miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2012

The Argentinean Literature of Doom: October Link Action

Thanks to a spirited discussion of Sarmiento's often hyperbolic Facundo, there were more than twice as many ALoD posts in October as there were in September.  Of course, my stats monkey reminds me that there were only two such posts in September.  That being said, gracias to Tom and Rise for their reading/writing contributions this month.  Not yet sure what November will have in store on the Argentinean lit front here at Caravana, but given the "serious" nature of the other reading plans in place, don't be too surprised if J.R. Wilcock's The Wedding of Hitler and Marie Antoinette in Hell makes its long-awaited appearance at last.  That would slap a smile onto your Argentinophile book-blogging face now, wouldn't it?

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Siete noches by Jorge Luis Borges
Rise, in lieu of a field guide
"The Golden Hare" by Silvina Ocampo

lunes, 22 de octubre de 2012

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Duras
France, 1958

I finished Haruki Murakami's laughably inept Kafka on the Shore something like a day or two after I finished Marguerite Duras' assured, devastating Moderato cantabile.  Bad timing for Murakami because there's nothing at all funny or inauthentic about Duras' book.  In a quiet seaside town, a restless child's weekly Friday piano lesson is interrupted first by the roar of a passing motorboat--a symbol of freedom and the chance to escape--and then by the piercing wail of a woman who has just been killed in a crime of passion in a neighboring café.  The child's mother, Anne Desbaresdes, will spend the remainder of the novella trying to piece together what happened and why on that fateful day in question; you, in turn, will read on with increasing Madame Bovary-like horror as the desperate provincial mother here seems to try to effect a similar escape by finding solace in drink, a flirtation with adultery with an "homme de la rue" named Chauvin, and finally an open identification with the murder victim herself.  What price freedom, eh?  As with the novelist's later Hiroshima mon amour, I was both drawn to and perturbed by Duras' austere, economic prose and by her uncanny sense of control while charting such emotionally troubled waters.  One of the ways Duras mounts tension in the text is by casually drawing attention to the fact that others are keenly aware of the reckless amount of time that Madame Desbaresdes, the wealthy wife of a big deal import-export magnate in town, and Chauvin, an unemployed factory worker, are spending together drinking wine in the bar.  However, the way she does it is almost cinematically subtle because she never lingers for too long on the shot: "Les premiers hommes entrèrent au café, s'étonnèrent, interrogèrent la patronne du regard.  Celle-ci, d'un léger mouvement d'épaules, signifia qu'elle-même n'y comprenait pas grand chose" ["The first men came into the café, were astonished, and questioned the proprietor with a look.  She, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, indicated that she herself didn't know much about it"] (1224).  Although this kind of unobtrusive moment might not even merit a second glance on its own, it turns out to be just the right amount of detail to set up a chilling scene later on.  As the narrative relentlessly chugs forward to its conclusion, the narrator laconically tells us that "un homme rôde, boulevard de la Mer.  Une femme le sait" ["a man is on the prowl on the Boulevard de la Mer; a woman knows it"] (1246).  While I won't spoil what takes place afterward or cite the brutal final exchange between the couple that practically made me sick to my stomach, suffice it to say that the prowler is Chauvin, the femme is a drunken Madame Desbaresdes who is hosting a dinner party attended by her husband's monied friends, and the thrust of what follows is a queasy dance with death that will help you determine whether Anne Desbaresdes is a martyr to a loveless marriage or just another victim in quest of annihilation.  A total downer--but an impossibly well-written one.

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

This version of Moderato cantabile appears in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Duras' Œuvres complètes, Tome I, 1203-1260.

lunes, 15 de octubre de 2012

Siete noches

Siete noches (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007)
by Jorge Luis Borges
Argentina, 1980

