viernes, 30 de mayo de 2014

Yo el Supremo

Yo el Supremo (Cátedra, 2005)
by Augusto Roa Bastos
Argentina, 1974

The Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo [I the Supreme], part Latin American dictator novel/part Bernhardesque insult-laden monologal rant/part totally unhinged attack on the intersection between language and power, was just what I needed this month.  One day I might even be able to explain why.  Until then, let's start with a bare bones outline of Roa Bastos' intertextual expanding universe.  The Supremo/Supreme of the title is a fictionalized version of the flesh and blood strongman José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766-1840), the Karaí-Guasú or "supreme dictator" of Paraguay as he was referred to in the local Guarani language, who's introduced to the reader right after he learns that a pasquinade mimicking his own authoritarian tyrant speak has been nailed to the Asunción Cathedral's door: "Yo el Supremo Dictador de la República ordeno que al acaecer mi muerte mi cadáver sea decapitado; la cabeza puesta en una pica por tres días en la Plaza de la República donde le convocará al pueblo al son de las campanas echadas a vuelo" ["I the Supreme Dictator of the Republic order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated; my head placed on a pike for three days in the Plaza de la República, to which the people are to be summoned by the sounding of a full peal of bells"].  Continuing, the edict reads: "Todos mis servidores civiles y militares sufrirán pena de horca.  Sus cadáveres serán enterrados en potreros de extramuros sin cruz ni marca que memore sus nombres" ["All my civil and military servants are to be hanged.  Their corpses are to be buried in pastures outside the walls with neither cross nor mark to commemorate their names"].  And concludes: "Al término del dicho plazo, mando que mis restos sean quemados y las cenizas arrojadas al río..." ["At the end of the aforementioned period, I order that my remains be burned and my ashes thrown into the river..."] (93 in the original Spanish, 3 in Helen Lane's translation for the Dalkey Archive Press*).  This challenge to the Supreme's power--and perhaps more importantly, this challenge to the root of his power via the usurpation of his violent state propagandist-like language--naturally infuriates the character, who spends the remainder of the work inveighing against his enemies, insulting his amanuensis at every turn, revealing his erudition with a non-stop barrage of intellectual and scatological puns in Spanish, Latin, and Guarani, and writing a self-justifying history of the foundation of the Paraguayan "republic," all while carrying on conversations with the dead and even while dead himself (what it must be like to wield Supreme power!) prior to eventually entombing himself in a mausoleum of words several hundred pages in the making--just like this sentence.  To what end?  A great question to save/savor/save for later.  For now, though, rest assured that Yo el Supremo has no shortage of aesthetic surprises in store for you.  Structurally, for example, the novel is a Cortázarian active reader's delight for how it challenges genre conventions using a mosaic of monologue and dialogue, notes from the Supreme's so-called "cuaderno privado" or "private notebook," and texts from the Supreme's "circular perpetua" ("perpetual circular," the despot's letters dictated to or about state functionaries) in addition to interpolated historical accounts about the Supreme and the footnotes from an unnamed modern day "compilador" or "compiler."  As Milagros Ezquerro writes in her introduction to the Cátedra edition of the work, Yo el Supremo is "un texto que indudablemente cuestiona el género novelesco porque no encaja sin problemas dentro de las normas habituales del mismo" ["a text which unquestionably challenges the novel format because problems are the only things that it encases within the usual fictional norms"] (27).  In terms of the novel's fluid, elastic conception of time and as evidence of Roa Bastos' intertextual derring-do, two examples out of a galaxy of possibilities will have to suffice at present: 1) the moment when the Supreme, who died in 1840, brags about introducing the punishment of perpetual rowing into the country as an exotic death penalty-like innovation (but one which will leave him without actual blood on his hands) and then mentions the fact (so to speak) that "un autor de nuestros días ha tejido una leyenda sobre esta condena del destinado que va bogando sin término y encuentra al fin la tercera orilla del río" ["an author of our day has woven a legend about a man so condemned, who goes on rowing endlessly and finally finds the third shore of the river" (235 in the Spanish, 120 in the translation).  The unnamed "author of our day"?  None other than Grande Sertão: Veredas storyteller João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), who penned "The Third Bank of the River" well after the Supreme had shuffled off this mortal coil; 2) the scene just a few pages later where an exchange between el Supremo and his dog Sultán having to do with events including a siege of Montevideo leads the dictator to pun on the future author Lautréamont's similarly not yet published 1868-1869 Les Chants de Maldoror: "Ojalá, ciudadano Sultán, no te pesque el mal-de-horror" ["I hope, citizen Sultan, that you don't catch the mal-de-horror"] (241 in the Spanish, 125 in the translation).  Sultán/Sultan, not to be outdone in this scene, gets an unusually juicy descriptive bone thrown in his direction when he's hailed as "una especie de sans-culotte jacobino de largos cabellos y genio muy corto" ["a sort of Jacobin sans-culotte with long hair and a short temper"] (Ibid.).  On rereading that attention-grabbing description of the talking dog, I now realize that I haven't really done revolutionary justice to the insult-laden humor, the target practice on language, or the historical/political background of Yo el Supremo, written in Argentina while Roa Bastos was in exile from Stroessner's Paraguay and just a couple of years before he had to relocate to France to avoid yet another Stroessner/el Supremo style military dictatorship in his adopted home country (the novel was banned in Argentina after the junta's takeover), in this longwinded but strangely guillotined tribute to the novel's "cake."  I fear another post may be in order before you're free to leave or des(s)ert.

Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005)

Yo el Supremo was May's 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong selection. Séamus of Vapour Trails should have a post of his own up about it before too long.
*The quotes in translation above all come from Helen Lane's rendering of I the Supreme (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000) first done for Knopf in 1986.

domingo, 25 de mayo de 2014

A People's Tragedy Part Two: The Crisis of Authority (1891-1917)

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1997)
by Orlando Figes
England, 1996

Figes begins his coverage of the revolutionary era in 1891 and ends it with the death of Lenin in 1924.  If the latter is a logical or at least an understandable choice for an end date, the former might seem fuzzier for a start date.  Why 1891?  As it turns out, 1891 was the year of a great famine that eventually "spread to seventeen provinces, from the Ural mountains to the Black Sea, an area double the size of France with a population of thirty-six million people" (157).  A cholera and typhus epidemic struck next, taking the lives of a half a million people over the course of the next year.  Although individuals like Dr. Chekhov and Count Tolstoy stepped in to lend medical aid and food relief to their suffering countrymen, the government response was underwhelming to say the least; measures such as prohibiting newspapers from mentioning the famine and delaying a ban on the exportation of wheat while millions went starving naturally had the effect of politicizing and radicalizing large swaths of the populace.  Unfortunately, Russian religious leaders also made grave missteps of their own for, as it's explained in a footnote, "the Orthodox Church, which had recently excommunicated Tolstoy, forbade the starving peasants to accept food from his relief campaign" (160).  So much for God and country. The upshot of all this trauma?  According to Figes, "The conflict between the population and the regime had been set in motion - and there was now no turning back.  In the words of Lydia Dan, the famine had been a vital landmark in the history of the revolution because it had shown to the youth of her generation 'that the Russian system was completely bankrupt.  It felt as though Russia was on the brink of something'" (162).

Whether you were a Menshevik like Dan or somebody of a different political persuasion altogether hoping Russia was on the brink of something big along the lines of some much needed change, it's of course a long way from 1891 to 1917, which begs the question: what other sorts of crises to authority occurred during this time?  Or perhaps a better question: what crises to authority didn't occur during this time?  Although I won't take the time to try to summarize A People's Tragedy's 150-page response to these questions in any sort of depth, suffice it to say that a misguided war with Japan in 1904-05, ongoing labor strikes and protests, the so-called Revolution of 1905--itself brought about in part by the massacre of unarmed demonstrators by Tsar Nicholas II's soldiers, and a traumatic experience throughout the early years of World War I headed a roll call of reasons for Russians to lose faith in the regime's ability to conduct any essential business beyond champagne parties and mismanagement of the country's affairs.  Reform?  According to Figes, "If there is a single, repetitive theme in the history of Russia during the last twenty years of the old regime, it is that of the need for reform and the failure of successive governments to achieve it in the face of the Tsar's opposition" (171).  And: "The whole period of Russian political history between the two revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 could be characterized as a battle between the royalist and parliamentary forces.  To begin with, when the country was still emerging from the revolutionary crisis, the court was forced to concede ground to the Duma.  But as the memory of 1905 passed, it tried to roll back its powers and restore the old autocracy" (214).  In hindsight, Gorky, writing to his wife after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1905, might have been the most prescient in terms of putting his finger on the mood of the country: "Only blood can change the colour of history" (179).

