viernes, 31 de diciembre de 2010

La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile

La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile (Debolsillo, 2006)
por Gabriel García Márquez
Colombia, 1986

"También los que se quedaron son exiliados".
(La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile, 47)

Qué agradable, qué absolutamente agradable, para poder despedirme del año de lecturas de 2010 con esta pequeña joya de un librito. El año es 1985.  Luego de una larga ausencia en exilio en el extranjero, el cineasta chileno Miguel Littín, "que figura en una lista de cinco mil exiliados con prohibición absoluta de volver a su tierra", se resuelve a regresar a Chile para rodar un documental sobre "la realidad de su país después de doce años de dictadura militar" (7).  Pretendiendo ser un hombre de negocios uruguayo con papeles falsos y un acento uruguayo poco convincente, Littín pasa seis semanas clandestinamente en Chile trabajando con tres equipos de cine europeos para poner "una larga cola de burro para Pinochet" (22).  ¡Cómo me encantó esta obra!  Aunque se lee como una novela de espionaje narrada en primera persona, los momentos culminantes de este reportaje de no ficción subrayan la opresión del régimen Pinochet y la voluntad del pueblo chileno para vivir con dignidad a pesar de las dificultades políticas.  Punto: las llamadas "flores eternas" en la Plaza Sebastián Acevedo, donde Littín nos cuenta del "ramo de flores perpetuas mantenidas por manos anónimas" en honor de Sebastián Acevedo, un minero que "se había prendido fuego en ese sitio, dos años antes" como una protesta pública contra la tortura de su hijo e hija (86-88).  Punto: la dueña de la casa donde "había una imagen de la Virgen del Carmen" (la patrona y "generala" del ejército chileno) que responde a la pregunta de si ella "había sido allendista" así: "No lo fui: lo soy".  Y lo prueba por quitar la imagen de la Virgen para mostrar un retrato de Allende escondido detrás (104-105).  Punto: los grafiti a la casa de Pablo Neruda en Isla Negra, donde además de los mensajes de amor esperados se encuentran otros mensajes menos esperados: "El amor nunca muere, generales; Allende y Neruda viven; un minuto de oscuridad no nos volverá ciegos" (111-112).  Conmevedora por completo, esta obra es redimida por un final feliz para Littín y por lo que parecería ser un excelente trabajo de redacción por García Márquez, la figura del "autor" en las sombras.  (Debolsillo)

Clandestine in Chile (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Gabriel García Márquez [translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz]
Colombia, 1986

"Those who stayed behind are also exiled."
(La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile, 47 [my translation])

How cool, how absolutely cool, to be able to close out my 2010 reading year with this little gem of a book.  The year is 1985.  After a long absence in exile abroad, Chilean film director Miguel Littín, "who figures among a list of 5,000 exiles absolutely forbidden to return to their country," resolves to return to Chile in order to shoot a documentary about "the reality of his country after twelve years of military dictatorship"  (7). Passing himself off as an Uruguayan businessman with false papers and an unconvincing Uruguayan accent, Littín spends six weeks undercover in Chile working with three European film crews to try and "pin the tale on the Pinochet donkey" (22).  My, how I loved this work!  Although it reads like a spy novel, the key moments in this first-person, non-fiction account poignantly underscore the Pinochet regime's oppressive nature and the will of the Chilean people to live with dignity in spite of the political difficulties.  Item: the so-called "eternal flowers" in the Plaza Sebastián Acevedo, where Littín tells us about the "bouquet of flowers perpetually maintained by anonymous hands" in honor of Sebastián Acevedo, a miner who "had set himself on fire on that site two years earlier" in public protest against the torture of his son and daughter (86-88).  Item: the homeowner with a statue of the Virgen del Carmen (the patron saint and "female general" of the Chilean army) who, when asked if she had been a Salvador Allende supporter, replied emphatically:  "Not I was; I am."  And then proved it by moving aside the Virgin's image to reveal a portrait of Allende hidden behind it (104-105).  Item: the graffiti at Pablo Neruda's house in Isla Negra, where alongside the expected messages having to do with proclamations of love could also be found messages of a less expected nature: "Love never dies, Generals; Allende y Neruda liveone minute of darkness won't turn us blind"  (111-112).  Devastating stuff all in all and yet redeemed by a happy ending for Littín and what appears to be an exquisite editing job by García Márquez, the reclusive "author" of the filmmaker's story  [note: all translations mine with page numbers based on the Spanish version of the work].  (  

