Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

The Invention of Morel

invention of morel

The plot, pacing, and punch of this explosive novella are, in total, almost too much to take in at the same time. The Invention of Morel is a wonder.

Adolfo Bioy Casares / Argentinean / 1940 / 103 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Ruth L. C. Simms

As I am with basically all television shows, I was late to the table on Lost. When I finally sat down to start watching the show, it was with the aid of Netflix, which allowed me to work through its six seasons in about six weeks. The compressed viewing approach amplified the show’s highs, but also laid bare its substantial flaws. Whereas the initial seasons were crafty and sophisticated in their fantastical, vague storytelling, the latter seasons failed to convincingly deliver on the dramatic tension, cosmic uncertainty, and intriguing suspense developed in the earliest episodes. With Lost, the writers cranked out so many disparate elements that it would have taken a genius to tie them all up in a nice bundle at the end. Their audacious gamble was, ultimately, their own damning indictment.

In many ways, The Invention of Morel, a short fantastical novella from 1940s Argentina, is similar to Lost (and, indeed, many people believe that certain of its plot elements served as source material for the television show; furthermore, the show’s surprisingly literate character — Sawyer — is also seen reading Casares’ novel in one of the show’s more interesting episodes). The author sets the action on an isolated and mysterious island, the protagonist is stranded there without aid, and bizarre things begin to happen almost immediately upon his arrival. Strange music plays at daybreak, an unholy number of mosquitoes populate the marshes, two suns hover in the sky, and mysterious people pop up at random intervals without taking any notice of the protagonist. Books that he steals from abandoned buildings are replaced the next day, doors won’t open, curtains appear to be made of rock, and so on. But whereas such fantasy became too much for the writers of Lost to juggle, the virtue of Casares’ novella is that the author remains firmly in control throughout. He manages not only to satisfy the reader’s indignant curiosity, but also squeezes from the fantastical plot enough symbolic insightfulness to satisfy any college literature professor.

Although little known in American circles, it’s hard to overstate the impact this novella had on the Spanish speaking world. The great denizen of the fantastic, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote the prologue to Morel and concludes his introduction by noting of the story: “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” The Nobel Prize winning poet Octavio Paz exuded commensurate praise, noting that Morel “may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel.” The novella’s influence on Cortázar and García Márquez is readily apparent and even the great French filmmaker and author, Alain Robbe-Grillet, used it as source material for his Last Year in Marienbad. Altogether, not a bad batch of accolades.

So why does Morel succeed? I would argue that it works on three fronts: plot, pacing, and theme.

To begin, Casares backs himself into a narrative corner by piling on page upon page of implausible happenings in the first two-thirds of the novella. It gets to the point where you begin to think that nothing could really explain the insanity of the island, that nothing but, say, a revelation that the protagonist is profoundly mentally ill could account for such dramatic suspension of physical, social, and temporal laws. The protagonist — an escaped convict — believes himself to be completely isolated on the island when the “other” people first begin appearing. They pay no attention to him, despite his deeply flawed attempts at reconnoitering, and we begin to realize that he’s such a bumbling idiot that even a grade-schooler would have realized that she was being spied upon. The commonsense conclusion at this point in the narrative is that he’s simply being ignored by the group. Fair enough. But he begins to behave more daringly, entering their house and their bedrooms while they sleep, crawling under the dinner table while they dine, and so forth. Still, nothing. There’s also the aforementioned business of the two suns and myriad other peculiarities. One of the greatest things about Casares’ novella, then, is his ability to explain what’s transpiring without shrugging it off as the protagonist’s hallucination. He doles out something of a magical plot, but then reels it in analytically.

Secondly, the guy is just a master when it comes to constructing a measured — but rollicking — story arch. The pace at which we progress through the narrative is pitch perfect; it feeds us a steady stream of details to keep us interested, pauses for just long enough on certain details to stress their importance, lingers occasionally (but only occasionally) in philosophical or metaphysical sidebars and, in general, balances every quiet moment with a loud one. It keeps the pages turning. I read it in a weekend.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, is Casares’ ability to elicit from the fantastical plot elements a number of truly trenchant and profound takeaway points on the nature of love, time, isolation, deception, science, and the afterlife. This is no straightforward genre novel. I’d go so far as to say that it was probably the most thought-provoking novel I’ve read that falls in the 100-page range. It truly is impressive how much thematic substance the author is able to cram into such a scant volume whilst still ensuring that it adheres to all the great tropes of a classic adventure story.

I’m at a loss for what else to say; much more would spoil the reading experience. Sometimes the best novels require the shortest reviews and this is one of those circumstances.

Rating: 9 / 10  

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The Aleph

the aleph

A good deal more measured and moderate than his explosively creative Fictionsthis collection of short stories reveals a writer who is almost singularly concerned with narrative, storytelling, and the presentation of plot elements in bizarre patterns. At times incredible (and at others, inscrutable), The Aleph is a densely concise treasure trove of erudite anecdotes.

Jorge Luis Borges / Argentinean / 1952 / 106 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

I first tangled with Fictions when I was carting off to Omaha for college and it shattered my brain like a bomb. There was something at once both entertaining and exasperating about Borges’ fantastical visions that were, nonetheless, deeply grounded in the laws of physics, logic, and probability. He constructed libraries with infinite dimensions and infinite shelves of books, drafted rigorous encyclopedias of fabricated cultures, and described a lottery that engendered more lotteries. Borges began with simple concepts and expanded them into absurd discussions of forgery, storytelling, history, and crime. He writes of a man who could remember everything he came into contact with, a worldwide cult so nondescript that virtually any person could have been inducted without her own knowledge, and a spy who murders a person at random because his last name bears some resemblance to a piece of information he is trying to convey to his general. Borges’ juxtaposition of his prose (terse, precise) with his structural execution (dense, organized) belies the ridiculousness of the narratives themselves. It was a combination of elements that my younger, undergraduate brain soaked up like a sponge.

Rereading the collection nearly 10 years later, I find myself less distracted by the fantastical bells and whistles of Fictions and in a better position to appreciate the extreme learnedness Borges poured into these tales. This time around, it was the quieter moments in Fictions that I found the most arresting, the most poignant, most funny, clever, or harrowing. I was more willing to run down the permutations of permutations implicit in Borges’ presentation, to dwell on the expansiveness of the ideas that he had artfully crammed into three- or four-page segments. In fact, this time around, it was probably the subtlest of all his stories in this collection — “The South” — that captivated me most deeply. It is a simple story, told well, that requires a degree of pondering on par with that elicited from a typically good, novel-length work.

Fans of “The South” will find a lot to like in The Aleph, another short story collection Borges published (and refined in subsequent editions) in the five years after he finished Fictions. Although I believe The Aleph is standard consumption for most Spanish-speaking readers, this is a collection that has received considerably less attention in English translation. Combine this with the fact that there exists a bastardized third collection of stories available in English — Labyrinths — that manages to filch a subset of stories from both The Aleph and Fictions, and what I think you end up with is an American audience that has somewhat haphazardly sampled stories from Borges’ catalogue (whereas, it seems to me, Fictions and The Aleph each actually stand on their own as internally cohesive works and deserve to be read as distinct entities). All this by way of saying that you, the American reader of Borges, may experience some considerable deja vu in reading the rest of this review even though you have, in all probability, never actually picked up The Aleph. (But I digress on a high horse.)

The collection opens with a fantastical tale called “The Immortal” that would have sat well alongside many of the stories in Fictions, but is still distinct from those stories in its pacing, framing, and thematic thrust. In contemporary times, a woman buys a book from a bookseller who disappears shortly thereafter. Inside, she finds an addition to the text that charts out how a Roman soldier stumbles upon a city of immortal beings, one of them Homer himself. The reader is led to the believe that the bookseller was this Roman soldier, made immortal by his visit to the city and unable to shake this curse. The story nicely foreshadows — both in structure and in substance — how the rest of The Aleph will play out: longer, meandering, and less predictable tales that tend to end up in a radically different place than where they began. Stories like “Emma Zunz” and “The Man on the Threshold”, for example, end in such a way that the reader cannot take the previous narrative arch at face value. Other tales like “The Wait” and “The Theologians” gradually begin to call attention to themselves, as if the process of reading was in some way informing the plot. Rather than the big explosions of Fictions, then, The Aleph more carefully develops its narratives in a highly self-conscious way. Readers are required to diagnose not only what the story is about substantively, but also how it is being used to convey that substance.