On that note, I'd like to conclude with two style points for anybody considering reading this book at some point.  While Figes will likely make you laugh at the occasional Tacitean digs he takes at his historical cast of characters--Alexander Kerensky, a future rival of Lenin's, for example, here receives the double indignity of being mocked by references to his early theatrical interests ("Kerensky never made it into the theatre, although as an actor on the revolutionary stage he was to prove as self-dramatizing as any provincial thespian") and even for switching his university major from history and philology to law ("This too set the pattern for the future: changing from history to law is, obviously, the move of a careerist") all within the space of three sentences! (166)--his analysis skills are Tacitean level as well.  The following passage from pages 188-189, for example, is an absolutely top notch meditation on the nature of crowd violence in the revolution, and so I'll include the paragraph in its entirety so you can have an unmediated version of Figes for a change:

Because of the preoccupation of many historians with the organized labour movement - and their seduction by the Soviet myth of the armed workers on the barricades - the role of this everyday criminal violence in the revolutionary crowd has been either ignored or, even more misleadingly, confused with the violence of industrial war.  Yet the closer one looks at the crowds on the streets, the harder it becomes to distinguish clearly between organized forms of protest - the marching workers with banners and songs - and criminal acts of looting and violence.  The one could easily - and often did - break down into the other.  It was not just a question of 'hooligans' or criminals joining in labour protests or taking advantage of the chaos they created to vandalize, assault and loot.  Such acts seem to have been an integral element of labour militancy, a means of asserting the power of the plebeian crowd and of despoiling and destroying symbols of wealth and privilege.  What the frightened middle classes termed 'hooliganism' - mob attacks on the well-to-do and on figures of authority, looting and vandalism, drunken brawling and rioting - could just as easily be categorized as 'revolutionary acts'.  And in part that is what they were: the revolutionary violence of 1905-17 was expressed in just these sorts of act.  It was driven by the same feelings of hatred for the rich and all figures of authority, by the same desire of the poor and the powerless to assert themselves and claim the streets as their own.  From the perspective of the propertied there was very little to distinguish between the 'rough' and 'rude' behaviour of the 'hooligans' - their cocky way of dressing, their drunkenness and vulgar language, their 'insolence' and 'licence' - and the behaviour of the revolutionary crowd.  Even the most organized labour protests could, on the slightest provocation, break down into violence and looting.  It was to become a major problem for all the revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks in particular, who tried to use the violence of the crowd for their own political ends.  Such violence was a double-edged sword and could lead to anarchy rather than controlled revolutionary force.  This was the lesson the Bolsheviks would learn during the July and October Days in 1917 - outbursts of violence which were far removed from the Soviet image of heroic proletarian power.

sábado, 24 de mayo de 2014

A People's Tragedy Part One: Russia Under the Old Regime #2

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books)
by Orlando Figes
England, 1996

If Orlando Figes were a novelist instead of a historian, then Maxim Gorky (né Alexei Peshkov, 1868-1936) would probably be one of his most well-rounded recurring charactersIf A People's Tragedy were a novel instead of a history, then I could probably expect that the movie tie-in might draw a little more traffic to these posts about the book.  But back to reality, eh?  Gorky, last seen pondering "the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people" in his essay "On the Russian Peasantry" from 1922, is one of several figures--most of them famous, a couple of them not--"interwoven through the narrative" to "emphasize the human aspects of [the] great events" depicted in the telling of the revolution story (xvii).  As luck would have it, Figes gives the writer Gorky a fine novelist's introduction:

In his first eight years Gorky had experienced more human suffering than the literary Count [Tolstoy] would see in the whole of his eight decades.  His grandfather's household in Nizhnyi Novgorod where he had been brought up after the death of his father, was, as he described it in My Childhood, a microcosm of provincial Russia - a place of poverty, cruelty and cholera, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God.  By the age of nine, Gorky had already been put out to work, scavenging for rags, bones and nails, and occasionally thieving timber from the banks of the Volga.  Then his mother had died and his grandfather had sent him out into the world to fend for himself.  Like countless other abandoned orphans, Gorky had roamed around the booming industrial towns of the Volga, a shoeless street urchin dressed in rags.  He had worked as a dish washer on a steamboat, as a stevedore, a watchman, a cobbler's assistant, an apprentice draughtsman, an icon painter, and finally as a baker in Kazan, where [the peasant organizer Mikhail] Romas had found him and taken pity on the lad after he had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest (84).

