Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Canonical

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  

[ Wikipedia ]    [ Goodreads ]    [ Tumblr ]    [ Amazon ]    [ Stuck in a Book ]


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

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ Tony’s List ]

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

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ NPR

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

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]    [ Amazon ]    [ Chamber Four

Bartleby & Co.

An awe-inspiring work of casual erudition, this fantastic exploration of “the literature of No” (that is, of authors who refuse to write) is well-written, entertaining, insightful, and requisite. I recommend it highly for anyone who is fundamentally interested in world literature.

Enrique Vila-Matas / Spain / 2000 / 178 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Donne

Bartleby & Co. is one of the truly rare instances of what I might refer to as an “encyclopedic novel.” There are not many of these novels in existence (at least, not in my experience) and many of the ones that do exist are somewhat problematic. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño is, for example, an encyclopedic novel with a great premise: a fictional catalogue of various poets and novelists who espoused truly horrific political leanings. In execution, however, the book fails to ring with Bolaño’s characteristic dread and cleverness and, by the end, it drags considerably. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is an excellent book, but only loosely falls into the “encyclopedic” category: ostensibly a catalogue of chemical elements, the novel’s content is really much more literary and far-ranging than one would initially expect (the downside being the bait-and-switch, not the fact that the book is actually incredible). The same might be said for Invisible Cities by Calvino (a catalogue of fictional metropolises) or The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (a catalogue of short philosophical musings). These latter books become untethered from the concrete world almost at their outset and their vague, circular logics make for (overly) impressionistic and (occasionally) unrewarding reading.

But Bartleby & Co. hits the nail on the head in magnificent fashion. The novel is a catalogue of authors of the “literature of No” meaning, more specifically, authors that fall into one of the following categories: (1) authors who wrote great books at one point, but then decided to stop writing altogether, (2) potential authors who could have written great books, but chose never to do so, (3) authors who began books magnificently, but never finished them, (4) authors who were famously reclusive and refused to let their personal presence add anything to their literary efforts, (5) etc. The thesis advanced throughout the encyclopedia is that, while critics and bibliophiles expend copious time and effort studying the productive output of authors, very little time is spent dwelling on the process of writing and the failure to write. Vila-Matas argues that the process and the lack of product are, in themselves, artistic statements worth examining in detail.

I can conceive of no finer purveyor of world literature than Enrique Vila-Matas. In the course of working his way through Bartleby, he manages to not only name-drop, but also spin a few yarns about: Laurence Sterne, J. D. Salinger, Fernando Pessoa, Thomas Pynchon, B. Traven, Balzac, Felisberto Hernández, Herman Melville, Robert Walser, Wiltold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Henry Roth, Dylan Thomas, Goethe, Stendhal, Franz Kafka, André Gide, Juan Rulfo, and Guy de Maupassant (and these are only the highlights). Despite its scant 178 pages, then, Bartleby shakes out an embarrassment of riches: there are enough works and authors mentioned in these pages to structure years of one’s reading efforts. Even beyond this, though, is the awe one experiences at discovering how well-acquainted Vila-Matas is with the biographical background of each of these authors. His knowledge is not only broad, but deep. Additionally, he dispenses with his knowledge in pleasant, offhanded fashion — more like Clive James than Harold Bloom. His erudition is casual and friendly.

And yet the book still somehow manages to fall under a truly literary — that is, fictional — heading. Much of the work is factual in nature, but Vila-Matas crams in several anecdotes that must be short fictional stories and the book itself is written in lovely, lyrical prose. The narrator is a fictional manifestation and one has the sense that several authors’ biographical information has been elaborated in the telling (like, for example, Vila-Matas relates thought processes and internal monologues that would elude even the most invasive of biographers). Even more, the novel has no text to speak of! Rather, it is drafted in a long string of footnotes that are attached to a nonexistent text, making Bartleby a contribution to the literature of No in its own right. Presumably, the narrator hints, the real text of Bartleby exists somewhere, but has been suppressed.