Teasing out this relationship between content and form is the locus of The Aleph. It is a bit of a high wire act, at times gleefully rewarding and at others, too tedious to tolerate. Relative to Fictions, it is also more intellectually demanding, which is a problem because, vis-a-vis the reader, Borges is always the better intellectual. Some stories — such as “Averroes’ Search” and, especially, “The Writing of the God” — are simply inscrutable. Other stories — like “Ibn-Hakam Murdered in His Labyrinth” — come off as hopelessly bookish B-sides from Fictions.

But even still, the collection works up to a couple of high points that are well worth the investment and time. “The Zahir” and “The Aleph” anchor opposite ends of the The Aleph and complement one another in thought-provoking capacities. Both stories begin with a funeral and end with the discovery of an object. In “The Zahir” this object is so singular that it invades the mind of its possessor at the expense of all other considerations; in “The Aleph”, by contrast, the object is the total convergence of all things, a complete snapshot of every in the world. Borges includes enough ancillary window dressing around the two tales — and makes their counterbalancing roles evident enough — to illicit from the reader a nice range of musings.

So The Aleph ends on a pleasant trick, even if it never quite measures up to the unhampered brilliance of Fictions. It is a more mature and measured work than Borges’ earlier volume, but it takes far fewer risks and at times reads as though the author is getting hemmed in by is own metaphysically complex understanding of literature. I liked the project and the end result; the only occasional problem was the process.

Rating: 7 / 10

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The Melancholy of Resistance


The tortuous prose of this novel splays across endless pages, progressing slowly, determinedly, and hellishly toward a small town’s ruin. Whither the town? Hungary, I guess. But if you don’t see something of your own neighborhood here, then you’re not paying attention.

László Krasznahorkai / Hungarian / 1989 / 314 pages
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

There’s a point in the first few pages of The Melancholy of Resistance where you’ll find yourself breathing somewhat audibly, perhaps at an accelerated pace, matching the sweep of your eyes as they tear through the pages-long sentences of Krasznahorkai’s pen. The narrative begins in a confined, cramped space — the inside of a truant train packed with dirty country bumpkins — and cultivates a palpable sense of dread. The character of interest is a middle class suburban widow who should be calling to mind your own mother, if not in degree then at least in kind. She’s better off, classier, and fussier than the other passengers on the train and she begins to get nervous. There’s a man sitting near by. He’s watching her, flirting with her, follows her down the aisle when she runs into the bathroom. She sits on the toilet as he bangs on the door, demanding some sort of hasty sexual encounter, the train moving all the while through a dark and cosmic country landscape that it should have cleared hours ago were it not for the unexplained (but not unanticipated) delay. It’s really frightening stuff.

The woman manages to escape and makes her way home safely. But by the end of the novel, she’s dead anyway. Raped and beaten, left on a freezing sidewalk, she’s buried unceremoniously right before The Melancholy of Resistance closes out with a biologically exacting account of her decaying body. There are many other people in this novel, many other happenings, and a considerable degree of dynamism. But the message is clear enough in these opening and closing scenes. The world will have its way with you; your life is not secure; and maybe even: cause-and-effect thinking makes sense biologically, but certainly not socially.

There are a great many things written into the plot of this novel for which there can be no accounting. During the same evening as the aforementioned train’s arrival into a small Hungarian town, a circus (loosely speaking) also arrives. It bears one central attraction: the stuffed and preserved body of a dead whale. Like particularly malevolent and group-thinking zombies, a ragtag bunch of foreigners follows the circus into the town’s main square and idle away the hours. They look and speak roughly, pulse with energy as a single mass, and collectively portend disaster for the town. The local population becomes increasingly paranoid as the circus opens its doors to dismal reviews and the mother of all anticlimaxes. What’s drawn the mob to the circus? What is the real intent? The intent is complicated to suss out and adequately motivate. That’s fine. What’s important to the story is the end result: the overnight sacking of the town, its inhabitants, and its physical plant by this otherworldly horde.

The townsfolk’s worst fears are realized in resplendent fashion and Krasznahorkai lets loose with a cosmically (but ill-defined) evil the likes of which dot the pages of any good Bolaño or McCarthy novel. In the aftermath of the event, the more autocratic among the town’s survivors set up a totalitarian police state in an effort to guard against the future possibility of repeated devastation. Aside from making the day-to-day routine intolerable in the town, however, the effort is clearly lacking. When the dead whale circus comes to town, no social order is going to save you. Okay, so it’s an exceedingly odd book.

This can occasionally work against its broader message. But one of the benefits of the approach is the range of highly varied characters that confronts the reader. One of the protagonists is a mental space cadet who spends more time considering the cosmos than engaging with the empirical reality that surrounds him. He is the most sympathetic character in the novel and is ultimately dealt with somewhat harshly by Krasznahorkai’s horde. Another of the protagonists is an aging musicologist who has retreated into the isolation of his domestic life because he finds the town and the impending storm too difficult to manage. Then there is the totalitarian and cruel woman who seizes the helm of the town when presented with the post-apocalyptic opportunity, the cigar-chomping and scandalous circus leader, the overbearing and violent army general, the drunken police captain, and his two toddling offspring. It’s an effective and arresting cast, all of whose thoughts are given light and life by Krasznahorkai’s deep and thorough prose.

Indeed, the writing style is, perhaps, the novel’s defining characteristic. With no paragraph breaks, many-line sentences, and only the occasional chapter break, The Melancholy of Resistance unfolds as deliberately and as slowly as the evil Krasznahorkai uncorks in the final pages. He is adept at the internal monologue, the stream-of-consciousness narrative that begins outside of a character’s head, delves inside, runs back out, and then comes to rest on some proximately located inanimate object. In the same sentence. Over and over again. In that sense, the length of the sentences rival those of Henry James, yet they tend to be more playful, less formally organized, and subject to far fewer boundaries. Halfway into a Krasznahorkai sentence, you still have no idea where it’s going to end up. At its best, this is a liberating tactic: the deep paranoia, obsessive thinking, and fear of his characters could not be so effectively captured any other way. At its worst, the writing drags considerably and makes for uninviting reading. Unless you have many uninterrupted hours, Melancholy is a slow read that begs to be put down (for a rest), but not picked up (due to inertia). If you stop, you forget; if you break the flow, you’re out of the current. This is a book best read in long, deliberate stretches.

Ultimately, the mixed bag tips toward the positive. For all its structural impediments, Melancholy does end up being a quick read if you stay after it and the investment-payoff quotient is highly compelling. This is not, however, the type of book that I can recommend to a wide audience. If you like your fights postmodern and experimental, then this is certainly one worth having. If the prospect of infinite sentences is daunting to you, then the interaction with the novel’s darker substance is not going to resuscitate the work. I give it a qualified endorsement.

Rating: 7 / 10

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Doctor Zhivago

doctor zhivago

Consider the archetypical Russian novel: broad, ponderous, many-charactered, loosely historical and partly political. Now increase the political ante by a factor of five and accelerate the narrative arch by about the same amount. What emerges is a stimulant-addled youth’s version of a Tolstoy novel, kaleidoscopic and bewildering. What emerges is Doctor Zhivago.