Memorable, no?  In any event, Gorky's and other writers' disappointment with village life leads Figes to posit that "the enigma of the peasant stood at the heart of the problem of Russia's national self-identity.  The 'Peasant Question' was the starting point of all those interminable debates (they fill the largely unread pages of nineteenth-century Russian novels) about the future of Russia itself" (88).  Beyond this, a more important (and less acerbically worded) historical irony in terms of the backdrop to the revolution was that "the vendors on the city streets were mostly peasants by origin, as were the cabmen, doormen, hauliers, builders, gardeners, dustmen, draymen, hawkers, beggars, thieves and prostitutes.  Russia's towns and cities all remained 'peasant' in their social composition and character" (88).  And so what?  Figes argues that, "despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world.  It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.  And in this mutual incomprehension, in the cultural gulf between the 'Two Russias', lay the roots of the social revolution and its tragic destiny" (88-89).

Given the considerable amount of "anti-peasant" material mentioned in these last two posts, I should probably stress that Figes' conception of a "cultural gulf" in what he elsewhere brands a "backwards peasant" Russia isn't without nuance.  In fact, two of the things I most appreciate about his approach as a writer are his sense of balance and his willingness to give credit to or take issue with fellow historians by name without mincing words.  Here, for example, he underscores another aspect of the peasant question while challenging Harvard professor Richard Pipes on a point of contention:

It is mistaken to suppose, as so many historians do, that the Russian peasantry had no moral order or ideology at all to substitute for the tsarist state.  Richard Pipes, for example, in his recent history of the revolution, portrays the peasants as primitive and ignorant people who could only play a destructive role in the revolution and who were therefore ripe for manipulation by the Bolsheviks.  Yet, as we shall see, during 1917-1918 the peasants proved themselves quite capable of restructuring the whole of rural society, from the system of land relations and local trade to education and justice, and in so doing they often revealed a remarkable political sophistication, which did not well up from a moral vacuum.  The ideals of the peasant revolution had their roots in a long tradition of peasant dreaming and utopian philosophy.  Through peasant proverbs, myths, tales, songs and customary law, a distinctive ideology emerges which expressed itself in the peasants' actions throughout the revolutionary years from 1902 to 1921.  That ideology had been shaped by centuries of opposition to the tsarist state (98).

All well and good, you say, but what about that post on the topic of urban violence during the old regime that I promised to you on Thursday?  Hmm, I don't seem to have written the piece that I was thinking about after all.  Fortunately for all concerned, I have sufficient time and space left for exactly three anti-historical fiction soundbites.  On the tsarist police state, symbolized by the Fortress of Peter and Paul in Saint Petersburg where Maxim Gorky figured among a long line of distinguished guests, Figes writes: "This constant battle with the police state engendered a special kind of mentality among its opponents.  One can draw a straight line from the penal rigours of the tsarist regime to the terrorism of the revolutionaries and indeed to the police state of the Bolsheviks.  As Flaubert put it, 'inside every revolutionary there is a policeman'" (124).  On the tolerance for violence among some parts of the public who had the most to lose, he adds: "Justifying violence in the name of revolution was not exclusive to the revolutionaries.  Among the educated élite there was a general cult of revolutionism.  The Russian 'intelligentsia' (a Russian word by derivation) was less a class than a state of mind: it meant by definition a stance of radical and uncompromising opposition to the tsarist regime, and a willingness to take part in the struggle for its overthrow" (125).  And finally, on the effects of the revolutionary terror writ large, Figes has this, ahem, slightly longer soundbite to offer:

It has been estimated that over 17,000 people were killed or wounded by terrorists during the last twenty years of the tsarist regime - more than five times the number of people killed in Northern Ireland during the twenty-five years of 'the troubles'.  Some of the terror was little more than criminal violence for personal gain.  All the revolutionary parties financed themselves at least partly by robberies (which they euphemistically termed 'expropriations'), mainly of banks and trains, and there was little to stop those who did the stealing from pocketing the proceeds.  This was bad enough for the moral climate of the revolutionary parties.  But it was not nearly as damaging as the cumulative effect of years of killing, which resulted in a cynicism, an indifference and callousness, to the victims of their cause (124-125).

Orlando Figes

jueves, 22 de mayo de 2014

A People's Tragedy Part One: Russia Under the Old Regime

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1997)
by Orlando Figes
England, 1996

It's a measure of how satisfying A People's Tragedy is that my biggest complaint about this meaty read is actually rather insubstantial and petty: over the course of its 824 pages of text, Figes refers to Russia as a "backwards peasant" country often enough for me to have taken note of its repetitiveness as political shorthand.  That being said, it's not like I can take issue with the historian's use of the term because so much of Part One, "Russia Under the Old Regime," draws attention to the disconnect between the urban and the rural ways of life and to the extreme economic divide between the haves and the have-nots in the major cities and out in the provinces in the years leading up to the revolution.  A description of the income gap in the "typical provincial city" of Kishinev, for example, leads Figes to conclude that "these were the two faces of every Russian city: the one of imperial power and European civilization, the other of poverty and squalor of Asiatic proportions" (43).  An unduly harsh critique?  Maybe but only in the wording because in addition to the economic disparities, Figes also touches on the cultural polarities in the two Russias evident in terms of "how the intelligentsia - steeped in the culture of Western Europe - saw (with some disgust) the backward life of the Russian provinces" (43-44).  He draws from Chekhov's Three Sisters for a choice literary example of this mindset.  Later, he adds this too much information style nugget about Russia's equivalent of the culture wars:

It was still a common practice in some parts of Russia for a peasant bride to be deflowered before the whole village; and if the groom proved impotent, his place could be taken by an older man, or by the finger of the matchmaker.  Modesty had very little place in the peasant world.  Toilets were in the open air.  Peasant women were constantly baring their breasts, either to inspect and fondle them or to nurse their babies, while peasant men were quite unselfconscious about playing with their genitals.  Urban doctors were shocked by the peasant customs of spitting into a person's eye to get rid of sties, of feeding children mouth to mouth, and of calming baby boys by sucking on their penis (95).

Since it might be a bit of an anthropological tease to share a passage about peasant sex without a bookend one about peasant violence, it's fortunate that in the ensuing pages Figes has two long paragraphs about the particularly bloodthirsty nature of peasant violence in the Russian countryside: "Adulterous wives and horse-thieves suffered the most brutal punishments," he writes.  The latter, for example, "could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles.  Other transgressors were known to have had their eyes pulled out, nails hammered into their body, legs and arms cut off, or stakes driven down their throat.  A favourite punishment was to raise the victim on a pulley with his feet and hands tied together and to drop him so that the vertebrae in his back were broken; this was repeated several times until he was reduced to a spineless sack" (96).  I'll stop there since I assume you get the sadistic picture, but what's the point of all this?  For Figes, at least a part of his examination is an attempt to understand whether a preexisting culture of violence or the revolution was to blame for the violence that went haywire once the revolution started:

It is difficult to say where this barbarism came from - whether it was the culture of the Russian peasants, or the harsh environment in which they lived.  During the revolution and civil war the peasantry developed even more gruesome forms of killing and torture.  They mutilated the bodies of their victims, cut off their heads and disgorged their internal organs.  Revolution and civil war are extreme situations, and there is no guarantee that anyone else, regardless of their nationality, would not act in a similar fashion given the same circumstances.  But it is surely right to ask, as Gorky did in his famous essay 'On the Russian Peasantry' (1922), whether in fact the revolution had not merely brought out, as he put it, 'the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people'?

The quote above is from page 96 and ends with the opinions that "this was a cruelty made by history": "the violence and cruelty which the old regime inflicted on the peasant was transformed into a peasant violence which not only disfigured daily village life, but which also rebounded against the regime in the terrible violence of the revolution."  Later on in A People's Tragedy, Figes will talk about both urban manifestations of violence--i.e. the exceptional cruelties in the city centers perpetrated by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike--and about how, once they'd made their grasp for power, the Bolsheviks needed peasant support to maintain the revolution but never really trusted the peasants as true ideological partners due to their urban biases.  But what's the rush, comrade?  On to the urban violence in the next post and, with any luck, a push to get to Part Two, "The Crisis of Authority (1891-1917)," before I lose my Russian Revolution edge.