 Gabo, Geraldine Chaplin y Miguel Littín, hacia 1980


Salvador (Vintage International, 1994)
by Joan Didion
USA, 1983

A slender volume of reporting on the civil war in El Salvador, seemingly composed at white heat after Didion's visit there in 1982, with writing that's raw in the very best sense of the term.  While some of Didion's detractors on Amazon rather curiously try and paint her as a war profiteer for having even published this work, at this remove in time Salvador clearly is/was a call to arms against American support of the corrupt Salvadoran government--prescient advice that unfortunately went unheeded.  "Terror is the given of the place," she writes early on, proving that the pronouncement is more than just war zone jitters with a few grisly examples from the local papers.  "A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight desconocidos, unknown men.  The same morning's paper: the unidentified body of a young man, strangled, found on the shoulder of a road.  Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men, found on another road, their faces partially destroyed by bayonets, one face carved to represent a cross" (14-15).  Unpleasant but undeniably powerful reading, not least for its you-are-there snapshot of one of the Reagan White House's most unlikable state terrorism-loving "allies."  (

Joan Didion

It was certainly possible to describe some members of the opposition, as [The Ambassador of the United States in El Salvador] Deane Hinton had, as "out-and-out Marxists," but it was equally possible to describe other members of the opposition, as the embassy had at the inception of the FDR in April of 1980, as "a broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups."  The right in El Salvador never made this distinction: to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic Church, and, as time went by, all Salvadoran citizens not of the right.  In other words there remained a certain ambiguity about political terms as they were understood in the United States and in El Salvador, where "left" may mean, in the beginning, only a resistance to seeing one's family killed or disappeared.  That it eventually comes to mean something else may be, to the extent that the United States has supported the increasing polarization in El Salvador, the Procrustean bed we made ourselves.
(Salvador, 94-95)

martes, 28 de diciembre de 2010


The Mummies, "Justine"

a little lo-fi r&r for my Cairo Trilogy peeps
(play loud)

lunes, 27 de diciembre de 2010

The Cairo Trilogy I: Palace Walk

Palace Walk [Bayn al-qasrayn] (Anchor Books, no date)
by Naguib Mahfouz [translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny)
Egypt, 1956

"There's no reason to be sad, darling.  Since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men."
(Palace Walk, 334)

While I prob. spent something like the first 100 pages of Palace Walk lamenting the fact that Naguib Mahfouz's early prose style was less conversational and more exposition-heavy than his later, lovely Miramar and the second 100 pages enjoying the domestic drama while still kind of wondering why the text was revered by quite so many, the last 300 pages of the novel completely sucked me into the storyteller's charisma vortex with its suddenly epic tale of one Egyptian family's daily life amid the trials and tribulations of Australian and English-occupied Cairo circa 1917-1919.  This sucker punch of a leisurely intro aside, though, one of the most disarming things about the first volume in The Cairo Trilogy is that Mahfouz doesn't exactly overwhelm you with any writing tricks--relying on deft characterization, a spotlight on the psychological effects of sexism, and delicious turns of phrase instead.  The plot pivots about the comings and goings of merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, a home where the hypocritical "family man" of a husband is king, the shut-in wife's a slave to her skirt-chasing spouse's every whim, and the five children also live in fear of their tyrannical father.  How much the novelist intended the symbol of a repressive home to mirror either the Egyptian male attitude toward women or the English presence in Cairo is up for debate, of course, but I was fascinated by the portrait of gender relations in the novel even as I was repulsed by what some of the artist's brushstrokes revealed (i.e. as just one of many potential examples, the idea that a husband could cheat on his wife and then blame her for complaining about it rather than remaining subservient to his philandering will in silence).  Ditto for how I felt about the characters' conflicted reactions to the British soldiers--hating them for being an occupying force while still looking up to them for otherwise representing some of the finer aspects in global civilization and culture--and for what their thoughts about black servants and Turks reveal about socioeconomic and ethnic prejudices of the time.  Not sure what Mahfouz has in store for the rest of his tryptich, but the vision that's beginning to emerge from this first canvas makes me guess that it's going to be monumental in scale.  For now, a very good but maybe not quite a great example of social commentary disguised as drama--and the new world record holder for similes likening pleasantly plump humans of both sexes to camels!  (