Between June 1st and August 3rd of the Argentinean Literature of Doom year of 1977, the then 78-year old Jorge Luis Borges delivered a series of seven talks on "La Divina Comedia" ["The Divine Comedy"], "La pesadilla" ["Nightmares"], "Las mil y una noches" ["The Thousand and One Nights"], "El budismo" ["Buddhism"], "La poesía" ["Poetry"], "La cábala" ["The Kabbalah"], and "La ceguera" ["Blindness"] at the 1700-seat teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires' upscale Retiro district.  Although there were apparently more than a few dull moments on the noches dedicated to Buddhism and the Kabbalah, I won't gripe about that too much here since Borges was in undeniably fine form on all the non-opiate of the masses evenings in question.  His lecture on "Nightmares" is a good case in point and a good introduction to his presentation methodology in general.  After opening with a thought-provoking contrast between whether the waking memories of our dreams are, as Sir Thomas Browne believed, just a poor substitute for "la espléndida realidad" ["splendid reality"] or whether our dreams are instead, as Borges himself believed, like "una obra de ficción" ["a work of fiction"] that only improves with our retelling of it (36), the man of the hour mentions several examples of dreams in literature before turning to the etymology of the word "pesadilla" ["nightmare"] in various languages both ancient and modern.  A fascinating linguistic detour.  Confessing to his own recurring nightmares about labyrinths and mirrors (the former of which he partially attributes to the terrifying sight of a steel engraving of the labyrinth of Crete in a French book from his childhood), Borges then links the autobiographical with his interest in the treatment of nightmares in literature with the following arresting statement: "Llego a la conclusión, ignoro si es científico, de que los sueños son la actividad estética más antigua" ["I arrive at the conclusion, not knowing if it is scientific or not, that dreams are our most ancient aesthetic activity"] (47).  Throughout, Borges always seems to channel that extraordinary but very down to earth Comp Lit professor who clearly enjoys bonding with his students over the joys of text(s).  Thomas de Quincey, for example, is gently razzed for having "una admirable memoria inventiva" ["an admirable inventive memory"] in the talk about The Thousand and One Nights.  "Cada palabra es una obra poética" ["Each word is a poetic piece of work"] we are assured in the lecture on poetry (104).  No doom and maybe not the best Borges book for me to be writing about late at night considering I still have Ficciones to finish at some point but a satisfying souvenir all the same.

Borges at the Coliseo

Llegamos ahora a la palabra más sabia y ambigua, el nombre inglés de la pesadilla: the nightmare, que significa para nosotros "la yegua de la noche".  Shakespeare la entendió así.  Hay un verso suyo que dice I met the nightmare, "me encontré con la yegua de la noche".  Se ve que la concibe como una yegua.  Hay otro poema que ya dice deliberadamente the nightmare and her nine foals, "la pesadilla y sus nueve potrillos", donde la ve como una yegua tambien.
We now arrive at the most sensible and ambiguous word, the English name for la pesadilla: the nightmare, which means "the mare of the night" to us.  Shakespeare understood it in that way.  There is a verse of his which says, "I met the nightmare."  One sees that he conceives of it as a mare.  There is another poem which deliberately says "the nightmare and her nine foals," where he also sees it as a mare.
(Siete noches, 42)

Obviously anticipating the future release of the ALoD syllabus, Borges fan Rise of in lieu of a field guide reviewed the English translation of Seven Nights as part of his January 2010 Reading Diary.  A quick summary of César Aira's Ghosts, apparently submitted for extra credit, can be found at the same spot by clairvoyant and non-clairvoyant readers alike.

lunes, 8 de octubre de 2012

Mémoires d'Hadrien

Mémoires d'Hadrien (Gallimard, 2011)
by Marguerite Yourcenar
France, 1951

Ce matin, l'idée m'est venue pour la première fois que mon corps, ce fidèle compagnon, cet ami plus sûr, mieux connu de moi que mon âme, n'est qu'un monstre sournois qui finira par dévorer son maître.
This morning the idea came to me for the first time that my body, this loyal companion, this surest of friends, better known by me than my soul, is nothing but a cunning monster which will end up devouring its master.
(Mémoires d'Hadrien, 11)

Mémoires d'Hadrien [barbarian title: Memoirs of Hadrian] is a profound, remarkably subtle, and understated work which convincingly passes itself off as a long letter from the dying Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 C.E.) to a young protégé who would later become known to posterity as the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Although Yourcenar claims in the afterword that one of her goals in writing the work--a work that obsessed and then stymied the novelist for the better part of three decades--was to "refaire du dedans ce que les archéologues du XIXe siècle ont fait du dehors" ["redo from within what the 19th century archeologists did from without"] (327), her attempt to painstakingly reconstruct a vanished world--and in particular the mindset of a physically deteriorating 60-year old man who lived and loved so many centuries before us--would have fallen flat on its historical fiction face had the voice she created for her title character not succeeded so admirably and even paradigmatically.  At the very least, I could relate to listening to him ruminate about his current afflictions and about his love for life in his youth and I could also believe it when he talked about the grief he endured as a result of the suicide of his lover Antinous--an event that is said to have caused the real life Hadrian "to weep like a woman" and an event that the grief-stricken fictional Hadrian at one point describes as "mon dialogue interrompu avec un fantôme" ["my interrupted dialogue with a phantom"] (291).  A keen, affecting, but deceptively low-key production--proof of which is that the book's been trashed by multiple Amazon reviewers for having "no dialogue" and "no plot," those two cornerstones of the ancient epistolary tradition!

Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987)

Mémoires d'Hadrien was my September 2011 reading pick for the gone but not forgotten reading group known as the Wolves.  Although I'm naturally a little embarrassed to be over a year late in getting to my own group read selection, I'm delighted to finally link to the non-slacker Wolfies' posts below.

E.L. Fay, This Book and I Could Be Friends
Frances, Nonsuch Book
Sarah, what we have here is a failure to communicate

miércoles, 3 de octubre de 2012

Facundo. Civilización y barbarie

Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie (Cátedra, 2005)
por Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Argentina, 1845

En la primera de sus dos excelentes entradas sobre Facundo del lunes y del martes, Tom de Wuthering Expectations hizo ver que la obra de no ficción de Sarmiento acerca del choque de culturas entre la "civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas)" ["civilización (Buenos Aires y unas ciudades periféricas) y barbarie (las Pampas)"] en las guerras civiles de Argentina a mediados del siglo XIX es tan "imaginatively rich" ["imaginativamente rica"] que el libro parece haber anticipado ambas la novela del dictador de Latinoamérica y la futura no ficción latinoamericana del siglo XX como Los sertones de Euclides de Cunha.  Aunque el concepto de Tom en cuanto a lo que significa ser "imaginativamente rica" pueda ser distinto del mío, me gustaría adoptar esa idea como un punto de partida para subrayar varias cosas que me entusiasmaron en Facundo.  Primer de todo, para un fanático del lenguaje, es difícil negar el gran impacto del ritmo de la prosa declamatoria de Sarmiento: "¡Sombra terrible de Facundo", fulmina contra su adversario muerto en la introducción, "voy a evocarte, para que sacudiendo el ensangrentado polvo que cubre tus cenizas, te levantes a explicarnos la vida secreta y las convulsiones internas que desgarran las entrañas de un noble pueblo!  Tú posees el secreto: revélanoslo" (37-38).  Si quizá un poco pomposo, en torno al estilo esto no es sólo un recurso retórico: la biografía de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), el símbolo del "gaucho malo" por excelencia, y las diatribas políticas en contra del tirano Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), otro caudillo gaucho que --según el autor-- es culpable por arruinar al país, hierva de la cólera del exiliado Sarmiento frente a la memoria de los varios crímenes violentos de los hombres.  En medio de las letanías casi sin fin escritas sobre el mal, las cuales frecuentemente se leen como las más sencionales de las biografías imperiales romanas de Suetonio, Sarmiento de vez en cuando ofrece algunos momentos tranquilos como la aparencia de los rayos sobre la Pampa (una escena maravillosamente transformada por César Aira en su novela corta del año 2000 Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero) o algunos ejemplos de análisis político como éste donde se describe Argentina como un país a caballo de un pasado iletrado (con raices en la cultura de los gauchos) y de un futuro civilizado políglota (anclado a una visión idealizada de la cultura europea): "En la República Argentina se ven a un tiempo dos civilizaciones distintas en un mismo suelo: una naciente, que sin conocimiento de lo que tiene sobre su cabeza, está remedando los esfuerzos ingenuos y populares de la edad media; otra que sin cuidarse de lo que tiene a sus pies, intenta realizar los últimos resultados de la civilización europea: el siglo XIX y el XII viven juntos; el uno dentro de las ciudades, el otro en las campañas" (91).  Si, como la mayoría de ustedes, no conozco la historia argentina del siglo XIX suficientemente bien para saber si o cuando Sarmiento esté exagerando las cosas para probar algo, no importa tanto dada su destreza "cuentística" como historiador.  De hecho, en un prólogo a una edición de Facundo imprimida en 1974 por la Librería "El Ateneo" Editorial en Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges incluso afirmó que "el Facundo erigido por Sarmiento es el personaje más memorable de nuestras letras" (véase Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos [Buenos Aires: Torres Agüero Editor, 1975], 138).  ¿Tenía razón el juicio de Borges?  Una anécdota desde el capítulo XII de Facundo, el último de cuatro capítulos en sucesión que se llaman "Guerra social", le permitirá que uno puede juzgarlo por si mismo (ojo: te evitaré los detalles subsiguientes en cuanto a los cadáveres y el cementerio).  Es el mes de noviembre del año 1831.  Facundo, el llamado "Tigre de los Llanos", ha justo obtuvo un triunfo en un Tucumán caracterizado como "el edén de América" (266); naturalmente, él está preparando a matar a todos los prisioneros enemigos como de siempre.  Sin embargo, "una diputación de niñas rebosando juventud, candor y beldad" se dirige hacia él; "vienen a implorar por la vida de los oficiales del ejército que van a ser fusilados".  Contra todas las expectativas, Sarmiento nos dice, "Facundo está vivamente interesado, y por entre la espesura de su barba negra alcanza a discernirse en las facciones la complacencia y el contento".  Las esperanzas de las niñas en cuanto al "piadoso fin que se han propuesto" parecen prometedoras cuando Facundo pasa una hora entera "interrogarlas una a una", preguntándolas de sus familias y otros detalles personales.  Pero "al fin", Sarmiento escribe, Facundo "les dice con la mayor bondad: ¿No oyen ustedes, esas descargas?  ¡Ya no hay tiempo!" (268-269)

Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (University of California Press, 2003)
by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento [translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Ross]
Argentina, 1845

In the first of his two excellent posts on Facundo from Monday and Tuesday, Tom of Wuthering Expectations made the point that Sarmiento's nonfiction classic about the clash of cultures between "civilization (Buenos Aires and a few outlying cities) and barbarism (the Pampas)" in Argentina's mid-19th century civil wars is so "imaginatively rich" that it seems to have anticipated both the Latin American dictator novel and early 20th century Latin American nonfiction like Euclides da Cunha's epic Rebellion in the Backlands.  Even though Tom's conception of what's "imaginatively rich" may well differ from my own, I'd like to borrow that idea as a starting point to jot down several of the things that made Facundo such a gripping read for me.  First of all, for a language freak, it's hard to deny the raw power of Sarmiento's declamatory cadences: "Terrible specter of Facundo," he thunders at his dead adversary in the introduction, "I will evoke you, so that you may rise, shaking off the bloody dust covering your ashes, and explain the hidden life and the inner convulsions that tear at the bowels of a noble people!  You possess the secret: reveal it to us!" (31).  While maybe over the top, this isn't just an over the top rhetorical device--Sarmiento's biography of Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), the symbol of "the bad gaucho" par excellence, and his political diatribes against the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), another gaucho strongman whom Sarmiento claims has brought the country to its knees, veritably seethe with the exiled Sarmiento's wrath at the pair's various violent crimes.  In between the seemingly unending litanies of evil, which often read like some of Suetonius' more lurid imperial Roman biographies transplanted to the Río de la Plata region a mere two millennia later, the pugilistic stylist and would-be political scientist Sarmiento occasionally slips in a quiet moment like an arresting nature scene about lightning storms on the Pampas (wonderfully transfigured by César Aira in his 2000 novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter) and many more or less thoughtful attempts at political analysis such as this one where he depicts Argentina as a country caught in between an unlettered past (rooted in South American gaucho culture) and a lettered, polyglot future (anchored to an idealized vision of European immigrant culture): "In the Argentine Republic we see at the same time two different societies on the same soil: one still nascent, which, with no knowledge of things over its head, repeats the naive, popular work of the Middle Ages; another which, with no regard for things beneath its feet, tries to attain the latest results of European civilization.  The nineteenth and the twelfth centuries live together: one inside the cities, the other in the country" (70).  If, like most of you, I'm not nearly familiar enough with 19th century Argentinean history to know when Sarmiento might be exaggerating about events to prove a point, that matters little from an entertainment standpoint given the immediacy of Sarmiento's "storytelling" abilities as an historian.  In fact, in a prologue to a 1974 edition of Facundo put out by the Librería "El Ateneo" Editorial in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges even went so far as to claim that "el Facundo erigido por Sarmiento es el personaje más memorable de nuestras letras" ["the Facundo erected by Sarmiento is the most memorable character in our literature"] (cf. Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos [Buenos Aires: Torres Agüero Editor, 1975], 138).  Was Borges correct in his assessment?  A random anecdote from Chapter XII of Facundo, the last of four chapters in a row called "Society at War," might allow you to decide for yourself--although I'll spare you the coda about the executed soldiers' bodies being dragged off to the cemetery.  It's November of 1831.  Facundo, the so-called "Tiger of the Plains," has just won a resounding victory at the Edenic Tucumán and is preparing to kill off all the defeated enemy prisoners as usual.  However, "a delegation of young girls brimming with youth, innocence, and beauty" approach him and "come to plead for the lives of the army officers who were going to be shot."  Against all expectations, Sarmiento tells us, "Facundo was keenly interested, and from amid the thickness of his black beard, contentment and complacency could be discerned on his features."  The sobbing girls' hopes for mercy are raised as Facundo questions them one by one for a full hour, asking questions about their families and inquiring about other personal details in a friendly and respectful manner.  "At last," however, Sarmiento writes, "he said to them with the greatest affability: 'Do you hear those shots being fired?'  It was too late!" (180-181).