martes, 20 de mayo de 2014

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1997)
by Orlando Figes
England, 1996

These days we call so many things a 'revolution' - a change in the government's policies on sport, a technological innovation, or even a new trend in marketing - that it may be hard for the reader of this book to take on board the vast scale of its subject at the start.  The Russian Revolution was, at least in terms of its effects, one of the biggest events in the history of the world.  Within a generation of the establishment of Soviet power, one-third of humanity was living under regimes modelled upon it.  The revolution of 1917 has defined the shape of the contemporary world, and we are only now emerging from its shadow.  It was not so much a single revolution - the compact eruption of 1917 so often depicted in the history books - as a whole complex of different revolutions which exploded in the middle of the First World War and set off a chain reaction of more revolutions, civil, ethic and national wars.  By the time that it was over, it had blown apart - and then put back together -an empire covering one-sixth of the surface of the globe.  At the risk of appearing callous, the easiest way to convey the revolution's scope is to list the ways in which it wasted human life: tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917; thousands died in the street fighting of that year; hundreds of thousands from the Terror of the Reds - and an equal number from the Terror of the Whites, if one counts the victims of their pogroms against Jews - during the years that followed; more than a million perished in the fighting of the civil war, including civilians in the rear; and yet more people died from hunger, cold and disease than from all these put together.
(A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, xv)

To the unsuspecting reader confronted with then Cambridge lecturer and now University of London professor Orlando Figes' unexpected but somewhat blandly worded "apology for the vast size of this book," at 800-pages plus what Figes calls "the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period in a single volume" (xv), it will be understandable if the scope of the work rather than its narrative immediacy is what grabs your attention first.  It is indeed a heavy book in more than one way.   However, it didn't take long before I was in the grip of Figes' writing, his style in this terrific political and social history of his.  Chapter 1, "The Dynasty," offers up several quotable moments that give the lie to the notion that nonfiction writing is by nature more impersonal and/or drab than fiction writing.  On the anecdotal level alone, for example, you have your choice of highlights: a sneering Tsar Alexander III is quoted as saying that he "despised the bureaucracy and drank champagne to its obliteration" at one moment, and on the very same page Bertrand Russell is cited explaining "Bolshevik despotism" as somehow "the right sort of government for Russia" in these footnoted words to one Lady Ottoline Morrell: "If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand" (7).  Impeccable logic!  A passage on Tsarevich Alexis, the haemophiliac, occasions the comment that "haemophilia was so common in the royal houses of Europe that it had become something of an occupational hazard" (27), and another one on Rasputin, the Romanov spiritual adviser often accused of being a charlatan or a degenerate, inspires the remark that "his disgusting physical appearance merely added piquancy to his moral charms" (29). The liveliness of the writing aside, though, Figes is at his best doing the sort of subtle, sophisticated causal analysis that professional historians often don't get enough popular credit for:

The Romanov dynasty presented to the world a brilliant image of monarchical power and opulence during its tercentenary.  This was no simple propaganda exerciseThe rituals of homage to the dynasty and the glorification of its history were, to be sure, meant to inspire reverence and popular support for the principle of autocracy.  But their aim was also to reinvent the past, to recount the epic of the 'popular Tsar', so as to invest the monarchy with a mythical historical legitimacy and an image of enduring permanence at this anxious time when its right to rule was being challenged by Russia's emerging democracy.  The Romanovs were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future (6).

"Retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future" is a great line not least because of the way the Romanovs' dynastic "tragedy" serves as a point of departure for the larger Russian tragedy or tragedies covered by Figes in this book.  On the beginning of the end for the dynasty and its supporters, he explains: "Instead of embracing reform they adhered obstinately to their own archaic vision of autocracy.  It was their tragedy that just as Russia was entering the twentieth century they were trying to return it to the seventeenth" (14).  A good stopping point?  Good enough for now.  In any event, more on Part One of A People's Tragedy, "Russia Under the Old Regime," before too long.

