domingo, 30 de septiembre de 2012

The Argentinean Literature of Doom: September Link Action

Since Tom and I agreed to postpone our Facundo discussion from last week until this week and I've been sort of enjoying a working vacation from the blog in general of late, I'm afraid there's not too much Argentinean literature to report on here tonight.  Thankfully, two of my favorite Borges fans bailed me out with wonderful end of the month posts--gracias, Miguel and Rise!

On a related note, the Bioy Casares Borges diary pictured above, a 1,600 page library chunkster whose cover has been serving as an unofficial button for the Doom project, has been recalled from me again by a person or persons unknown.  Good thing I'm already several hundred pages behind on Galdós' Fortunata y Jacinta for Dwight's October readalong or there might be some Borges-inspired fisticuffs to relate to you all!

Miguel, St. Orberose
Rise, in lieu of a field guide

sábado, 29 de septiembre de 2012


Aurélia (Le Livre de Poche, 1989)
by Gérard de Nerval
France, 1855

"Non! disais-je, je n'appartiens pas à ton ciel.  Dans cette étoile sont ceux qui m'attendent.  Ils sont antérieurs à la révélation que tu as annoncée.  Laisse-moi les rejoindre, car celle que j'aime leur appartient, et c'est là que nous devons nous retrouver!"
"'No!' I said, 'I don't belong to your heaven.  On that star are those who await me.  They predate the revelation that you've announced.  Let me rejoin them, for the woman that I love belongs to them and it's there where we need to meet each other again!'"
(Aurélia, 10)
Although anybody who knows anything about Gérard de Nerval's mental breakdowns and eventual suicide will probably read Aurélia wondering just where the author's imagination leaves off and his illness begins, those of you who know nothing about Nerval can just sit back and enjoy the wild autobiographical quest narrative with nods to Aeneas' descent into the underworld, Dante's Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia, and Swedenborgian mysticism, Aurélia--set into motion by the woman who broke Nerval's heart and accompanied by disarmingly casual accounts of his time spent under medical supervision--is perhaps best thought of as a lush, poetic odyssey dedicated to exploring its opening sentence's proposition that "Le Rêve est une seconde vie" ["Dream is a second life"] (3); of course, since no amount of playing pin the tail on the donkey re: genre matters can quite prepare one for the onslaught of oneiric imagery depicting the heaven and hell occupying real estate in Nerval's mind, nobody will fault you if you choose to experience Aurélia as a vision literature-damaged memoir or an extravagant poem in prose on the subject of dreams and madness and a seeker's traipses through a nightmarish Paris instead...Jean Giraudoux, referring to the tradition that a manuscript of Aurélia was fished out of the dead man's pockets by his friends after they were sent to identify Nerval's body at the morgue, has rightfully characterized the work as "une préface passionnément mais volontairement écrite au suicide qui allait l'interrompre" ["a passionately but wilfully written preface to the suicide that was going to interrupt it"] (xviii)--a judgement which makes total sense even if it only hints at Aurélia's more alluring and ecstatic qualities as a reading experience.  A revelation.

Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855)
Tom of Wuthering Expectations, whom I believe I first "met" on account of this Gérard de Nerval-related post at Caravana here, has written several savvy posts on our troubled French hero and one man doppelgänger.  His No More Death, No More Sorrow, No More Anxiety - The Mad Dreams of Aurélia is as good a place as any to set off on the Wuthering Expectations Nervalmania expedition, but you probably won't want to stop there once you start.

domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2012

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro [La Testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro] (New Directions, 1999)
by Antonio Tabucchi [translated from the Italian by J.C. Patrick]
Italy, 1997

"I will start with a question which I address chiefly to myself," said Don Fernando.  "What does it mean to be against death?"
(The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, 164)

Two novels into my relationship with the sadly recently departed Antonio Tabucchi, I think that one of the main things I appreciate about the Italian Lusophile is his light touch with some very heavy themes.  Much like its 1994 predecessor Pereira Declares, The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro cloaks a handful of depressing realities--in this case, a violent crime in Oporto which sports a spider's web of connections to the international drug trade, political torture, and the abuse of power in a modern police state--in the garb of a prose style that's easygoing and almost affable in its sensibilities.  The result is a deceptively simple crime story of sorts in which the gruesome crime that literally costs 28-year old errand boy Damasceno Monteiro his head is only the starting point for a melancholic reflection on a gruesome crime of an altogether different nature and scale: societal apathy to the victimization of the powerless by the powerful be it by bloodshed or by economic means.  Without Tabucchi's light touch, this could have ended up as some seriously heavyhanded reading.  With it, however, one only senses a concerned humanist's attempt to persuade his readers of the interconnectedness of all things literary and political as a call to action.  On this note, I should mention that one of the other keys to my enjoyment of this novel was its oddly affecting portrayal of the amicizia between the apolitical but Elio Vittorini and György Lukács-loving Lisbon crime reporter Firmino and the gluttonous social justice attorney Don Fernando--an activist who comes from old money in Oporto but not only defends the "unfortunates" with his words and his actions but actually identifies with them "because to understand the miseries of life you have to put your hands in the shit, if you will excuse the expression, and above all be aware of it.  And kindly don't force me to be rhetorical, because this form of rhetoric is cheap" (94).

Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012)

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro was read for Antonio Tabucchi Week sponsored by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat.  Thanks to Caroline for coming up with such a fine idea for the week.

lunes, 17 de septiembre de 2012

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (Penguin, 1992)
by Peter Matthiessen
USA, 1983

Peter Matthiessen's combative, morally outraged In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a 600+ page polemic concerning "the story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's war on the American Indian Movement," is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately powerful account of the June 26, 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that left one Indian companion of Peltier's dead and probably unfairly landed Peltier in jail for the rest of his life for the execution of two white FBI agents who also died there that day.  I say "probably unfairly" because, without passing any judgement on Peltier's actual innocence or guilt in the matter, it's difficult to argue with the conclusion arrived at by Matthiessen that Peltier never really received his fair day in court due to multiple examples of FBI and judicial misconduct.  That being said, one of the most frustrating things about the work is that, in the first half of the book at least, Matthiessen sometimes undercuts the effectiveness of his charges with surprisingly sloppy argumentation: "Many if not most of the FBI agents, fired up by the the sensational press releases being issued by their own superiors, were in a dangerous, vengeful state of mind" he says in one egregiously unsubstantiated moment (195).  "Many," Matthiessen?  OK, maybe.  "Many if not most"?  Suffice it to say that there's no documentation for this assertion.  The irony of all this is that when Matthiessen sticks to the facts, he's an extremely persuasive advocate for the idea that justice wasn't served in the Reservation Murders case.  Among the many strengths of the work, Matthiessen takes great pains to situate the so-called "incident at Oglala" in its historic context through dozens of interviews with the principal players.  His chapter-long portrait of the nascent American Indian Movement (AIM) in the years from 1968-1973 and a pair of chapters on the Wounded Knee occupation and trials in 1973-1974, for example, provide a troubling but much needed political backdrop to what a later chapter terms "The New Indian Wars: AIM Versus the FBI, 1972-75," all of which helps to explain how longstanding patterns of institutional racism directed against Native Americans and violent intra-Indian rivalries between traditionals and goons on Pine Ridge essentially created a climate where the bloodshed of the day in question probably could have been anticipated although maybe not avoided.  A fascinating if ethically unsettling work--not least for the contradictory impressions of Peltier that emerge:

One AIM leader, asked if Leonard was capable of violence, evaded the question with the statement "All Indians are capable of violence; we had to be in order to survive."  Another (who deplored the "violent element" in AIM) claimed to have heard from Pine Ridge people that Peltier was responsible for the killings, and did not think that "a man of violence" should become a hero for Indian children.  This person conceded that Leonard's guilt could be mere rumor, which is epidemic on the Indian reservations; she scarcely knew Peltier personally, she said, because "Leonard was always outside helping build the sweat lodge, or taking care of something else" (437-438).

Peter Matthiessen

sábado, 1 de septiembre de 2012

The Argentinean Literature of Doom

This probably won't come as much of a surprise to those of you who are already aware of some of my many vices, but I, ahem, still seem to have a ton of unread books left over from the recent Spanish Lit Month excesses.  So, inspired by various interactive reading projects hosted by both Amateur Reader (Tom) of Wuthering Expectations and Nicole of bibliographing in the past couple of years (and in particular whipped up into a delayed reading frenzy by these two posts by Tom here and a year earlier here), I've decided to devote most of the rest of 2012 to the Argentinean Literature of Doom.  "What is the ALoD?" you ask.  Well, it's not a reading challenge--it's more, like Spanish Lit Month on a more expansive scale but only focused on a single country, a reading project/doomathon designed for me and possibly you to sample some great lit specimens from an often overlooked book culture in the company of a handful of virtual others.  I'm pretty sure that I'll at least in part be looking to test Roberto Bolaño's thesis, mentioned in one of Tom's posts above, that a prominent strain of post-Borges Argentinean literature has been infected by a particularly virulent doom virus.  You, on the other hand, may read whatever you like from the entire corpus of sickly or non-sickly Argentinean letters (as Wilhelm Doommeister, I'll also commit to rounding up the links of all participants' posts at least once a month and sharing them here for others to enjoy).  Having already said that the Argentinean Literature of Doom proyecto isn't a reading challenge, I should probably clarify that there is a reading challenge-like component available for anybody who'd like to take me up on it: using the world-famous "the only challenge that matters rules" popularized by the Wuthering Expectations braintrust, you can "challenge" me to read any work of Argentinean literature with you before the end of the year.  That is, we work out an agreeable schedule that works for both of us and then you and I post on the book, poem, or short story more or less around the same time.  Please note that for things I've already read, I reserve the right to just comment on your post rather than rereading a Rayuela-sized book in its entirety; also, I'm open to a challenge title from any author from a country adjacent to Argentina (Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Chile) as long as the novelist in question isn't named Isabel Allende or Paulo Coelho--I'd like to be geographically flexible, you understand, but this is the Literature of Doom and not the Literature of Middlebrow we're talking about after all.