Es inaudito el cúmulo de atrocidades que se necesita amontonar unas sobre otras para pervertir a un pueblo, y nadie sabe los ardides, los estudios, las observaciones y la sagacidad que ha empleado don Juan Manuel Rosas para someter la ciudad a esa influencia mágica que trastorna en seis años la concienca de lo justo y de lo bueno, que quebranta al fin los corazones más esforzados y los doblega al yugo.  El terror de 1793 en Francia era un efecto, no un instrumento.  Robespierre no guillotinaba nobles y sacerdotes para crearse una reputación, ni elevarse él sobre los cadáveres que amontonaba.  Era un alma adusta y severa aquella que había creído que era preciso amputar a la Francia todos sus miembros aristocráticos, para cimentar la revolución.  "Nuestros nombres", decía Dantón, "bajarán a la posterioridad execrados, pero habremos salvado la República".  El terror entre nosotros es una invención gubernativa para ahogar toda conciencia, todo espíritu de ciudad, y forzar al fin a los hombres a reconocer como cabeza pensadora el pie que les oprime la garganta; es un despique que toma el hombre inepto armado del puñal para vengarse del desprecio que sabe que su nulidad inspira a un público que les es infinitamente superior.  Por eso hemos visto en nuestros días repetirse las extravagancias de Calígula, que se hacía adorar como dios, y asociaba al Imperio su caballo.  Calígula sabía que era él el último de los romanos a quienes tenía, no obstante, bajo su pie.  Facundo se daba aires de inspirado, de adivino, para suplir a su incapacidad natural de influir sobre los ánimos.  Rosas se hacía adorar en los templos y tirar su retrato por las calles en un carro a que iban uncidos generales y señoras, para crearse el prestigio que echaba menos.  Pero Facundo es cruel sólo cuando la sangre se le ha venido a la cabeza y a los ojos, y ve todo colorado.  Sus cálculos fríos se limitan a fusilar a un hombre, azotar a un ciudadano: Rosas no se enfurece nunca, calcula en la quietud y en el recogimiento de su gabinete, y desde allí salen las órdenes a sus sicarios.
(Facundo.  Civilización y barbarie, 261-262)
It is incredible how many atrocities must be piled up, one on top of the other, to pervert a people.  And no one knows the ruses, the studying, the observations, and the sagacity that Don Juan Manuel Rosas has used to subject the city to that magical influence, which in six years completely changed consciousness of what is just and right, which finally broke the hearts of the bravest and bowed them to the yoke.  The Terror in France in 1793 was not a means, but an effect.  Robespierre didn't guillotine nobles and priests to create a reputation for himself, or to elevate himself on top of the bodies he piled up.  He was an austere, severe soul who thought that all of France's aristocratic limbs had to be amputated in order to cement the revolution.  "Our names," said Danton, "will go down in posterity as execrable; but we will have saved the Republic."  Terror among us is an invention of government to choke all conscience, all spirit of the city, and finally to force men to recognize as a thinking brain the foot squeezing their throat.  It is the satisfaction taken by an inept man armed with a dagger to avenge the scorn he knows his nullity inspires in a public infinitely superior to him.  This is why we have seen repeated in our times the extravagances of Caligula, who had himself adored as God and made his horse an associate in the empire.  Caligula knew that he was the lowest of the Romans, whom he had, nevertheless, under his foot.  Facundo gave himself an air of inspiration, of clairvoyance, to supplant his natural incapacity to influence minds.  Rosas had himself worshipped in churches and his image pulled through the streets on a cart, to which generals and ladies were yoked, to create the prestige he lacked.  But Facundo was cruel only when the blood had risen to his head and his eyes, and all he saw was red.  His cold calculations were limited to shooting a man, to whipping a citizen.  Rosas never goes into a fury; he calculates in the quiet and seclusion of his study, and from there, the orders go out to his hired assassins.
(Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, translated by Kathleen Ross, 176)

Leí Facundo con Tom como parte de un proyecto mío que se llama "The Argentinean Literature of Doom" ["La literatura argentina de la pesada"].  Los enlaces a los post de Tom se pueden encontrar abajo.//I read Facundo with Tom as part of my "Argentinean Literature of Doom" project.  Tom's posts are linked to below.

If the reader is bored by these thoughts, I will tell him about some frightful crimes - some early Argentinean literary doom

How do you think it's going?  In Chile!  And on foot! - Sarmiento's anatomy of the gaucho