What confronts the reader, then, is a strangely moving argument for literature as artistic process instead of literature as artistic output. Whether you are amenable to the argument is almost beside the point because, I think, everyone can grant the underlying assumption: authors really do refuse to write for principled, interesting, and unique reasons. While perhaps not as enthralling as reading another of Salinger’s novels, an exploration into the reasons why Salinger refuses to write might cast his extant work in a new light. Trying to figure out why Felisberto Hernández always pulled up short in his stories turns our attention to the role of negative space in literature. Thinking about a number of authorial “could have beens” forces us to confront the idea of counterfactual novels that never were. In exploring the literature of No, we gain (or, perhaps, regain) a love of the literature that actually exists in finished form. Bartleby & Co. functions on two levels: the first as a superbly-written work, and the second as a meta-reminder of all the other great works we have and have yet to tackle.

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]   [ Goodreads ]  [ Amazon ]   [ Quarterly Conversation

A Heart So White

This concise and exceedingly well-crafted meditation on marriage and love manages to throw in equally trenchant sidebars on memory (think W. G. Sebald) and psychology (think Henry James). Many of the novel’s scenes have been so carefully and compassionately rendered that I believe A Heart So White easily qualifies as a masterwork.

Javier Marías / Spanish / 1995 /  279 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

I’ve been thinking about Roberto Bolaño a lot recently. Not only did the man bequeath the literary world with two nearly perfect novels — The Savage Detectives and 2666 — but he also left behind a fascinating life story and endless pages, interviews, and speeches full of literary criticism. Just the other day, my friend Cristian and I were trying to gather information about a number of authors Bolaño had lauded in one of his last interviews before he died. Bolaño was infamous for meting out praise or firing off condemnations of other writers working in the Spanish language (he offered advice about how to navigate the dense landscape of Spanish-language poetry at the same time that he decried the writings of more mainstream authors like Isabel Allende). While many of the authors he recommended are disappointingly difficult to find in English translation, Cristian and I narrowed in on one author and, in particular, one notable novel: A Heart So White by Javier Marías. It ended up being a fantastic choice.

No doubt Marías is well-known in many Spanish literary circles, but I’d never heard of him before (the fact that he refused to set foot within the States while Bush was president between 2000 and 2008 probably contributes to his relatively vague status in my Midwest literary excursions). But his books were easy enough to locate in a Scottish bookseller here in Glasgow (indeed, Waterstones, as it’s called, had copies of no less than seven of his novels) and I tore through A Heart So White in record time. Marías writes with a style that is highly reminiscent of a few English-language authors and this is not so terribly surprising — the man is a well-regarded and award-winning translator of authors such as Nabokov, Sterne, Conrad, Faulkner, and James. These are not trivial antecedents and their influence, although light, flits in and out of the pages of A Heart So White. Taken together with Bolaño’s endorsement of Marías as being among the foremost talents currently working in Spanish prose, and the conclusion basically states itself: Marías comes from good stock.

I have to admit that a favorable predisposition will aid you in reading this novel. Although it begins with a dozen or so truly electrifying pages, the novel’s structure seems like a lengthy psychological meander that is infrequently punctuacted with slightly more concrete (and brilliant) episodes. Marías is a patient writer and the stlye demands a commensurate level of patience from the reader. It takes some time for the full thematic scope of the work to emerge and the action, such as it is, is highly circumscribed in nature: we get 20 or 30 pages of an overheard conversation in a hotel room, another two-dozen pages about the ins and outs of translating political speeches, lengthy disquisitions on art forgery, and so forth. But Marías writes what he knows and his “Jamesian” sentence structures are penned in sufficiently engaging fashion that the text does not bore. I would bet that you have never read about the niceties of verbal translation at an international political forum. In Marías’ hands, this is something to behold substantively, stylistically, and symbolically.

