The OF Blog: Here's a little bit of what I've been reading lately

Friday, March 23, 2012

Here's a little bit of what I've been reading lately

I burned out last week from reviewing.  I had written several reviews for Gogol's Overcoat and Weird Fiction Review over the past month, nearly a review/commentary a day, and I was very exhausted.  I ended up taking a longer break from posting than I had planned (I do need to write two Faulkner Friday posts to make up for the one postponed from last week - I did read the stories, however), but I did find myself revisiting some authors and literary genres that I hadn't devoted much time to over the past couple of years.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad had me do a bit of improv translation when we were working out in the gym and a young Latino told him "¿Como estás?"  Although I could communicate more or less, it was also obvious that my spoken Spanish had deteriorated over the past few years.  To make up for it, I decided that I needed to read/re-read some of the over 400 books/e-books that I have in Spanish.  I began by re-reading the opening to a four-volume epic fantasy by Spanish writer Javier Negrete, La espada de fuego (The Fire Sword).  Negrete is well-regarded in Spanish fandom (he's won several awards, including the Premio Ignotus, their version of the Hugo Awards) and while I prefer his alt-histories (and actual histories; he is a Classics professor as well) and SF to his fantasy series, this was a fairly decent melange of Sword and Sorcery (a genre that appeals to me much more than its oft-bloated epic fantasy cousin), quest fantasy, and I believe I detected some hints of SF underpinnings to his world.  The setting may not be appealing to those who equate graphic sex/violence with "realism," but I found Negrete's writing to be excellent and the characterizations to be better than average.  I will be dipping into the remaining three volumes of his Saga de Tramórea series over the next couple of months.

I also re-read two recent Premio Alfaguara winners:  2005's El turno del escriba (co-written by Argentine writers Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf) and 2011's El ruido de las cosas al caer (by Juan Gabriel Vásquez).  I have read each of the award winners since the prize was re-founded in 1998 and generally speaking, it is one of the more reliable ones for me in terms of enjoying the winning book.  Montes and Wolf's historical fiction dealing with the transmission of knowledge of Marco Polo's voyages is fascinating in how certain elements of Polo's story came to be passed down (likely with some alterations) from the transcription of his conversations while in prison to the rapid dissemination into the major European languages of the late medieval period.  Vásquez's novel is a mystery, yet one that touches upon the socio-cultural climate of late 20th century Colombian history, that develops nicely over its nearly 260 pages.  There is something to be said for a well-written work that is complex without needing several hundred pages to unfold all of its mysteries.

Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet has been a favorite of mine for the past eight years, ever since I learned enough Spanish to read novels without depending upon translations or dictionaries.  One of the founding members of the McOndo movement that was a reaction against magic realism and perceptions regarding what constitutes "Latin American literature," Fuguet's fiction is raw, visceral, and occasionally confessional in tone.  His latest book, 2011's Aeropuertos, is one of his shorter novels (it is a shade under 200 pages).  Told in episodic pieces from 1992 to 2008, it traces the lives of three middle-class Chileans:  a former couple and their son who was conceived during a vacation while both parents were in their teens.  Fuguet explores here the dynamics of a distant, "non-traditional" family in which each member (well, the father and son much more than the mother here, as it is the father-son relationship that interests Fuguet the most) questions the state of things as one grows older without having really settled down and another who seeks to understand this barely-acquainted father who has missed the important milestones of his life.  There are a few, minor longeurs here, namely in a middle chapter that focuses on the father Álvaro's musings on his current life, but the airport meetings at the beginning and end of the book make this one of Fuguet's more powerful stories in a career that has seen him produce several memorable works (I often recommend English-language readers to read The Movies of My Life to get a feel for how Fuguet approaches his protagonists and the themes he likes to explore, especially that of the alienated Chilean youth who struggle to meld Chilean life with American-dominated pop culture influences).

Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares was praised several years ago by José Saramago has being one of the best Portuguese writers to emerge in the first decade of the 21st century.  His loosely-connected "Kingdom" trilogy has received quite a few acclaims.  I read the first and third "volumes" of this "trilogy" recently in Spanish and English translations (I read the second associated book, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, last year and enjoyed it).  Jerusalén (Jerusalem) follows the lives of despondent, lonely men and women as they try to piece together why they have been brought together when some only want to commit suicide to get it over.  Joseph Walser's Machine concerns itself with the disruption of routine in a way that the short, sometimes fractured chapters (which Tavares utilizes in each of the three novels of this "trilogy") accentuate.  I want to re-read each volume before commenting more, but Tavares certainly has made a very positive impression on me.

Hungarian writer Lászlo Krasznahorkai's classic 1985 novel, Satantango, was finally published in English translation earlier this month.  This is an unsettling novel (I wish I could find a copy of the 6+ hour movie made from this 274 page book) in which the lines between reality and madness are blurred.  I may write a full, formal review of this later, but it will require a re-read first to make sure I understand more of what transpires over the final third of the novel.  Certainly one that I would recommend to readers who like psychological and/or weird fictions.

Still trying to process what I read yesterday, when I finished reading Saramago's "lost" first novel, Claraboia.  It was written over 50 years ago and was likely not published at first due to the political situation at the time (it is a very candid look at Portuguese life under the military dictatorship of the time).  I was very surprised to see just how different a conventional narrative structure (normal-length paragraphs and sentences) affected his thematic execution (the impact was not as strong as when he eschewed differentiating between direct and indirect speech in his 1980s-2010 writings).  Argentine writer César Aira's El congreso de literatura (available in English as The Literary Conference) is an odd, comic novel of a half-mad megalomaniac translator/writer (also named César) who dreams of conquering the world (after the aforementioned literary conference he is attending) with a clone army derived from his favorite writer, Carlos Fuentes.  Aira writes incisive tales in novella-length segments (this was 66 pages on my iPad) and here the result is something that works both as a comic work and as a serious look at literary influences.

There are others that I have read over the past week or two, but some will be covered later on other sites (I may write a formal review of Steven Millhauser's PEN/Faulkner-nominated collection, We Others, which is excellent, by the way) or I just don't have much to say about them other than most didn't suck squirrel nuts.  Although a few titles aren't yet available in English, I did try to note the ones that are available in it (plus a few are available in Portuguese, German, French, and other European languages), so hopefully a few of you may end up investigating some of the authors mentioned briefly here.

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