miércoles, 31 de diciembre de 2008

2008 Orbis Terrarum Challenge Wrap-Up

Dear Readers:

My book-blogging amiga Bethany has asked all participants in her 2008 Orbis Terrarum Challenge to write a wrap-up post about the challenge with links to books read for it and answers to some survey questions about our participation in the challenge. Since I really enjoyed this challenge (my first completed and still the most interesting one I've seen offered to date) and read some of my favorite books of the year during the course of it (the top two from the list itself are starred in red below), I encourage you to check out a preview of the 2009 Orbis Terrarum Challenge on Bethany's blog here. Meanwhile, read on--or don't--for the info that was requested about the 2008 challenge.

Books Read (title/author/author's country of birth)

Orbis Terrarum 2008 Challenge Survey (Bethany's questions in bold red)

  • 1.) What did you like about the challenge? I liked that the challenge was international in focus and that the countries were represented by their authors' birthplaces rather than just the settings where the works took place. I don't understand many U.S. book bloggers' obsession with American and U.K. authors to the exclusion of almost everyone else, so this was a nice way to see what people thought about writers from some other places in the world.
  • 2.) What would you like to see change for next year? I like the challenge just the way it is/was. The only change I'd root for in the future is making it 12 books in 12 months rather than 9 books in 9 months. However, I'm glad it was shorter this year since I discovered it so late in the game!

  • 3.) About the rules, or the non-existent rules...did you like that? Yes, I did. It's kind of a turnoff seeing some of these challenges where they start with a nice idea and then ruin it by attaching 50 rules at the end. Challenges should be fun--not exercises in observing somebody else's obsessive-compulsive ways.

  • 4.) Are you going to join us next year? Definitely. I'm looking forward to it--unless the rules change too much. See #3 above!

  • 5.) Pretty please give me any suggestions for changes, the betterment of the challenge, or just anything that you would like to see changed for next year. OT is fine as is. Don't mess with success! Don't fix it if it's not broken!!

  • 6.) Would you like the challenge to be more involved? What if we read books together sometimes? Would that interest you? I wouldn't mind reading one novel or a bonus book together as part of a group as long as I reserved the right to maintain my other choices intact. Might be fun. However, I'd hate to have to give up somebody like Roberto Bolaño to read some hack like Stephen King instead!

  • 7.) Would you be interested in helping somehow next year? How would you like to help? I'd be happy to help. I have a few books in mind that I could see offering as giveaways, but feel free to shoot me an e-mail, Bethany, if you have anything else in mind. By the way, thanks again for hosting the challenge--it was a lot of fun, and I appreciated your enthusiasm!

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992)
by Dashiell Hammett
USA, 1930
ISBN 978-0-679-72264-9

Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was one of my all-time favorite books back when I was a young and impressionable 20-something, but I decided to read the crime fiction masterpiece again recently to see how it'd hold up under the weight of all that time gone by. Suffice it to say that it remains a tremendously entertaining read, its well-known plot and colorful cast of characters only improving with age. While a little dated in ways both expected (some of the attitudes expressed toward women and gays) and not (the scene where Sam Spade and Detective Polhaus eat pickled pigs' feet in a German restaurant), Hammett's spare, economical prose and stripped-down storytelling are as winning a combination as ever. In addition to the classic dialogue (Wilmer: "Keep on riding me and you're going to be picking iron out of your navel"; Spade, chuckling: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter" [p. 120]) and rogues' gallery of unforgettable criminals, one of the things I loved most about rereading this was rediscovering Hammett's narrative sleight of hand. In a passage I'd long forgotten about, for example, Spade tells client/future love interest/iconic femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy a story about an old case of his involving a guy named Flitcraft, a real estate salesman who had abandoned a seemingly happy life as a family man to assume a new identity elsewhere. While the anecdote at first appears to be little more than an unimportant digression, Flitcraft's reasons for trying to escape his life of ease underscore both the randomness of the way things happen in life and the futility of people attempting to become anything other than who they really are--a rather pessimistic point of view that's easy to be forgotten amid all the juicy details of the great tale of greed that follows. That Spade hardly spends as much time talking about the Flitcraft case as I do here makes it even more perfect as an example of Hammett's subtlety in fleshing out flawed characters who aren't just types.

Since the film version of The Maltese Falcon is one of the few adaptations I can think of that lives up to the original novel, it's at least even money that another viewing of that will take place here soon as well. In the meantime, I give this latest encounter with Hammett a New Year's Eve rating of 5 out of 5 stars. Cheers!

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)

sábado, 27 de diciembre de 2008

High and Low

Tengoku To Jigoku [High and Low] (2008 DVD)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Japan, 1963
In Japanese with English subtitles

A late entry for best DVD of 2008 status. Like Francesco Rosi's similarly entertaining Salvatore Giuliano, Kurosawa's thriller High and Low (Heaven or Hell in Japanese) expertly manipulates genre expectations before turning conventional storytelling on its end. In this case, the action begins when the family of wealthy shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (the great Toshiro Mifune, delivering a commanding performance) is targeted for a botched kidnapping and extortion attempt. Fearing his son lost, the terrified Gondo initially promises to answer all the kidnapper's demands to win the boy back. But when both he and the extortionist (the chillingly charismatic Tsutomu Yamazaki) then discover that while the businessman's own son is safe but that Gondo's chauffeur's son has been captured by mistake, tension mounts when the now-reticent executive has to decide to pay the original ransom anyway--which would bankrupt his family just when he's planning to buy his way out of a corporate takeover move directed against him--or risk seeing somebody else's child suffer at the hands of a maniac. As if to accentuate the claustrophobic mood, almost all of this first part of the film unfolds in a series of elegant long takes in a single room in the Gondos' house.