Boris Pasternak / Russian / 1957 / 496 pages
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky 

In his beautifully empirical, yet emotionally haunting telling of the Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia), George Orwell gives the reader a blessed pass when it comes time to present the obtuse political niceties of the division-prone socialist militias. Although he argues that the war “was above all things a political war,” Orwell also encourages the reader to gloss over his description of the many left-leaning factions he encountered while fighting: “if you are not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip.” Many years ago, when I first read this novel, I was struck by Orwell’s considerate warning; even though he couldn’t bring himself to part from the material, he was sufficiently self-aware as to not take it out on the rest of us.

In light of this experience, while reading most of the pages of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, I must admit that I found myself fairly indignant.

Here is a novel that takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Russia beginning in 1903 and culminating in the early 1940s, employs a rough hundred characters in the telling (more than 30 of whom will be introduced in the novel’s first couple dozen pages), and — at every point — makes bizarrely specific reference to flash-in-the-pan political parties, strange geographies, current (as of 1950) culture, odd laws, trivial plot points, discursive Russian folk songs, and obscurantist moral philosophy. The recent translation from Pevear and Volokhonsky comes accompanied with droves of footnotes intended to bring the contemporary reader up to speed with Pasternak’s random grab-bag of Russian trivia, but it’s a tall order. Tolstoy is timeless. Dostoevsky does fine as well. But, man, is Pasternak anachronistic.

I could handle all of this a bit better if Doctor Zhivago could just settle down and stay focused on the same idea (or city or conversation) for more than a few minutes. The text is broken into very short chapters and each chapter is comprised of paragraphs that usually clock in at three to five sentences in length. While this ostensibly makes for pleasant, quick reading, Pasternak omits so much connective tissue from the narrative that the reader is forced to slow down and fill in the gaps. It is slow going, especially in the first couple hundred pages, where the narrative is not at all focused on the singular Doctor Zhivago as the protagonist, but rather a wide field of characters (many of whom are never properly introduced).

I made it forty pages in before I had to flip back to the beginning and re-read the opening in greater detail. This additional investment made it no easier for me to catch the many “coincidences” Pasternak presents in the narrative (most of which are comprised of two people chancing upon one another in unexpected terms). An example of such a coincidence goes like this: Character A is introduced, discussed, and dispatched with in the course of eight sentences on page seven; we don’t see Character A again for ninety pages until he accidentally runs into Doctor Zhivago. He’s now married to Zhivago’s niece (or something) to whom we’ve never been introduced. Profound?

And all of this is doubly unfortunate, because Pasternak actually has a fascinating story to tell: the story of revolutionary Russia, which put in motion a social sea-change that quickly got out of control and reduced the massive country to a domestic mess as it was right on the cusp of a series of major international conflicts. And the thematic takeaway from these events is compelling, as well: despite our intellectual allegiances, everyday logistics and our emotions can pull us away from even our most deeply-held beliefs. Thus, the revolution for the people begins to kill and terrorize the people; thus, Zhivago is unable to stay true to his wife in the presence of a more alluring woman; thus, the same characters appear in the novel over and over again, but always in different guises and in new roles.

The writing is, at times, damnably good. Particular scenes — a dinner party before the outbreak of war, a long train ride through the Russian countryside, several weeks of domestic bliss in a comfy apartment building — will stay with me for a long time to come. Pasternak can create atmospheric, cosmic space around a character just as adeptly as he can shrink that scope down to the close confines of a tiny cabin. When he writes about a character feeling happy, alive, and free, it really does seem as if the entirety of the Russian steppes lies beneath his feet; at the same time, when his characters feel threatened, hemmed in, trapped, the reader also begins to suffocate. Somewhat sporadically, then, I can give credit to Pasternak’s adroit pen.

But the total tonnage of Doctor Zhivago is simply too much weight to bear, especially when it’s flopped onto such an uninspiring protagonist. As the symbolic incarnation of individualism in a environment hellbent on conformity, I suppose that Zhivago plays the part. But for a supposedly intelligent, scientifically-minded person, he presents as too much of a naive ninny to be taken too seriously. And many of his personal conundrums are, really, entirely unsatisfactory. He agonizes over whether to choose his wife or a new lover; he chooses the new lover; then toward the book’s ending he takes another lover. Gone is the resolution of the soul-searching quest that dominates much of  Zhivago‘s middle chapters. In its stead steps a cur.

I don’t know. The historical and political importance of this novel are well-established and the circumstances of its censorship and eventual publication are fascinating. Pasternak was quickly granted the Nobel Prize in Literature after Zhivago appeared around the world although, in hindsight, I think many historians would classify this as more of a geopolitical move (the award was made in 1958 during the height of the Cold War and journalistic accounts of that year indicate that the CIA had a hand in circulating advanced copies of the book to the Nobel Prize committee in an effort to embarrass the Russian censors). But I just can’t get terribly excited about this novel. It’s worth reading for those interested in rounding our their familiarity with the Russian canon, but I’d check out the old guard (and even some members of the new guard, like Solzhenitsyn) before wading into Doctor Zhivago.

Rating: 5 / 10

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Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

nip the buds shoot

Given the relatively delicate and pristine works Japanese authors tend to produce, Nip the Buds is a surprising shock to the system; this spare-nothing parable of broken children in a broken system is, really, all about the adults who abandon them. The portrait is anything but flattering.

Kezaburo Oe / Japanese / 1958 / 192 pages
Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

It is a truth that has long fascinated artists of the written word: large scale events bear down-ticket, smaller scale implications. In the realm of large events, perhaps none are more fundamentally stupefying and paradigm-shifting than wars. Generations of young people die, geopolitical boundaries are overhauled, autocrats come and democrats go, and the very social fabrics of countries are rent in two. The microcosmic implications are clear: there’ll be no food at dinner, no brother coming home, portraits of beloved leaders must be taken down from the walls, the mail service moves painfully slow, people move out of cities and into the countryside; the list is endless.

Forsaking the grand vistas perhaps more aptly rendered by cinematic treatment, authors of novels seem rather to gravitate toward this smaller side of warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front and The Return of the Soldier are simple stories about simple men who meet predictably tragic ends. Heinrich Böll and W. G. Sebald were concerned less with Germany’s role in World War II then they were the effects this conflict had on the relationship between fathers and sons and the capacity of people to recall painful memories. Chroniclers of war in Eastern Europe like Schulz, Kundera, and Kristof opt for the domestic over the geopolitical, and novels emerging from other traditions — like A Bend in the River and Miramar — also focus narrow lenses on otherwise broader conflicts to capture arresting snapshots of one single piece of the puzzle.

To an extent, the same strategy is employed by one of Japan’s preeminent authors — Kenzaburo Oe — in his harrowing Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids: during a war, a small group of reformatory boys have to fend for themselves in a rural village once they’ve been abandoned by their adult supervisors. But I get the sense that Oe has sectioned off for himself a smaller piece of the pie not in an effort to make his narrative task more manageable, but rather to use it as a microcosmic representation of broader dynamics. Indeed, his subject is the war itself and all of the problems of allegiance, judgment, and collective action it draws out of people. He doesn’t need to tell the whole story because the tiny set piece he’s crafted is just as useful as any other, hypothetical piece he could have crafted. His localized story is reflective of national symptoms; given the horrifying nature of the story, this makes for a truly unsettling realization.

To begin, consider which social groups you’d protect in the event your country was under attack. Women and children, sure, but what about “reformatory” children, or those kids who were behaving so badly in routine social settings that they were removed altogether and shipped off to a boot camp in the mountains? Would anyone really remember or care about these kids when the bombs started dropping? Not likely. Nip the Buds opens with such a group of delinquent youth being evacuated from their school and marched off to a village, where they’ll be looked after while their teachers / overseers / guards run off to fight for the nationalist cause. Except when they get to the village, the head tribesman doesn’t want them and sends them off to the next group of huts up the road. Same story there. And then again at the next place. The reader is dropped into the middle of the group after they’ve been denied lodging at several towns. Some of the boys have attempted (and failed at) escape, one boy is seriously ill with a stomach ache, morale is low, the situation is tense.