More broadly, I find myself being drawn toward this style of writing; that is, a style at once both meditative and punctuated by well-constructed, almost encapsulated episodes. For whatever reason, I’ve come to associate this style with Spanish-language authors (but perhaps this speaks more to my limited scope than some truly taxonomical characteristic). It’s not that Marías (or, for that matter, Cortazar or Bolaño) writes frame stories along the lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Rather, these authors are just quite adept at the self-contained, drop-in anecdote that both stands alone and contributes to the broader development of the story. I will never forget the account of the death of La Maga’s infant child in Hopscotch or the literary duel of swords on the beach in The Savage Detectives. There are similarly singular episodes in A Heart So White and these brilliantly punctuate the otherwise cloudy narrative that trucks in memory (think W. G. Sebald) and psychological hair-splitting (think Henry James). When I talk to people about these novels, we end up rehashing these episodes specifically. They demand your attention.

I should speak to the novel’s content. A Heart So White begins with a middle-aged man who is recently married. This prompts separate bouts of retrospective and prospective musing. The narrator wonders at the series of events that brough him to this point — to the decision that it was time to completely and thoroughly share the most intimate and mundane aspects of his life with a spouse. He also wonders, with not an insubstantial about of trepidation, where their shared future is likely to take them. Now that the romantic race is over, what are they to do with themselves? In a short period of time, he is confronted by a number of … let’s call them “alternative romantic arrangements” whose juxtaposition to his own status causes food for thought. First, he witnesses an anguished exchange in Havanna between a woman (more specifically, a mistress) and a married man who keeps his ailing wife back in Spain. The interchange is not pleasant. Next, he begins to learn more about his father’s previous marriages (of which there were three) and these, also, reveal the complexities of emotional attachment. Third, while staying with an unmarried friend in New York, he witnesses the uncomfortable lengths she must go to in answering “lonely hearts” want ads in the local newspapers. Her suitors’ motivations are not always so pure and he begins to worry about his friend’s short-term safety and long-term happiness.

By the end of the novel, the narrator has passed through a substantial transition. Now satisfied with married life (or, perhaps, grown accustomed to it by comparison with the aforementioned alternative arrangements) he begins to understand the delicate dance of sharing, withholding, and creating experiences with another person. As a middle-twenty-something myself, I tracked rather well with the different points of his experience. The past really is difficult to sort out, the prospects of the future really are strange to parse, and settling into more traditional patterns of living — rather than exhaustively working to push forward, accomplish, and develop — really does seem like something of a sea change.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect novel. Some of the connective tissues that exist between the more critical episodes are meandering, abstract, and vague. The narrative style often folds back on itself, recycling bits of observation and phrases in new contexts and it’s not long before the novelty (and perhaps utility?) of this device wears thin. If you were previously frustrated by the psychological niceties of, say, Austerlitz or The Sea or The Portrait of a Lady, you may well find yourself similarly flummoxed here as well. And all the talk of romance can get downright melodramatic at points.

But I learned things about life from A Heart So White. I learned something about the relationship between fathers and sons, between husband and wife, between the past and the present. I was taken on a ride of transition and adjustment with which anyone my age would sympathize and understand. I would almost describe the novel as a “primer in commitment” and — were it not quite so challenging a read — distribute it freely as gifts to newly-weds in the years to come. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 9 / 10 

[ Wikipedia ]   [ Goodreads ]   [ Tumblr ]   [ Amazon ]   [ Words Borders ]

Manhattan Transfer

There is an astoundingly dense and convincing world set within these pages; it is entirely too easy to get drawn into the heat and rush of the prose, the place, and the politics. There may be finer books about the city of New York, but none of them so adeptly draw on the city to illustrate the uncomfortable truth about the caprice of the American Dream.

John Dos Passos / American / 1925 / 342 pages

Every book I can think of that in some way resembles Manhattan Transfer turns out to have been published after 1925. There is something here of Saul Bellow’s characters in Herzog and Seize the Day as they wander around cosmically large cosmopolises. I can see that Paul Auster probably took a lesson in geography from Dos Passos as he set out to write his New York Trilogy and I was reminded at several points of the tone and timbre of Howard Zinn’s scathing recast of the history of American classism, A People’s History of the United States. It is child’s play to trace direct lines from Dos Passos to works by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Barth, and even Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel West. Depending on the day, the mood, and the company I was in, I might be so adventurous as to venture the claim that Manhattan Transfer is a bit of an American literary lodestone. I found myself wondering anew with the turn of each page: why haven’t I read this before now?

The only stylistic precursor to this work is probably the writing of James Joyce, but you shouldn’t let that deter you. Dos Passos has done for New York what Joyce did for Dublin: he takes the total tonnage of the city’s variegated inhabitants, diagnoses their myriad pathologies, and arranges them incisively in a narrative structure that floods you with enlightening details and ambience. He also borrows, one might argue, from Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing style, but only insofar as it suits his purpose; Dos Passos is interested in presenting you with many facets of the New York existence, but he’s not going to make you drink from a fire hose. The freewheeling thought associations and deep incursions into his characters’ psyches are not so dense and fugue-like that they leave you reeling. Rather, his characters experience the word like you and I do; that is to say, the world is both tactile in its reality and, more or less, mental in its implications.

All that being said, the book’s narrative certainly has no center. Manhattan Transfer is a broad, ranging mural of life in New York that is populated by many, many characters and a surprising number (or maybe an implausible number, given the city’s vast geography) of interwoven plot lines. Some characters stay with us throughout the duration of the text while others emerge only briefly before disappearing into the background. In fact, it takes the book a good hundred pages at least until we, as readers, are really able to understand who the main characters are in the first place. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which introduces the various cast members before the second part crystallizes their relations to one another and begins to telescope in on two of them. In the third section, however, the focus of the narrative begins to slowly circle out again before, in the final chapter, hopscotching around the entire city, giving us only fleeting glimpses of many characters we’ve previously encountered. The logistics of reading the book can, at times, be a bit overwhelming, but the fun of following the characters across the city is a worthwhile reward.

Dos Passos writes with an acerbic, damaging pen. You get the sense that, despite the novel’s intricacies, it was written quickly and passionately in long spells of hurried typing. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the book’s prose style are words that quickly run together, forming unique passages of description. Sometimes these are castoff combinations (such as curlyhaired and highslung) but at other times they are completely novel (rainseething, girderstriped, and absintheblurred … which is, you know, the blur that accompanies the consumption of absinthe, I guess). Each section of the novel is broken into chapters and each chapter is further divided into bits of text that are sometimes only a paragraph in length. It is not uncommon to jump across many settings and people (and, in some cases, even years) within the same chapter. To this end, Dos Passos adheres to very few conventional narrative limits and this allows him to construct many haunting juxtapositions: on the same page we see the beggar in the alley, the millionaire in the penthouse, the seaman on a barge at the docks, and the late night machinations of the young financier.

And his characters will rarely find themselves on the more pleasant side of the comparison. One of the take away messages of the book is that the American Dream is a fickle, capricious deity that will use and abuse you with mirth and without mercy. We see the millionaire spoiled by a bad stock investment. We see the young gentleman bequeathed a large inheritance who, for lack of industry, ends the novel in poverty. We see actors and directors make it big before fizzling out. Immigrants who work hard and get ahead; immigrants who work hard and get nothing. People, rich and poor, commit suicide. The bartender who amasses enough cash as a liquor runner during Prohibition to purchase a mansion. The man who migrates from a rural community looking for work that simply does not exist.

Dos Passos wages class warfare with a maliciousness that makes contemporary allegations of the same look like watered down bedtime stories. His driving point is the one we’ve heard: any person’s station in life is randomly determined at birth. If you’re of a low station, a brief spell of bad luck can destroy you. If you’re of a high station, then your mistakes can be larger, your spells of bad luck of greater duration before you are similarly destroyed. Hard work and industry can beat back the randomness of American life, but not all the time. The rags-to-riches narrative is, in the vast majority of instances, a hoax.

It’s admittedly heavy-handed, but the incredible material disparities at work in this novel are indeed omnipresent in the American metropolis even to this day. I was blown away at the timeliness and topical relevancy of Manhattan Transfer and it makes contemporary complaints that we’ve strayed off of some idyllic path of yore seem disingenuous. When he situates the post-materialist lives of the rich in such close proximity to the very material-focused needs of the poor, Dos Passos illustrates that being an American means radically different things for different people. What is the common worth of an American narrative when its inhabitants are so far at odds? The answer comes back: not much.