While a lesser director might turn the more melodramatic elements here into something one might run into on the Lifetime Channel, Kurosawa sagely uses this plotline (and an extraordinary cast) as a means to explore the themes of greed, personal honor, and the income gap in early '60s Japan. Neatly divided in two by a frantic commuter rail sequence shot with dizzying verve after all the interior scenes that preceded it, the movie seamlessly shifts from its tension-filled first half shot almost entirely in Gondo's air-conditioned villa to an equally dramatic police procedural narrative that takes place in the less-rarified and morally and physically polluted back streets of Yokohama in the second half. Although these mirror images of the chief antagonists' positions at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum might seem a little heavyhanded when you read about them, rest assured that the hunt for the kidnapper--with its documentary-like detour through various dive bars, heroin shooting galleries, and adult entertainment districts--is pursued with more subtlety and unpredictability than you might expect from a traditional genre movie. Outstanding. (http://www.criterion.com/)

Tsutomu Yamazaki in widescreen

martes, 23 de diciembre de 2008

Gringa Latina

Gringa Latina (Kodansha Globe, 1996)
by Gabriella De Ferrari
USA, 1995
ISBN 1-56836-145-9

"Gringa Latina is a celebration of my growing up as a gringa in a land of Latinos and becoming a Latina in a land of gringos. I was a gringa in Peru, because my parents had come from a distant land to make their life there; I have been called a Latina in Saint Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, the places where I have made my life as an adult. Yet I am not one or the other but both. Like mirrors, they are the reflection of each other, their images continually resonating throughout my life. These reflections, with their peaceful islands and their turbulent waters, form the chapters of this book." --Gabriela De Ferrari, p. 1.

While Gabriella De Ferrari's Gringa Latina is a lovely little memoir that you could probably polish off in a few hours of serious reading, I spaced out my time with it so that I could savor it over the course of the three days we here in the metro Boston area spent snowed in last weekend. A celebration of the author's childhood in Tacna in southern Peru, where she was born to Italian emigrant parents who had become Peruvians not by birth but by choice, the book offers up a precious glimpse at a kind of paradise lost written from the vantage point of an adult whose own wanderlust had led her to residence--and eventual citizenship--in the United States after college. Although De Ferrari's "otherness" in Peru seems to have had as much to do with class differences as matters of culture or ethnicity (her family was very well off in relation to most of their counterparts, and her parents' annual Italian Day celebration on June 2 seems to have been a hit with everybody lucky enough to score an invitation to it), her story should resonate with anyone who's ever had a bicultural upbringing or an expat experience of their own. This book is out of print but well worth tracking down for its series of family vignettes that read like touching little prose haiku. Brava!

lunes, 22 de diciembre de 2008

The Art History Reading Challenge

Since I just finished one reading challenge and am about to wrap up another, I guess this is as good a time as any to announce my plans to join 2009's Art History Reading Challenge hosted by Sarah G. You can read about all the sign-up details here, but the basic idea is to read and post about six art-related books (fiction or non-fiction) during the course of the year. Drawing upon my extensive Etch A Sketch and Paint-by-Numbers background as a child, I've selected the following works (all non-fiction except for one novel*) as my projected titles for the challenge.
  • Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts
  • Jerrilyn Dodds (ed.), Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain
  • Georges Duby, Le temps des cathedrales: l'art et la societé, 980-1420
  • Sabine Rewald et al., Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s
  • José Carlos Somoza, Clara y la penumbra* [published in the US as The Art of Murder]
  • Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • (Just added) Nicola Denzey, The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (review)
Charlemagne and Roland
(lifted from a copy of a chanson de geste manuscript found online somewhere)

viernes, 19 de diciembre de 2008

The Assemblies of Al-Hariri

The Assemblies of Al-Hariri: Fifty Encounters with the Shaykh Abu Zayd of Seruj (The Octagon Press, 1980)
by Al-Hariri of Basra
Iraq, c. 1100
ISBN 900860-86-3

Abu Mohammed Al Kasmir Ibn Ali Al-Hariri of Basra penned these maqamat, or "assemblies," c. 1100 in an ornate Arabic freely mixing rhymed prose and verse, and they are here "retold by Amina Shah" in the closest thing I could find to a contemporary English translation. Although I first read this work some four or five years ago as one of the many unexpected side benefits of taking a medieval Spanish course of all things, I wanted to reread the maqamat to revisit "the jewels of its protagonist's phraseology" to paraphrase a dusty translation of one of its many memorable lines. The title character is one Abu Zayd of Seruj, an eloquent trickster who spends almost all of the fifty tales swindling people out of goods and money through the power of his rhetoric alone--although he isn't above disguising himself as a poor, old woman to receive alms ("The Encounter at Baghdad"), putting a wedding party to sleep with hashish to make off with the spoils ("The Encounter at Wasit"), or posing as a mufti on the road to Medina ("The Encounter Called 'Of the Portion'") in between bouts of poetic excess.

While a conversation- and learning-loving narrator (Harith, son of Haram) who's both an ardent admirer and a frequent victim of Abu Zayd's peerless con games helps lend the Assemblies a certain conceptual structure, the storytelling action takes place in various cities and caravan routes throughout the Middle East in an anything goes atmosphere designed to highlight Abu Zayd's vast linguistic bag of tricks. While sometimes only moderately interesting in translation, Al-Hariri's maqamat are absolutely mind-boggling in terms of the verbal gymnastics on display. There are multiple chapters devoted to obscure riddles and/or double meanings, for example, and the Arabic original supposedly showcases entire passages devoted to resolving grammatical questions, unveiling palindromes, and writing verses with and without accent marks and pointed letters--all within the contexts of the picaresque narrative.

Although even Abu Zayd is willing to freely admit that "nights spent in tale-telling are among the greatest of harms!" (p. 69), readers who appreciate characters that demonstrate "prowess in the strife of eloquence" (26) owe it to themselves to make the acquaintance of this boastful rogue and his literary creator, Al-Hariri. You can Google both of those names for more information than you'll ever find here, of course, but one of the funniest anecdotes associated with this collection of stories concerns the fan of the author who paid a visit to the famous Al-Hariri and was distressed to find out that his literary hero was less handsome than creative: "I am a man to be heard, and not to be seen," Al-Hariri is alleged to have wryly told him.