Naguib Mahfouz

Sound bite: A mother and daughter, heredity and time
The juxtaposition of the two women appeared to illustrate the interplay of the amazing laws of heredity and the inflexible law of time.  The two women might have been a single person with her image reflected forward to the future or back into the past.  In either case, the difference between the original and its reflection revealed the terrible struggle raging between the laws of heredity, attempting to keep things the same, and the law of time, pushing for change and a finale.  The struggle usually results in a string of defeats for heredity, which plays at best a modest role within the framework of time...
(Palace Walk, 203)

Other Palace Walk Readalong Posts

lunes, 20 de diciembre de 2010

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart (Anchor Books, 2008)
by Chinua Achebe
Nigeria, 1958

Ever the cynic, I read most of Things Fall Apart constantly dreading the moment when the novel's rep as a crowd-pleaser would see it transform itself into the book equivalent of the mawkish Titanic.  To my delight and surprise, that moment never came.  A vivid sketch of village life in Nigeria at the historical turning point when the old tribal ways were just beginning to yield to the changes wrought by the late 19th century envoys of European colonialism, the first two-thirds of the work follows the old school, wife-beating Umuofia native Okonkwo as he attempts to better his station in life through personal merit and the manly pursuits esteemed by the clan.  My usual disdain for historical fiction notwithstanding, I freely admit that I enjoyed the proverb-ridden narration, which gave the story a mythic feel lacking in many other 20th century narratives, and the omniscient narrator's focus on the good and bad aspects of tribal life, which cast a spotlight on the problematic nature of Okonkwo's status as an exemplar of the good old days before Christianity replaced animism on the Lower Niger.  In the last third of the work, twin storylines devoted to the protagonist's personal journey and the Umuofia villagers' reaction to white encroachment swiftly and dramatically merge--concluding with a devastating final chapter that reads like a Flaubertian tightening of the noose for an entire society (top that, Madame Bovary).  Arresting, convincing, and not at all the pro forma "world literature classic" I'd half-expected.  (

Chinua Achebe

Another Take

martes, 7 de diciembre de 2010

A Mercy

A Mercy (Vintage International, 2009)
by Toni Morrison
USA, 2008

With all due respect to the friends who have raved about various Morrison titles to me, I'm not sure that the novelist and I are cut out for each other.  Dud historical fiction tearjerker that starts out with a provocative premise--a 17th century slave mother voluntarily abandons her daughter in the hopes that the act will save the child from a harsher life--before eventually bogging down in uninteresting storytelling and a surprising lack of subtlety.  While the novel's not without its merits (an early slave-buying scene, for example, is undeniably chilling with its spotlight on the participants' callous contempt for the human dimensions of the "merchandise" on sale), I found the narrative to be way less compelling than advertised.  First of all, there's the matter of point of view.  A Mercy is ambitiously narrated from the perspective of a number of characters--black and white, slave and free--but the resulting chorus was largely unconvincing to me.  In some cases, as in the Mistress' recollection of her journey from England to the Americas, I felt as if Morrison were committing the cardinal historical fiction mistake of dumping a lot of intrusive period details into the mix to make it seem more authentic in regard to time and place.  Just let the story flow.  In others, as in Florens' interior monologue about her love for the blacksmith, I was just annoyed by the exaggerated simplicity of the various characters' speech and thoughts: "With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging.  I can never not have you have me" (161).  Not exactly beguiling prose.  Although I get the idea that Morrison probably wrote the characters the way she did to reflect their otherness somehow, I doubt that her lack of subtlety can be explained away quite as easily.  When the character Sorrow gives birth to a baby daughter and utters, "I am your mother... My name is Complete" (158), for example, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the made-for-TV-movie level epiphany.  Are you fucking kidding me?  In any event, not really the book for me nor the best argument for reading a novel in lieu of a work of history when given a choice.  A disappointment. (