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ Pechorin]

A High Wind In Jamaica

This relentless-but-lighthearted chronicle of the various ills (both other-imposed and self-inflicted) that befall a group of children after they’ve been taken hostage on a pirate ship is a bizarrely insightful look into the inner moral workings of childhood innocence. Hughes’ thesis is, simply put, that children aren’t all that innocent.

Richard Hughes / British / 1929 / 279 pages

I seem to have recently stumbled into a raft of novels where children aren’t depicted in the most flattering of lights. Murakami led the charge with his character May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Here is a young teenage woman who, rather than attending high school, is content to smoke, spy, and speculate with the adult protagonist about a range of lurid hypotheticals. Then there was the ragtag bunch of aspiring tennis pros in DFW’s Infinite Jest who daily ingested a panoply of illicit substances before playing mock war games where their tennis balls approximated nuclear warheads decimating entire metropolises. Just last week I finished reading McEwan’s Atonement, where the young Briony Tallis famously mistakes a romantic encounter between her older sister and her sister’s lover as sexual assault and testifies against the man in a court of law (the result of which is his years-long incarceration).

Richard Hughes takes the indictment of supposed childhood innocence to an entirely new level, however, in A High Wind in Jamaica. His thesis is fairly simple: in addition to being physically and intellectually underdeveloped compared to adults, children are generally morally adrift as well and, without substantial oversight (or, actually, sometimes despite this oversight), they cannot be trusted to make morally defensible decisions on their own. They hurt one another, they hurt animals; they are systematically incapable of keeping promises and harbor no understanding of the consequences of actions; they forget traumatic experiences in the face of more immediately pleasant ones; they are fickle and their memories are untrustworthy; inconsistency, caprice, and ignorance govern their reality. At the same time that they can be manipulated, they are also eminently adaptable and shift shapes depending on the demands of their surroundings. Group dynamics within collections of children are especially problematic. Given to the whimsy of the mob mentality, they ostracize one another maliciously and without design.

This might all seem a little curmudgeonly, but Hughes was specifically working in this novel to draw into question the old Victorian idea that childhood is a idyllic Garden of Eden where innocence lies unspoiled by the harsh demands of the adult world. Hughes recognizes this potential, but rails against its automatic assumption. He places his group of children in a broad range of less-than-ideal environments of adult supervision. First, they are woefully unattended to by their absentminded parents in an English colony in Jamaica. Second, they basically run unchecked and without supervision around the decks of a pirate ship after they have been taken captive by these criminals of the high seas. Third, they are easily manipulated by a range of lawyers and judges in a court of law where they are asked to bear out false testimony against the pirates. Throughout the course of these events, one child will accidentally fall to his death, another will accidentally murder a gagged-and-bound seaman, and a third will be victimized by the pirate horde for want of collective protection by the other children. It is a dark tale.

But a huge component of the novel’s brilliance is the rather light air with which Hughes is able to treat these subjects. The book is seriously funny at many points and the horrors come off more as illustrative parables rather than visceral accounts intended to shock the reader out of his complacency. We don’t often think of children behaving in these capacities, but Hughes’ narrative arcs are all plausible: given the circumstances, the confusion, and these children’s inherently underdeveloped sense of right and wrong, it makes sense that they would behave in such capacities. Equally entertaining is Hughes’ repeated demonstration that moral adulthood (or at least, moral adulthood as demonstrated in the lives of the children’s parents, captors, and lawyers) is nothing much to aspire to. We’ve always known that the moral compass of many grown people points magnetic south; Hughes is simply comfortable adding to this list the orientations of children as well.

There are a number of highly effective narrative techniques at work in this novel. The atmospheres are consistently pleasant, but only superficially so. It always feels, each page anew, that we’re just a hair’s breadth away from some new calamity despite the lighthearted scene setting. To some extent, this is the point: things can go from good to bad (or from bad to worse) very quickly and it takes an individual of rather pronounced moral acuity to bridge the transition successfully. I am reminded in this respect of another island novel The Ten Thousand Things, that feasts on these weirdly murky and slightly cosmic environments. Hughes also relies occasionally on the kind of haphazard slapstick comedy we see in, for instance, Catch-22 or, perhaps, Under the Net. Hilarious misunderstandings that play out between adults and children often result in some truly ridiculous antics and at least a few of these end jovially rather than horribly. Taken in total, Hughes offers the reader enough to hang her hat on in terms of style, humor, and presentation that she can easily weather the darker storm that underlies the novel’s progression.

Critically speaking, this is one of the most highly regarded novels of the twentieth century, yet it’s one that I believe most people have never heard of. I can understand how at the time of its publication, it was a truly pioneering work and many reviewers have noted that it opened the doors for later (and more popular) works such as Lord of the Flies and Walkabout and The Butterfly Revolution. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone who was once a child; that is to say, everyone should check out this book!

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ NPR ]

The Lost Steps

This Heart of Darkness for the Latin American continent both begins and ends in ways rather distinct from Conrad’s famous tale; in the course of following the narrator’s journey, Carpentier manages to make a number of salient cultural, political, and philosophical points. The writing, though verbose, is generally exquisite.

Alejo Carpentier / Cuban / 1953 / 278 Pages
Translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onís

Alejo Carpentier must have been a fascinating guy. As a classically-trained musicologist, he wrote extensively on many musical genres and was a pioneering voice in Latin American radio. He helped contribute to the Latin American literary boom and, while not as widely read in English as many of his contemporaries, a handful of his books (The Lost Steps, The Kingdom of This World, and Explosion in a Cathedral) are nonetheless well-regarded and important works. He was politically active and culturally keen; rather than following the trend and flocking to Paris as an expat intellectual, he identified strongly with his Latin American heritage and worked diligently to preserve its musical, historical, and cultural legacies in his prose. Reading a book by Carpentier is to experience all of this and more — the political revolution, the operatic overture, and the scathing social critique all assimilated under the umbrella of truly beautiful prose.

To be honest, from what I’ve been able to gather from other people while reading this book, The Lost Steps might not be the best point of entry into Carpentier’s work. The fact that the novel is so riveting, however, seems to indicate that he was a seriously talented author. Carpentier perceptively balances elaborate prose descriptions and philosophical ruminations with the right amount of forward propulsion. To that extent, his book carries the weight of Heart of Darkness, but matches this with a low-lying adventure tale of self discovery that seems somewhat more akin to The Motorcycle Diaries. His characters experience the world in all its tactile pleasure and with all its cosmic overtones, but all this gets funneled through hard-hitting experiences that prompt standard coming-of-age realizations: I didn’t know that people lived like this; I was unaware of the simpler things in life; The unstructured itinerary of a journey to another country is freeing and exciting.

The tale is simple enough. The narrator is an unnamed musical conductor living in a major American metropolis (presumably New York) who is growing increasingly frustrated with his modern postmaterialist life — his wife is an actress who leaves him for long tours with her theatrical troop, his mistress is an astrologer floozy, and his job writing simple musical scores is underwhelming. Born somewhere in Latin America and raised in Europe, the narrator is a perfect example of the geographically untethered; he has no roots, so to speak; he has no concrete connection to his surroundings. So when the curator of a musical exhibit approaches him with a fully-funded offer to travel into the South American jungle to recover ancient musical artifacts, he jumps at the opportunity. He entices his mistress to join him on what he considers to be a prepaid junket; perhaps he’ll just fashion fake artifacts from cheap wood and spend the curator’s money on a lengthy vacation in a resort instead.

