Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Latin American

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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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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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 

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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

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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

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This swashbuckling proletarian tale of materialism and morality employs both unpretentious prose and well-honed narration; it is as much a period piece about 1920s Mexico as it is a universal exploration of human greed.

B. Traven / German? Mexican? / 1927 / 308 pages

Not much is known about B. Traven, but I can tell you this: the man stood with the working class. The rhetoric of today’s so-called “class warfare” pales in comparison to the seedy depictions of the land-owning gentry that line the pages of his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And Traven isn’t only taking to task the oil and gold barons of the early 1900s; the Catholic Church, imperialist Spain, and American tourists are also made to suffer under his sharp prose. In a world he describes as “primitive” and “violent” the laws of material and the laws of politics are conflated, the will of God and the privations of priests are blurred into a moral morass where the lowest common denominator is, simply, money. The people who have money want even more money and are willing to kill, subjugate, trick, deceive, and manipulate to get it. Those who don’t have it are simply lost, relegated to cogs in a broader capitalist machinery from which they cannot escape.

To a certain extent, this is all low-hanging fruit. The geopolitical and socioeconomic development of Latin America — and of Mexico, in particular — is rife with other countries’ mistakes. The Spanish sent the Inquisition; the United States sent their extractive, gold-prospecting land-grabbers; and even France and Portugal played their dastardly roles. In any country around the world, you’re likely to find a smaller subset of the population with its undue portion of the wealth, regardless of its derivation. We can make no new hay from additional characterizations of the rich as ruthless, calculating cutthroats. We’ve heard it all before.

But the truly great and insightful observation in Traven’s novel is that we, the rest of humanity, are really at our cores no different from the wealthy. Give any of us a bit of money, lighten for any of us the day-to-day grind of survival, and our thoughts turn instinctively toward baser interests. He intelligently explores this dynamic through the seemingly random bestowal of wealth on truly impoverished characters in his novel. Using the historical reality of 1920s gold prospecting in the Sierra Madre, Traven chronicles in great detail what happens to us and to our relationships with others when, somewhat unexpectedly, there’s money up for grabs. His prognosis is dire: with a small taste of wealth, it is impossible to be satiated. Whereas before a good day’s wage was something to take to the bank, with the discovery of a bit of gold comes the unsubstantiated promise of limitless gain. Repeatedly in Treasure, we see characters lose all sense of perspective in the glint of gold. Repeatedly, we are instructed that material aspirations are diametrically opposed to moral goodness and dissatisfaction with our lot in life is a spiritual failing.

This gets heavy-handed. Traven doesn’t really let up on the gas and he seems to abjure entirely the idea that hard-working and honest people do, in fact, sometimes improve their station. I’m willing to forgive the oversight based on its historical context, however. I don’t imagine that prospecting for precious metals in the Sierra Madre was likely to bring one into contact with too many wholesome characters and we have to remember that, in Traven’s world, the people with the money and the guns rode roughshod over the rest of the population. Treasure reads like a fictionalized and slightly more entertaining Communist Manifesto for a new era and another continent. While hyperbolic by today’s standards, this was once the stuff of social reform. His writing does not exactly mirror, say, the muckraking vitriol of his contemporary, Upton Sinclair, but it is clear that somewhere in Traven’s background is a deep, compassionate, and almost journalistic engagement with the Mexican countryside. Treasure is populated with many asides and parables that would have emerged organically from an extended period of residency in the country. While Traven’s nationality is somewhat debated, this is clearly a Mexican novel.

Having made it this far into the review with only scant references to the plot, I would be remiss if I were to draw it to a close without first giving the reader at least a hint at its content. Three men meet one another in a boardinghouse and agree to go prospecting for gold. The book charts their journey to the mine, their time while there, and their eventual return. Along the way, they swap stories about bandits, corrupt politicians and priests, dangerous soldiers, and pretty women. They run into a number of interesting characters (of highly variable moral rectitude) and eventually meet rather distinct fates. Indeed, part of the joy of reading Treasure is its closing 30 pages where Traven wraps up the loose ends with such focused irony that it borders on the hilarious.

