flores, a los cafés de los alrededores de la plaza y la estación, donde voy todas las mañanas a escribir" ["Duchamp called it Perspective, I call it Inspiration.  I go out to search for them every day, in an unchanging routine, in the perfect transparency of the habitual, in the streets of my neighborhood, which is the same as Arlt's, Flores, at the cafés surrounding the plaza and the train station where I go every morning to write" (70-71).  Yes!

"ARLT," written in 1991 and published in 1993, appears on pp. 55-71 of the Argentinean journal Paradoxa #7.  People wanting a full account of all the good stuff I had to leave out from it can find a PDF of the piece here.

domingo, 13 de septiembre de 2020

Notre-Dame du Nil

Notre-Dame du Nil (Folio, 2019)
par Scholastique Mukasonga
France, 2012

Rwanda, au début des années 1970.  Le lycée Notre-Dame-du-Nil, tout proche de la source du fleuve égyptien, est un lycée d'enseignement catholique consacré à << l'élite féminine du pays. >>  Quoique dix pour cent des élèves sont Tutsi selon le quota officiel, les tensions sont fortes entre les Hutu et leurs rivales en raison de la croyance des premiers que << le peuple majoritaire >> sont << les vraies Rwandaises >> et toutes les autres sont << des parasites >> (255).  Pas étonnant qu'un personnage remarquera: << Le Rwanda, c'est le pays de la Mort >> (274).  Dans ce roman, Scholastique Mukasonga (née au Rwanda en 1956) raconte une sorte de répétition générale du génocide de 1994 tandis qu'elle propose le portrait d'une génération qui disparaîtrait bientôt.  L'écrivaine m'a surpris avec le dynamisme de ce portrait.  J'ai aimé, par exemple, cette description torrentielle de la saison des pluies: << La pluie pendant de longs mois, c'est la Souveraine du Rwanda, bien plus que le rois d'autrefois ou le président d'aujourd'hui, la Pluie, c'est celle qu'on attend, qu'on implore, celle qui décidera de la disette ou de l'abondance, qui sera le bon présage d'un mariage fécond, la première pluie au bout de la saison sèche qui fait danser les enfants qui tendent leurs visages vers la ciel pour accueillir les grosses gouttes tant désirées, la pluie impudique qui met à nu, sous leur pagne mouillé, les formes indécises des toutes jeunes filles, la Maîtresse violente, vétilleuse, capricieuse, celle qui crépite sur tous les toits de tôles, ceux cachés sous la bananeraie comme ceux des quartiers bourbeux de la capitale, celle qui a jeté son filet sur le lac, a effacé la démesure des volcans, qui règne sur les immenses fôrets du Congo, qui sont les entrailles de l'Afrique, la Pluie, la Pluie sans fin, jusqu'à l'océan qui l'engendre >> (65-66).  Une seule phrase.  Une telle richesse!  En plus du côté descriptif de Mukasonga, j'ai aussi aimé la complexité de sa vision du monde.  Bien que la dualité Hutu/Tutsi devienne plus prononcée au cours du roman, Notre-Dame du Nil évite la simplification et son point de vue sur la modernité du Rwanda est peut-être mieux illustré par ce commentaire de Kagabo, un guérisseur, sur une sorcière qui allait aider une étudiante Tutsi en danger: << Nyamirongi parle avec les nuages >>, il dit, << mais elle n'a pas de transistor.  Il y a eu un coup d'État >> (266).  Formidable.

Scholastique Mukasonga au Rwanda en 2013
(photo: DR)

domingo, 6 de septiembre de 2020

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The Palm-Wine Drinkard (Grove Press, 1994)
by Amos Tutuola
Nigeria, 1952

