viernes, 25 de marzo de 2011

Conversación en La Catedral

Conversación en La Catedral (Punto de Lectura, 2010)
por Mario Vargas Llosa
Perú, 1969

"¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?" se pregunta Santiago, que tiene 30 años, al principio de Conversación en La Catedral.  ¿Y en qué momento se había jodido el personaje?  Aunque las respuestas a estas dos preguntas sólo vendrán después de 700 y pico páginas, los lectores que desfrutan de un estilo narrativo poco tradicional y/o una experienca de lectura más interactiva de lo normal van a estar encantados con el resultado.  Por supuesto, Vargas Llosa no permite muchas alternativas: es una dura y exigente novela política, ambientada en el Perú de los cincuenta bajo la dictadura militar de general Manuel Apolonario Odrías, que se narra con diálogos y monólogos interiores más que la exposición.  Además, los pensamientos y las palabras de los personajes vienen en transiciones tan rápidas y repentinas que siempre hay que estar alerta a quién está formulando las preguntas y respuestas.  La experiencia, embriagadora cuando uno se acostumbra al estilo, es como escuchar dos conversaciones, uno hablado y el otro pensado, a la vez.  Dado el acercamiento elíptico y fragmentario que se usa a lo largo de la novela, probablemente debo mencionar que la Catedral del título es un bar de obreros donde el periodista Santiago y un viejo conocido suyo que se llama Ambrosio tienen una conversación más y más borracha.  En su turno, esta conversación conduce a una teleraña de otros recuerdos e historias interconectados que examinan la decadencia económica y moral del Perú y, por extensión, de Latinoamérica.  Aunque su retrato de la corrupción y de la atapía, del racismo y de la conciencia de clase puede ser demasiado pesimista para algunos, me gustó Conversación en la Catedral a causa de su visión intransigente y, especialmente, su estilo narrativo experimental.  Un libro especialmente bueno para los que, como yo, no tienen ningún interés en el realismo mágico.  (

Conversation in the Cathedral (Harper Perennial, 2005)
by Mario Vargas Llosa [translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa]
Peru, 1969

"At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" the 30-year old Santiago asks himself at the very beginning of Conversation in the Cathedral.  And at what precise moment had the character fucked his own life up?  Although the answers to these two questions come something like 600 bleak pages in the making, readers who appreciate a non-trad storytelling style and/or a reading experience more interactive than usual may find a treat in store for themselves here.  Of course, it's not like they really have any choice--Vargas Llosa's dark and demanding political novel, mostly set in 1950s Peru during the military dictatorship of General Manuel Apolinario Odría, is long on dialogue and interior monologues and short on exposition.  What's more, the characters' words and thoughts are often presented in such quick, abrupt transitions that you have to scramble to stay on top of who's asking the questions and who's answering them.  The end result, highly intoxicating once you get used to it, is akin to eavesdropping on two conversations, one spoken and one comprised of the individual's (or individuals') thoughts, at the same time.  Given the elliptical, fragmentary approach employed throughout the novel, I should probably mention that the Cathedral of the title refers to a working class bar in Lima where an increasingly drunken conversation between the newspaperman Santiago and an old acquaintance named Ambrosio leads to a spider's web of interconnected memories and stories exposing some of the reasons for Peru's--and by extension, Latin America's--economic and moral decline.  Conversation in the Cathedral's vivid portrayal of corruption and apathy, racism and class divisions, and the sense of defeat that pervades a work in which the central metaphor is that of life as a brothel may be too strong for some; however, I embrace its uncompromising vision and, especially, its experimental style.  In other words, a nice palate cleanser for anyone sick and tired of hearing about magical realism.  (