You’re not going to get your mind blown with this novel, but it’s well worth your time. Plus, you’ll get to ask yourself the great hypothetical question: what would you do if you were suddenly looking at a million dollars with the promise of more?

Rating: 7 / 10

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The Obscene Bird of Night

This whirling dervish of a novel is oft touted as one of the earliest incarnations of magical realism; unfortunately, it reads more like a randomly-generated nightmare in bad need of editing.

José Donoso / Chilean / 1970 / 438 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin and Leonard Mades

My guess is that if you’ve previously read Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes and have now somehow managed to pick up The Obscene Bird of Night, you’re going to end up about as perturbed as I am right now. There is something tortured and flawed — yet ambitious and wonderful — behind Fuentes’ juggernaut of a masterwork. It is not an excellent novel and, in parts, I found it quite weak. But there is still a carefully crafted logic to it, an expansive reinterpretation of time, history, and myth. He balances the grotesque with the beautiful, the macabre with the transcendental, and the patient reader who can withstand the onslaught is treated to a satisfying conclusion. When he’s not recycling the same dark, psychosexual imagery, Fuentes’ prose often soars and he buries many utterly mind-blowing passages within the folds of a more measured, moderate narrative. Terra Nostra exhausted me, but I’m better for the battle.

One of the luminaries quoted on the back cover of Donoso’s novel is Fuentes himself. The Obscene Bird of Night was published less than a decade before Terra Nostra and the resemblance is striking. Here is a similarly fantastical tale peopled with supernatural entities. Here is a work that also perverts time and narrative perspective. Here is a book where small people inhabit huge, cosmic spaces and everyday palaver is laced with dread, superstition, and violent potential. Here again is a novel with obsessive characters who will not (will not!) just shut up about how interested they are in penises, vaginas, money, and God. If I had a dollar for every time reference was made to the erogenous zone in these two novels …

Still, it seems like Fuentes took what he needed from Donoso and ran away with the game: The Obscene Bird of Night reads like a degenerate version of Terra Nostra.

The reader is flung into the middle of an hallucinogenic introduction like a raw cut of meat chucked into the middle of a pack of rabid dogs. The narrator is a supposedly deaf and mute invalid named Mudito who sometimes narrates in the first-person singular, sometimes in the first-person plural, and sometimes in the third-person limited omniscient. Quotation marks in the book are almost literally meaningless as Donoso tends to blend observation with internal monologue fused with interpersonal dialogue regressed into a series of free word associations punctuated by endless strings of ellipses. The reader quickly finds out that Mudito’s real name is Humberto, but that sometimes he thinks of himself as a baby and sometimes an old woman. There are two time periods during which plot elements transpire, but they overlap in such bizarre ways that it’s not entirely clear which characters are real and which might be figments of Mudito/Humbert’s imagination. Then again, there is such a dearth of information about any of the characters that it’s difficult to care. And even if they are real, their body parts are occasionally surgically removed and grafted onto other characters (I’m not kidding). An “arty” interpretation of all this might be that The Obscene Bird of Night charts new territory in the literary exploration of perception and memory. A more levelheaded interpretation might be that Donoso wasn’t particularly adept at rendering in manageable detail the disjointed thinking of an unmedicated schizophrenic.

On some level (namely, the first few hundred pages where the trope is still new enough) I am interested in Donoso’s prose styling. He is not a great setter of scenes and his seldom trenchant psychological analysis falls a bit short of evoking an emotional response, but I’ve never laid eyes on paragraphs like his. The present is blurred with the past, my thoughts get wrapped up in our dialogue, I am two people at once, you are not who you say your are, this house we’re in is cosmically large, but then again, we may not be in a house at all, who is that old hag in the corner, and did I mention a penis or a vagina? Donoso takes the reader on a wild ride, but he occasionally needs to just let up on the gas. I first realized I was in trouble when I read five consecutive paragraphs where each one had seemingly nothing to do with the paragraph that preceded it. As you can tell from my other reviews, I love the narrative bait-and-switch, but this was a total mess.