Bibliothèque Nationale copy of a 13th-century Maqamat manuscript

miércoles, 17 de diciembre de 2008

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1990)
by Charles Willeford
USA, 1971
ISBN 0-679-73252-7

I used to be a big fan of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint, and just thinking about names like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, and Jim Thompson can still put a tough guy's grin on my book guy's face. Willeford, who was new to me but is a known quantity in pulp fiction circles, doesn't seem up to that pantheon level here, but his Burnt Orange Heresy isn't a bad read either. Narrated by smug Palm Beach art critic James Figueras in the autobiography of a sicko style popularized by Jim Thompson, the novel starts out as a sleek heist piece grounded in the world of contemporary art before turning into the confession of something much more sinister. Along the way, Figueras takes various often-bitchy potshots at both the South Florida merchants who peddle art and the international artists and critics who shape public perception of it (in one of my favorite moments, a character who's supposed to be a legendarily-reclusive French avant-garde painter in hiding in Florida caps off a discussion of Marcel Duchamp by offering a choice of TV dinners--turkey, Salisbury steak, or enchilada, tamale, and Spanish rice--to his uninvited guests). I didn't really buy the logic behind the big criminal finale, but if you're looking for a 144-page crime novel with attitude and the occasional laugh, you could do a whole lot worse.

Charles Willeford (1919-1988)

(NB: This version of The Burnt Orange Heresy is OOP. Others are available in an assortment of garish colors. For more on Willeford, check out Marshall Jon Fisher's short piece on "The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction" here.)

viernes, 12 de diciembre de 2008


Fantômas (1998 Artificial Eye DVD)
Directed by Louis Feuillade
France, 1913-14
Silent with French intertitles and an English translation

I got a kick out of Allain and Souvestre's first Fantômas novel from 1911, and I absolutely loved Feuillade's Fantômas-inspired serial Les Vampires released later that same decade. But while I'm glad I finally got to see this 1913-14 nitrate about "the genius of crime," I'm sorry to confess that it's almost criminally slow at times. The five serials included here--Fantômas (A l'ombre de la guillotine), Juve contre Fantômas, Le Mort qui tue, Fantômas contre Fantômas, and Le Faux Magistrat--seem to follow the novels fairly faithfully, so part of the problem may be that the only elements of surprise come from the visual rather than the narrative end of things. It also doesn't help that there are no Musidoras slinking around in black bodysuits here, but I won't criticize Feuillade for that psychosexual lapse since he would redeem himself casting-wise in Les Vampires just a few years later. What we do get instead is a cornucopia of costume changes for M. René Navarre in the title role (looking particularly sinister below but often committing his crimes "disguised as a proper bourgeois" as "Fantômas expert" Kim Newman giddily points out in his commentary), a representation of Montmartre as the center of the Parisian underworld (take that, Amélie!), and murder scenes involving "gloves" made out of human skin and a boa constrictor slithering in and out of a bedroom window. Other than that, I don't have much else to add except that l'accent circonflexe is a cruel, cruel invention that should be abolished immediately if not sooner. (http://www.artificial-eye.com/)

Fantômas: not just your average criminal

P.S. I keep forgetting to mention that my on-again/off-again movie blog, Gambling with Countess Dusy Told, is on again at the moment. For those not offended by a little shameless self-promotion, here are the links to four recent reviews.

miércoles, 10 de diciembre de 2008

Exploration: Latin American Reading Challenge

Katrina of Katrina's Reads is hosting a Latin American-themed reading challenge during the first four months of 2009 (details = here). Although I'm not sure how geeked up I am about the whole challenge thing these days, this one looks right up my Mexican-American alley! Anyway, here's a list of the four books I'm thinking about reading as part of the challenge:
  • Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto
  • Julio Cortázar, Rayuela
  • Rodrigo Fresán, Mantra
  • Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad

If you like book lists and/or modern literature in general, make sure you check out Semana.com's 2007 suggestions for what they consider las mejores 100 novelas de la lengua española de los últimos 25 años. From what I've read off that list, those people know what they're talking about.

2009 EDIT: Actual Books Read Below

  • Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies (review)
  • Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (review)
  • José Emilio Pacheco, Las batallas en el desierto (review)
  • Roberto Bolaño, Amuleto (review)

martes, 9 de diciembre de 2008

Los de abajo

Los de abajo (Colleción Archivos, 1996)
por Mariano Azuela
México, 1915
ISBN 84-89666-04-0

"Yo soy de Limón, allí, muy cerca de Moyahua, del puro cañon de Juchipila. Tenía mi casa, mis vacas y un pedazo de tierra para sembrar; es decir, que nada me faltaba..." (Los de abajo, p. 40).

Otra lectura absorbente para el reto Orbis Terrarum de Bethany. No tengo nada nuevo decir acerca de esta novela clásica escrita a la sombra de la revolución mexicana, pero me gustó mucho el estilo sencillo de Azuela. Carlos Fuentes se refiere a Los de abajo como "La Ilíada descalza" en su introducción al libro, un comentario acertado que llama la atención a la medida de "poesía épica" escondida dentro de sus páginas humildes. Pero ¿quiénes son los héroes aquí? Demetrio Macías, el protagonista y lo más valiente de todos, sólo se convierte en un guerrillero villista después de ver su casa incendiada por los federales. Luis Cervantes, el ideólogo de la resistencia nacionalista, eventualmente saldrá de la lucha en busca de una vida petita burguesa al otro lado de la frontera. Los demás personajes, sean soldados o soldaderas, parecen seguir luchando porque la violencia es la única vida que la sepan. Azuela no fue lo único percibir la evolución de la revolución mexicana como un abuso de confianza, pero sí fue uno de los primeros ponerlo por escrito con convicción. Un librazo.

"I'm from Limón, over there, real close to Moyahua, right from the Juchipila canyon. I had my house, my cows and a piece of earth to sow; that is to say, nothing at all was lacking to me..." (Los de abajo, p. 40).

Another engrossing read for Bethany's Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I don't really have anything new to add to the conversation about this classic novel written in the shadow of the Mexican Revolution, but I very much enjoyed Azuela's unadorned style of writing. Carlos Fuentes refers to Los de abajo [The Underdogs] as "the barefoot Iliad" in his introduction to the work, an astute comment that draws attention to the amount of "epic poetry" hidden within the novel's humbles pages. But who are the heroes here? Demetrio Macías, the protagonist and the bravest man of all, only becomes a fighter for Pancho Villa's forces after seeing his house burned to the ground by the federales. Luis Cervantes, the ideologue of nationalist resistance, will eventually leave the struggle in search of a petit bourgeois lifestyle on the other side of the border with the U.S. The rest of the characters, whether soldiers or camp followers, seem to keep on fighting because violence is the only life they know. Azuela wasn't the only one to view the evolution of the Mexican Revolution as a betrayal of trust, but he was one of the first to put it on paper with feeling. A great book.

