The OF Blog: Quarterly Review

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Quarterly Review

It's been a while since I've updated this blog with capsule reviews of books that I've read which might be of interest to the few and proud which read this blog, so time to update with books read from mid-February to the end of March. Some of these books I reviewed over at wotmania, so I'll be providing links to those reviews.

Roberto Arlt, El jorobadito

Arlt was one of Argentina's most reknowned writers during the first third of the twentieth century. Known as much for his polemical writings and activities as for anything else, Arlt lived hard and fast, dying in his early 40s in 1942. After publishing two novels, he turned more and more toward short fiction and theater writing.

El jorobadito (The Little Hunchback) is a collection of stories that feature outlandish characters. Oftentimes, the stories are bizarre in setting, the motivations are often dark, but yet there is a sense of morbid fascination with the grostesque that underlays each of the stories collected here. Arlt is often held up as being influential in the sense that a William Burroughs is influential in the US, for being a rebel with a cause and an ax to grind, and this collection will serve as a fine introduction to his work. Highly recommended for people who are fluent in Spanish and who wish to read an excellent collection of short fiction.

Rafael Ramírez, La Mara

This is a tale of the Mara Salvatruchas, especially the MS-13, a gang which originated in the streets of LA from those salvadoreños who had suffered from the violence of the death squads that sprung out of the civil war of the 1980s. This gang, known for their tattoes of teardrops for each killing committed, their use of the machete, and their embracement of La vida loca (how Ricky Martin has managed to survive for so long is a story for another time), now numbers in the tens of thousands, with an estimated 20 to 30 thousand members in the United States alone and double that number in Central America and other parts of the world. Ramírez's novel is a tale of some of those caught up in La vida loca.

As a novel, the story is told through a variety of viewpoints, from those just joining the gangs and those who live in fear of those who use symbols such as the alacrán (scorpion). The novel is narrative in tone, with the various points of view being used in a manner to build up what has developed in previous chapters. Ramírez does an excellent job with the characterizations and in illustrating just how potent of a threat the MS-13 is to the maintenance of order along the borders of the Central American countries and also along the US-Mexico border. It is a tragic tale, as La vida loca is not just crazy, but oftentimes very short, and I was saddened as I read tales of youth left with such little hope as they progressed into the world of the black teardrops. Although the shifting scenes might be confusing to some (especially if Spanish is not their native language, as I quickly discovered), the overall power of the scenes make La Mara a story well worth reading, if only to learn more about what is possibly the most dangerous and vicious gang in the world today.

Mario Vargas Llosa, El Paraíso en la otra esquina

Vargas Llosa has had a long and successful writing career. Associated with the Boom movement of the 1960s in South America, Vargas Llosa has gone on to publish classics such as La casa verde (1963), Conversación en la Catedral (1969), Pantaleón y las visitadoras (1972), La guerra del fin del mundo (1981), and La fiesta del Chivo (2000). His latest novel, El Paraíso en la otra esquina (2003), fits well with this impressive literary corpus.

The novel is actually two stories. The first is set around the end of the 19th century and deals with the painter Paul Gaugin and his quest to discover his Muse in sensuality. The second deals with Paul's maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan, and her struggle for women's rights and equality in a Paris of the mid-19th century that was anything but conducive for such a struggle. Vargas Llosa alternates these two in chapters, with a series of similar hopes, aspirations, and ultimately 'defeat.' As I read this story, I kept being struck by the title and how for each character, 'Paradise' was within their grasp, just lurking around the corner, waiting to be taken and possessed. As such, it was a perfect metaphor for the aspirations of the 19th century, that time of Owenites, of the Shakers, and ultimately of the Paris Commune and the Second International. A time of hopes and dreams that our more cynical late 20th/early 21st century societies would scorn for being hopelessly naïve, the 19th century was as much of a character here as was Paul or Flora.

El Paraíso en la otra esquina has its flaws, though. The alternating chapter system often makes for a mess and this was indeed the case at times. Also, it seemed that on occasion, Vargas Llosa made too much of a connection between Paul and Flora, to the detriment of both of their unique visions. But these are minor issues, not enough to dissuade me from recommending others to pick this up either in the original Spanish or in translation form.

Edmundo Paz Soldán, La materia del deseo

Paz Soldán is a Bolivian-born Latin American Literature professor at Cornell University. He is one of the founders of the mid-1990s South American literary movement called McOndo, which aims to have hyperrealistic narratives, full of the ambiguous affects of globalization, to become as much of a symbol of their South America, as the realismo mágico of the Boom Generation of García Márquez, Córtazar, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes. La materia del deseo is a prime example of this new movements aims.

The story appears to have the veneer of an autobiography, as the main character, Pedro, is a Bolivian-born professor in the United States who is fascinated and haunted by his late father's work on a book called Berkeley. Struggling with a relationship with a student, Ashley, Pedro leaves for Bolivia to search for clues as to what his father, who was a Leftist leader assassinated by a previous Bolivian dictatorship, was doing when he wrote Berkeley and why that work has affected his own life.