The book seems to have scored points with other reviewers for its political insights, but even these were terribly watered down. I can think of two explicit and a handful of implicit passages that seemed to touch on political issues, but it’s difficult to be receptive to high-level satire when you’re struggling just to keep your head above water. Plus, the existence of other (more adept) Latin American political skewerings makes for a damning juxtaposition. Just go read The Feast of the Goat if you want some serious commentary on the evils of military dictatorship and class-based politics. Or pick up Distant Star if you prefer laughter with your political tirades. At any rate, don’t peruse Donoso.

Rating: 3 / 10

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The Savage Detectives

Nonlinear storytelling, rotating narrators, endless literary and cultural references, humor, darkness, globetrotting, and great prose; needless to say, this book lives up well to its staggering reputation.

Roberto Bolaño / Chilean / 1998 / 648 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer 

The Savages Detectives was only translated into English in 2007 and Bolaño’s followup 2666 was translated a year later, but these two books have already amassed such bizarrely consistent and effusive receptions from critics that I dropped both of them into my queue as soon as they popped up on my radar. Given my penchant for consensus avoidance, I must admit that it felt a bit weird buying these two huge books at the same time, but on another level I think it was fundamentally unavoidable. Every glowing review of one book always mentions the other book in equally positive tones; the two just seemed to go hand-in-hand and they also seemed to be completely awesome. Working first as a poet and then as a master of the novella form, Bolaño did not take a crack at the extended novel until the later years of his life. Written in rapid succession, Detectives and 2666 were supposedly drafted in non-stop 48-hour typing sprees (it’s not exactly Kerouac with his apocryphal On the Road scroll, but hey). It is utterly mind-blowing to me that someone who begins as a poet ends with two prose works totaling 1,500+ pages; the fact that I’m seriously considering rolling up my sleeves and delving immediately into 2666 after having just finished a preliminary 650 pages should serve as some indication of Detective‘s high calibre. The critics earned their keep with this one and, while I hesitate to throw my hat into the ring, the opportunity to confirm the hype is too tempting.

The barebones of the plot are fairly straightforward. Two young poets living in 1970s Mexico City decide to start a new poetry movement (which they call visceral realism) that will purportedly revitalize Mexican literature and stand in direct opposition to the more mainstream writings of Mexico’s most famous poet and first Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz. Although visceral realism successfully recruits more poets and appears to be endlessly funded through the sale of drugs, it never really gets off the ground and it is not long before the two young founders are no longer taken seriously by the established literary elite. In a last ditch effort to define the parameters of the movement and solidify its base, the founders strike out on a quest to find a little-known and long-lost poet who begot some of the stylistic principles that visceral realism is attempting to embody. In their quest to locate the poet, however, something will go horribly wrong. The Savage Detectives both builds up to this quest and also explores the international fallout after its completion; the techniques Bolaño employs in these depictions, however, constitute the true crux of the novel.

Detectives opens with diary entries composed by Juan García Madero, a teenage poet sensation who has recently been inducted into the ranks of visceral realism. It is through Madero’s eyes that we first encounter the mysterious founders of the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, and learn about their far-flung social relations and activities in the drug trade. Situating the narration in the hands of the youngest and newest member of the group sounds off all the standard alarms: can we, as readers, trust his appraisal of situations and people? Will his youth hamstring his analysis? Are Lima and Belano up to things that pass beyond the scope of what Madero is seeing? (The answers to these questions are, respectively and predictably: no, yes, and yes.) Indeed, it seems that Madero has stumbled into a movement in decline, where endless problems — both artistic in nature and otherwise — threaten to collapse the group entirely. Bolaño marches a cavalcade of prostitutes, pimps, psychotics, and other seedy characters across the pages of Madero’s narration and after a few hundred pages, the world of the visceral realists has been whipped into a frenzy. The diary entries break off abruptly, jarringly, like a music box crashing to the floor.