If I understand things correctly, Tutuola's wild The Palm-Wine Drinkard (full title and capitalization in my edition: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town) was one of the first books out of Africa to be a commercial and critical success in "the West" even though back home in Nigeria the novelist was derided for bringing shame upon the continent or some such on account of his imperfect and "uneducated" English.  "No prophet is accepted in his own country" & etc.  For our purposes, I'll note at the outset that I was pleased to make the acquaintance of this pre-independence Nigerian classic.  A freewheeling odyssey in which the affable narrator--a prodigious palm-wine drinker who occasionally appears to be a human but who claims to be both "a god and juju-man" and likes to refer to himself as "Father of gods who could do everything in this world" (194)--travels among the living and the dead in the company of his wife shapeshifting his way out of one scrape after another with Death, "a full-bodied gentleman" eventually reduced to a skull, a "very dangerous" bush in which "the boa constrictors were uncountable as sand" (222), and other amusing or monstrous oddities and locales supposedly imported from the world of Yoruba folk tales.  A+ for imagination!  As far as the actual writing is concerned, I'm not sure I understand the long ago fuss about its supposed flaws.  Although Tutuola's English is marked by a # of minor curiosities--i.e. his fondness for emphasizing certain words in sentences parenthetically--and repetitions, probably the "worst" mistake I noted was the following: "His both feet were very long and thick as a pillar of a house, but no shoes could size his feet in this world" (282).  Hardly a cause for concern, much less outrage, in a writer navigating a book in a second language, esp. one (book) in which the tradeoffs include scenes of Death tending his yam garden, a cosmovision in which people "and also spirits and curious creatures from various bushes and forests" (201) freely intermingle, and this stupendous intersection between the sensibilities of the olden days and the realities of modern air war: "I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at all.  Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture him and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town, because of his beauty" (207).  On a related note, Tutuola's 1954 follow-up, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, is said to be even more unhinged and poorly written than The Palm-Wine Drinkard although of course "poorly written" might not apply to anybody already accustomed to book bloggers' English.  I can't wait!

Amos Tutuola (1920-1997)

lunes, 31 de agosto de 2020

Spanish Lit Month 2020: 8/16-8/31 Links

Jorge Barón Biza & family (collage:

Thanks to all of you who joined us for Spanish Lit Month 2020 and especially to Stu for welcoming me back to the fold as co-host after I took last year off with seasonal blogging disorder.  I had fun as usual--hope you did as well.  Anyway, here's the final batch of reviews to keep you in a good Spanish language reading place until next year's event.  Nos vemos.

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Come and see the blood in the streets - notes on Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War

John, The Modern Novel
Roza, tumba, quema
(Slash and Burn) by Claudia Hernández
La luz difícil (Difficult Light) by Tomás González

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
The Happy City
by Elvira Navarro

Mandy Wight, peakreads
Little Eyes 
by Samanta Schweblin

Marina Sofia, Finding Time to Write
Hurricane Season
by Fernanda Melchor

Meredith, Dolce Bellezza
All This I Will Give to You
by Dolores Redondo

Obooki, Obooki's Obloquy
Spanish Literature Month - Two Books
(on Facundo by Domingo F. Sarmiento and Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier)

Paul, By the Firelight
Capital de la gloria
(Glorious Capital) by Juan Eduard Zúñiga

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Cuatro por cuatro
by Sara Mesa

Stu, Winstonsdad's Blog
Things We Lost in the Fire
by Mariana Enriquez
Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac
The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza
Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener

domingo, 30 de agosto de 2020

Cuatro por cuatro

Cuatro por cuatro (Anagrama, 2012)
by Sara Mesa
Spain, 2012

A different type of novel than the stuff I'm used to reading on account of the distinct dystopian vibe it exudes, Cuatro por cuatro [available in English as Four by Four] centers on the strange and increasingly creepy goings on in and around the boarding school of Wybrany College and the nearby city of Cárdenas in Mesa's alternate reality Spain.  While "el colich," as both administrators and teachers from the institution and its mostly middle school age students like to refer to it, is in the business of passing itself off as something of a sanctuary from the chaos of the outside world, various irregularities and the unexplained disappearances of students and staff eventually give way to revelations suggesting that the enemy within the gates may be even more monstrous than any dangers lurking outside.  On that note, nuff said about the plot.  What I will add is that Mesa successfully jostled my expectations in a couple of ways in the service of this smart, moody, fake thriller of hers.  For example, I enjoyed the mix of first- and third-person narration here especially given that the culture of silence about the suicides and the crimes at Wybrany has so much to do with what Cuatro por cuatro is all about.  Similarly, I also was quite mesmerized by the novelist's powers of suggestion.  Was one character's description of Cárdenas--"La ciudad está a punto de explotar...  Grupos de incendarios han tomado las calles.  Todo es muy peligroso" ["The city is on the verge of exploding...  Groups of arsonists have taken to the streets.  Everything is very dangerous"] (146, ellipses added)--proof that "el colich" was surrounded by a post-apocalyptic or Stalker-like Zone or just one more nightmarish image like the hastily-glimpsed/possibly-imagined one of a grown man leading a crying adolescent girl away by the hand?  Whatever, a good read and one told in a fragmentary, time release style that well suits it.