Don Mariano Azuela (1873-1952)

martes, 2 de diciembre de 2008

Estrella distante

Estrella distante (2008 libro de bolsillo)
por Roberto Bolaño
España, 1996
ISBN 978-84-339-6673-5

Estrella distante abre con una cita enigmática de Faulkner ("Qué estrella cae sin que nadie la mire?") antes de involucrarnos en una breve pero impactante meditación sobre el destino de algunos poetas chilenos después del golpe militar en 1973. Aunque la imagen de la estrella distante claramente evoca memorias de la bandera del país, esta visión de la inocencia perdida también llama la atención a la victoria del mal en la época. "Me parece que estamos entrando en el campeonato mundial de la fealdad y la brutalidad", dice el protagonista (p. 27); poco después, éste se cae preso y sus amigos empiezan desaparecer. Supuestamente narrado por un tal Arturo Belano (el alter-ego ficticio de Bolaño y un personaje que también aparece en Los detectives salvajes) a los mediados de los noventa al exilio en Cataluña, el argumento o, mejor dicho, el testimonio traumatizado de esta obra tiene que ver con la búsqueda de un hombre conocido como Alberto Ruiz-Tagle o Carlos Wieder. Sin querer revelar demasiado acerca de la intriga, resulta que el misterioso Ruiz-Tagle era un derechista infiltrado en los talleres literarios en la presidencia de Allende, vigilando a los izquierdistas y a los otros "sospechosos" entre los grupos intelectuales de aquel entonces. Después del golpe, Wieder se reveleba ser un oficial en la Fuerza Aéra Chilena, un piloto/poeta que dejara poemas escritos en humo en el cielo, un asesino en serie patrocinado por el estado, y un fotógrafo de sus víctimas. De un lado, el símbolo por excelencia de "la nueva poesía chilena" escrita en sangre. De otro lado, un prófugo de la justicia a causa de su estética del genocidio como arte. Mientras que sigo leyendo el grueso 2666 de Bolaño con gran placer, estoy contento decirles que Estrella distante es el tercer libro suyo que me parece una obra maestra total. Nota: 5 estrellas (distantes) a escala de 5 estrellas (distantes).
Distant Star opens with a cryptic Faulkner quote ("What star falls unseen?") before involving us in a brief but devastating reflection on the fate of a handful of Chilean poets after the military coup there in 1973. Although the image of the distant star clearly evokes memories of the star in the country's flag, this vision of innocence lost also calls attention to the victory of evil in that specific time and place. "It seems to me that we are entering into the world championship of ugliness and brutality," says the protagonist (p. 27); shortly afterward, he becomes a political prisoner and his friends begin to disappear. Supposedly narrated by one Arturo Belano (Bolaño's fictional alter ego and a character who also appears in The Savage Detectives) in the middle of the '90s while in exile in Catalonia, the plot--or better yet--the traumatized testimony offered by this work has to do with the search for a man variously known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle or Carlos Wieder. Without wanting to reveal too much about the intrigue, it turns out that the mysterious Ruiz-Tagle was a right-wing infiltrator in the literary workshops of Allende's presidency during the democracy, spying on the leftists and the other "suspicious people" among the intellectual groups of the time. After the coup, Wieder was revealed to be an officer in the Chilean Air Force, a pilot/poet who would leave poems written in smoke in the air, a serial killer sponsored by the state, and a photographer of his victims. On the one hand, the symbol par excellence of "the New Chilean Poetry" written in blood. On the other, a fugitive from justice on account of his genocide-as-art aesthetic. While I continue reading Bolaño's thick 2666 with great pleasure, I'm happy to note that Distant Star is the third book of his that seems like a complete masterpiece to me. Rating: 5 out of 5 (distant) stars.

Estrella Distante en español: (http://www.anagrama-ed.es/); Distant Star in English (http://www.ndpublishing.com/).

Roberto Bolaño

domingo, 30 de noviembre de 2008

A Year without Books

I doubt I could go a month without buying any new books much less an entire year, but I've been seriously thinking about coming to grips with my book-buying habit over the last couple of weeks. Key word: "thinking."

The "problem": My to be read pile is out of control, and I keep buying new books faster than I can read the old ones. The "solution": I vow to buy only one new book a month until this time next year (gifts for others and any texts I might need for classes would be exempted, natch), until I make a serious dent in ye olde TBR mountain ("vague promise with lots of built-in wiggle room" critique duly noted), or until I otherwise come to my senses (the smart money for those inclined to a friendly wager)...whichever comes first.

While you, the predominantly anonymous lurkers who nonetheless constitute the very heart and soul of Caravana's extremely sophisticated circle of mostly silent friends, ponder the weight of this publicly announced yet still intimately personal decision, please permit me to draw your attention to the latest three additions to my home library pictured above: all re-reads lost over the years but just purchased again tonight to help get me through this long, cold first month without new books!

sábado, 29 de noviembre de 2008

La sinagoga de los iconoclastas

La sinagoga de los iconoclastas [La sinagoga degli iconoclasti] (1999 libro de bolsillo)
por J. Rodolfo Wilcock
Italia, 1972
ISBN 84-339-3009-5