The year was 1975 and the action was confined completely to Mexico City and its environs. What follows in the next 400 pages, however, is so stylistically, temporally, and geographically different that it feels almost as if Bolaño had grafted on a completely different novel. Gone are Madero’s diary entries (indeed, gone is Madero entirely). This second section of the novel covers the years from 1976 to 1996 and is written in the form of testimonials that might have been given to a police investigator or recorded by a court stenographer. Each testimonial begins with a name, date, and location of the “interview” and, while every account in some way deals either with Lima or Belano, neither of the protagonists ever gets to speak for himself. Rather, a cast of about four dozen characters explain the nature of their relationships with one or the other of these two men. Thus we hear from the Mexican professor of literature who knew Belano in his youth, a French friend of Lima’s who houses him in Paris for a few months, an ex-girlfriend of Belano’s who encounters him on a camping trip, the secretary for Octavio Paz who oversees a meeting between her boss and Lima, and on and on. Sometimes these narrators are given several sections of the novel to explain themselves; at other times, Bolaño only transcribes one account. Whether we encounter them once or many times, however, each character has a distinct voice and a unique story to tell in his own right (let alone whatever it is they have to say about Lima or Belano). Part of the fun of reading Detectives is leafing through all of these more-or-less self-contained short stories. Their settings range from Paris and Madrid to North Africa, California, and Jerusalem.

But the narration is rarely rosy. These characters are oftentimes struggling artists, writers, and dreamers who subsist for long periods of time without jobs, food, or domiciles. Apparently some rift has taken place between the two old friends because Lima and Belano never appear together in the accounts of any of their acquaintances. Although different people appraise the characters in different capacities, some consistent trends emerge: the two founders of the visceral realist movement are weird, broken men who are geographically and socially untethered. While many people we hear from were never a part of the visceral realist movement, a handful of the accounts emerge from Lima and Belano’s older Mexican friends from the late 1970s. It is unclear what exactly transpired that caused the ruination of the two men, but many of the people who knew them in 1976 speculate that something went horribly awry when the two drove off into the Northern Mexican countryside looking for a long-lost poet named Cesárea Tinajero. Whatever happened there corroded their friendship, forced them out of Mexico, and brought the visceral realist movement to a halt.

One of the more bizarre and infrequently-commented-upon aspects of the novel is Madero’s total disappearance from the 1976-1996 accounts. Indeed, this hints at a broader theme of the novel: the things that are left unspoken are the true forces that drive Detectives. The third, much shorter section of the novel returns to the very end of 1975, where Madero’s diary entries seamlessly resume where they broke off some 400 pages prior. He accompanies Lima and Belano into the countryside on their quest for Tinajero and, as the trip plays out, his account becomes increasingly frenzied and terse. The sense of dread that Bolaño has worked so diligently and subtly to create through the investigative accounts in the second section crystallize in striking fashion in the third and these last 60 or so pages fly by in an instant. Very few of the loose ends are tied off completely, but the intimations are fascinating.

Bolaño employs a number of interesting conceits. First, for a novel ostensibly about poetry, I think there are only about a dozen lines of actual verse that appear in the text. In this sense, despite endless discussions between characters about poetry, its composition, and its history, the focus of the book is more specifically centered on the events themselves. Secondly, we are never given much insight into who was responsible for collecting the interview transcripts in the middle section of the novel (although it’s certainly possible to craft some informed guesses). There is clearly some third, invisible party that possesses the motivation and means to travel around the world seeking information about Lima and Belano. Whether that entity be academic, legal, or personal in nature is unknown. Finally, many of the characters in the novel are reflections (however direct) of actual people that Bolaño knew in real life (indeed, Bolaño = Belano if you haven’t guessed as much). I imagine that part of the reason that all the short stories in the middle portion of the novel are so convincing is that Bolaño himself actually lived out many of these escapades. I also imagine that someone who was a bit better steeped in the world of Latin American literature would have caught many more of the references than I did (though I was pleased to see many favorable mentions of Hopscotch thrown in there). Wikipedia actually has a great chart on the page for Detectives that breaks down which of the characters were intended to represent actual figures in the Mexican poetry scene. At any rate, this character list is helpful just for navigation purposes in the course of reading the novel; there are so many that, at times, you’ll find yourself getting a bit confused.

For its inventiveness and pitch-perfect execution, The Savage Detectives should be required reading for those interested in Latin American literature. I place it just a bit below Hopscotch, which, if you’ve perused my review of that book, is saying quite a lot.