Sara Mesa (Madrid, 1976)
photographer unknown

domingo, 23 de agosto de 2020

The Testament

The Testament [Le Testament Villon] (Northwestern University Press, 2013)
by François Villon [translated by David Georgi]
France, c. 1461

How do I love The Testament?  Let me count the ways.  One of the acrostics, FRANCOYS and MARTHE, appears in verses 942-955 in the section of the poem that David Georgi has translated under the rubric "Ballade from Villon to His Sweetheart."  ("False beauty, your cost is too high by far!" ["Faulse beauté, qui tant me couste chier"] Villon coos.)  Another, VJLLON, appears in verses 1621-1626 within "The Ballade of Fat Margot" where the poet/pimp claims he and his hooker girlfriend are a good match: "like unto like: bad rat, bad cat" ["L'un vault l'autre, c'est a mau rat mau chat"].  In addition to the self-referential fun and games, I was also smitten with the self-propulsive flow of Villon's 2,023-verse kitchen sink of song.  Early on, after raging against poverty and old age, the poet turns his sights on the ubi sunt theme with feeling in the marvelous "Ballade of the Ladies of Times Long Past."  "Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?" ["And where is the snow that fell last year?"] he repeatedly asks at the end of each octet and quatrain (cf. verses 336, 344, 352 & 356).  A mere "Another ballade" later, Villon uses Charlemagne and other power brokers from the past to remind us that "No man alive can combat death,/or win a court's protection from it" ["Il n'est qui contre mort resiste/Ne qui trouve provisïon"] (verses 375-376).  This, in turn, is followed by an exercise in style using a version of French already antiquated in Villon's time as if to suggest that even words fade away.  Georgi calls the language here "a caricature of the French of an earlier period," full of archaisms, "that an educated medieval reader might have recognized from old chansons de geste, such as The Song of Roland, or from the quest-romances already two hundred years old by Villon's time" (notes, p. 237).  Of course, the hijinx aren't always so highbrow.  In "Ballade for a Lush," Villon pokes fun at Lot for having been "very forward with your daughters" ["De voz filles si vous fist approucher"] under the influence of drink (verse 1241) and in a later stanza he refers to one Marïon la Peautarde, whom Georgi casts as Marion Blisterskin (verse 1781) in honor of her "joke name"--in the translator's reading, Marïon la Peautarde = "Marion, la peau t'arde" or "Marion, your skin burns you" suggestive of "the symptoms of a venereal disease" (p. 255, notes).  Never a dull moment avec Villon, and I haven't even gotten around to any of the Testament's actual bequests, the vile, proto-Rabelaisian "Ballade of Meddlesome Tongues," the geographical puns opposing Montmartre and Mount Valerien--"In Villon's time," Georgi explains, "the abbey of Montmartre was in shambles and the nuns sold wine to get by.  They will be able to sell something else too, Villon suggests" (verses 1551-1558; notes, p. 252) via the double whammy of playing off the Montmartre nuns' licentious reputation and the sound effect goof of Valerien sounding like ne "valent rien" or "they're worth nothing"--the hangman's jokes and the debauched like, or the final verses of the poem where the "poor Villon" ["povre Villon"] showily signs off on his testament with a succession of rhymes ending in "-illon" or "-ullon" in alternating lines (cf. verses 1996-2023 in the original for the full effect).  A tour de force worthy of all the hype.