Leí este libro para un curso sobre la literatura latinoamericana después del boom, pero no estoy seguro todavía si es una novela, un libro de cuentos, o qué. Ningún problema. Wilcock, un argentino que se trasladó a Italia cuando tenía unos treinta años, ha escrito algo que se parece a un museo zoológico de locos, soñadores, y otros fracasos humanos. Aunque no puedo decir si Sinagoga es el eslabón perdido entre Borges (Historia universal de la infamia) y Bolaño (La literatura nazi en América) hasta que lea las otras dos obras bajo consideración, agradezco la audacia y la idiosincrasia de la visión de Wilcock. En vez de un hilo narrativo "normal", dentro de estas páginas hay 35 biografías más o menos inventadas. Aunque todas no son igualmente interesantes, la inmensa mayoría de ellas contiene momentos de genialidad y un mordaz sentido del humor. Véase la entrada sobre Aaron Rosenblum, el utopista que quiso "devolver el mundo a 1580" (p. 23), o la entrada sobre John O. Kinnaman, el excavador que visitó Sodoma en busca del féretro de la mujer de Lot pero sólo encontró "una cantidad considerable de columnas y pirámides de sal" y la casa de Abraham con su nombre grabada en la superficie de una piedra (p. 87), para dos ejemplos que son atípicamente "típicos". Divertido.
  • Wilcock, J. Rodolfo. La sinagoga de los iconoclastas. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1999.
J. Rodolfo Wilcock

La Nación (BsAs) tiene dos artículos interesantes sobre Wilcock:

lunes, 24 de noviembre de 2008


Missing (2008 DVD)
Directed by Costa-Gavras
USA, 1982
In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Bad acting and a soap opera-like storyline mar what should have been a riveting film about the real life murder of American journalist Charles Horman during the coup in Chile in 1973. John Sheah and Sissy Spacek are basically either annoying or unbelievable in their roles as the young husband and wife who became separated as a result of the military's "mopping up" operations after the coup, a major distraction since the movie's message about the US government's complicity in both the coup and in the cover-up of Horman's death is often powerful and provocative. Jack Lemmon puts in a much more credible performance as Horman's father, a man with wealth and connections who comes down to Chile to try to figure out what might have led to his son's disappearance, but even he's saddled with some seriously creaky dialogue and a director who seems to prefer histrionics to emotional subtlety--a shame since the constant gunfire in the background and the shots of bodies lying bloodied and dead in the streets offer compelling audiovisual witness to just how powerful this movie could have been. (http://www.criterion.com/)

Spacek and Lemmon

NB: Disc Two of this edition of Missing, which includes interviews with both the cast and crew and with various others with firsthand knowledge of the events portrayed in the film, will be reviewed here separately sometime soon.

viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2008

Juan José Saer, una vez más

Luego de leer Cicatrices de Juan José Saer, decidí informarme sobre el escritor santafesino. Si pueden recomendarme otro libro suyo que les haya gustado, lo tomaré en cuenta. Mientras tanto, aquí les comparto tres artículos relacionados de gran interés saeriano.

martes, 18 de noviembre de 2008


Cicatrices (2007 libro de bolsillo)
por Juan José Saer
Argentina, 1969
ISBN 978-950-731-375-2
  • "Hablan de vicios solitarios, y de vicios que no lo son. Todos los vicios son solitarios. Todos los vicios necesitan de la soledad para ser ejercidos. Asaltan en soledad. Y al mismo tiempo, son también un pretexto para la soledad. No digo que un vicio sea malo. Nunca puede ser tan malo como una virtud, trabajo, castidad, obediencia, etcétera. Digo sencillamente cómo es y de qué se trata". (Cicatrices, p. 138-139)
En este triunfo de la narrativa posboom, el argentino Juan José Saer ha logrado escribir una novela que es innovadora y entretenida a la vez. En el primer de mayo, un tal Luis Fiore asesina a su mujer con dos tiros de escopeta. ¿Qué motivo habrá tenido? El texto intenta explicarlo por medio de cuatro episodios relacionados, todos narrados en primera persona. El joven alcohólico Ángel, empleado de un diario y lector entusiasta de El largo adiós de Raymond Chandler, empieza las oraciones en un capítulo titulado "Febrero, marzo, abril, mayo, junio". El jugador Sergio ("Marzo, abril, mayo") y el juez Ernesto ("Abril, mayo") siguen, llamando la atención a sus propios problemas y fracasos con referencias literarias a Dostoievski y Oscar Wilde. Al final de la obra ("Mayo"), el asesino él mismo habla sin la menor señal de remordimiento o vergüenza: sólo cansancio. Aunque Cicatrices juega con la expectativa que el último relato va a poner en orden todas las preguntas y respuestas sobre el homicidio, Saer rechaza una solución sencilla a favor de un desenlace con más complejidad e incluso caos de lo que se esperaba. Genial. (http://www.editorialplaneta.com.ar/)

Juan José Saer

(Note to other Orbis Terrarum Challenge readers: Although there's a French translation of Cicatrices available, to my knowledge there's no English version of it as yet. Sorry. )

sábado, 15 de noviembre de 2008

Salvatore Giuliano

Salvatore Giuliano (2004 DVD)
Directed by Francesco Rosi
Italy, 1961
In Italian with English subtitles
  • A lawyer: "Murder, kidnapping and blackmail--now it all becomes political."
  • Gaspare Pisciotta, Giuliano's right-hand man: "I collaborated with the police. We were all informants. Outlaws, police and the Mafia--they were an unholy trinity."

Best movie I've seen in quite a while. Somewhat like a Sicilian Rashomon, Rosi's penetrating inquiry into the July 1950 slaying of the notorious bandit/freedom fighter Salvatore Giuliano delights in posing more questions than it ever seems willing to answer. Sporting multiple points of view in a documentary-like style enlivened by nods to neorealism, film noir, and the courtroom drama, the film provocatively uses the main question about Giuliano's death only as a launch pad to move on to the larger truths and ambiguities beyond the mystery of who killed him. Shifting back and forth in time to throw light on Giuliano's background as a black marketeer, Sicilian separatist, and career criminal beloved by some for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Rosi uses an arresting non-linear narrative to craft both a biography of a phantom and a vision of a postwar Sicily fought over by rival factions.

