lunes, 30 de mayo de 2011

Los sinsabores del verdadero policía

Los sinsabores del verdadero policía (Anagrama, 2011)
by Roberto Bolaño
Spain, 2011

Los sinsabores del verdadero policía [The Troubles of the Real Police Officer], the latest posthumous release from the man who's rapidly becoming literature's answer to Tupac with a seemingly neverending series of new releases from beyond the grave, is more or less a complete failure as a novel: aimless, out of focus, obscure to the nth degree.  However, as a collection of rough drafts (which it essentially is) and/or a series of outtakes from 2666 (which it often resembles), it's juicy enough that I excitedly tore through it in the course of a few days last week.  While the skeletal outline of a plot mostly concerns the epistolary relationship between Chilean professor Oscar Amalfitano and Barcelona poet Joan Padillla, former lovers who now carry on a transatlantic correspondence about the novel that the latter is writing called El dios de los homosexuales [The God of the Homosexuals] and the city of Santa Teresa in which Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa now find themselves surrounded by killers, most of what got me geeked up here simply had to do either with the flashes of brilliance of the prose or the new or alternate background info on various 2666 characters.  Whether that will be enough to satisfy first-time Bolaño readers is kind of tough to say, but I have a feeling that most hardcore Bolaño veterans will appreciate learning more about what Amalfitano taught his students ["Que la principal enseñanza de la literatura era la valentía, una valentía rara, como un pozo de piedra en medio de un paisaje lacustre, una valentía semejante a un torbellino y a un espejo.  Que no era más cómodo leer que escribir.  Que leyendo se aprendía a dudar y a recordar.  Que la memoria era el amor"/"That what literature principally taught was courage, a strange courage, like a stone well in the middle of swampland, a courage similar to a whirlwind and a mirror.  That it wasn't more comfortable to read than to write.  That by reading, one learned to doubt and to remember.  That memory was love" [146]), what kind of friendships J.M.G. Arcimboldi (without the "h" and recast here as a French rather than a German author) maintained with other writers ("Raymond Queneau, al que consideraba su maestro y con el que se peleó en más de diez ocasiones.  Cinco por carta, cuatro por teléfono y dos persona a persona, la primera con insultos y maldiciones, la segunda con miradas y gestos de desprecio"/"Raymond Queneau, whom he considered his master and with whom he had quarreled on more than ten occasions.  Five by letter, four by telephone, and two face to face, the first time with curses and insults and the second with disdainful looks and gestures" [217]), and things of that nature.  Includes several techniques (e.g. fake bibliographies, encyclopedia style entries) and extended passages (e.g. a satirical discourse on the "heterosexuality" of the novel vs. the "homosexuality" of poetry) that are more fully developed in Nazi Literature in the Americas and The Savage Detectives but still enjoyable in the manner of an album full of B-sides by one of your favorite artists.  (

This was my second title read for The 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge hosted by Rise of in lieu of a field guide.  For more on the novel in Spanish, check out the reviews by Martín of El pez volador here and by Lluís of lecturas errantes here.

sábado, 28 de mayo de 2011

What Ever Happened to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?  (Yale University Press, 2010)
by Gabriel Josipovici
England, 2010