But things don’t go according to plan. To begin, the narrator is confronted by a completely unexpected sense of homecoming when he returns to the land of his childhood. He experiences a naturalness in his interactions with the inhabitants that surprises him and this turns his thoughts toward the honest completion of his quest. Then, when a minor revolution explodes in the streets and he is confined with his mistress in a hotel for several days, he begins to understand that her carefree, postmodern facade is thin and ill-suited for the material and political realities of the Latin American experience. It is here that Carpentier begins to set up an elaborate (and sometimes implicit) constellation of criticisms against the continental European postmaterial bohemian mindset of the mid 1900s. When confronted by hard reality, he argues, these carefree mentalities are poor palliatives. As he eventually leaves the city and journeys deep into the jungle, he encounters more hardships and must shed successively deeper levels of his “first-world” self. There is something emancipating in this exercise. He relearns the value of physical labor, he meets (another!) woman (more earthy and pragmatic) that he takes as a lover, and he relishes the unstructured day-to-day existence of working for oneself rather than working on the clock for an employer.

Soon, however, he must return to the United States. Unbeknownst to the narrator, his actress wife has mobilized an entire team of reporters, pilots, and adventurers to search for her husband, who she presumes is lost and in need of assistance. A prop plane lands in the middle of his jungle reprieve and whisks him back to New York, where he is rudely plopped down in the middle of a mechanized landscape he was trying to avoid. He immediately takes steps to begin extricating himself from the situation (divorce, quitting the job, delivering the musical artifacts to the curator) and a few months later returns to the jungle in the hopes of reclaiming his newest woman and settling down into a simpler lifestyle. When he arrives, however, he finds the landscape changed. He cannot locate the routes he once took and his old traveling companions seem to be suspicious of his flight back to the United States. He hears secondhand from an old acquaintance that his woman has married another man and intends to have a child. Just when the narrator is able to embrace the simple existence of the jungle, it seems as if the jungle itself resoundingly issues a rejection.

In this way, Carpentier seems to turn on its head the idea that modernization comes with self-actualization, material luxury, and better living. Rather than paint an idyllic picture of the jungle’s inhabitants, he instead, I think, sells their existence as more honest and authentic, less adorned with the frivolities of a culture whose citizens don’t need to kill in order to eat. Equally fascinating in the book is the final depiction of the narrator as a hapless buffoon who can’t manage the fundamentally natural dynamics of the jungle setting. He is struck with a romanticized vision like an undergraduate student who studies in London for a semester: “London is so great and I want to spend the rest of my life there.” He returns to the South American continent with the mindset that he is making a noble sacrifice; he will grace the jungle with his presence. But he does not belong. His modern outlook has precluded his existence in a place as honest as the one he has come to idealize. In the end, we’re left with an image of a guy trying to break into a fort with a screwdriver — the task is hopeless and the preparation is pathetic.

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]   [ Goodreads ]   [ Tumblr ]   [ Amazon ]   [ Occasional Review ]

Lands of Memory

Here is a collection of tales that are simple, beautiful, and honest; in unpretentious prose, Hernández subtly weaves stories about peoples’ relationships with one another, their spiritual connection to inanimate objects, and their tenuous grasp on their own recollections. He is a master at carefully disassembling the house of cards, shuffling the deck, and then gently rebuilding the house in a counterintuitive manner.

Felisberto Hernández / Uruguayan / 1942 / 190 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Felisberto Hernández could not possibly have come more highly recommended. He was beloved by Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar, both of whom were highly influenced by his work. Gabriel García Márquez was another admirer, once noting: “If I hadn’t read the stories of Felisberto Hernández in 1950, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today.” The famous Jorge Luis Borges was the first person to take a chance on publishing his writings outside of Uruguay and Hernández cavorted with many well-known poets in Paris, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. When The Lands of Memory was translated into English in 2002, it won the Best Book of the Year awards from both The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement. Plus, my fellow literary troubadour Cristian gave it high marks late one night as we were driving around St. Louis with his uncle, Carlos, who was visiting from Montevideo. I’ll admit that it was a bit strange to hear Hernández’ obscure name thrown around in a discussion of Cortázar, Sábato, Infante, and Carpentier; but Cristian and Carlos were adamant: this dude was the real deal.