While the whodunit aspects of Rosi's work would be interesting enough in themselves, the visuals here are at least equally impressive. Shot entirely in and around Giuliano's "kingdom" of Montelepre and surrounding towns, the rocky Sicilian landscapes make it easy to understand the otherness of the island in relation to mainland Italy (shades of Di Lampedusa's The Leopard). Local actors, almost entirely non-professionals except for those in two key roles, also lend a certain gravitas to the us vs. them tensions between the small town Sicilians who supported Giuliano and the carabinieri from the north assigned to hunt him down. In one scene, a patriot gives an impromptu speech about Sicily and freedom after being inspired by the scenery in front of him. In another, a machine gun battle at night takes place with the only source of lighting being flashes of erupting gunfire. With consummate artistry and unusual restraint, Rosi laudably leaves it up to the spectator to decide if these are competing views of Sicily or just another sign of the disintegration of Sicilian culture also evident in Salvatore Giuliano's "betrayal." A tour de force. Rating: 5/5 stars. (http://www.criterion.com/)

jueves, 13 de noviembre de 2008

You Call That a Dog?

¿"Orejas" o "Machu Picchu"?

¡Me encanta esta historia! Y me gusta el cachorro también.

Year 1

  • Caravana had its one year blogoversary last Friday. I celebrated the festive occasion with a chile relleno, unfortunately one much less authentic than the one pictured above, and a post written in disappearing ink. In other words, a typical day.
  • With Year 1 now completely in the bag, please permit me to draw your attention to the following two changes. First, I've decided to move some of the movie review posts over to Gambling with Countess Dusy Told from here on out. I'll continue to post announcements about any French, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish films here, but the books and non-Romance languages movies will be separate for a little while. Second, I'm hoping to post more often in Spanish this year to brush up on my language skills. I'll probably have a flexible "policy" in regard to my challenge book reviews, but I wanted to "warn" all two of our regular readers and any/all random strangers about this in the meantime. By the way, thanks to everybody who visited last year!

sábado, 8 de noviembre de 2008

La Roue

La Roue (2008 DVD)
Directed by Abel Gance
France, 1922
Silent with English intertitles

miércoles, 5 de noviembre de 2008

All She Was Worth

All She Was Worth (1999 paperback)
by Miyuki Miyabe [translated by Alfred Birnbaum]
Japan, 1992
ISBN 978-0-395-96658-7

Moving on from a postmodern mystery about confused identity to a more traditional mystery about identity theft, we arrive at Miyuki Miyabe's fine All She Was Worth. I can't remember where I first read about this book (originally published under the title of Kasha), but its absorbing story and steady increase in suspense make it easy for me to understand why it was selected Best Mystery and Best Novel of the year in Japan for 1992. Ostensibly a missing persons story about the sudden disappearance of a beautiful fiancée named Shoko Sekine, the novel derives much of its interest from its peek at the way rampant credit card abuse and identity theft in Japan have made the professional business world and the criminal underworld true partners in crime. Miyabe's characters, from Tokyo police detective Shunsuke Honma's thoughtful family man/grieving widower to the enigmatic woman eventually suspected of usurping Shoko Sekine's identity by means of a horrific crime, are compellingly drawn, and Miyabe manages to tell a tale that touches on brutal credit card collectors, extreme poverty, and the sex slave trade without resorting to the sometimes sensationalistic excesses of her U.S. genre writer counterparts. Perhaps best of all, All She Was Worth concludes with an exquisitely open-ended finale way more subtle and profound than the norm in these types of things. A very nice discovery: 4/5 stars. (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/)

Miyuki Miyabe and friends

The New York Trilogy, I: City of Glass

The New York Trilogy: City of Glass (2006 paperback)
by Paul Auster
USA, 1985
ISBN 0-14-303983-0
  • "What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories." (City of Glass, p. 7.)
I read this novella as my New York state selection for the Book around the States Challenge, but I'm not totally satisfied with the choice. Sort of a metaphysical detective story, City of Glass is at its best playing with genre and authorial identity. The plot, offering a few novel twists on the narrative front, is promising. An author named Quinn, a writer of detective fiction hiding behind the Poe-like pseudonym of William Wilson, becomes involved in a mystery of his own when he receives a late night telephone call from a stranger who mistakes him for a detective named Paul Auster. Deciding to impersonate this fellow named Auster (himself also later revealed to be an author within the claustrophobic recesses of the work in question), Quinn takes the case on and descends down deep into the abysses of an NYC labyrinth of alienation and anomie as he trails his suspect across the uncaring Manhattan streets. Allusions to Borges, Don Quixote, and other metafiction exemplars help enrich the writer/reader relationship here, but the deconstruction/reconstruction of Quinn's identity crisis that takes place in the latter half of the story is just not all that exciting compared to the Cervantes-inspired paradigms that came before it. Imaginative but a bit of a letdown. (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

martes, 4 de noviembre de 2008

viernes, 31 de octubre de 2008


She (2004 paperback)
by H. Rider Haggard
UK, 1887
ISBN 0-140-43763-0

Decent but far from mindblowing fantasy/adventure "classic" from King Solomon's Mines author H. Rider Haggard. While thankfully not as overtly racist as I'd been led to believe, there's still plenty of casual misogyny, class bias, and unrepentant colonialism sprinkled throughout the novel to lend She that true period seasoning. The far-fetched main events have to do with a trio of British adventurers' discovery of a 2200-year old but still youthful-looking femme fatale/sorceress named Ayesha (a/k/a She-who-must-be-obeyed), an ill-tempered and seemingly all-powerful white empress of a black cannibalistic tribe living amid the ruins of a spectacular lost civilization in central Africa. A pretty loopy premise to be sure, but Haggard attempts to tone things down somewhat with a couple of intertwined love stories, an affectionate account of friendship under extreme duress, and some Brit-friendly nods to antiquarianism and archaeology that probably fared better with the work's original pre-post colonialist readers. All the chauvinism and goofy supernatural elements aside, I did enjoy reading about She's complex hottie of a title character (even more fetching and mysterious on the black border Penguin paperbacks than on the slightly altered illustration above) and coming across unintentionally funny moments like the one where a digression on queens and monarchy leads to an unfavorable comparison between the despotic Ayesha and Britain's own Queen Victoria, "venerated and beloved by all-right thinking people in her vast realms" (p. 254). 3 out of 5 stars for an Orbis Terrarum Challenge alternate and a guilty semi-pleasure. (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Franz von Stuck, Die Suende [Sin], 1893

miércoles, 22 de octubre de 2008

Killer's Paradise

Killer's Paradise (2006 DVD)
Directed by Giselle Portenier
Canada and U.K., 2006
In English with Spanish subtitles

I don't know how easy it will be to find this outside of academic circles (my library copy came in an unmarked DVD holder with a homemade, bootleg-looking insert typed out in Spanish), but it's definitely worth tracking down if you get the chance. Apparently first aired on the BBC's This World program a few years back, Killer's Paradise (Spanish title: Paraíso de asesinos) has to do with the ongoing murder spree against women in Guatemala that claimed over two thousand lives in the five years before the movie was made--with an average of two a day in Guatemala City alone (10 times Britain's rate). Although male murder victims outnumbered female victims by a ratio of 8 to 1 at the time of the documentary's shooting, producer/director Portenier and journalist/narrator Olenka Frenkiel point out that the number of women murdered had quadrupled in just the last three years.