Mario y Patricia Vargas Llosa

Desde la puerta de La Crónica Santiago mira la avenida Tacna, sin amor: automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina, el mediodía gris.  ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?  Los canillitas merodean entre los vehículos detenido por el semáforo de Wilson voceando los diarios de la tarde y él echa a andar, despacio, hacia la Colmena.  Las manos en los bolsillos, cabizbajo, va escoltado por transeúntes que avanzan, también, hacia la plaza San Martín.  Él era como el Perú, Zavalita, se había jodido en algún momento.  Piensa: ¿en cuál?  Frente al Hotel Crillón un perro viene a lamerle los pies: no vayas a estar rabioso, fuera de aquí.  El Perú jodido, piensa, Carlitos jodido, todos jodidos.  Piensa: no hay solución.  Ve una larga cola en el paradero de los colectivos a Miraflores, cruza la plaza y ahí está Norwin, hola hermano, en una mesa del Bar Zela, siéntate Zavalita, manoseando un chilcano y haciéndose lustrar los zapatos, le invitaba un trago.  No parece borracho todavía y Santiago se sienta, indica al lustrabotas que también le lustra los zapatos a él.  Listo jefe, ahoritita jefe, se los dejaría como espejos, jefe.
(Conversación en La Catedral, 15)
From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday.  At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?  The newsboys weave in and out among the vehicles halted by the red light on Wilson, hawking the afternoon papers, and he starts to walk slowly toward Colmena.  His hands in his pockets, head down, he goes along escorted by people who are also going in the direction of the Plaza San Martín.  He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he'd fucked himself up somewhere along the line.  He thinks: when?  Across from the Hotel Crillón a dog comes over to lick his feet: don't get your rabies on me, get away.  Peru all fucked up, Carlitos all fucked up, everybody all fucked up.  He thinks: there's no solution.  He sees a long line at the taxi stop for Miraflores, he crosses the square, and there's Norwin, hello, at a table in the Zela Bar, have a seat, Zavalita, fondling a chilcano and having his shoes shined, he invites him to have a drink.  He doesn't look drunk yet and Santiago sits down, tells the bootblack to shine his shoes too.  Yes, sir, boss, right away, boss, they'll look like a mirror, boss.
(Conversation in the Cathedral [translated by Gregory Rabassa], 3)


19 comentarios:

  1. highly intoxicating

    My experience exactly. Once I got past the scene at the pound and the near-rape of Amalia, I was totally on board with Vargas Llosa. The multi-string conversations that he kept going for 20 & 30 pages at a time - it was like watching a street performer do an increasingly virtuosic juggling act. A little like Mrs. Dalloway in that the content is very dark but the execution left me feeling exhilarated. And left me with the feeling that there was a rationale behind his aesthetic choices, too - that his "non-trad storytelling" really helped him get his story told in a way that just wouldn't have been the same in a more standard format.

  2. 600 bleak pages, lamenting jodido-ness all the while? Gee, wish I could get a copy.... But how "you" to find it intoxicating! :--)

  3. *Emily: I'm so glad you liked this after your rough start with it, and I totally see the Mrs. Dalloway comparison given the dark themes/intoxicating storytelling combination in both. Would like to find out if VLl has talked about the "rationale behind his aesthetic choices" somewhere, but apart from the obvious technical challenge he took on and solved, I agree with your point that the virtuosity made the story so much more impactful. In a sense, he couldn't really have told the story any other way given the "epic scope" you mention in your post. How exciting!

    *Jill: Ha, I actually thought about you while I was writing up my post: "Wow, Jill is really going to hate the sound of this book if she reads this description of it!" But it's the writing technique more than the 600 bleak pages of "jodido-ness" (LOL) that's so exhilarating. Anyway, must find a way to use "jodido-ness" in another post--classic!

  4. Highly intoxicating is a perfect way to describe this one. Difficult to separate oneself from as you begin to feel the different threads as familiar and the text begins to assume a non-linear focus that mirrors thought processes rather than straightforward narrative expression. Stream of consciousness as Emily suggests but interwoven at that.

    Will post tomorrow but many thanks for the pick. Just what was required now. Very powerful. Consuming.