At the end of the road — many days’ walk into secluded wilderness — their marshals finally find a “receptive” set of villagers willing to take in the boys. But they end up sequestering them in a barn with only the barest of food and clothing rations. The boys must work hard labor during the day’s noontime heat and are given little rest or hospitality. The one child’s stomach ailment increases in severity, no doctor is sent for, and the boys awake on the second morning to discover that their comrade has died. This instills in the villagers a fear of a possible plague. They implement a crude form of quarantine whereby they leave the village entirely, blockade the boys inside, and leave no note of explanation. The implicit savagery of their situation gradually dawns on the boys: if there is a plague, they’ll all die without assistance and the villagers will eventually return to clean up the bodies. If there isn’t a plague, they’ll return anyway and coerce them back into their servile existence.

It is against this sinister backdrop that the boys are left to their own devices in the village for a number of days. The first-person (but anonymous) narrator is one of the older boys and his younger brother is also a part of the group. The narrator finds a young female in one of the abandoned homes whom he takes as a lover at the same time that the younger brother finds a stray dog that he befriends and cares for. The boys scavenge for food in the houses and, eventually, learn to hunt in the woods. Life is not idyllic, but it becomes bearable as the boys’ familiarity with one another gradually deepens. They stockpile a large amount of food and hold an impromptu festival with a large bonfire, singing, and dancing.

The situation is too tenuous to sustain itself, however. The younger brother’s dog gets excited during the festival and accidentally bites the older brother’s girlfriend. She takes ill almost immediately and dies the next day. The dog is labeled a carrier of disease and the narrator must restrain his younger brother as the other boys kill the dog and bury its body. The younger brother goes fleeing into the woods and is not seen again. In many respects, this is the central — and by far the most effective — scene of the novel. It breaks the narrator’s resolve, the group’s camaraderie, and the reader’s heart all at once. About this time, the villagers return. The boys are a group divided amongst themselves and are in no position to stand up to the patronizing head tribesman. He offers them safe passage to the next village and a bit of food if they swear that they’ll never speak to anyone of their abandonment. One by one, they all take the deal. The narrator, however, hardened by their betrayal and the events of the past few days, adamantly refuses to aid the villagers in their negligence. The villagers get angry and chase him into the woods, where he meets an uncertain fate. Nip the Buds breaks off like a snapped string of an instrument with the narrator fleeing into the dark underbrush.

Tying all the parable’s threads into their broader geopolitical context would take a better historian than I, but it is obvious that Oe is not as concerned with children at play as much as he is with deeper issues of authority and allegiance. And rather than tackling the typical Japanese literary problem of judging how far to accede to cultural influences from the West, Oe is instead drilling down to dynamics existing solely between the citizens and leaders of Japan. This is a parable about a domestic battle over the soul of Japan as it emerged from the throes of a royal dynasty — not the external military  battle its inhabitants were fighting against the West. Nip the Buds is also not a novel about childhood in the same way that, say, A High Wind in Jamaica or The Lord of the Flies are novels about childhood. Kids do bad things, sure. But even bad kids deserve better than what the protagonist receives in this novel. We are invited to think about why.

I’ve been working my way through the Japanese canon this spring and Nip the Buds is a surprising and rewarding read, despite its scant size and breakneck pacing. It is also among the earliest works of an author who has gone on to overhaul his literary stylings and themes on multiple occasions and, eventually, won a Nobel Prize in 1994. I think this novel is a useful addition to one’s stock and I imagine I’ll be returning to the Oe oeuvre in short order.

Rating: 7 / 10 

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The Gate

the gate

Simple, sleek, and subtle, The Gate is a heartwarming tale of two social outcasts and their love for one another; under this straightforward veneer, however, lurks a more anxious and compressed set of insights on interpersonal relations, the nature of disappointment, and the universal quest to find peace with one’s path.

Natsume Soseki / Japanese / 1910 / 214 pages
Translated from the Japanese by William Sibley 

Sometimes the right book comes to you at the right time. Much rarer, I imagine, is the circumstance I currently find myself in: poised on the precipice of a major life event — marriage — I seem to have found myself stumbling upon a series of right books at the right time. It began with A Heart So White which, though the virtues of matrimony were certainly not the novel’s central thrust, indirectly ended up extolling the constancy and stability of marriage when compared to myriad other romantic arrangements. The protagonist harbors some incredible reservations about married life, but as the course of the novel presents him with alternative options, his ultimate decision — whether as a result of attrition or actual persuasion — was to put a ring on it. I found myself in a similar position last November when I finally scaled the mountain that is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was no champion of the progressive woman (and there is certainly much to balk at in the novel’s message), but by cycling through his portraits of different households, the reader begins to see what sort of husband-and-wife relationships are sustainable and which are not. Although it comes with risk, the quiet dependability of domestic life is, perhaps, the highest attainable virtue.

In line with this progression, enter The Gate, a little-known 1910 Japanese novel by Natsume Soseki. Soseki is evidently unconcerned with marriage as an institution (although the fact that his two key characters — Sosuke and Oyone — have married against the will of both of their families is the source of their ostracism from society). Rather, marriage in The Gate provides a convenient environment in which to examine both the intense interpersonal connections that can develop between two people in isolation and, also, how those connections might preclude more far ranging interactions with society in general. The ostracism of Sosuke and Oyone is only partially externally imposed; it becomes quite clear in the opening pages of the novel that the two of them find great comfort in the exceedingly cloistered, simple, and predictable pattern of their lives.

The pattern goes like this. Sosuke and Oyone arise every morning and breakfast together in their humble residence on the outskirts of Tokyo. Thereafter, Sosuke begins a long commute into the center of the city where he works as a low-level bureaucrat making a trifling wage that allows he and his wife to subsist above the poverty line. Oyone tidies the house while he’s away and prepares food for the evening meal. When he returns, they dine, chat for a couple of hours in the living room, and go to bed early. Occasionally, one or the other of them goes to the public bathhouse to clean up. On the weekends, they make plans to accomplish many tasks, but generally end up lounging about in a pleasant, conversational stupor. Sosuke does not associate with his work colleagues socially and Oyone appears to have no girlfriends except for the housemaid (who is granted, I believe, something like six words of dialogue in the entire novel).

The pattern is interrupted like this. Sosuke has a much younger and hotheaded brother, Koroku, whose educational expenses are supposed to be provided for by an uncle. When the uncle dies, his wife reneges on the offer and Koroku is suddenly financially destitute. He moves into Sosuke’s home, shattering the isolation of his domestic life, and the two of them begin to explore various ways that they might continue to fund Koroku’s education. Furthermore, Sosuke’s landlord — a wealthy man named Sakai, who lives in the building next door — begins to take a social interest in Sosuke after a handful of chance encounters between the two convinces him that Sosuke is an odd fellow who might be worth talking to. The problem here is that Sakai is very well connected in the Tokyo social scene and, to associate with him is to associate with his vast sea of acquaintances as well. Sosuke genuinely enjoys talking to Sakai, but is wary of running into mutual friends from his past whom he has wronged and would rather avoid.

These interruptions prompt the narrator (distant, third person, slightly humorous and highly charitable) to circle back on the narrative and drum up the details of Sosuke’s past with Oyone. Whether due to a prior marriage or simply due to their families’ disapproval, the young couple are socially shunned when they wed and Sosuke must forsake a promising future at the imperial university for a future of, effectively, exile. This choice fundamentally reorients the trajectory of his life, which seems like a small price to pay when Oyone announces that she is expecting a child. The couple’s happiness is shattered (once, twice, and thrice) through a series of miscarriages and, at the point at which we encounter them in the narrative, they have abandoned the effort altogether. Thus, comparatively late in the novel, we are introduced to the feverish passion and bottomless disappointment that underscore the calm placidity of their household. Koroku’s arrival is reminder of their material destitution and of the path Sosuke could have pursued instead. Sakai’s social interest is a reminder of the people they alienated when they married.