Rating: 10 / 10

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Terra Nostra

This behemoth of a creation story hops genres, rewrites history, and drugs the reader with labyrinthine prose and interminable internal monologues. The payoff from reading such a book is great, but the investment is debilitating.

Carlos Fuentes / Mexican / 1975 / 790 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

In elementary school, we are all instructed in the ways of plot. You begin with the exposition, the stage setting, the construction of foundation and of walls. Next comes the rising action, the building tension, the emerging cracks in a previously smooth facade. The plot line peaks at the climax, where something breaks, snaps, or explodes. We end with a resolution, a falling action, or — if you can swing the pronunciation — the denouement. In high school, you practice diagramming plots, labeling the rising and falling actions, discussing how the expository treatment foreshadows the climax. It’s all a bit too formulaic and stilted, this idea that we can dismember the great works and chart them along a line that resembles the rise and fall in the price of financial markets. I think we’re often given a view of literature at this level that adheres too readily to these conventions and it reinforces some bizarre expectations about fine novels: I’m going to be bored for the first 200 pages, the next 50 or so will really get cooking, Chapter 18 in particular was a barnburner, and I twiddled my thumbs through the last couple dozen pages.

So you can understand how Catch-22 completely destroyed me at the age of 16. Heller wrote a book where the plot line resembles more of a spiral than a mountain. Events are repeated from different perspectives, the narrative arch folds back on itself, and it’s not until the final chapters of the novel that we can completely understand some of what we read in the first handful of pages. You can also understand how — nearly a decade later — Hopscotch almost ended me. There, Cortázar didn’t subvert the plot line so much as he leeched it of its driving force by interpolating countless backstories, supplementary texts, and philosophical sidebars. The effect was staggering; he seemed to demand of the reader: “Suspend your anxieties about my characters and their experiences. Listen to my words instead. Focus on the novel as a thing autonomous from its pages.” I came to a conclusion when I was 16 that I still harbor to this day: perverting the traditional plot line is one of the surefire ways of writing a fantastically engaging novel.

Carlos Fuentes does this incomparably in Terra Nostra. I have never seen anything like it. The plot proceeds like a melted scoop of ice cream, on a hot summer’s day, recently decapitated from the waffle cone on which it had been perched. It spreads out on the sidewalk, sticks in the cracks, hardens fast and remains there through rain, snow, and a new spring. A year later, the same child drops a different flavor of ice cream in the same spot and it melts, mingling with the tiniest sucrose molecules left over from the previous accident. The new dairy deposit spreads further, reaches deeper, is more permanent than its forerunner. The next year, repeat the incident; the next, again; and so on. At the end of the age of men, a bedraggled forager collapses in the middle of the sticky mound that was years in the making. Eons go by and his body slowly decays, becoming one with the ice cream remnants. This amorphous, gelatinous, primordial ooze is the spreading out of the plot of Terra Nostra. It assimilates everything and reads like an hallucination.

Fuentes restructures the origin myth of contemporary Latin America by borrowing figures from Spanish and Aztecan history, literature, and culture. Much of the action takes place inside the construction site of El Escorial, the famous Spanish royal palace commissioned by King Felipe II around 1560. Although  Fuentes’ account is largely fictional, Felipe II was an actual king of Spain who oversaw the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation as well as his own country’s “discovery” and exploitation of the Latin American continent. The legacies of his lengthy, fierce, and highly doctrinal reign are felt both around in the world and throughout time in Fuentes’ renderings of Paris in 1999 and Mexico in the mid-1900s. In addition, we catch glimpses of the ancient Roman empire, Central American civilizations before their contact with Spanish conquistadors, and strange permutations of classic Spanish tales like that of Don Quixote. We also witness the author’s apocalyptic vision of the end times and are personally invited into the bedroom of the last two living people in Paris at the dawn of the new millennium.