Even though it's way too hot to be doing any typing in this house at the moment, I suppose a few cranky words are in order in regard to this uneven but ultimately invigorating example of literary criticism from sometime novelist and longtime Georges Perec fan Gabriel Josipovici.  To begin with, Josipovici actually pissed me off early on with a couple of sweeping generalizations like the following one used to assert the importance of Rabelais and Cervantes as 16th and 17th century modernist forebears: "It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted" (34).  What the hell, man?  Nobody in the world was ever disenchanted before the Protestant Reformation?  And what about all the ancient novels like those by Petronius and Apuleius that emerged centuries before the ones described here?  They don't rate a mention?  Similarly, I was also mildly annoyed by Josipovici's somewhat lazy celebration of Don Quixote as the game changer among all genre-bending novels--not because I don't agee with the sentiment in itself but because Josipovici seemed to rather questionably overlook non-novel game changers like Ovid's 1st century Metamorphoses and Juan Ruiz's 14th century Libro de buen amor in his stressing of the "tradition" that provided authority to "genre-derived" works before Cervantes (65-66).  Outside the novel format, the Quixote wasn't actually so novel in that regard (which the writer eventually owns up to in an important later chapter comparing Greek tragedy to contemporary drama).  Josipovici also dismayed me on occasion with his hackneyed Old World references to how artistic conventions sometimes "mesh...with the conventions by which bourgeois society lives" (139), but maybe that's just the slovenly middle-class American in me finding a dapper Euro critic's comments about bourgeois society as laughably passé as references to "landed gentry" or some such other nonsense.  In any event, these false starts aside, Josipovici clearly rallied as his extended essay progressed.  While I don't necessarily share his conviction that "Modernism is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them" (154-155), it's thankfully not necessary to agree on that point to enjoy the work as a whole.  Using examples from the world of art and music to complement his focus on the modernist novel and poetry, Josipovici was frequently at his most insightful and/or provocative when drawing parallels between the nonconformist tendencies of modernists working in different media and eras.  Insightful: Using Picasso's 1912-1913 collages to claim that that was the precise moment "when artists grasped that what they were producing were signs or emblems for the external world, not mirrors reflecting it" (114).  Provocative: The sequence where Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass occasioned this interpretive nugget: "Duchamp being Duchamp--it is difficult to know whether to take [the boxes of notes that accompany the artwork] seriously or as a spoof.  They have of course, like the novels of Thomas Bernhard, to be taken both ways" (134).  A few pages later, Duchamp himself contributes a memorable anecdotal highlight of his own in the middle of a sequence where Josipovici has been discussing the way modernists and non-modernists confront "the threshold of boredom" during the creative process: "Dear Stieglitz, Even a few words I don't feel like writing.  You know exactly how I feel about photography.  I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.  There we are.  Affectueusement, Marcel Duchamp" (138-139). With people like Borges, Jarry, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, and Woolf getting a thumbs up from Josipovici and people like Austen, Dickens, Ian McEwan, Irène Némirovsky, and Philip Roth getting a qualified or even a complete thumbs down, it's safe to say that you might enjoy this book--but I'd definitely hesitate to recommend it to any bloggers contemplating a Library Loot, a Mailbox Monday, or a TLC Book Tours post anytime soon! (

Gabriel Josipovici

What Ever Happened to Modernism? was the Wolves' May reading pick as selected by the lovely Frances.  Please consider joining us June 24th-June 26th for the next pick, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as selected by the equally lovely Claire.

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miércoles, 18 de mayo de 2011

Los informantes

Los informantes (Punto de Lectura, 2009)
por Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Colombia, 2004

Los informantes, de Juan Gabriel Vásquez, hace una pregunta básica a nosotros: ¿qué harías si supiste que un familiar, digamos tu padre o tu madre, había delatado contra un inocente en un pasado lejano con consecuencias graves como resultado?  Dado que la novela se abre con dos citas de Demóstenes como epígrafes, que su tema principal es la traición, y que la traición principal de la obra ocurre a mediados de los cuarenta entre la comunidad de inmigrantes alemanes en Colombia, fue una sorpresa encontrar que su narración en primera persona y su tono fueran tan moderados.  Fernando Vallejo, ¿en dónde estás, amigo?  En todo caso, me gustó la obra a pesar de, o posiblemente a causa de, la mesura del novelista en cuanto a su acercamiento estilístico.  El argumento gira sobre la publicación de un libro de reportaje, Una vida en el exilio, y otro, Los informantes, escritos por el periodista Gabriel Santoro en los ochenta y los noventa, con ambos relacionados con las vidas de inmigrantes judíos y nazis en Colombia durante la época de las listas negras puse en marcha por la Segunda Guerra Mundial.  Cuando el padre de Santoro, un conocido profesor de Oratoria, da una paliza al libro de su hijo en público, provoca una reacción en cadena de otras historias entrelazadas que hace hincapié en la dificultad de encontrar justicia para algunos y la dificultad de encontrar expiación para otros.  Lejos de ser pesado, Los informantes es una obra divertida e inteligente aunque tal vez sea más interesante por lo temático que por la escritura en sí misma (de todas formas, me gustó suficientemente para tener ganas de leer la Historia secreta de Costaguana, la segunda novela de Vásquez, en algún momento).  (

The Informers (Riverhead Books, 2010)
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez [translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean]
Colombia, 2004

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers poses an interesting question: what would you do if you learned that a family member, your father or your mother let's say, falsely accused an innocent person in the distant past with dire consequences as a result? Given that the novel opens with two Demosthenes quotes as epigraphs, that its main theme is betrayal, and that the principal betrayal in the work takes place in the mid-1940s among the community of German immigrants in Colombia, I was surprised to discover just how restrained its first-person narration and tone were.  Fernando Vallejo, where are you, my friend?  In any event, I enjoyed the work in spite of--or possibly because of--the novelist's moderation in his approach.  The plot pivots around the publication of one nonfiction book, A Life in Exile, and another, The Informers, written by journalist Gabriel Santoro in the '80s and '90s, with both efforts concerned with the lives of Jewish and Nazi immigrants in Colombia in the blacklist era ushered in by World War II.  When Santoro's father, a well-known professor of rhetoric, lambastes his son's earlier book in public, a chain reaction of other stories and events is set in motion which highlights the difficulty of obtaining justice for some and the difficulty of finding atonement for others.  Far from being a heavy read, The Informers is actually a fast-moving and intelligent work although the subject matter is maybe more interesting than the writing itself (that being said, I liked it enough to now want to read Vásquez's second novel, The Secret History of Costaguana, at some point).  (