There are no swarms of butterflies or levitating priests in this tale. It is equal parts mystery thriller and psychological narrative, with flavors of a bicultural conflict between native and adopted lands. The story flows well, the character of Pedro is interesting, and the conclusion is solid. If anything, the story suffers from a relative lack of focus on the relationship between Pedro and Ashley, but on the whole, this work will serve as an excellent primer into the differences between the McOndoists and the Boom Generation while also highlighting what the Young Turks have to offer to this globalizing world. Hopefully this story will be translated into English for American audiences.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

I'm just going to link to the wotmania review I did for it a couple of weeks ago.

Ben Okri, The Famished Road

This was another review that I originally did at wotmania, so here's the link to that review.

Gabriela Mistral, Selección poetica de Gabriela Mistral

This was an excellent collection sampler of many of Mistral's most famous poem cycles. While I could devote pages to discussing and analyzing the poems included in this 190 page collection, I will just note that the opening section, which deals with a hymn of sorts to the Americas, is evocative of some of Walt Whitman's finest poetry, although Mistral's style is quite different from Whitman's free verse. The Sun of America is the best poem in this collection and it just describes so well the similarities and differences between the various lands within the Americas. I would recommend it to those who enjoy Latin American poetry, but I would also note that I consider Rubén Darío and Mistral's Chilean compatriot, Pablo Neruda, to be even better than Mistral.

Clara Sánchez, Últimas noticias del paraíso

Últimas noticias del paraíso won the Premio Alfaguara in 2000. It is a combination of many stories into one, complete whole: a quest of knowledge, an exploration of contemporary urban life, a Bildungsroman, and the hope that so many of us have in what we call 'paradise.' Fran is an adolescent boy growing up in a world that is in turns exciting and confusing. The novel details Fran's progression during his teenage years in a first-person narrative that will remind the reader of his/her daily struggles during those teenage years just to make it through to the end of the day. Sánchez just does this with a sympathetic voice that makes us hope with Fran and to be crushed with him. This work well deserved the Alfaguara and I can only hope that it will be translated into English in the near future, as it is well worth the read.

Shashi Tharoor, The Great Indian Novel

I reviewed this novel over at wotmania.

Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo

Poniatowska won the 2001 Premio Alfaguara for this novel of an astronomer and his struggle during the 20th century to improve Mexico's scientific reputation. This novel of the astronomer Lorenzo de Tena begins with a simple question: ¿allá atrás se acaba el mundo? (What's after the end of the world? is a very rough translation). From pondering that question and questioning his mother and later others around him, Lorenzo began a lifetime of struggling against perceived wrongs, tilting against the windmills of bureaucracies and political forces to achieve his vocational goals, even at the cost of certain friendships and loves. La piel del cielo is a powerful read, one in which the character of Lorenzo stands out without succumbing to the temptations of becoming a cardboard characterization, which so often happens when the main narrative voice is such a unique person. He is not perfect, but he is also indomitable, which makes reading this novel a thought-provoking read.

Anonymous, The Poem of El Cid (bilingual edition)

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, commonly known as El Cid, was a fascinating historical character who lived in the last half of the 11th century in Spain. A Castilian by birth, El Cid was controversial enough to have been exiled twice by Castilian King Alfonso VI in the 1080s and 1090s and who ended up fighting for both the Christians and the Moors during many of the most famous battles of the Reconquista. His exploits became semi-legendary and by the early 13th century, they were collected into poetic/song form in Old Castilian. The book I read is a dual-language edition of this poem.

The work is an epic of the time, so there are many repetitive phrases used to remind the listening audience of the heroic exploits of that knight who 'in a good hour was born'. It was interesting to read the Old Castilian next to the modern English translation, as there is a rhythm and form to that original which simply could not be captured in English poetic forms, thus the prose translation being chosen instead. The story revolves around El Cid's second exile in 1091 and how he conquered Valencia from the Moors. There is jealousy from his enemies in the court of Castile and friendship from unexpected places. There are the heroic slayings of tens of thousands and sumptuous feasts. It is a true epic and a treasure to read. And unlike most other epic heroes, El Cid is characterized by his humility and faith over his prowess on the battlefield. Truly a remarkable read.

Sarah Monette, Mélusine

Another book that I reviewed first at wotmania.

Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio is an intelligently written historical/suspense novel. Told in three voices from critical times in the history of Provence, the book interweaves themes and notes how time and character motivations might just repeat themselves. I do not want to reveal too much of the plot specifics as there might be readers here who will want to read this book, but I can say that from Roman nobleman who became a saintly bishop during the last days of Roman control over Provence in the 470s to a poet in the Avignon region during the 1340s outbreak of the Black Death to a French historian researching the lives and writings of the other two while the Germans are threatening France during 1940, there is a common thread in a commentary over a forgotten manuscript called The Dream of Scipio.

Pears interweaves their stories in such a way as to highlight certain temptations that each faced at critical moments. When should one succumb to pressure and when should one hold fast to principles? Does the good of one group outweigh the good of another? How should one deal with barbarism? These are some of the questions raised during the reading of this novel and Pears does an excellent job of addressing them. For those that enjoy books set in historical times but which also contain timeless quandries, The Dream of Scipio is a book that should be read as soon as possible.

José Saramago, Las intermitencias de la muerte

Still another book that I reviewed at wotmania.

Dan Simmons, Olympos

Recently reviewed here at wotmania.

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