While these are grim statistics by anyone's standards, the filmed interviews with family members of the victims reveal the horror of the individual tragedies in a way that statistics alone simply can't. "It's the fashion here to murder women," laments the husband of one victim resigned to the knowledge that his wife's killer will never be caught. "There's no safety in this day and age." In another moment, the brother of a slain college student rails against the police for their blame the victim mentality towards girls and women: "That's how they see the victims. As nobodies. It shouldn't be like that." Fearing reprisals, the single mother of a recently-slain teenager asks a "favor" of the two police who come to make a token investigation of her daughter's death--not to investigate at all "because my other children are still alive, and so am I." Elsewhere, the father of yet another young innocent confronts the bloody clothes his daughter was wearing on the day she was kidnapped and shot and sobs, "Here in Guatemala, there is so much impunity."

Although a reporter's voiceover wearily notes that "gangs, domestic violence, and drug wars are all blamed" for many of the brutal, unsolved murders, Killer's Paradise lays out a convincing case that the root causes of the femicide are more complicated than that. Woefully inefficient police, the unleashing of ex-army "civilians" trained to torture people during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, and a macho culture that permits rapists to avoid punishment if they marry their victims all play a contributing role to the cycle of unpunished violence. To add insult to injury, government officials' response to the killing spree has been one of almost complete indifference: a point shockingly brought home when Guatemala's gutless president Oscar Berger tells journalist Frenkiel that she should be "more optimistic" about the soaring murder rates and the lack of progress in holding anybody responsible for the savage killings. This isn't an easy piece of work to watch--and you might never want to visit Guatemala again after seeing it--but I can't recommend it strongly enough for its courage and its sense of moral outrage. A real eye-opener. (www.nfb.ca/webextension/killersparadise)

domingo, 19 de octubre de 2008

Touchez pas au grisbi

Touchez pas au grisbi (2005 DVD)
Directed by Jacques Becker
France, 1954
In French with English subtitles

More French film excellence from the '50s. The prelude to a cellar torture scene and grenade-tossing finale notwithstanding, what we have here is sort of like a kinder, gentler version of an old school gangster movie. Jean Gabin and René Dary are outstanding as aging hoods Max le Menteur and Riton, two dapper criminals with a touching friendship more than 20 years in the making. Although much of the plot focuses on rival thug Angelo's attempt to make off with the loot (le grisbi) that Max and Riton had themselves only recently ripped off from Orly airport, director Becker does a masterful job of introducing ironic humor (one type of criminal to another: "You're all the same. To you, a fence is a crook.") and a non-cloying sentimentality (the scene where Max's considerable fondness for Riton is revealed in an interior monologue, one of the most unusual narrative devices I've ever seen in a gangster film) into the double-crossing mix. Lino Ventura as Angelo, Jeanne Moreau as the coke-snorting devil doll Josy, and Paul Frankeur as bespectacled club owner Fats all make mighty contributions to the success of the film as well, but the best testament to the unexpected brilliance of Becker's underworld aesthetic triumph might be the iconic scene where old friends Max and Riton wearily commiserate about a spilled secret and a bad break over a bottle from Nantes and a terrine of foie gras in a new hideout: sort of like Marcel Pagnol with machine guns. Five out of five stars but not for squares, Daddy-o! (http://www.criterion.com/)

René Dary and Jean Gabin

lunes, 13 de octubre de 2008

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Dear Readers:

If any of you book-lovers out there were wondering what "we" here at Caravana would be reading in October while the world economy crashed and burned, this must be your lucky day.
  • Paul Auster, City of Glass (Penguin)
  • Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (Anagrama)
  • Rodrigo Fresan, Mantra (Mondadori/Año 0)

I'm only two chapters into the Auster novella thus far, so I'll have to postpone any comments on this first third of his New York Trilogy until later. I have read big chunks of both the Bolaño and the Fresan doorstoppers (clocking in at 1127 and 539 pages respectively), though, and feel confident they will be huge faves by the time I'm done with them. Fantastic writers! Breathless prose!! Updates soon!!!

miércoles, 8 de octubre de 2008

¡Ay, Carmela!

¡Ay, Carmela! (2005 DVD)
Dirigida por Carlos Saura
España e Italia, 1990
En castellano con subtítulos en francés e inglés

Un bien intencionado pero bastante cursi homenaje a la República Española. Carmela (Carmen Maura), Paulino (Andrés Pajares) y Gustavete (Gabino Diego) son tres artistas ambulantes contratados para dar una representación para los republicanos en pleno frente de Aragón en el año 1.938. Después del show, preocupados por la guerra, los tres deciden andar a la seguridad de Valencia--pero se pierden en la "zona nacional", donde se convierten en presos de los franquistas. Una oportunidad para salvar el pellejo se presenta cuando un soldado italiano, Teniente Ripamonte (Maurizio Di Razza), les ofrece la oportunidad de hacer una obra de teatro en cambio de su libertad. ¿El dilema? La obra incluirá temas fascistas para humillar a los otros presos políticos (miembros de las brigadas internacionales, el gobierno local, etc.) antes de su muerte por pelotón de ejecución la mañana siguiente. ¿El desenlace? Previsible.

