jueves, 29 de octubre de 2015

Le planétarium

Le planétarium (Folio, 2009)
by Nathalie Sarraute
France, 1959

A propensity for backstabbing their family and friends notwithstanding, callow Parisian lovebirds and interior decoration snobs Alain and Gisèle Guimier outwardly appear to be a most charming young couple--or at least it almost seems that way until entitled eternal student Alain lets his annoying Aunt Berthe know that he'll do just about anything in his power to hound her out of her fashionable Passy apartment so that he and his wife can inhabit it instead (at a critical juncture in this family squabble, in fact, a sly observation is made to the effect that the emotionally cornered Berthe awaits the next attack from the couple "comme le vieux sanglier quand il se retourne et s'assied face à la meute" ["like the old wild boar when it turns around and sits facing the pack of hounds"] (183)...with apologies if I've already revealed too much about the almost plotless plot (pure nouveau roman effrontery!), rest assured that Nathalie Sarraute's amusingly caustic and narratively frisky Le planétarium--looked at one way, a character assassination of an entire generation of shallow contempo Parisians & looked at another way, a proto-Seinfeldian "show about nothing" livened up by breathless interior monologues and a series of unnamed narrators who are sometimes only properly introduced in subsequent chapters' gossipy narrative orbits--is just mad fun, I kid you not...to leave you with a specific example of why ça marche pour moi, one need only contrast this somewhat restrained class-conscious dismissal of Alain Guimier as "un bien gentil petit, insatisfait, inquiet... produit trés pur de sa classe : jeune intellectuel bourgeois marié à une petite fille gâtée comme lui... Écureuils tournant dans leur cage dorée" ["a good-looking, nice young man--unsatisfied, anxious...very pure product of his class: young bourgeois intellectual married to a young girl just as spoiled as he...  Squirrels wheeling back and forth in their golden cage"] (233, ellipsis added at the very end) with the totally unrestrained personal attack on the couple courtesy of Alain's high-strung mother-in-law which likens their hypocrisy and lies with the sort of words which "autrefois révélaient l'hérésie et conduisaient droit au bûcher" ["in former times revealed heresy and led right to the stake"] (43).  Yep, c'est vachement drôle.

Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999)

 With apologies to Obooki, I believe I'm the first member of the Wolves to join him in this now nearly five year old group read.  Let's do it again sometime, shall we?

jueves, 15 de octubre de 2015


L'étranger (Folio, 2014)
by Albert Camus
French Algeria, 1942

"Aujourd'hui, maman est morte.  Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" ["Mom died today.  Or maybe yesterday, I don't know"] confides the eerily detached narrator at the outset of L'etranger [The Stranger].  "J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile : << Mère décédée.  Enterrement demain.  Sentiments distingués.  >> Cela ne veut rien dire.  C'était peut-être hier" ["I received a telegram from the old people's home: 'Mother deceased.  Burial tomorrow.  Regards.'  That means nothing.  Maybe it was yesterday"] (9). Meursault, the pied noir narrator of Camus' first novel and an enigmatic character who variously comes across as either "slow," mentally ill, evil or some toxic mix of all of the above even if you don't buy his oddly persuasive story that he's extremely debilitated by the blinding power of the Algerian sun, coolly goes on to cop to the crime of having gunned down a man described only as "l'Arabe" ["the Arab"] (92).  In the trial that follows, a guilty verdict is arrived at which seems to stem more from the accused's apparent lack of sorrow over his mother's death and from his lack of remorse over the unnamed homicide victim's death than from the possibly premeditated hate crime slaying of "l'Arabe" itself.  Having not read L'étranger in something like 25 or 30 years but having wanted to reacquaint myself with the novel in anticipation of finally getting around to reading Kamel Daoud's 2013 literary sensation Meursault, contre-enquête [The Meursault Investigation], I was happy to be reminded about how powerful and, well, unsettling Camus' classic is--not least for the primal nature of the spare first person narration; the ethical sleight of hand with which the novelist manages to build some sympathy for the narrator even though Meursault's guilt as a cold-blooded killer is never in doubt; and for the occasional moments like this one in which four bullets gratuitously shot into a dead man's already inert corpse are almost lyrically transformed into a description equating them with being something like "quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur" ["four brief knocks on the door of misfortune"] (93).  In short, the best novel penned by a French Algerian Joe Strummer lookalike that I'm likely to sing the praises of all month.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

miércoles, 7 de octubre de 2015

Le village de l'Allemand ou Le journal des frères Schiller

Le village de l'Allemand ou Le journal des frères Schiller (Folio, 2014)
by Boualem Sansal
Algeria, 2008