I think a lot about the writers I like, but I can’t say that I frequently consider what writers they like. Going into a book with the knowledge that many famous authors found it influential makes for an interesting exercise: I caught myself several times trying to figure out how and to what extent Hernández had rubbed off on Calvino, Cortázar, Borges, and García Márquez. I would advance the argument that Hernández most resembles a pleasant and low-key mash-up of Calvino and Cortázar. The former in the sense that the accounts of memory and recollection in Lands at times closely resemble the tales told by the characters in Invisible Cities; the latter insofar as Hernández exhibits similar gifts for writing about music, physical spaces, and slyly comedic/awkward plots. The Borges connection is a stretch, I think, but Hernández does faintly smack of a watered-down absurdism that no doubt Borges would have found appealing. When it comes to García Márquez, I’d say it’s all about the characters: both authors display a deep tenderness and honesty toward their depictions of people and their surroundings. This fact is all the more true in the case of Hernández who, it seems, drew heavily from his own personal experiences in the construction of these tales.

Lands of Memory is comprised of two novellas and four shorter works, almost all of which are fantastic. Hernández writes in the first person and indulges in letting his narrators draw equally from their present and their past in the course of telling their stories. A recurring theme is that of disconnectedness: the narrators often speak of their past selves as distinct entities, express dismay when their bodies won’t bend to the will of their minds, or focus so fixedly on one of another person’s physical attributes that the rest of the other person seems to fall away completely. So we encounter narrators mocking themselves at an earlier age; pianists who mentally yell at their hands as if they were controlled by some distinct force; and lengthy descriptions of, for example, teeth that are so thorough and inventive that we end up forgetting about the rest of the head.

In many ways, the characters of these tales are more connected to their physical, inanimate surroundings than they are to each other or even to their own memories. I have rarely seen simple objects come alive as they do beneath Hernández’ pen. His descriptions of darkened bedrooms, empty concert halls, dingy restaurants, and country roads are rife with language you’d expect to be more readily applicable to humans and their activities. The physical dimensionality of a piano is a nearly endless subject of meditation and a clothes manikin is endowed with so many human attributes that you’d think it was the focal point of the story. You can hear the crispness of the starched fabrics, smell the scent of foods and the stench of grime, see the porcelain white of skin and read every subtly in the face of each character. But none of this is to say that Hernández writes in the same vein as the realism of, for instance, Balzac or Turgenev. All of the details are there, but they are far from meticulous or obsessive; rather, they enter the story easily, subtly, and with a hefty endowment of emotional warmth.

To give you some idea of the way in which Hernandez’ mind works, consider the plot of “The Crocodile”, which is perhaps his most famous short story. The narrator is a concert pianist who is forced to sell women’s stockings simply to make ends meet. His initial attempts at doing so are utter failures and he is about at the end of his rope when he accidentally begins crying in front of a potential customer. The lady feels so bad for him that she purchases several pairs of stockings. He begins to induce crying as a sales technique and quickly becomes the sock company’s most successful salesman. He is invited to company headquarters to provide an instructive demonstration to the other sales associates so that they, too, might benefit from the technique. He becomes known around Montevideo and throughout the rest of Uruguay as “the crocodile” because of his ceaseless tears. After having made enough money to sustain himself for a while, he organizes a great public piano concert and performs for a packed concert hall. At the end of the concert, a small child approaches him and asks him to sign a caricatured picture of himself drawn as a crocodile. The man obliges, but when he returns to his hotel room later that night he cries himself to sleep (this time with real tears).

The story is melancholy, but also absurdly entertaining. Plus, it is indicative of the kind of thing you can expect in the rest of the collection: simple stories that read almost like poorly directed parables. Hernández often pulls up short at the end of his tales, by which I mean he tends to end on a sudden and arresting image that doesn’t necessarily square very well with the material he’s presented up to that point. It functions as a call, I think, to reexamine the story in its entirety. The tension of each story and its resolution don’t leap out at the reader; indeed, sometimes they appear to be totally absent. Instead we are parachuted into the middle of a space that Hernández has constructed very carefully for us to inhabit for a brief period of time. If we haven’t stumbled upon any earth shattering realizations by the final page, then he shrugs his shoulders at us. Most of life is not so grandiose, anyway. To ask anything more of his characters would be crass.

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ NY Times ]