  5. I'm out in the cold with this one. I just could not get into it, although your review makes it sounds every bit as good as I was hoping it would be. I'll have to try it again another time... :)

  6. *Frances: I'm ecstatic that you enjoyed this so much--esp. after hearing that you'd wanted to read it for quite some time--so thanks to you and the rest of the gang for agreeing to take on a chunkster with me! Great point you make about the text mirroring thought processes: not to bring up a sore point, but I have to admit that I kept comparing Conversation to Cairo Trilogy in this regard in my head...and then cursing out Mahfouz all over again for his laziness. Way looking forward to your post tomorrow!

    *Sarah: Sorry to hear this didn't work out for you, but I can understand Vargas Llosa's experiment here not being for everybody. I actually think it's pretty radical in a way. Anyway, glad you at least enjoyed your previous experience with the author!

  7. I'd have loved to read this, but wasn't able to secure a copy! It's in my TBH (to be had) list ever since I read about it in Gregory Rabassa's memoir. So I'll get back to these posts when I finally read it, sometime this decade.

    I'll be pedantic and point out that the article in the title should be capitalized, the way the translator meant it to be written: He wrote: "Conversación en la Catedral (Conversation in The Cathedral). You will note that Catedral is capitalized in Spanish and that both Cathedral and the article are in English. This is because the locale in question is not the cathedral of Lima at all but a bar across the way that takes its name from it. This made for great trouble in maintaining the capitalized article in reviews and notices, given the fact that no one was aware of that circumstance without having read the book."

  8. I did read a few of his shorter novels and never found him very experimental but I'm sure this one is. I'm equally sure when you read this at the right moment it would be intoxicating. I like the expression "palate cleanser for anyone sick of magical realism". Hehe.
    I will keep it in mind for a later moment as you mentioned details that I would like to read for myself.

  9. *Rise: Sorry you couldn't get a hold of a copy of this--it was an intense, exhilarating experience stylistically, and it would have been nice to add your opinion of it to the mix! As far as the Rabassa thing goes, thanks for bringing that to my attention. Even though I think he did a fine job in translating some very complex prose in Chapter 1 (the only chapter I read in English just to sample it), I think it's funny that Rabassa would get bent out of shape about the capitalization issue. I went off the current U.S. cover's title for my review (without putting "Conversation" in all caps), but I would have done that anyway based on current U.S. practices. I mean, I would never write something called Interview with The Rolling Stones or Conversation at The Roxy just because a capital "The" is the official band or club name. That's just nutty! [Writing about the horrible band "The The" might bring up other complications, though!] There are two other translation issues, one important and one not so, I wish I had mentioned, but I wasn't sure how many people would be interested in the matter so I chose the path of laziness instead. Let me know if you ever want to hear about them and good luck getting a hold of this very interesting book for yourself at some point!

    *Caroline: This is by far the most experimental Vargas Llosa novel I've read so far, but some of my Latin American blog friends tell me that La casa verde [The Green House] is even more adventurous in some ways. Naturally, I'm now excited to read that one at some point! Glad you got a laugh out of the "palate cleanser" line--that was my parting shot at the immense hordes of U.S. bloggers who act as if Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende are the only Lat Am authors of note. Cheers!

  10. I confess, I read the first chapter, was completely drawn in, couldn't wait to read more...and haven't touched it since! I still intend to finish though, especially after reading your review. Just a little matter of making time. (Oh, and now you've got me curious about the translation issues.
    Would you care to elaborate?)