Soseki infuses every simple exchange between the couple (both verbal and mute) with hints of this subterranean electricity. And as the floor shifts beneath them and they are forced to once again addresses grievances they had long ago shelved, their habitual interactions take on different meanings: coming home late from work means something different on page 150 than it did on page 5, sleeping in on Sunday represents contentment early on, but depression thereafter, etc. Sosuke is eventually pushed to the point of a nervous breakdown and journeys off into the mountains in search of a monastery where he might spend some weeks meditating, clearing his head, and embracing spiritualist teachings. All of these are too foreign for him, though, and the trip is a failure. Indeed, Sosuke’s one evident pass at dynamism rings hollow because he cannot relax into his unfamiliar surroundings. It took years to erect his peaceful inner chamber with Oyone — it would take just as long for him to find peace in a spiritual community removed from her.

But the book isn’t about the failure of spiritualism (indeed, any attempt at solving his problems would have failed) nor is it about the failure of society (you get the sense that Soseki disapproves of the rigid social conventions that alienate the couple, but this is not his primary concern). Rather, The Gate is about making decisions and then accepting the path that you’ve chosen for yourself. Late in the novel, Sosuke stands at a literal gate while imagining a metaphysical gate from which different paths emanate. He experiences a moment of regret at never being able to pass through the gate, to switch paths, to extricate himself from his deterministic arch. It is a pessimistic moment in a novel that is otherwise light and hopeful.

The unique virtue of Sosuke’s path, however, is that he has actually chosen quite well in Oyone and, as the novel closes, they are once again able to return to the comforting entrenchment of their static domestic life. It might not be much, but it’s sufficient buttress against the outside world. The takeaway is heartfelt and humble: with the right partner at hand, a great many things are tolerable.

Rating: 9 / 10

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The Third Policeman

the third policeman

If you dropped Pale FireFictions, and A Modest Proposal into a blender, you might get something roughly akin to The Third Policeman once the blades had stopped whirring — but only just so. O’Brien’s work somehow manages to surpass this puréed synthesis in its hilarity, inventiveness, biting sarcasm, and faux erudition.

Flann O’Brien / Irish / 1967 / 212 pages

Brian O’Nolan (the writer behind the Flann O’Brien pen name) strikes me as being the worst kind of savant, the kind that knows he’s got you over a barrel and is going to keep you there while he messes with you. He knows more languages than you do, his vocabulary is more expansive; he’s cleverer than Swift, clearer than Joyce, and crankier than Bernhard. For some reason, he possesses a bizarrely adept understanding of physics that he’ll creatively employ in his narratives to, um, upend all the laws of physics. Like a verbose scholar, he’ll pile into his manuscripts footnote after footnote in reference to entire bodies of knowledge that don’t really exist, but appear eminently plausible at first blush. O’Nolan will wow you with his hilarious asides, wordplays, metaphors, and puns while simultaneously drawing into question your ability to adequately grasp the other 80% of his jokes that flew just above your intellectual capacity. He will induce in you such irreconcilable  feelings as: pleasant irritation, comfortable terror, gut-wrenching elation, and novel nostalgia. You’ll find yourself in heaven while reading his account of hell and you’ll be sputtering in indignation when he draws his narrative up short at a scant 200 pages. Yes, O’Nolan was the worst kind of savant. The kind that wrote great stories by destroying most of the conventions of storytelling.

He got the ball rolling with his infamous At Swim-Two-Birds, a labyrinthine piece of meta-fiction in which the characters of the novel rise up against their author, make him stand trial, and then murder him. Told in kaleidoscopic fashion with swirling, punchy annotations, O’Nolan’s first novel draws heavily on mythical characters from Irish folklore and actual characters from Ireland’s past. Deemed complex and controversial upon its publication, At Swim-Two-Birds opened the door for O’Nolan’s more focused and subtle (but still searing and revolutionary) The Third Policeman. While less heterodox in its structure, Policeman is considerably more disturbing in its perversion of logic, morality, and natural law. In it, O’Nolan cryptically paints a portrait of a hellish afterlife where an anonymous narrator must endlessly roam without clear purpose or aim. Despite its lack of fire and brimstone, the narrator is tormented on a much more fundamental and insidious level: the intellectual or, put differently, the philosophical. After the challenge of selling At Swim-Two-Birds to the reading public, O’Nolan’s publisher declined to publish The Third Policeman, due to its content and method of presentation. O’Nolan took the criticism to heart and reread his manuscript in great detail. After completing it, he was so troubled that he hid it away and lied to his friends about its whereabouts. It was never published until after his death in 1966.

But the book is only troubling in the sense that it was one of the first major works to break with the realist narrative tradition that was still generally in style around the time of its composition. Indeed, many critics have hailed The Third Policeman as one of the very first major works of post-modernism. Lest the term scare you, let me assure you that we aren’t talking about the post-modernism of, say, Joyce here (although O’Nolan’s detractors tend to belittle him as a watered-down version of Joyce). Rather than tortuous stream-of-consciousness narration, Policeman is instead predicated on comparatively straightforward observations of a landscape ungoverned by reason; rather than self-indulgent literary and linguistic references, Policeman is instead populated with erudite witticisms and obtuse musings that exist by chance more than by design. After all, when nothing is supposed to — strictly speaking — make sense, then you can get away with just about anything.

What this affords O’Nolan, then, is the room he needs to take the narrative out of the realist tradition and into the realm of high parody (or, perhaps, the absurd). His narrator is something of an amoral autodidact who labors intensively on a scholarly manuscript about the life and works of a fictitious physicist-polymath (de Selby) whose bizarre deductions about the powers of water, the origins of sunset, and the utility of mirrors inform many of the narrator’s observations. Although many scholars have previously tried to tackle the intellectual hodgepodge that is de Selby’s scholastic output, not a single one of them can come to terms with its many contradictions. This leads these scholars to openly challenge one another’s interpretations in peer-reviewed journals, spite one another in popular newspapers, and — eventually — to challenge one another to duels and public debates. The narrator of The Third Policeman, then, comes to us with the intent of synthesizing the work of the impossibly un-synthesized viewpoints of the eminently un-synthesize-able de Selby. The task is as absurd as the narrator’s subsequent predicaments. No one will read such a book, no publisher will pay to have it printed. Our narrator casts about for a get-rich-quick scheme that will endow him with the resources he’ll require to self-publish the book.

Enter the motive for a desperate action. Enter, as well, the narrator’s seedy acquaintance who will push him toward said desperate action. Enter, finally, an elderly, helpless, and hapless neighbor who also happens to be rich. One afternoon, the narrator and his seedy acquaintance murder the old guy, bury his treasure in an abandoned house until the buzz about the murder dies down, and wait out a number of weeks before returning to the house to claim their prize. When they do, the narrator goes in first, bends down, and — presumably — is in turn murdered by his own accomplice. The color scheme changes, the temperature cools, the sun sets, and the narrator appears to be in a sort of afterlife.

In somewhat rapid succession, things get out of hand: the narrator is introduced to a previously-absent internal voice whom he presumes is a manifestation of his soul, he encounters the ghost of the elderly man he earlier murdered, he wanders a bit across a bleak landscape before arriving at a strange two-dimensional police station, he encounters the first policeman (Pluck) and the second policeman (MacCruiskeen), he realizes that he is now a part of a world where the only thing that anyone can think about is the bicycle, he is found guilty of a theft by virtue of the actual culprit’s absence, and so on. This middle section of the novel generally follows the narrator around as he navigates various minor predicaments in the company of either Pluck or MacCruiskeen. The three characters have hilarious conversations about physical and legal laws, the benefits of bicycling, and the several small inventions that Pluck and MacCruiskeen have concocted in their boredom while staffing the police station. Vague mention is made of the third policeman. Vague answers are given to direct questions. As hard as the narrator will try, he is unable to penetrate the deeply bizarre logic (or illogic) of the policemen’s existence. And with the scattershot musings of de Selby serving as his intellectual lodestone, he’s even more lost.