The Argentinean Literature of Doom
runs September-December 2012.* Your attendance is requested but not required.

Reading Suggestions
Let's say you might want to participate in this project but you're not sure what to read for it.  No problem--no experience necessary.  However, here are a handful of ideas.  If you're of a 19th century bent, you could always read Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's 1845 Facundo [Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism] with Tom from Wuthering Expectations and me at some point during the second half of this month (it's the first Argentinean Literature of Doom "challenge" that's been agreed upon).  Sarmiento's work, written from exile in Chile during Argentina's mid-century civil wars, is a political biography as ethnography and history screed that has had a profound impact on many other Latin American thinkers since its publication.  Other major 19th century works: Esteban Echevarría's "El matadero" ["The Slaughterhouse," reviewed at Wuthering Expectations here], often considered to be one of Latin America's first short stories, and La cautiva [The Captive, possibly unavailable in translation], a long poem having to do with Argentina's Indian wars; Lucio V. Mansilla's 1870 nonfiction Una excursión a los indios ranqueles [A Visit to the Ranquel Indians]; and José Hernández's two-part gaucho epic poem, Martín Fierro, from 1872 and 1879 [described at Wuthering Expectations here and here].

Moving on to the 20th century, you have even more choices--so I'll try and limit myself just to the major names.  Leopoldo Lugones and Macedonio Fernández are said to be two of the bigger deals in pre-Borges 20th century Argentinean letters although Lugones seems to be in decline and Macedonio seems to be in the ascendant right now.  I've read little by either, but Scott from seraillon enjoyed Lugones' Strange Forces short story collection here and E.L. Fay of This Book and I Could Be Friends seemed to like Macedonio's posthumous provocation The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) here.  Borges' lifelong friends Adolfo Bioy Casares and his wife Silvina Ocampo both have long bibliographies of "fantastic literature" you could choose from, as does crackpot acquaintance J.R. Wilcock although most of his work was written in Italian after he left Argentina for Italy. If, on the other hand, you want a near contemporary of Borges' who was "less literary" and a clear precursor of the Literature of Doom that Bolaño talks about, you could do a whole lot worse than Roberto Arlt and his 1926 El juguete rabioso [Mad Toy] and 1929 Los siete locos [The Seven Madmen].  The latter title, about a plan to foment violent revolution in the Americas through funding obtained from a proliferation of brothels, is visionary fucked-upedness at its best if I do say so myself.

Bypassing Ezequiel Martínez Estrada's essayistic 1933 Radiografía de la pampa [X-Ray of the Pampa] and Leopoldo Marechal's humorously post-Joycean 1948 Adán Buenosayres for the moment, let's jump ahead to the "modern era."  A relatively little known nugget for English readers but a standard in Argentina is Rodolfo Walsh's 1957 Operación Masacre, a pre-In Cold Blood work of "novelistic" investigative journalism.  Of the many Julio Cortázar works you could choose from, I'm most fond of the 1959 novella El perseguidor [The Pursuer, reviewed by Rise of in lieu of a field guide here] and of course the 1962 Boom classic Rayuela [Hopscotch].  Alejandra Pizarnik, who almost went down in history as the woman who lost the manuscript of Cortázar's Rayuela, was a poet whose signature work "La condesa sangriente" ["The Bloody Countess"] is almost surrealistically gory and lyrical. Ricardo Piglia and Juan José Saer, two novelists and critics whose writing and professorial careers stretched from the 1960s up to the 2000s, have both written multiple intellectual but hard-hitting novels that floored me--Piglia's 1980 Respiración artificial [Artificial Respiration] and Saer's 1985 Glosa [The Sixty-Five Years of Washington] probably being my favorite examples of each's work.  Fogwill and César Aira,  two fans of Argentinean Literature of Doom anti-hero Osvaldo Lamborghini (more on him before too long, not to worry), have contributed three of my all-time favorite Argentinean works to date: the 1979 short story "Muchacha punk" and 1983 novella Los pichiciegos [Malvinas Requiem] by Fogwill and the 1987 short story "Cecil Taylor" by Aira.  That's probably way more information than anybody cares for, so fans of either Manuel Puig or Tomás Eloy Martínez will have to pardon me for not saying anything about them here.

*Thanks to Stu, who has agreed to co-host Spanish Lit Month with me again but in a winter month next year, Spanish Lit Month will return in January 2013.  That kind of gives you savvy rule-breakers an extra month to participate in the Argentinean Literature of Doom should you choose to do so.*