  11. *Amanda: Ha, I can't tell you how often I do that with books--do hope you make time to finish the rest of the novel sometime soon, though, as I'd love to hear what you think of it! And I'm happy to elaborate about the translation issues because I think they shed some light on what can happen when we read books in translation. The more "important" issue of the ones I wanted to mention has to do with the relationship between Santiago and Ambrosio. When addressing each other in the Spanish original, the younger but wealthier Santiago always addresses the older, poorer former servant with the familiar form of you ("tú") while Ambrosio almost always uses the formal/polite form of you ("usted") instead. This says a lot about the class distinctions and power structures that Vargas Llosa traces throughout the novel, but I'm not sure that this shading is ever noticeable in the English translation since we don't have this distinction in our language. It's the type of subtlety that gets lost in translation, but here it's kind of an important one. A less important issue has to do with the translation of names, but it's one of my translation pet peeves! In Vargas Llosa's original, Santiago's dog is referred to as "el Batuque" (~hubbub, uproar) and one important secondary character is commonly referred to as "Chispas" (sparks). Trying to be helpful, I imagine, Rabassa christens the dog as "Rowdy" and the human as "Sparky," two names that sound ludicrously Anglo to me. This isn't such a big deal I guess and it's a common translator practice, but I hate when translators attempt to "explain" names and nicknames like this due to the loss of authenticity it creates. Would it really hurt the reader to have the dog described as "el Batuque" without knowing what that means rather than having him introduced as "Rowdy" (which sounds like a dog from Iowa to me!)? Along the same lines, in leafing through the English translation, I also saw a translation of "by golly," something that reminds me of '50s comic books more than Vargas Llosa. As I mentioned to Rise, Barassa seemed to do a superb job translating a difficult text into English--but some of these less important translation decisions of his detract from the authenticity of reading Vargas Llosa in the original. I realize reading VLl in Spanish isn't an option for everybody, but I think these are things to be aware of in any event. Anyway, thanks for asking!

  12. This review sounds like a book I should love. And yet I gave. The "elliptical, fragmentary approach" drove me nuts.

  13. Thanks for sharing those translation issues, Richard. Something to keep in mind when I get the chance to read the book. I think your explanation of the "the The" (dadaist?) phrase makes practical sense.

  14. *E.L. Fay: Sorry, but as I mentioned to Sarah, I don't think it's a book for everyone. However, I do think it's kind of funny now that half the group loved the experience and the other half gave up on the book. Pricelesss!

    *Rise: Not a problem, my friend-- I'm just glad you and Amanda were interested in hearing about these things. And I should thank you for reminding me about the Rabassa memoir since it's something that I'd like to read that you'd mentioned before. By the way, I'm reading my first Bolaño of the year (The Skating Rink) for your challenge right now and I'll be taking on another Javier Marías title (probably All Souls) next month. Very excited about them both, of course!

  15. Richard, thank you for your explanation of the translation issues. It's only been in the past year or so that I've begun to consider/recognize all the potential translation issues that could come up with prose, and all the decisions that have to be made, for better or ill. Even having only read the first chapter, I can see how the tú/Usted distinction is important to the novel, but I can't say I know how one would easily convey that distinction in English. One of those arguments in favor of reading in the original language, I suppose! I'll have to keep this in mind as I read.

  16. Richard: uno de los libros del top five de Vargas Llosa. Novela experimental, política y grossa, creo que después retoma ese estilo en La fiesta del Chivo pero en ésta última con un poco menos de calidad que la primera. Acertada loa 1º frase de esa novela, caló fondo en todos los estamentos. Quién no se pregunta: en qué momento se jodio todo ?

    saludos Richard

  17. *Amanda: You're very welcome--thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss them! I do agree with you that an awareness of all the potential pitfalls tends to favor one's reading in the original language wherever possible; however, due to the logistics (lack of familiarity with a language, time constraints even when able to negotiate a novel in a second language), I'm just glad that so many translators do such a fine job on a consistent basis. I think they're among the unsung heroes of the literary world. Cheers!

    *Mario: ¡Hola! Probablemente voy a continuar con las novelas tempranas de Vargas Llosa (retomando el hilo con La casa verde), pero tengo ganas de leer otras y de leer algunas obras suyas de no-ficción también. Me gustó La Fiesta del Chivo pero estoy de acuerdo contigo que no es tan excepcional como Conversación en cuanto a su arte narrativo. De todos modos, gracias por visitar por acá (por cierto, vos tenés toda la razón en preguntar quién no se pregunta esa primera frase de VLl). ¡Saludos!

  18. I have sat next to me on my TBR The Feast of the Goat,I picked it up from some charity shop, in perfect condition & hope to start it soon.

  19. *Parrish: Although I have a couple of more or less minor quibbles with it, The Feast of the Goat is completely juicy storytelling-wise and has some amazing characterization. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!