David Georgi's 2013 bilingual edition of Villon's Poems includes The Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2013, 27-163) in Villon's Old French and Georgi's modern English in a facing translation.

domingo, 16 de agosto de 2020


Malicroix (Gallimard, 2019)
by Henri Bosco
France, 1948

When his great-uncle Cornélius de Malicroix dies sometime in the early 1800s, the 25-year old Martial de Mégremut learns that he stands to inherit his distant relative's inhospitable island home amid the salt water lagoons of the Camargue near the floodwaters of the Rhône as long as he can fulfill two provisions of the old man's will.  The first--a three months staycation in his humble new home far away from his loving and close-knit family in the company of the taciturn Balandran and his dog Bréquillet--seems rather pedestrian in nature although it comes with complications in the form of conniving humans and the unforgiving natural world now surrounding him.  The second, which Martial only learns about much later, will require the young dreamer to risk his life as a man of action in the fulfillment of a supernatural-tinged task which will take place alongside a mass for the dead overseen by his newfound enemies.  Will Martial be the "guest of honor" or remain alive and kicking when that funeral mass is finally celebrated?  Malicroix, a difficult novel to sort out in some respects (and not the quickest thing to read when looking up the translation for words like salicornes or pickleweed, previously unknown to me in any language!), struck me as a strange but alluring tale.  Conceptually, it situates a quest novel or medieval grail romance within a series of meditations on nature and solitude and Gérard de Nerval-like dreamscapes.  Is the action therefore "real," taking place in the narrator Martial's imagination or the product of the fevers and poisonings that beset some of the novel's characters?  Thematically, it's appropriately hermetic in the sense that the road map to understanding it provides mirrors the initiate's search for meaning.  Meaning that wasn't always clear to this uninitiated reader.  Still, it was fascinating to see how Bosco handled some of these genre juxtapositions and narrative misdirections.  Gérard de Nerval and Homer provide two telling examples of Malicroix's rich allusiveness and elusiveness, of the multiplicity of readings it offers.  When the evil notary Dromiols first meets the hero to read him the terms of his great-uncle's will, Martial overhears him talking in his sleep later that night and remarks upon how the thought processes evident "venues de cette vie seconde" ["coming from that second life"] (106) reveal a logical if nefarious intent--a clear reference on Bosco's part if not his narrator's to Gérard de Nerval's famous opening line from Aurélia where he declaims that "Le Rêve est une seconde vie" ["Dream is a second life"].  In a subsequent chapter, we get a multi-page sequence in which Martial lingers over a description of the wind transitioning from a forbidding squall into a full on hurricane.  While the line that caught my eye was the Nerval-like image of disasters gushing forth from the "cités aériennes" ["aerial cities"] above (130), I'm not so sure that the poetic prose can be easily written off as an uncomplicated allusion in light of a certain animism also present in the text: the river itself gets characterized as "un être...un être redoutable" ["a human being...a dreadful human being"] (186) with an agency of its own on one of the many occasions when the rising waters make Martial fear for his life, and to complicate things Anne-Madeleine, Martial's eventual love interest, is introduced as a spirit-like water creature who bears "cette odeur de vent et d'eau vive" ["this scent of wind and flowing water"] (186) wherever she goes.  Nice, mysterious, but lyricism + animism = what exactly?  Of course, the supernatural tension between "ce pays sauvage" ["this wild country"] (35) and a pre-Christian conception of the land of the dead unfolding in geographical proximity to the modern day Occitanie commune of Aigues-Mortes ["stagnant water"] also figures in the scene where Dromiols attempts to scare Martial away from his new home by claiming that many people believe it's a "royaume des Ombres" ["kingdom of the Dead"] (91).  Citing from the Greek, Dromiols' allusion is to Book 11 of The Odyssey, where Odysseus travels to the land of the Cimmerians where he pours libations to and actually speaks with various shades from the underworld.  For those of you as rusty as I am on my Homer, suffice it to say that it's enough to note that this scene sheds light on one aspect of the end of Malicroix even if I have run out of steam to speak of the blind ferryman and the "taureau de combat, d'une stature colossale" ["fighting bull of a colossal stature"] (221) that also haunt its vision literature-tinted pages.  It's all a bit much to process in a single reading.

Henri Bosco (1888-1976)
 photo: Sophie Pacifico le Guyader

Malicroix was the subject of a readalong earlier in the year which I didn't pay much attention to until two or three posts by Dorian and Amateur Reader (Tom) made me realize some of the erudite fun I'd been missing out on.  Here's the complete set of those posts for collectors.

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Dorian, Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau