The OF Blog

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche

Si me hubieran llamado a declarar, pienso.  Pero eso es imposible.  Quizá, por eso, escribo.

Declararía, por ejemplo, que en la noche del sábado al domingo 30 de marzo de 2010 llegué a casa entre las tres y tres y media de la madrugada:  el último ómnibus de Retiro a La Plata sale a la una, pero una muchedumbre volvía de no sé qué recital, y viajamos apretados, de pie la mayoría, avanzando a paso de hombre por la autopista y el campo.

Urgida por mi tardanza, la perra se me echó encima tan pronto abrí la puerta.  Pero yo aún me demoré en comprobar que en mi ausencia no había pasado nada – mi madre dormía bien, a sus ochenta y nueve años, en su casa de la planta baja, con una respiración regular –, y solo entonces volví a buscar la perra, le puse la cadena y la saqué a la vereda.

Como siempre que voy cerca, eché llave a una sola de las tres cerraduras que mi padre, poco antes de morir, instaló en la puerta del garaje:  el miedo a ser robados, secuestrados, muertos, esa seguridad que llaman, curiosamente, inseguridad, ya empezaba a cernirse, como una noche detrás de la noche. (p. 13)

Like most of its neighbors in the 1970s, Argentina went through a period of socio-political upheaval that led to a right-wing military coup.  The "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 led to tens of thousands of disappearances, mysterious robberies, assaults, murders, and other acts of violence.  Often neighbors would witness atrocities, only to be forced to remain silent lest what they saw would be visited in turn upon them.  It is, nearly forty years later, still a controversial topic within Argentina and there are many groups clamoring even today for justice to be served for those who inflicted such violence upon its citizens.

In Leopoldo Brizuela's 2012 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Una misma noche (On a Similar Night might be an appropriate translation), he explores the issues of fear-driven forgetfulness and subconscious complicity in acts of state atrocity.  Through the eyes of his narrator, a writer named Leonardo Bazán, Brizuela jumps back and forth through two time periods, 1976-1977 and 2010, to probe at just how people could look at a horrific event and manage to rationalize it away from their conscious thoughts.  It is an interesting narrative approach, albeit one fraught with flaws.

The chapters, labeled by letters in the Spanish alphabet, alternate between these time periods.  Bazán at first tries to adopt a more "clinical" approach toward narrating the similarities between the house invasion he and his parents witnessed in 1976 and a 2010 elaborate robbery (which includes, interestingly enough, a member of the local police) in that very name house.  What are the connections between the two?, Bazán begins to ask himself.  Then, as memories are triggered by this 2010 invasion, the question shifts more toward that of what was he hiding from himself all along?

The narrative depends upon the reader's willingness to consider and reconsider details that Bazán raises as he shifts back and forth from memory (some of which seems to be unreliable, as he recalls in different lights the exact same events he discussed in a prior chapter) and "present" reflection.  At times, the split between the past/present becomes a bit too dizzying, as there are occasionally no narrative bridges between these temporal shifts of thought.  This in turn risks missing out on important information or clues into what happened in the original 1976 home invasion and how Bazán's family dealt with its aftermath.

In addition, some of the principal characters, including the Jewish family, the Kupermans, are not as fleshed out as much as they perhaps should have been.  These relatively sketchy characters on occasion detract from the narrative's potential impact as there is not enough information provided about them to enable the reader to form solid connections.  This is a shame, as at times Brizuela's prose, particular when Bazán is contemplating the connections between the events, is sharp and the narrative flow on these occasions is fluid and devoid of the false steps that plague other parts of the story.  This unevenness in the characterizations and plot development dampens the enjoyment that might have been derived from reading Una misma noche.  It is not by any stretch a particularly "bad" novel, just merely a flawed one, one of the weaker Premio Alfaguara winners in the sixteen years since the award was resumed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo/Red April

Con fecha miércoles 8 de marzo de 2000, en circunstancias en que transitaba por las inmediaciones de su domicilio en la localidad de Quinua, Justino Mayta Carazo (31) encontró un cadáver.

Según ha manifestado ante las autoridades competentes, el declarante llevaba tres días en el carnaval del referido asentamiento, donde había participado en el baile del pueblo.  Debido a esa contingencia, afirma no recordar dónde se hallaba la noche anterior ni niguna de las dos precedentes, en las que refirió haber libado grandes cantidades de bebidas espirituosas.  Esa versión no ha podido ser ratificada por ninguno de las 1.576 vecinos del pueblo, que dan fe de haberse encontrado asimismo en el referido estado etílico durante las anteriores 72 horas con ocasión de dicha festividad. (p. 13)

Police procedurals, or "whodunnits," are a very popular literary genre.  If crafted well, each scene, each character interaction builds toward something greater until the final revelations are made and the case is closed.  But what if this murder/mystery tale were wedded to political turmoil and terrorism?  What if coercion and covert sympathy for the offenders were to play a major role in blocking a case from being solved?

Santiago Roncagliolo in his 2006 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Abril rojo (available in English translation as Red April) manages to create a near-perfect melding of these elements.  Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Peru between March 9 and May 3, 2000, Abril rojo is the tale of a state prosecutor, Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, who is trying to solve a series of murders in his hometown of Ayacucho.  What Chacaltana discovers, however, is that the local people may or may not be complicit in harboring some of the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla/terrorist group that had terrorized much of Peru, especially the more Quechua-speaking areas of the mountains, during the 1980s and 1990s.

Roncagliolo develops the action carefully, utilizing several investigative interviews conducted by Chacaltana to provide context for what is transpiring in Ayacucho.  In these scenes, the citizens interviewed reveal only small fragments of information, leaving Chacaltana impeded in his search for justice for the growing number of people dying in the region, most especially during the weeks leading up to Holy Week in late April.  Furthermore, his efforts seem to be leading to more murders, as those who do agree to divulge information appear to be targets for the murderers.

However, there are some interesting twists to what might seem to be a standard tale of nefarious bandits terrorizing the locals.  Roncagliolo also presents a very realistic portrait of the senderistas through some of the testimony provided in Chacaltana's interviews.  This composite portrait, derived from actual court cases according to the author, provides valuable insight into the reasons behind the senderistas becoming dedicated to overthrowing the national government, as well as providing a glimpse into the appeal the Sendero Luminoso had for even the more privileged members of Peruvian society.  It is this sense of veracity within this procedural tale that makes each plot development in Abril rojo feel so vital.

Roncagliolo's writing is sharp throughout the novel.  There is a gradually building narrative tension that rarely suffers from longeurs.  The characters are well-developed and even though some might at first glance appear to be stock characterizations, there is a level of depth to them that often does not appear in murder/mystery stories.  Although the conclusion is slightly weaker than the middle portions of the novel, it provides enough detail and narrative power to make this novel one of the more enjoyable police procedurals that I've read in either Spanish or English in quite some time.  Abril rojo is one of my favorite Premio Alfaguara-winning novels and this re-read after an initial read almost eight years ago confirmed my original high opinion of this novel.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mid-December reviewing plans

It's nine days until Christmas, my usual drop-dead date when it comes to writing reviews for a year.  I have 27 2014 releases left to cover, most, if not all, in 1-2 paragraph length mini-review round-ups.  Starting after work late tonight/morning, I'm going to alternate writing 4-5 book mini-reviews with covering the final five Premio Alfaguara winners that I haven't yet reviewed (depending on when I finish reading them; might make an exception and cover some of these after Christmas). 

Starting with Christmas, I will spend the final week of the year covering various Best of 2014 lists, including a Top 50 out of the 160+ 2014 releases that I've read this year.  I have dozens of short fiction collections, works in non-English languages, debut novels, and other categories to cover, so hopefully this year's lists will be the most comprehensive ones I've posted in the 10+ years I've operated this blog.

Of course, as always with me, things can change...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Interesting article on the "clomping foot of nerdism" and the latest Hobbit movie

This weekend, The Telegraph ran an article that discussed how the over-emphasis on "realism" in fantasy (or to be more precise, the seeming near-elimination of "imaginative gaps"), especially in relation to adaptations/responses to J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, sucks the joy and wonder out of matters.  While I might quibble a bit on the discussions of Tolkien himself (I think it's a more complex case with him, although I agree that LotR has some significant flaws), I do find myself sympathetic with most, if not all, of the article's claims and statements.

Thoughts on the article?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Folio Prize longlist announced

There are 80 titles on this list.  I have read 27 of them (bolded).  Based on the 1/3 that I've read, this is a good list of what was memorable in lit publishing in 2014, at least in the UK (some US-only releases I liked better, but that almost goes without saying).  Here's the list, copy/pasted from this page:

The 80 books nominated by The Folio Prize Academy this year are:

10:04   Lerner, Ben
A God In Every Stone  Shamsie, Kamila

Academy Street  Costello, Mary

After Me Comes The Flood  Perry, Sarah

All My Puny Sorrows  Toews, Miriam

All Our Names   Mengistu, Dinaw
All The Days And Nights  Goviden, Niven

All The Light We Cannot See   Doerr, Anthony
All The Rage  Kennedy, AL

Amnesia   Carey, Peter

Annihilation   Vandermeer, Jeff
Arctic Summer  Galgut, Damon

Bald New World  Tieryas Liu, Peter

Bark   Moore, Lorrie
Be Safe I Love You   Hoffman, Cara
Boy, Snow, Bird   Oyeyemi, Helen

Can't & Won't   Davis, Lydia
Dear Thief  Harvey, Samantha

Dept. of Speculation  Offill, Jenny

Dissident Gardens  Lethem, Jonathan

Dust  Owuor, Yvonne Adhiambo

Em And The Big Hoom  Pinto, Jerry

England And Other Stories  Swift, Graham

Euphoria   King, Lily
Everland  Hunt, Rebecca

Eyrie  Winton, Tim

Family Life  Sharma, Akhil

Fourth Of July Creek   Henderson, Smith
How To Be Both    Smith, Ali
In Search Of Silence   Mackie, Emily

In The Approaches   Barker, Nicola

In The Light Of What We Know   Rahman, Zia Haider

J    Jacobson, Howard
Kinder Than Solitude    Li, Yiyun

Lila   Robinson, Marilynne

Life Drawing   Black, Robin

Lost For Words   St Aubyn, Edward

Love And Treasure   Waldman, Ayelet

Nora Webster   Toibin, Colm

On Such A Full Sea   Lee, Chang-Rae
Orfeo    Powers, Richard
Outline   Cusk, Rachel

Perfidia   Ellroy, James

Road Ends   Lawson, Mary

Shark   Self, Will
Some Luck   Smiley, Jane
Stay Up With Me    Barbash, Tom

Stone Mattress   Atwood, Margaret

The Ballad Of A Small Player   Osborne, Lawrence

The Bone Clocks   Mitchell, David
The Book Of Gold Leaves   Waheed, Mirza

The Book Of Strange New Things   Faber, Michel
The Country Of Icecream Star   Newman, Sandra

The Dog   O'Neill, Joseph
The Emerald Light In The Air   Antrim, Donald

The Emperor Waltz   Hensher, Philip

The Fever   Abbott, Megan

The Heroes' Welcome   Young, Louisa

The Incarnations   Barker, Susan

The Lie   Dunmore, Helen

The Lives Of Others   Mukherjee, Neel
The Narrow Road To The Deep North   Flanagan, Richard
The Night Guest   McFarlane, Fiona

The Paying Guests    Waters, Sarah

The Tell-Tale Heart   Dawson, Jill

The Temporary Gentleman   Barry, Sebastian

The Wake   Kingsnorth, Paul
The Zone Of Interest   Amis, Martin

Their Lips Talk Of Mischief   Warner, Alan

Thunderstruck    McCracken, Elizabeth
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour    Ferris, Joshua
Travelling Sprinkler    Baker, Nicholson

Upstairs At The Party   Grant, Linda

Viper Wine    Eyre, Hermione

Virginia Woolf In Manhattan    Gee, Maggie

We Are Not Ourselves    Thomas, Matthew
What You Want    Phipps, Constantine

Wittgenstein Jr    Iyer, Lars

Young Skins     Barrett, Colin

Your Fathers, Where Are They?...     Eggers, Dave

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tomás Eloy Martínez, El vuelo de la Reina

A eso de las once, como toas las noches, Camargo abre las cortinas de su cuarto en la calle Reconquista, dispone el sillón a un metro de distancia de la ventana para que la penumbra lo proteja, y espera a que la mujer entre en su ángulo de mira.  A veces la ve cruzar como una ráfaga por la ventana de enfrente y desaparecer en el baño o en la cocina.  Lo que a ella más le gusta, sin embargo, es detenerse ante el espejo del dormitorio y desvestirse con suprema lentitud.  Camargo puede contemplarla entonces a su gusto.  Muchos años atrás, en un teatro de variedades de Osaka, vio a una bailarina japonesa despojarse del quimono de ceremonia hasta quedar desnuda por completo.  La mujer de enfrente tiene la misma altiva elegancia de la japonesa y repite las mismas poses de fingido asombro, pero sus movimientos son aún más sensuales.  Inclina la cabeza como si se le hubiera perdido algún recuerdo y, luego de pasarse la punta de los dedos por debajo de los pechos, los lame con delicadeza.  Para no perder ningún detalle, Camargo la observa a través de un telescopio Bushnell de sesenta y siete centímetros que está montado sobre un trípode. (p. 11)

There is a relatively new cliché that obsession is more than a perfume by Calvin Klein.  Yet there is something beguiling, alluring even, about displays of obsession that draws people's attentions.  Perhaps it is our own half-understood realization that we all have our things or people that become our objects of fixation and desire.  Seeing it in others can be revolting as well, as though we are witnesses simultaneously something quasi-criminal and a too-clear reflection of our own most shameful lusts.  Yet, sometimes, we observe, perhaps behind some metaphorical curtains or bushes the obsessed soul in action.  We might feel helpless to resist, but there it lies, waiting for us to see how this obsession will unfold.  Sometimes, it'll be fortuitous, with the obsession transformed into reciprocal love.  Other times (and these can be the most delectable for us, loathe as many of us may be to admit it), the obsession crashes into disaster.

In Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez's 2002 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel El vuelo de la reina (The Flight of the Queen), the reader encounters a disturbing sort of obsession straight from the opening paragraph.  Camargo, the head of Buenos Aires' most influential newspaper, is spying upon a
young woman, a reporter named Reina.  It is not a Romeo espying a Juliet; it is a predator stalking its prey.  Camargo is double Reina's age and furthermore, he has all sorts of power over her:  his ability to block or accelerate her career advancement; his knowledge of an extramarital affair that she had; and his awareness of how precarious her position is in a society that has a double standard when it comes to issues of sex and morality.

It would be too easy to view Camargo as the villian, as after all, he has very few, if any, redeeming personal qualities and his lusts for power and dominance are not exactly heroic.  Yet Eloy Martínez, by having us see events through Camargo's thoughts and actions, forces the reader to confront these detestable qualities head-on.  Camargo is so blinded by his obsession with Reina that he justifies all sorts of nefarious actions in such a fashion that at times it is hard not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for him, controlled as he is by his desires.  But it is in a few scenes with Reina, leading up to the denouement, that we see the full extent of his power plays and the deleterious effects this has on the young woman.  Here is where Camargo's self-delusions and machinations are laid bare and the reader is confronted with the insidious nature of Camargo's actions.  Eloy Martínez manages to execute this so well that when the novel concludes, the reader is left with two wavering images of Camargo, each seeming to elide into the other, with the dissonance serving to illustrate how Camargo's self-image differs from the reader's.

Eloy Martínez's prose is excellent throughout the narrative, and he manages to shape through carefully crafted passages, nuanced portraits of the principal characters.  While Camargo's obsessed, mostly-malevolent character can be distasteful, especially when he is the primary character, Eloy Martínez manages to make other character perspectives feel dynamic and true to life.  Although there are a few moments where the narrative slows down overmuch, for the most part, Eloy Martínez's slow ratcheting up of the narrative tension adds greatly to the story.  While the conclusion might be a little "soft" for some readers, it too fits in with the themes of power and desire that Eloy Martínez explores to great depth here.  El vuelo de la reina is a very good novel, one of Eloy Martínez's best, and it certainly was deserving of its selection as a Premio Alfaguara-winning novel.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A fine quote for a Friday in December

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.  But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology.  The devaluation of the word "language" itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words – ignorance – are evidences of this effect.  This inflation of the sign "language" is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself.  Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign:  this crisis is also a symptom.  It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon.  It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, beginning to Chapter 1

Maybe I'll re-read it and write a review in January?  Would that be of interest to any?
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