As my first selection for the 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom, Boualem Sansal's heralded Le village de l'Allemand ou Le journal des frères Schiller [a multiple prize winner inaccurately rendered into English as The German Mujahid in the U.S. and An Unfinished Business in the UK--way to honor the author's intentions, publisher clowns!] was just about everything I could have hoped for in terms of a novel delivering a full payload of in your face doom.  Put another way, it's maybe not all that surprising that Sansal's novels have been banned in his native Algeria the last 10 years or so.  Told in asynchronous diary entries by Algerian-born German-Algerian brothers Rachel (Rachid-Helmut) and Malrich (Malik-Ulrich) Schiller whose lives as Parisian banlieusards take permanent turns for the worse after they learn that their parents have had their throats slit in a terrorist massacre perpetrated by the GIA in the rural Algerian village of Aïn Deb in 1994, the work is a desperation-ridden affair which takes successive descents into the maelstrom once the older brother learns a secret about his father's past so traumatic that he himself eventually takes his own life over it.  The skeleton in the closet?  The father, a German expat who had become something of a hero during Algeria's war for independence against the French and who died a respected village elder after his conversion to Islam, was once a member of the SS.  To Sansal's credit, the contours of this plot are just a starting point for the novel's examination of evil and of Algerian expat life in France.  Philosophically, one of the most arresting things about Le village de l'Allemand is the manner in which the Schiller brothers bluntly equate Islamist violence with that of the Nazis; in a single conversation with a young friend, for example, Malrich describes Hitler as "l'imam en chef" ["the Imam in chief"] of Nazi Germany and rails against the "Gestapos islamistes" ["Islamist Gestapos"] who have set up shop all across France.  His specific warning?  What happened in World War II could happen again if fundamentalist violence isn't stopped in its tracks--the threat of which is evident from the present day examples of Kabul and Algeria, where "les charniers islamistes ne se comptent plus" ["the Islamist charnel houses are legion"] (147).  Writing wise, the prose lives up to the challenge presented by the downer subject matter with attacks on the Islamist presence in the French banlieues such as the one in which a local religious leader is characterized as "leur führer" ["their Führer"] and his teachings as "les dix commandements du kamikaze" ["The Ten Commandments of the Suicide Bomber"] (93) and conversational riffs on the ubiquity of violence in human affairs--"l'histoire de ce monde" ["the history of this world"] (42)--and, well, ditto--"Ce que je veux dire, c'est que la mort exprime mieux la vérité des choses que la vie" ["What I mean is that death conveys the truth about things better than life"] (159-160).  That being said, another less pessimistic strength of Le village de l'Allemand is that, all the heavy duty stuff notwithstanding, Sansal seems equally at ease describing relatively drama-free characters like tonton [Uncle] Ali and tata [Auntie] Sakina: the adoptive parents of the Schiller brothers who as "des émigrés qui sont restés des émigrés" ["emigrants who remained emigrants"], "vivent en France comme ils avaient vécu en Algérie et comme ils vivraient sur un autre planète" ["live in France as they had lived in Algeria and as they would live on another planet"].  In other words, "braves gens" ["good people"] who don't ask much more of life other than a place to sleep and "de temps en temps des nouvelles du bled" ["from time to time some news from the bled"] (97).  Fascinating stuff.

Boualem Sansal

jueves, 1 de octubre de 2015

The 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom

With the end of the year right around the corner, I thought it might make a fun comp lit experiment to add a non-Río de la Plata-based "Literature of Doom" course to the menu this year alongside the traditional South American Doom fodder--hence the 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom in full effect from now until December 31st.  To participate, all you have to do is read and review at least one piece of fiction written by an Argentinean or an Algerian author, read and review at least one nonfiction work on Argentina or Algeria, or watch and review one film that falls under the same general criteria (for this year's anti-festivities, French Algerian writers and filmmakers will be accepted as Algerian writers for qualification purposes on the African side of things).  Naturally, I'll post links to your reviews at the end of each month.  So why Argentina and Algeria and what the hell's all this talk about doom?  Let's start with Argentina.  If you'll pardon me the impertinence of quoting from last year's intro post, "the ALoD was originally inspired by two great posts from Tom of Wuthering Expectations that you can read all about here and here and was at least partly dedicated to testing Roberto Bolaño's thesis that a 'strain of doom' evident in post-Borges Argentinean belles-lettres was due to the noxious influence of one Osvaldo Lamborghini and his art terrorist pals and successors (César Aira, take a bow)."  As far as Algeria goes, suffice it to say that its literature is a natural test case as a potential Literature of Doom co-host country as so much of the little that I know about its high-energy contemporary fiction seems fueled and scarred by the country's '50s/'60s independence movement and/or its own dirty war of the '90s.  Let's read more, shall we?  Failing that, recommendations welcome.  Out.