Toni Morrison

sábado, 4 de diciembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Italy

Given that there's a higher percentage of books I really want to read on this list than on any of the previous ones and that I'm still salivating over not yet purchased novels by Dino Buzzati and Elsa Morante not to mention countless Italian Renaissance works, I think Italian lit will probably join French lit and Spanish lit as some sort of reading project in 2011 lit for me.  More on that in a perennially vague while.  Until then, totals to date are as follows: Italy (12) + Spain (24) + Argentina (47) + France (32) = 115 books in the TBR.
1) Boccaccio, Giovanni.  The Decameron (Penguin Classics) [partially read].
2) Calvino, Italo.  If on a winter's night a traveler (Harvest) [partially read].
3) Castiglione, Baldesar.  The Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics).
4) Manzoni, Alessandro.  The Betrothed (Penguin Classics).
5) Massimo, Valerio.  Manfredi (Oscar Mondadori).
6) Mazzantini, Margaret.  Non ti muovere (Oscar Mondadori).
7) Moravia, Alberto.  Contempt (NYRB Classics).
8) Pirandello, Luigi.  The Late Mattia Pascal (NYRB Classics).
9) Sciascia, Leonardo.  To Each His Own (NYRB Classics).
10) Sorba, Pietro.  Bodegones de Buenos Aires (Planeta).
11) Svevo, Italo.  As a Man Grows Older (NYRB Classics).
12) Vasari, Giorgio.  The Lives of the Artists (Oxford World's Classics).

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (Penguin, 2007)
by Nathaniel Philbrick
USA, 2000

According to my receipt, I bought this book on May 19th, 2010, right about the time I was polishing off Moby-Dick, so keen on reading about the real-life incident that had inspired Melville's novel that I'd forgotten that I'd already read Philbrick's National Book Award winner years before.  Talk about a creaky memory!  In any event, revisiting In the Heart of the Sea this past week was a great pleasure.  Philbrick's a natural as a storyteller, and this nonfiction story of his--what happened to the crew of the Nantucket whaleship Essex in 1820 after it was deliberately rammed and sunk by an 85-foot bull sperm whale "with the vindictiveness and guile of a man" (xiii)--has no shortage of built-in drama with its tale of three months adrift at sea, survival cannibalism, and the like.  While Philbrick's reconstruction, largely based on an examination of the first-hand accounts of Essex survivors Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson, rightly stresses that the work's a tale of survival rather than a tale of adventure, it's more a riveting than a sobering affair as a reading experience.  If part of what makes it so compelling has to do with the nature of the story itself, another part of it has to do with the nature of the questions Philbrick asks of his sources: in specific, why were the African-American seamen the first to be eaten by their white shipmates and why did the Nantucket natives survive in greater numbers than the non-islanders?  While I have no explanation for how I could forget that I'd read such an, um, memorable piece of popular history writing before, at least I can now assure those of you who have yet to read this book that it holds up to multiple readings just fine.  (

Nathaniel Philbrick

*Note: Nicole at bibliographing has a way interesting page on the theme of Maritime Literature here.  Recommended.*

viernes, 3 de diciembre de 2010

The Dogs of Riga

The Dogs of Riga [Hundarna I Riga] (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2004)
by Henning Mankell [translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson]
Sweden, 1992

Entertaining but entirely preposterous second offering in the Inspector Wallander series.  List of clichés available upon request.  (

Henning Mankell