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

*Want a second opinion?  C.B. James of Ready When You Are, C.B. reviewed The Informers last month here.*

sábado, 14 de mayo de 2011

Your Face Tomorrow Group Read

(New Directions: English translation by Margaret Jull Costa)

In a departure from the usual truculent book you've never heard about/book you probably wouldn't want to read/book you've never heard about but probably wouldn't want to read anyway review format around here (the "you" in question not being regular Caravana readers, of course, but those homogeneity-loving bloggers more inclined to favor a weekly meme/review of a book I'd never want to read/weekly meme posting format on their own blogs), I thought I'd take a moment to mention the three-month long Javier Marías Your Face Tomorrow [Tu rostro mañana] group read some intrepid friends and I will be undertaking in June through August this summer.  Marías' novel, the subject of a previous readalong at Conversational Reading last year which drew raves for the book (host Scott Esposito: "It's a testament to Marías' abilities as a storyteller that after 1,000 pages of this book Volume 3 has me more hooked than ever"), is probably one of the most important works in Spanish language literature of the last 10 years judging by its reception by the critics.  At the same time, its reception has been such that even people who have embraced its ambition and prose have questioned its overall success as a genre-bending work of art (Stacey d'Erasmo, writing in the NY Times, called it a "magnificent, sui generis three-part novel" but a project that was "both fundamentally troubling and fundamentally troubled").  Care to put these mixed reviews to the test yourself? If so, please join us for one or more of the following dates below (to encourage the participation of fellow procrastinators, I've arranged the discussion schedule for each volume of the novel to fall on or near the last day of each month).
  • Your Face Tomorrow, Vol. 1: Fever and Spear (Thursday, June 30th)
  • Your Face Tomorrow, Vol. 2: Dance and Dream (Sunday, July 31st)
  • Your Face Tomorrow, Vol. 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (Wednesday, August 31st)

(Debolsillo: Spanish original by Javier Marías)

Probable participants for one or all volumes

It's been an absolutely awesome week for Spanish language literature in these parts.  First, Amateur Reader over at Wuthering Expectations has been running a superb week-long series on "The Spanish Issue" of The Hudson Review, which features essays by Bolaño, Borges, and Antonio Muñoz Molina among others in addition to poetry and other stuff.  The Bolaño essay, "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" on the subject of Argentinean literature, is prob. the best critical piece I've read all year and typically Bolañoesque in its mixture of entertainment, insight and savage delivery.  Secondly, I've just started Enrique Vila-Matas' El mal de Montano [Montano's Malady], which I've been looking forward to ever since I read his amusing Bartleby y compañia [Bartleby & Co.] a few years back.  Finally, in addition to ordering the first volume of Javier Marías' Tu rostro mañana pictured above for the upcoming group read, I picked up several Spanish language titles that I'd been craving for a while in a Thursday night jackpot at Schoenhof's: César Aira's Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero [An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter], Roberto Bolaño's nonfiction Entre paréntesis [Between Parentheses, forthcoming in English translation in June, and the source of "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" excerpted by The Hudson Review] and unfinished novel Los sinsabores del verdadero policía [a January 2011 release with no translation date set yet, this features a grab bag of writing about various characters from 2666 and other Bolaño titles], and Javier Cercas' Anatomía de un instante [The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History & Imagination].  Not sure when I'll get around to all this booty, but it has already caused a shake-up in my reading plans for the rest of the month.  Exciting times, for me at least!

lunes, 9 de mayo de 2011

The Hour of the Star

The Hour of the Star [A Hora da Estrela] (New Directions, 1992)
by Clarice Lispector [translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero]
Brazil, 1977

Considering what a big deal Lispector is regarded as in non-lemming circles, I was bummed to find out that The Hour of the Star, her supposed masterpiece, is more annoying than interesting.  In fact, it was so unrewarding that I'm probably one and done with her.  A fake biography of a 19-year old poverty victim from northeastern Brazil named Macabéa, this 86-page novella is at its best offering up cryptic imagery ("it is the same soft drink that sponsored the recent earthquake in Guatemala" [23]) and the occasional lyrical moment ("May, the month of bridal veils floating in clouds of white" [42]) in between bouts of way self-conscious prose, hamfisted dialogue, and the like.  At its worst, it's reminiscent of Talking Heads: 77 in terms of its poseur pretentiousness, its labored "artfulness,"  and its lack of a non-dork mouthpiece.  Still, eleven stories less dildonic than The Dodecahedron, for whatever that's worth!  (

Clarice Lispector