But none of this is of great import. Far more than the particulars of these events — and, as you can see, they are particular indeed — Fuentes is interested in their resemblance, their repetition, reincarnation, and reinterpretation. A peasant revolt during the reign of Felipe’s father is repeated almost identically during his own reign. A boy with twelve toes washes up on a beach; then a second boy with twelve toes turns up the next day; then a third identical child arrives the following day. Characters who appear in the portions of the book set in ancient Rome have extremely similar analogues in the time of Felipe and again during the Parisian portions of the novel. They bear similar features, outlooks, and names. On occasion, the passage of time is not quick enough to deal with their rate of reproduction: Celestina, as an adult, accidentally bumps into Celestina as a child and behaves as if this is entirely within the realm of plausible happenings. The book’s themes, often articulated in dialogue between characters, become rote prayer, sometimes spoken verbatim by countless people throughout the book’s many pages.

All of this would be a bit easier to manage if the setting wasn’t so occult, macabre, and fantastical. The repetitions take place in a dreamscape where quad-amputees are wheeled around in special pushcarts by dwarfs, a corpse governs from the throne, people turn into bats, rivers boil, walls of buildings turn into transparent crystal and virginal births dominate the landscape. These outlandish events often fulfill prophesies, dreams, or visions that had been earlier reported by at least one — and sometimes many — characters. Felipe, Celestina, and the rest of the ensemble experience déjá vu and you, as the reader, are not far behind them. The first time you hear a phrase repeated in someone’s mouth, or read the exact same description of a tree, you can easily remember the earlier point at which you read this. Later in the novel, however, as the pages progress and never end, you can no longer contextualize your recollection. You’re sure you’ve seen this (or some permutation of this) before, but you’re not sure where. By the end of the novel, you’ve become so assimilated, so complicit in the actions of the characters that you’re not sure whether your own bouts of déjá vu are linked to the book itself or your own life. You simply can’t remember.

This is no small accomplishment on the part of the author and it has led critics to suggest that Terra Nostra is a “total novel” — a complete and self-contained work of art that operates on its own plane and is governed by its own rules. I agree with them, but it makes me uncomfortable. The novel is so dense and bizarre, at times perverse, at others Kafkian, that it becomes something of a dangerous ride. It is divided into three sections (the first and third rather long and the middle comparatively shorter) that, at least for me, garnered somewhat disparate levels of appreciation. The first section — “The Old World” — is outright brilliant. Fuentes’ prose resembles a hand that leaps from the page, grabs you by the jugular, and refuses to let go for the next several hundred pages. You, as a reader, are not yet habituated to his tricks and the result is an exciting, inexplicable romp through genres. The second section — “The New World” — is a completely different affair. The entire section is one pilgrim’s rambling and hallucinatory account of arriving on the coast of Latin America for the first time and being mistook for a deity by the indigenous peoples. It reads like an endless chronicle of fairly uninteresting events where Fuentes works overtime to create tedious parallels between the cast of the Latin American continent and European. The concluding section — “The Other World” — returns to Fuentes’ previous tact of shifting perspectives and evocative dialogue but, at this point, the reader is so weary that it’s difficult to resuscitate the novel. As we watch the reign of Felipe II degenerate, so too does the very narration seem to spin itself out. The rote repetition of the book’s themes borders on the pedantic and I was left to weigh the awesome audacity of the book’s opening against the dull thud of its end. That we are given occasional glimpses of brilliance throughout the closing 200 pages is too little substance to motivate our consumption of another conversation about reincarnation, another meditation on religious virtue, another discourse on the merits of empire and legacy.

But Terra Nostra is an impossible book to appraise with the standard metric. It’s like evaluating the quality of a symphonic performance by measuring its decibel level: how do you render a verdict on a wholly unique and self-contained artistic expression? What I can tell you is that, while I’ll certainly be reading more Fuentes in the future, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book for general consumption. From the research I conducted in preparation for writing this review, it seems like the critical merits of Fuetes’ body of work are ambiguous (or at least debatable). There’s no argument though that two of his shorter books — Aura and The Death of Artemio Cruz — are among the most highly regarded works to emerge from the Latin American literary boom. After a good deal of deliberation, my somewhat qualified conclusion is this: Fuentes is required reading, but, perhaps, Terra Nostra is not.

Rating: 8 / 10

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