When we finally encounter the “third policeman” of the book’s title, he turns out to be something of nincompoop demigod, an unsettlingly benign presence who is, nevertheless, pulling all the strings that govern the narrator’s hell. The third policeman directs the narrator back along the rode that leads to the house he abandoned while he was alive. When he arrives, he realizes that many years have passed in his absence and his old seedy accomplice has married and borne children. When the accomplice sees him, he behaves as if he’s seen a ghost and goes into cardiac arrest. The two of them walk back down the road to the police station, where they engage in the same observations and conversations with Pluck and MacCruiskeen as the narrator did some 100 pages prior. You realize suddenly that this is hell: a slow, meaningless repetitiveness of the absurd. You cannot run and you cannot make sense of it.

I loved this novel and I loved At Swim-Two-Birds as well. I believe that O’Nolan should stand alongside Joyce and Yeats as the great luminaries in modern Irish literature. I’d highly recommend The Third Policeman to anyone who loves a quick and inventive read that relies heavily on empirically-minded treatments of bizarre occurrences like that which you’d find in Borges or, at times, Nabokov.

Rating: 10 / 10

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Three Novels

three novels

More like an epic than a trilogy, Agota Kristof has crafted a landmark parable from hell that begins deceptively simply and gradually snowballs into unreliable complexity; as the reader progresses through The NotebookThe Proof, and The Third Lie, he must continually balance his curiosity with his sorrow. These countervailing tendencies work in bizarre tandem, bring the three novels to a conclusion that is both satisfying and deeply unsettling.

Agota Kristof / Hungarian / 1986-1991 / 478 pages
Translated by Alan Sheridan, David Watson, and Marc Romano

The Soviet Union gave rise to its fair share of intellectual detractors and perhaps no where is this more apparent than in literature. Countless books have approached the horrors of post-WWI Eastern Europe from a variety of angles, whether it be the Moscow show trials under Stalin’s rule (Darkness at Noon), the forced labor camps populated by political rogues (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), the hopelessly futile mechanization of the Russian countryside (Ferdydurke), or the Soviet occupations of Czechoslovakia (covered in great detail in several of Milan Kundera’s novels, most notably The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Employing a mixture of absurdism, cold empiricism, and false jocularity, these novels are loosely-veiled fictions predicated in large part on a reality that was too difficult (or, depending on the state of censorship at their points of publication, too scandalous) to confront head-on. Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, Gombrowicz, Kundera, and their contemporaries also knew, no doubt, that plastering the pages of their novels with horrors too literal in their content would have made for unpleasant reading experiences. You do owe the reader, after all, some degree of consideration.

More recent authors emerging from other literary traditions, have, however, begged to differ. Cormac McCarthy employs several depictions of heinous and depraved violence in Blood Meridian in an effort to dispel the Western myth of manifest destiny and to illustrate violence’s redemptive powers. When Haruki Murakami and Mario Vargas Llosa write about warfare and political torture, you’ll want to make sure you’re reading on an empty stomach. And when Roberto Bolaño laces hundreds of pages of his epic 2666 with forensic reports of murdered women’s bodies, you’ll have to repeatedly remind yourself about the value added of such an approach (lest it all just becomes too much to bear). The value added, in case you were wondering, is an unflinching depiction of reality, an honest reckoning with an inconvenient past, and — in many respects — a near-total disregard for the sterile sensibilities of the reader.

Agota Kristof brings some of this intuition back to the subject of Eastern Europe under the Soviet regime where, at least with the first novel in her trilogy, she repeatedly bludgeons the reader about the face with horrifying accounts of what transpires in rural towns when they’re occupied by foreign forces during war. Written in terse, weird, objective first-person-plural sentences, The Notebook reads like a hopelessly lucid Hemingway stumbling through the bowels of hell with one of his friends (for kicks, let’s say Ford Maddox Ford, whose finely honed understanding of tragedy would have found him quite at home in this landscape). This first third of the trilogy is set in a rural village several miles away from the nation’s (Hungary’s?) capital city. Foreign troops have been garrisoned in the town and its proximity to the front finds its population beset by army deserters, vagabonds, political prisoners, and all manner of other transients. Food is scarce and bombings are frequent; these two facts screw themselves into the collective psyche of the town until everyone behaves inhumanely toward everyone else.

Deposited in the middle of this hell scape by their mother are two young twins, Lucas and Claus. She’s en route to the front to look for her husband and, rather than taking her sons into the line of fire, opts instead to leave them with their estranged grandmother. The grandmother is known in the village as “The Witch” and is widely rumored to have poisoned her husband to death. You can imagine that she’s not exactly the most stellar maternal presence. The twins, on the other hand, are smart and adaptable. They get along well with one another and think up various “exercises” by which they might train themselves to withstand the onslaught of the world around them. They engage in silence exercises, stillness exercises, pain exercises, etc. until they believe they can stand up to many of the pressures at play in the village. They also teach themselves how to write and speak in different languages, play the harmonica, and tend to the farming and livestock.

A great deal of emphasis is placed, in fact, on their writing and eventually the reader understands that the “novel” being read is, in fact, the notebook of Lucas and Claus. They depict themselves as being super humans, so emotionally distant from the horrors surrounding them that they only record their objective observations without any emotion or editorializing. They have trained themselves to feel no pain, no cold, no heat, and no fear. Without taking into consideration what follows in the trilogy, their account already seems dubious at best. These kids are in their early teens and somehow they’ve managed to supplant every natural human impulse!? I doubt it. The Notebook abruptly ends when they trick a man into walking onto a land mine, which clears the way for Claus to run across the border and into a new country. Lucas returns to their grandmother’s farm in solitude. Their motivations are unclear.

The implausibility of this narrative is made subtly more evident over the course of the second section — The Proof — which mainly follows Lucas as he adjusts to life without his twin brother (a painful prospect for him) and takes into his house a young woman and her newborn child. Kristof front loads most of the truly horrific scenes into the manic, hysterical first book and she’s considerably more careful and keen in the second volume. The narration slows down, we can catch our breath a bit, and she begins to unfold in sensitive ways the depth of the pain Lucas is feeling over his brother’s departure. The war ends and the village in which he lives passes in and out of the hands of a new political apparatus: the land is collectivized, schooling is made compulsory, curfews are enforced, and political detractors are summarily tried, incarcerated, and eventually executed. Lucas keeps his head down and tries to live a quiet life. We’re introduced to a broader cast of distinct and interesting characters.

But Kristof is just playing with us. And we don’t know it yet, but we’re in a lot of trouble.

First, the bizarrely idyllic landscape she sketches is yet again broken in two by a horrible suicide. Many of Lucas’ friends disappear or are jailed and he gradually begins to lose his grip on reality. He ups and leaves and cannot be found. Then his brother, Claus, shows up in the town looking for him. Everyone suspects he’s really Lucas and has just lost his mind. An acquaintance suggests that they are one in the same, given the anagrammatic relation of their names. Claus begins to cause trouble for the town, ends up incarcerated, and confused. The novel terminates suddenly with a police report that notes the town has no record of either a Claus or a Lucas and, furthermore, everything we’ve just read in The Proof is nothing more than the feverish hallucinations of the man, Claus, who is presently sleeping in the town’s jail cell. Having come to the conclusion that you can’t fully trust what you read in The Notebook and you can’t in any way trust what you’ve just finished reading in The Proof, you feel like Kristof just punched you in the gut and left you on the side of the road. In the concluding volume — aptly titled The Third Lie — she lets the trilogy down easily, obliquely and really pulls on the heartstrings as much as she does the intellect. It’s a killer combination that leaves you vulnerable and awestruck.