Orlando Figes

jueves, 8 de mayo de 2014

Spanish Lit Month 2014

After a year off spent stockpiling new acquisitions and such, Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog and I have decided to host another edition of Spanish Language Literature Month in July 2014 under the catchy yet no nonsense moniker of Spanish Lit Month 2014.  Hope that you'll decide to join us.  For those new to the event, the basic idea is that those participating will read one or more works originally published in Spanish and contribute a review or reviews of what you've read so that other event participants can visit your site and leave comments, mash notes, etc.  Naturally, you may read the work(s) in Spanish or in translation depending on your language skills and interests.  Stu and I will do at least one monthly link round-up to facilitate discussions, but there will prob. be more frequent ones than that if the turnout is anywhere near as numerous and enthusiastic as it was in 2012.  Want to participate in the event but not sure what to read for it?  Check out Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría's list of his idea of the essential books in Spanish-language literature since the 1950s here.  Or check out's list of the 100 best Spanish-language novels of the last 25 years here.  Way too recent recommendations for someone of your snooty archival bent?  "Good literature needs to breathe a little after it's decanted" and all that?  Then how about 100+ More Reading Recommendations for Spanish Lit Month 2012, which provides three top U.S. universities' reading lists for the canonical works dating back to the medieval era in Spain and the colonial era in Latin America?  For those wanting a simpler choice, you can also choose one or both of our group read selections set to be discussed during the last week in July: Gabriel García Márquez's 1996 News of a Kidnapping [original title: Noticia de un secuestro] (Stu's pick)* or Guillermo Cabrera Infante's 1967 Tres tristes tigres [translated title: Three Trapped Tigers] (my pick).**  For my part, I'm also considering Mexican Elena Garro's 1980 Andamos huyendo Lola, whose "novel" in the form of 11 linked tales about two characters on the run is said to bear some similarities to Roberto Bolaño's Los detectives salvajes [The Savage Detectives], and--well, let's keep the other choices secret for now, eh?  You'll find out or not find out soon enough anyway.

*Stu plans a Gabriel García Márquez theme week for the last week in July as part of a  tribute to the late Colombian Nobel winner.  Details forthcoming.
**I'm happy to note that the Guillermo Cabrera Infante novel is being read in conjunction with Richard of Shea's Zibaldone, who is hosting a Javier Marías-inspired Kingdom of Redonda Readalong this year.

Probable Spanish Lit Month 2014 Lineup

sábado, 3 de mayo de 2014

Yo el Supremo [I the Supreme] Group Read

With the # of my own postponed or otherwise incomplete 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American readalong selections piling up almost as quickly as I can schedule them these days (hey, I'm nothing if not consistent!), it's time to announce May's candidate for a short attention span-induced disaster in the form of Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos' 1974 Yo el Supremo [I the Supreme in the translation put out by the Dalkey Archive Press].  So why might you want to consider joining us for this famously thorny title centered on the figure of José Gaspar de Francia, the "Supreme Dictator" of Paraguay from 1816-1840?  1) Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier lauded it as an "obra maestra" or masterpiece.  2) Reviewer Paul West, writing for the Washington Post Book World, called it "more Joycean than Cortázar's Hopscotch, every bit as volcanic and visionary as Lezama Lima's Paradiso or Osman Lins' Avolavara."  3) And for those of you who haven't yet been turned off by this cavalcade of names you hardly ever hear about in the twee, Ivy Compton-Burnett reading parts of the book blogosphere, noted critic Ignacio Echevarría included the novel on his list of the essential books in Spanish-language literature since the 1950s, claiming that Yo el Supremo was "una auténtica cumbre literaria" ["a true literary high water mark"] and an "obra maestra insuperada" ["unsurpassed masterpiece"] of the Latin American dictator novel for what fellow critic Ángel Rama described as its heady mixture of "historia, novela, confesión, ensayo sociológico, filosofía moral, biografía novelada, panfleto revolucionario, poema en prosa, debate sobre los límites de la literatura y cuestionamiento del sistema verbal" ["history, novel, confession, sociological essay, moral philosophy, revolutionary pamphlet, poem in prose, debate on the limits of literature and questioning of the verbal system"] (68 in Ignacio Echevarría's book).  4) "Questioning of the verbal system"?  Whatever!  Still,  Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog confirms that Roa Bastos' work is complex and "is told in many forms of literary devices...creating almost a collage effect" and Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate  adds that it's "a bizarrely great piece of writing."  OK, nuff said.  Discussion of Yo el Supremo and/or I the Supreme will take place at participating blogs somewhere around May 29th thru 31st--and probably a day or two later here in Caravanalandia.

Other Alleged Supremos