Saura es un genio (a modo de prueba, véase su Cría Cuervos de 1975, una obra maestra), pero la materia aquí es de dudoso gusto. Basada en la obra de teatro del valenciano José Sanchís Sinisterra, ¡Ay, Carmela! es, desgraciadamente, demasiado "teatral" en cuanto a la actuación, el diálogo, y los personajes (casi todos son o héroes o fascistas). Además, el guión sufre de un desnivel de tono entre la sátira y el comentario social...o sea, es difícil agradecer la tragedia en medio de todo el humor infantil de la comedia. Aunque ¡Ay, Carmela! ganó el premio Goya a la mejor película de 1991, me inclino a pensar que la nota que merece se acerca más bien a 2 banderas republicanas a escala de 5 banderas republicanas. Mediocre. ( http://www.warnerbros.es/ )

sábado, 4 de octubre de 2008

El violín

El violín (2008 DVD)
Dirigida por Francisco Vargas
México, 2006
En español con subtítulos en inglés

No veo tantas películas mexicanas como me gustaría, pero El violín es de primerísima categoría. Aunque tiene que ver con una guerra "zapatista" entre los campesinos y el ejército mexicano, se nota que nunca menciona explícitamente ni el lugar ni el tiempo de la acción. En cambio, el cineasta y guionista Vargas cuenta una historia triste que llama la atención a la atemporalidad de la lucha eterna contra la injusticia. Mezclando episodios brutales (la chocante primera escena sobre la tortura y la violación) con momentos líricos (la impecable toma de seguimiento alrededor de la holguera de campamento donde el abuelo trata de explicar la presencia del mal en el mundo a su nieto) en una especie de corrido visual, Vargas logra encontrar el punto medio entre un documental e una obra más poética.

La cinematográfia de Martín Boege y Oscar Hijuelos es igualmente loable. Rodeado en un blanco y negro que a veces es casi onírico, el filme contiene muchos hermosos retratos de la naturaleza y primeros planos de los aldeanos que me recuerdan de las fotas de obreros de Tina Modotti. Si está claro quiénes son los buenos y los malos de la película según el punto de vista de Vargas, esto no significa que sus personajes son caricaturas políticas. De hecho, el protagonista Don Plutarco (un inolvidable Don Ángel Tavira, haciendo su debú como actor a la tierna edad de 81 años) tiene el papel de una vida entera como el violinista manco cuya familia está fatalmente involucrada con el movimiento guerrillero--y cuyo violín simboliza su única manera de contraatacar. En resumen, un buen ejemplo del cine mexicano contemporaneo y 100% creíble. (http://www.filmmovement.com/)

Don Ángel Tavira en El violín

martes, 30 de septiembre de 2008

El reino de este mundo

El reino de este mundo (2005 libro de bolsillo)
por Alejo Carpentier
Venezuela, 1949
ISBN 84-322-1653-4

"Todos sabían que la iguana verde, la mariposa nocturna, el perro desconocido, el alcatraz inverosímil, no eran sino simples disfraces. Dotado del poder de transformarse en animal de pezuña, en ave, pez o insecto, Mackandal visitaba continuamente las haciendas de la llanura para vigilar a sus fieles y saber si todavía confiaban en su regreso. De metamorfosis en metamorfosis, el manco estaba en todas partes, habiendo recobrado su integridad corpórea al vestir trajes de animales. Con alas un día, con agallas al otro, galopando o reptando, se había adueñado del curso de los ríos subterráneos, de las cavernas de la costa, de las copas de los árboles, y reinaba ya sobre la isla entera. Ahora, sus poderes eran ilimitados. Lo mismo podía cubrir una yegua que descansar en el frescor de un aljibe, posarse en las ramas ligeras de un aromo o colarse por el ojo de una cerradura. Los perros no le ladraban; mudaba de sombra según le conviniera. Por obra suya, una negra parió un niño con cara de jabalí. De noche salía aparecerse en los caminos bajo el pelo de un chivo negro con ascuas en los cuernos. Un día daría la señal del gran levantamiento, y los Señores de Allá, encabezados por Damballah, por el Amo de los Caminos y por Ogún de los Hierros, traerían el rayo y el trueno, para desencadenar el ciclón que completaría la obra de los hombres. En esa gran hora --decía Ti Noel-- la sangre de los blancos correría hasta los arroyos, donde los Loas, ebrios de júbilo, la beberían de bruces, hasta llenarse los pulmones". (Carpentier, p. 41)

Un ejemplo temprano de lo que el cubano Carpentier llamó "lo real maravilloso" y de lo que otros más tarde llamarían el realismo mágico, El reino de este mundo es un innegable clásico de la literatura hispanoamericana que todavía hechiza a los lectores. Aunque el protagonista del libro es un esclavo ficticio que se llama Ti Noel, otros "personajes" dentro de la novela son varios hombres y mujeres históricos relacionados con la revolución haitiana a principios del siglo XIX: los rebeldes Mackandal y Bouckman, el "rey negro" Henri Christophe, y la princesa Paulina Bonaparte entre otros. El resultado es una obra que finge imitar las reglas de la novela histórica al mismo tiempo que su autor introduce novedades en la manera de abordar su tema.

Al contar gran parte de la novela desde la perspectiva de los esclavos, Carpentier llama la atención al hecho de que hay una ruptura entre la cosmovisión de los africanos y la de los europeos. Interesantemente, no se trata simplemente de religión, del vudú de los negros contra el cristianismo de los blancos. En lugar de eso, Carpentier sugiere cómo las metamorfosis de Mackandal se pueden leer como dos acercamientos a la historia: en líneas generales, uno influido por el mundo de los espíritus y otro influido por las fuerzas de la razón. Su técnica narrativa emplea ambos acercamientos, describiendo lo real (multiples malos tratos por parte de los revolucionarios después de su victoria contra los blancos) y lo maravilloso (hombres que se convierten en animales, estatuas vivas, etc.) con igual destreza y verosimilitud dentro de la esquema de la novela. Dado el tema, quizás el extraordinario éxito del autor no debe sorprendernos. Como Carpentier nos pregunta en su prólogo (12): "¿Pero qué es la historia de América toda sino una crónica de lo real-maravilloso?"

Alejo Carpentier, el novelista como mago