The interesting thing about the final third of the trilogy is that you begin to realize that, for all the visceral emphasis placed on it in The Notebook, the heinous violence the reader trudges through was not really the point of the enterprise. I think this is an important distinction typically missed by reviewers who focus on just the first volume (the three books are clearly not intended to be read separately from one another). Rather, the violence is intended to lay bare a much more depressing characteristic of warfare: the physical trauma it wreaks also damages the psyche and wounds the mind. The result is a skewed memory, an inability to recall events as they truly happened.

But memory is damaged and perverted in many other ways, as well, whether by mental illness (which is certainly a possibility when it comes to Lucas and Claus) or by the nature of fiction (both men additionally claim to be poets and novelists) or by the revisionist histories typically employed in totalitarian regimes. All of these complicated dynamics combine in The Third Lie to draw into question nearly every premise presented as objective reality up to that point. You may not be able to put your finger on the precisely “correct” account of the lives of Claus and Lucas, but to a very large extent it doesn’t matter. Kristof’s case for the purely subjective over the naively objective may be the most convincing I’ve ever read.

Rating: 9 / 10

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Near to the Wild Heart

near to the wild heart

Buzz abounds for “Hurricane Clarice” and her new four-part series of translations from New Directions publishing house; after reading the first of these — Near to the Wild Heart — I’m not entirely sure that the hype is deserved. There is great magic and mystery to this short novel, but it’s also a wildly scattershot affair.

Clarice Lispector / Brazil / 1943 / 194 pages
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entreken

I was searching through lists of Latin American authors the other day when I came across Clarice Lispector, an Eastern European who immigrated to Brazil as a child and wrote in the Portuguese tongue. I had never heard the name before (and my Latin American friends hadn’t, either), so I was surprised to find that New Directions had very recently issued a four-part series of translations of her work. New Directions is my workhorse publisher for great Latin American prose translations and they’ve never let me down in the past: indeed, their selection of texts and translators are both consistently excellent. The four covers of Lispector’s novels boast vague endorsements from the likes of Jonathan Franzen (“A truly remarkable writer”) and Orhan Pamuk (“One of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers”). Combine all this with the emergence of a recent high profile biography (Why This World?), which received a glowing review in The New York Times and I began to feel like I was missing the boat on something important. I read a bit about each of the four novels before settling on her first — Near to the Wild Heart — which allegedly revolutionized Brazilian literature and drummed up something of a cult following among the Brazilian intelligentsia.

Despite emerging from sources other than my traditional channels of recommendation, I attacked this lean, sparse novel with excited momentum. The first several pages held up well to expectation; then the text began to flounder. Later on, things got back on track, then slid off the rails. I began to feel as if I’d been bamboozled. A few truly brilliant passages (painfully short) cropped up in the back half of the novel before it sputtered to a confused and insubstantial end. I sighed in relief upon finishing the book, overall disappointed but also a bit intrigued by what I had read. I think there are some interesting dynamics at play here — both inherent in and external to the novel — that might shed some light on why New Directions picked up Lispector. I’ll elaborate on these before making the case that, despite some nice touches, Near to the Wild Heart is a novel best put aside until one has spent more time with other  works in the Latin American canon.

I think that many people have been taken with the idea of Clarice Lispector and the idea of a short, dense, impressionistic novel like Near to the Wild Heart. Indeed, most of the packaging and promotion of the books centers on Lispector as an unique author and personality: critics talk about the woman’s great beauty, odd voice, and interesting backstory. The four editions are covered with various fragments of a picture of Lispector’s face and even the introductory material that prefaces Near to the Wild Heart focuses more on the author and the novel’s composition than on its content. People are interested in whether or not she was influenced by James Joyce; people are curious about the method she used to write the novel and its lack of subsequent editing. There is a long discussion about how Wild Heart went on to win some of Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes; critics argued that she was the best female voice in the Portuguese language, notable for her strange (non-native) use of the language. If you look up online reviews of the novel, they tend to parrot this biographical (circumstantial, incidental) information without really engaging the content of Wild Heart. The vast majority of reviews end positively because the writing is on the wall: Lispector is the next big thing coming out of Latin America and all of these reviewers want to be at the forefront of the discovery.

I don’t want to be too pessimistic here — and certainly I’ve often indulged in the “I found an obscure novel before you” mindset on this blog — but there is something kind of suspicious about all of this. It seems like New Directions might be aiming to replicate the “Bolaño Effect” from a few years ago: grab an author with whom very few people in the Spanish-speaking world are familiar, translate his work into English, find a receptive audience in the United States, and wait for the works to eventually catch on back home in Latin America. This dynamic played out successfully with Bolaño, but led to a backlash. While a couple of his novels are sheer genius, many of his lesser works are pretty awful and there was never any need to translate Bolaño’s entire output into English (thereby crowding out limited resources that might have been productively expended in translating other great authors). Part of what made the Bolaño story arch so compelling were the specifics of his biography and political history. People were drawn to the allure of the author as a figure and then, thereafter, the high quality of his major novels were an easy sale. Lispector has the requisite biographical chops, but not, I fear, the substance to back it up. At least, not with this novel.

The plot charts out in highly impressionistic fashion the coming-of-age of Joana, a strangely apathetic and emotionally untethered woman who loses her sole remaining parent at a young age and must go to live with her distant aunt. The novel covers some of her adolescence, her marriage to a high-achieving and empirically-minded man named Octávio, and the eventual dissolution of that marriage. The book ends with Joana on a boat, mentally oscillating between anxiousness, confusion, and epiphany.

Right off the bat, you get the sense that it’s going to be nearly impossible to figure out the trajectory of Joana’s evolution as a character. When I think of similar coming-of-age stories such as The Bell Jar, for example, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even The Virgin Suicides, I feel like Plath, Spark, and Eugenides were all working creatively around tightly-constructed themes. That is to say, I feel like each of these authors put a good deal more time into actually thinking about what it was they wanted to say than Lispector did with Wild Heart. You know early on in The Bell Jar that you’re reading a heart-rending treatise on the problems of patriarchy in the mental health profession; you can also tell that Miss Jean Brodie is going to instruct her pupils in a way that challenges their understanding of the norms of femininity and it’s also pretty obvious that Eugenides is setting out to pillory the baby-boom suburbanism of his youth. All of these other coming-of-age stories have a thesis, a thematic thrust that they work to flesh out on each page of the manuscript. Lispector, by contrast, just throws us around in the haze and Joana’s epiphanies are bizarre and confusing; her dynamism as a character, then, is difficult to get a handle on.

I think a quick objection to the above characterization is to defend the novel as a work of stream-of-consciousness, a highly impressionistic piece that’s similar to styles invoked by Woolf or Joyce. If I didn’t “get” the story then it’s because I simply wasn’t willing enough to wander into the murky recesses of Joana’s mind and extract the encoded message. If I didn’t like the novel, then it was my fault, not hers.

This argument fails, however, because I know that Lispector was capable of better — she showed me as much in the course of Wild Heart. Indeed, when she lets us consider Joana outside of her own head, then the book rings with a truly haunting and mysterious beauty. Early in the novel, for instance, Lispector sketches out an effective interaction between a very young Joana and her father. Similar discussions of Joana and her aunt, Joana and her teacher, and Joana and Octávio are all equally poignant. I would actually venture the hypothesis that Lispector was something of a low-lying master of depicting the nuances in interpersonal relationships. She prompted me to think about marriage and parent-child interactions and I very much enjoyed where those thought experiments led me.

By contrast, all of the internal workings of Joana’s brain are just too much noise to sift through. She passes through the full spectrum of human emotions in almost every section of the novel and, upon its conclusion, you get the sense that literally anything could make her cry, anything could make her laugh, anything could anger her, whatever. I could see someone arguing “that’s the point, man!”, but I’m not buying it. Rather than driving home Joana’s apathy, the narration just undermines her plausibility as a protagonist. I’d be much more interested in reading about the (truly interesting) life of Clarice Lispector than the (truly confusing) lives of her characters. My verdict on Near to the Wild Heart is to dodge the hype and go pick up another lesser known Latin American author like Carpentier or Hernández instead.

