lunes, 31 de agosto de 2020

Spanish Lit Month 2020: 8/16-8/31 Links

Jorge Barón Biza & family (collage:

Thanks to all of you who joined us for Spanish Lit Month 2020 and especially to Stu for welcoming me back to the fold as co-host after I took last year off with seasonal blogging disorder.  I had fun as usual--hope you did as well.  Anyway, here's the final batch of reviews to keep you in a good Spanish language reading place until next year's event.  Nos vemos.

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Come and see the blood in the streets - notes on Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War

John, The Modern Novel
Roza, tumba, quema
(Slash and Burn) by Claudia Hernández
La luz difícil (Difficult Light) by Tomás González

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
The Happy City
by Elvira Navarro

Mandy Wight, peakreads
Little Eyes 
by Samanta Schweblin

Marina Sofia, Finding Time to Write
Hurricane Season
by Fernanda Melchor

Meredith, Dolce Bellezza
All This I Will Give to You
by Dolores Redondo

Obooki, Obooki's Obloquy
Spanish Literature Month - Two Books
(on Facundo by Domingo F. Sarmiento and Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier)

Paul, By the Firelight
Capital de la gloria
(Glorious Capital) by Juan Eduard Zúñiga

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Cuatro por cuatro
by Sara Mesa

Stu, Winstonsdad's Blog
Things We Lost in the Fire
by Mariana Enriquez
Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac
The Desert and Its Seed by Jorge Barón Biza
Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener

domingo, 30 de agosto de 2020

Cuatro por cuatro

Cuatro por cuatro (Anagrama, 2012)
by Sara Mesa
Spain, 2012

A different type of novel than the stuff I'm used to reading on account of the distinct dystopian vibe it exudes, Cuatro por cuatro [available in English as Four by Four] centers on the strange and increasingly creepy goings on in and around the boarding school of Wybrany College and the nearby city of Cárdenas in Mesa's alternate reality Spain.  While "el colich," as both administrators and teachers from the institution and its mostly middle school age students like to refer to it, is in the business of passing itself off as something of a sanctuary from the chaos of the outside world, various irregularities and the unexplained disappearances of students and staff eventually give way to revelations suggesting that the enemy within the gates may be even more monstrous than any dangers lurking outside.  On that note, nuff said about the plot.  What I will add is that Mesa successfully jostled my expectations in a couple of ways in the service of this smart, moody, fake thriller of hers.  For example, I enjoyed the mix of first- and third-person narration here especially given that the culture of silence about the suicides and the crimes at Wybrany has so much to do with what Cuatro por cuatro is all about.  Similarly, I also was quite mesmerized by the novelist's powers of suggestion.  Was one character's description of Cárdenas--"La ciudad está a punto de explotar...  Grupos de incendarios han tomado las calles.  Todo es muy peligroso" ["The city is on the verge of exploding...  Groups of arsonists have taken to the streets.  Everything is very dangerous"] (146, ellipses added)--proof that "el colich" was surrounded by a post-apocalyptic or Stalker-like Zone or just one more nightmarish image like the hastily-glimpsed/possibly-imagined one of a grown man leading a crying adolescent girl away by the hand?  Whatever, a good read and one told in a fragmentary, time release style that well suits it.

Sara Mesa (Madrid, 1976)
photographer unknown

domingo, 23 de agosto de 2020

The Testament

The Testament [Le Testament Villon] (Northwestern University Press, 2013)
by François Villon [translated by David Georgi]
France, c. 1461

How do I love The Testament?  Let me count the ways.  One of the acrostics, FRANCOYS and MARTHE, appears in verses 942-955 in the section of the poem that David Georgi has translated under the rubric "Ballade from Villon to His Sweetheart."  ("False beauty, your cost is too high by far!" ["Faulse beauté, qui tant me couste chier"] Villon coos.)  Another, VJLLON, appears in verses 1621-1626 within "The Ballade of Fat Margot" where the poet/pimp claims he and his hooker girlfriend are a good match: "like unto like: bad rat, bad cat" ["L'un vault l'autre, c'est a mau rat mau chat"].  In addition to the self-referential fun and games, I was also smitten with the self-propulsive flow of Villon's 2,023-verse kitchen sink of song.  Early on, after raging against poverty and old age, the poet turns his sights on the ubi sunt theme with feeling in the marvelous "Ballade of the Ladies of Times Long Past."  "Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?" ["And where is the snow that fell last year?"] he repeatedly asks at the end of each octet and quatrain (cf. verses 336, 344, 352 & 356).  A mere "Another ballade" later, Villon uses Charlemagne and other power brokers from the past to remind us that "No man alive can combat death,/or win a court's protection from it" ["Il n'est qui contre mort resiste/Ne qui trouve provisïon"] (verses 375-376).  This, in turn, is followed by an exercise in style using a version of French already antiquated in Villon's time as if to suggest that even words fade away.  Georgi calls the language here "a caricature of the French of an earlier period," full of archaisms, "that an educated medieval reader might have recognized from old chansons de geste, such as The Song of Roland, or from the quest-romances already two hundred years old by Villon's time" (notes, p. 237).  Of course, the hijinx aren't always so highbrow.  In "Ballade for a Lush," Villon pokes fun at Lot for having been "very forward with your daughters" ["De voz filles si vous fist approucher"] under the influence of drink (verse 1241) and in a later stanza he refers to one Marïon la Peautarde, whom Georgi casts as Marion Blisterskin (verse 1781) in honor of her "joke name"--in the translator's reading, Marïon la Peautarde = "Marion, la peau t'arde" or "Marion, your skin burns you" suggestive of "the symptoms of a venereal disease" (p. 255, notes).  Never a dull moment avec Villon, and I haven't even gotten around to any of the Testament's actual bequests, the vile, proto-Rabelaisian "Ballade of Meddlesome Tongues," the geographical puns opposing Montmartre and Mount Valerien--"In Villon's time," Georgi explains, "the abbey of Montmartre was in shambles and the nuns sold wine to get by.  They will be able to sell something else too, Villon suggests" (verses 1551-1558; notes, p. 252) via the double whammy of playing off the Montmartre nuns' licentious reputation and the sound effect goof of Valerien sounding like ne "valent rien" or "they're worth nothing"--the hangman's jokes and the debauched like, or the final verses of the poem where the "poor Villon" ["povre Villon"] showily signs off on his testament with a succession of rhymes ending in "-illon" or "-ullon" in alternating lines (cf. verses 1996-2023 in the original for the full effect).  A tour de force worthy of all the hype.

David Georgi's 2013 bilingual edition of Villon's Poems includes The Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2013, 27-163) in Villon's Old French and Georgi's modern English in a facing translation.

domingo, 16 de agosto de 2020


Malicroix (Gallimard, 2019)
by Henri Bosco
France, 1948

When his great-uncle Cornélius de Malicroix dies sometime in the early 1800s, the 25-year old Martial de Mégremut learns that he stands to inherit his distant relative's inhospitable island home amid the salt water lagoons of the Camargue near the floodwaters of the Rhône as long as he can fulfill two provisions of the old man's will.  The first--a three months staycation in his humble new home far away from his loving and close-knit family in the company of the taciturn Balandran and his dog Bréquillet--seems rather pedestrian in nature although it comes with complications in the form of conniving humans and the unforgiving natural world now surrounding him.  The second, which Martial only learns about much later, will require the young dreamer to risk his life as a man of action in the fulfillment of a supernatural-tinged task which will take place alongside a mass for the dead overseen by his newfound enemies.  Will Martial be the "guest of honor" or remain alive and kicking when that funeral mass is finally celebrated?  Malicroix, a difficult novel to sort out in some respects (and not the quickest thing to read when looking up the translation for words like salicornes or pickleweed, previously unknown to me in any language!), struck me as a strange but alluring tale.  Conceptually, it situates a quest novel or medieval grail romance within a series of meditations on nature and solitude and Gérard de Nerval-like dreamscapes.  Is the action therefore "real," taking place in the narrator Martial's imagination or the product of the fevers and poisonings that beset some of the novel's characters?  Thematically, it's appropriately hermetic in the sense that the road map to understanding it provides mirrors the initiate's search for meaning.  Meaning that wasn't always clear to this uninitiated reader.  Still, it was fascinating to see how Bosco handled some of these genre juxtapositions and narrative misdirections.  Gérard de Nerval and Homer provide two telling examples of Malicroix's rich allusiveness and elusiveness, of the multiplicity of readings it offers.  When the evil notary Dromiols first meets the hero to read him the terms of his great-uncle's will, Martial overhears him talking in his sleep later that night and remarks upon how the thought processes evident "venues de cette vie seconde" ["coming from that second life"] (106) reveal a logical if nefarious intent--a clear reference on Bosco's part if not his narrator's to Gérard de Nerval's famous opening line from Aurélia where he declaims that "Le Rêve est une seconde vie" ["Dream is a second life"].  In a subsequent chapter, we get a multi-page sequence in which Martial lingers over a description of the wind transitioning from a forbidding squall into a full on hurricane.  While the line that caught my eye was the Nerval-like image of disasters gushing forth from the "cités aériennes" ["aerial cities"] above (130), I'm not so sure that the poetic prose can be easily written off as an uncomplicated allusion in light of a certain animism also present in the text: the river itself gets characterized as "un être...un être redoutable" ["a human being...a dreadful human being"] (186) with an agency of its own on one of the many occasions when the rising waters make Martial fear for his life, and to complicate things Anne-Madeleine, Martial's eventual love interest, is introduced as a spirit-like water creature who bears "cette odeur de vent et d'eau vive" ["this scent of wind and flowing water"] (186) wherever she goes.  Nice, mysterious, but lyricism + animism = what exactly?  Of course, the supernatural tension between "ce pays sauvage" ["this wild country"] (35) and a pre-Christian conception of the land of the dead unfolding in geographical proximity to the modern day Occitanie commune of Aigues-Mortes ["stagnant water"] also figures in the scene where Dromiols attempts to scare Martial away from his new home by claiming that many people believe it's a "royaume des Ombres" ["kingdom of the Dead"] (91).  Citing from the Greek, Dromiols' allusion is to Book 11 of The Odyssey, where Odysseus travels to the land of the Cimmerians where he pours libations to and actually speaks with various shades from the underworld.  For those of you as rusty as I am on my Homer, suffice it to say that it's enough to note that this scene sheds light on one aspect of the end of Malicroix even if I have run out of steam to speak of the blind ferryman and the "taureau de combat, d'une stature colossale" ["fighting bull of a colossal stature"] (221) that also haunt its vision literature-tinted pages.  It's all a bit much to process in a single reading.

Henri Bosco (1888-1976)
 photo: Sophie Pacifico le Guyader

Malicroix was the subject of a readalong earlier in the year which I didn't pay much attention to until two or three posts by Dorian and Amateur Reader (Tom) made me realize some of the erudite fun I'd been missing out on.  Here's the complete set of those posts for collectors.

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Dorian, Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Spanish Lit Month 2020: 8/2-8/15 Links

Fernanda Melchor

Spanish Lit Month 2020 may be slowing down, but the last two weeks have brought us a number of knockout books & book reviews and a Ramones t-shirt-clad author photo so who can complain about any of that?  1-2-3-4!

Ali, heavenali
Hurricane Season
by Fernanda Melchor

Brian Joseph, Babbling Books
The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

Grant, 1streading's Blog
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Janakay, "You Might as Well Read"
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

Stu, Winstonsdad's Blog
A Silent Fury
by Yuri Herrera
The Bitch by Pilar Quintana

Vishy, Vishy's Blog
by Carmen Laforet

domingo, 9 de agosto de 2020

The Involuntary City


"The Involuntary City"
by Anna Maria Ortese [translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee]
Italy, 1953

Naples, like Algiers and Marseille, fascinates me even though I only know those cities from history and the arts.  Whatever, I'm not sure that the armchair tourist is the reader Ortese (above, 1914-1998) had in mind when she sat down to write this unsettling 1953 essay.  The first of two pieces of reporting appended to three short stories in her collection Neapolitan Chronicles, "The Involuntary City" uses a visit to "the building known as Granili III and IV"--an enormous bombed-out structure taken over by the homeless--"in the coastal neighborhood that connects the port to the first suburbs on Vesuvius" (73) to fashion a sort of catalogue raisonné of the horrors endured by its 3,000-some inhabitants.  "Three long sewer rats" gnaw on crusts of bread left on the floor of one room.  An improvised funeral takes place when a seven year old boy dies suddenly of unknown causes while playing with friends.  A deformed two year old, who has only seen the light of day once in her life, watches what passes as the world going by from the vantage point of "a cradle made out of a Coca-Cola carton."  Aside from the squalor, one of the most striking things about "The Involuntary City" is the sometimes incongruous way in which Ortese's use of language intersects with her visceral reaction to the suffering.  You can see the stylist's hand at work, if put to unpredictable purposes, for example, in the description of her guide as "a small woman, completely bloated, like a dying bird" (78).  Elsewhere, the mother of the dead boy gets likened to "a yellow thing, somewhere between a fox and a trash bin" (90).  A blind boy, orphaned and reduced to begging, receives this slightly more extended appraisal: "On his whole face appeared an ambiguous, disdainful smile, which contrasted bizarrely with the dead, absent expression of his eyes.  Feeling embarrassed, as if his smile, mysteriously mature, already the smile not of a child but of a man, and of a man accustomed to dealing only with prostitutes, contained a judgement, an atrocious evaluation of my person, I moved a few steps away" (79).  I too wanted to move a few steps away at times while reading Ortese's account, but perhaps that queasiness was the point if one accepts her argument that the existence of Granili III and IV, "one of the most evocative phenomena in the world, and like Southern Italy, dead to the progress of time" should be regarded as less a "temporary settlement of homeless people but, rather, the demonstration, in clinical and legal terms, of the fall of a race" (75).

"The Involuntary City" can be found in Anna Maria Ortese's Neapolitan Chronicles [original title: Il mare non bagna Napoli] (New York: New Vessel Press, 2018, 73-98) in a new translation by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee.  Scott of seraillon has reflections on the full book here and here.

domingo, 2 de agosto de 2020

Spanish Lit Month 2020: 7/26-8/1 Links

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara & friends

Now entering our second month of Spanish Lit Month 2020, here are some book review links to keep you busy.  Hope you're discovering some interesting prospects for future reading opportunities on the participating blogs.  ¡Saludos!

Cathy, 746 Books
A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba

Emma, Book Around the Corner
Nada by Carmen Laforet

Grant, 1streading's Blog
The Devil's Trill by Daniel Moyano

Mandy Wight, peakreads
The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Marina Sofia, Finding Time to Write
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Un día volveré by Juan Marsé

sábado, 1 de agosto de 2020

Un día volveré

Un día volveré (Debolsillo, 2016)
por Juan Marsé
España, 1982

"Es usted un hombre singular, Mon.  Una mezcla de pensador y de hombre de acción.  Pero tenga mucho cuidado: el hombre que actúa, siempre se ve mal interpretado por el que piensa".

Otra novela de primera del gran escritor barcelonés Juan Marsé, fallecido el mes pasado.  El año es 1959, y Jan Julivert Mon acaba de regresar a Barcelona después de trece años en la cárcel.  Su sobrino y otros chavales del barrio ponen sus esperanzas en el ex boxeador/ex guerrillero/ex pistolero como una especie de héroe popular antifranquista mientras que otros temen el ajuste de cuentas que sin duda sucederá dentro de poco.  ¿Es realmente posible que Mon, un tipo bastante cerrado, ha abandonado sus sueños de venganza y solo quiere retirarse de su vida anterior?  Si es difícil explicar por qué el argumento de Un día volveré me emocionó tanto, sí puedo decir que es una novela en la que se respira la desesperación de los años de la posguerra.  Mon, aprendemos, perdió un hermano a la batalla del Ebro y su padre cuando éste fue fusilado un año más tarde; otro personaje importante solo sobrevivió ser un traidor a la República porque su hermano fue ejecutado en su lugar por error.  Estilísticamente, uno de los éxitos de la novela es la manera en cual su punto de vista narrativo funciona como un espejo para la pérdida de la inocencia y/o del idealismo.  En un momento, por ejemplo, el narrador explica cómo los muchachos del barrio de su juventud añoraban un ángel vengador: "Jan Julivert no había vuelto para refugiarse en su soledad ni para morderse las uñas pencando de plantón en el jardín de una casa de señores, sino para conectar nuevamente con sus antiguos camaradas de lucha y llevar a cabo un estudiado ajuste de cuentas".  Esto, al menos, era el deseo de ellos dado que quisieron "mantener vivo aquel viejo fantasma de la violencia acodado al balcón de su casa con un raído pijama gris".  En otra parte, sin obstante, el narrador opina más tarde que "aquel supuesto huracán de venganzas que esperábamos llegaría con él, y sobre el que tanto se había fantaseado en el barrio" quizás era otro fantasma en la medida en que "el olvido es una estrategia del vivir, si bien algunos, por si acaso, aún mantenemos el dedo en el gatillo de la memoria".  Excelente.

Juan Marsé (1933-2020)