Rating: 4 / 10

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His Dark Materials

his dark materials

These three novels are young adult fantasy fiction at its finest; more insightful and liberal-minded than The Chronicles of Naria and far more exciting than The Lord of the Rings, the His Dark Materials trilogy is a fine, epic story that orients its young readers toward a lifetime of high literature consumption.

Philip Pullman / British / 1995-2000 / 1088 pages

I read quite a lot when I was a young child, but I don’t much remember the tone, timbre, and trajectory of those early novels. I recall there being a great deal of problem solving in The Boxcar Children and The Hardy Boys serialized books. I vaguely remember the miniature battles and long journeys of the personified animals in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series as well as the various excitements embodied in books like The Westing Game, Shiloh, The View from Saturday, and James and the Giant Peach. Then there came that infamous liminal period when children begin to read books that treat with “serious” subjects: The Giver and its presentation of a dystopian cult; Number the Stars and its introduction to The Holocaust; Bridge to Terabithia with its revelation that children can die; To Kill a Mockingbird with its discussions of racism and regionalism; and The Outsiders, where one learns that other children are coming of age in considerably different circumstances than oneself. At the tail end of this stage, you begin to encounter the books that push you into high school and the realm of more formal literary studies. Probably you read some of Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s simpler novels as well as Orwell’s more allegorical work. Maybe you remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth or The Lord of the Flies. 

It was around this time that I became substantially preoccupied with Philip Pullman’s masterful His Dark Materials trilogy. I would venture the assertion that no other “young adult” work left such a profound mark on my book-reading childhood and, perhaps with the exception of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Phantom Tollbooth, no other work so thoroughly oriented me toward an adult life of serious reading. Pullman’s trilogy was recently released as a single, mammoth tome by the good people at Everyman’s Library and I availed myself of the opportunity to indulge in the text’s abundant riches once again. I’m pleased to say that it holds up well to a second reading some 10 years removed.

His Dark Materials might aptly be described as “fantasy” fiction, but there are a number of realist, scientific, and theological (or, perhaps, anti-theological) aspects present as well. At it’s core, the trilogy is a story of a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, whose journey into womanhood has cosmic ramifications. This journey is one that passes through several dimensions (temporal, geographic, and moral) and ranges across multiple parallel universes (including the land of the dead), where different types of humans, angels, spirits, and animals stand in bizarre relation to one another. There are compasses that foretell the future, knives that cut through the fabric of space and time, self-conscious “elementary particles” that function like protons on steroids, ghosts that eat souls, demons that speak, gypsies that fight alongside armored polar bears, and diamond-backed cows that travel by jamming their right-angled legs into huge round tree seeds and rolling around upon them as if they were wheels. Did I mention the scientists, priests, politicians, and academics that populate a nontrivially large share of the trilogy’s pages? Have I lost you entirely?

One of the reasons the trilogy succeeds so well is Pullman’s ability to gradually introduce these vastly disparate elements in measured, considered time. His pacing is almost always impeccable. The trilogy begins with The Golden Compass and takes place in a fictional world that appears to be very similar to our “regular” world, but set back technologically by about a half-century. In this world, every human is endowed with a demon, or physical outward manifestation of her soul. The demon is an animal of some form and represents the personality traits of the individual: royalty possess graceful demons (like cheetahs), servants have subservient demons (like dogs), free spirited people have birds as demons, crafty personalities have monkeys or snakes, and so forth. The female protagonist — Lyra — frequently carries on conversations with her demon, a mirror of herself, that would typically be relegated to internal monologues. This turns out to be a nifty narrative trick that only begins to wear thin well into the third book.

Lyra comes from good stock: a father who is an ambitious statesman-academic and a mother who is a highly-placed operative in the all-powerful Christian Church. However, she is raised as an orphan by the scholars of Jordan College — a subsidiary of Oxford — and is given the gift of a mysterious golden compass that points to the direction of truth. Using this compass, she sets sail for the North Pole on a quest to find a schoolyard friend of hers who has recently gone missing. The narrative accelerates rapidly at this point, bringing Lyra into contact with an increasingly bizarre menagerie of characters (including her long-estranged mother and father) as she makes her way north. She is traveling in a world in flux: the Church and the academics are colliding in their search for a cosmic dust, which the Church argues is the source of original sin and the academics argue is the building block of sentient matter. Lyra’s father meets her in the north, where he has been laboring to produce a contraption to tear a hole in the fabric between parallel universes. He succeeds in spectacular fashion and Lyra hesitatingly follows him through a portal before the first volume of the trilogy abruptly ends.

While Pullman sets the lay of the land with vim and vigor in The Golden Compass, he begins the second volume — The Subtle Knife  — in more measured fashion and takes the time to really drill down his thematic aims. There is clearly a Church-Science dichotomy at work in the trilogy as members of the two groups seek out the nature of this cosmic dust for diametrically opposed reasons: the Church to squash it as heretical blasphemy and the scientists as an intellectual curiosity. Somewhat famously, Pullman has a bone to pick with organized religion and he uses Lyra’s series of moral quandaries to draw religion’s failings in increasingly stark terms. In the second book, she pairs up with a young lad named Will and the two of them are faced with a series of obstacles where — disregarding the conflicting advice of two opposing sets of authority figures — they have to rely on their own highly attuned (but nevertheless undeveloped) sense of right and wrong in order to succeed. Whereas Compass was a linearly progressing roller coaster with a clear trajectory, Knife is a more meandering (nay, searching) quest where the protagonists and the readers realize that directives are misleading, truths are false, and the ends are increasingly invoked to justify the means.

The scale of the narrative explodes exponentially in the third volume — The Amber Spyglass — which forsakes entirely the carefully realist construction of the second book for a scattershot blend of heady intellectualism, confusing action sequences, pitch-perfect renderings of emotions, spot-on reinterpretations of ancient mythologies, and irritatingly glossed-over plot points. While Spyglass contains many of the trilogy’s low points, it also includes some of the best, most arresting scenes in the entire 1000-page affair. At one point, in the course of hopping through different parallel universes, Lyra and Will venture into the land of the dead and it is a truly horrifying sequence. Pullman convincingly depicts elation, exhausting and a range of other emotions, including those surrounding the trilogy’s bittersweet and complex denouement.

Without a doubt, His Dark Materials is an arresting read from beginning to end when one is a young adult. After one has grown up a bit, the cracks are somewhat more apparent: the novel suffers from some pedantic narration, overly specific explication, overblown dialogue, and a climax that is, well, blown. But although I’d argue that the trilogy accomplishes the most in a younger reader, I’d also advocate that the novels be read more broadly by older individuals as well. Pullman’s narrative tools are many, deft, and often excellent and he tends to exhibit a subtly of skill — especially in his many head nods toward classical mythology — that are almost surely lost on younger readers. His plot still elicits strong emotions from the reader and it’s a treat to leaf through a young adult novel with a strong female lead. Although Lyra doesn’t always come off the better in direct comparisons to her male counterpart, His Dark Materials is Lyra’s story and she is always at the helm. Indeed, should I have a daughter of my own in the future, I would be straining at the bit for the day to come when she’d be old enough to handle the tenacity of Pullman’s darker moments. Lyra is a figure to admire.

And I know nothing of contemporary young adult fiction that comes after this watershed epic, so I have very little against which I’d weigh it. The first volume of the Harry Potter saga was published right in the middle of the period in which Pullman was working to publish the three installments of His Dark Materials and — despite appearing to borrow some source material from him — the boy wizard certainly seems to have rode roughshod over the trilogy’s popularity. Other young adult lodestones featuring strong female leads are (presumably) too much smut to consider seriously (ahem, Twilight) or too dissimilar to make for a meaningful comparison (Hunger Games). Like I said, I don’t know. But I’d have a hard time thinking up a better, more striking story than Lyra’s. Is His Dark Materials the ideal typical young adult novel? It certainly was for me.  

Rating: 8 / 10

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