Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Latin American

The Shipyard

This lean, highly allegorical novel calls to mind Camus, Conrad, and O’Connor in its bleak characters and even bleaker locations. Pound-for-pound, though, Onetti writes with more descriptive flair than these authors, rendering sentences with clause upon clause of beautiful imagery that belies his darker substance.

Juan Carlos Onetti / Uruguayan / 1961 / 186 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

“Be careful with that book,” my Uruguayan friend told me when he saw The Shipyard sitting on my desk. At twenty pages in, it was not immediately clear to me what he was talking about; just a bit further in than that, however, and I understood completely.

Onetti writes about decay and desolation in a series of small, sea-side towns. His unsympathetic characters stand in bizarre relation to one another and their interactions are almost never honest. Conversations take place with hands secretly resting on revolvers, veiled insults are spoken through toothy smiles spread wide, orders are given with no expectation of their being carried out, and hopelessly undesirable women are tirelessly courted (sometimes by more than one male). As a reader, the ennui, decrepitude, and borderline somnambulism that permeates the narrative makes it seem as if you’re trying to read the real story through bulletproof glass: you know that there are fundamental tensions at play just under the surface, but it’s rather hard to figure out what they are.

The characters’ malaise, however, is not reflected in the writing itself, which is often riddled with clause after clause of beautiful imagery that renders the characters’ surroundings in inventive and realistic capacities. Indeed, the stars in the sky, the cold, and the mud all take on photographic qualities in Onetti’s clear writing. This serves as a strange counterbalance to the ambiguity of the characters’ histories, motivations, and aspirations. If anything, it makes their existence dourer as we’re reminded that the stars, the cold, and the mud have got the drop on humanity on two counts: they are more straightforwardly interpretable and they are more permanent. Those things which humanity bequeaths (in this case squalid hotels, homes, and even entire cities) will slowly and inevitably atrophy in a process that cannot be stopped. Like the physical structures they service, Onetti’s characters tumble inevitably toward their own expirations. It is not a happy outcome.

But the book should still be read. For one thing, the narrative is couched in a strange affidavit-like delivery where the actions are sometimes reported by “witness accounts” and certain facts are presented as being either “verified” or “disputed.” In this sense, The Shipyard is clearly retrospective in nature and has been “compiled” from testimonies after (perhaps well after) the events have taken place. It is much less clear who the intended audience may be, but at various points it is speculated that certain characters in the novel may one day have access to the account itself. The objective, legal aura of the novel is consistently undermined, however, as the narrator is clearly omniscient: Onetti chronicles (sometimes at length) his characters’ interior monologues and, in the case of a few of them, we read more words spoken inside their heads than those actually uttered by their mouths.

A second perk is the way in which the chapters have been structured. There are about a half-dozen locations in the novel and the action is completely confined to these locations. Each chapter is titled according to the location and, when we return to the location, the chapter takes on a follow-up title. So, for example, the first chapter in which the characters are situated in a cabin is called “The Cabin I” and the second time we see them in this context, the chapter is titled “The Cabin II.” From my reading, it seems like each chapter is a revisitation of the previous scene, where we return to the old location and its accumulated connotations. Onetti seems explicit on this point: certain conversations, feelings, and descriptions are confined to certain locations. When we return, we are confronted with the total tonnage of our previous experiences at these places. What happens in Vegas, as they say …

Ultimately, I wanted to like this novel more than I did, but I feel as if the ending robs the beginning of its genius. Anyone with the literary sensibilities of a cashew will see where Onetti is taking us and, on at least two occasions in particular, I think he missed the opportunity to divert us toward something completely unexpected. For a book with writing as engaging as this, though, predictability is merely a venial sin. After you’ve dipped into Garcia Márquez and Vargas Llosa, travel a bit further south for Onetti; I believe it’s well worth the effort.

Rating: 5 / 10

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The House of the Spirits

Allende’s inventive synthesis of substance (politics, magic, family, and history) is left to languish in its presentation; the result is a novel that induces the reader to plow ahead quickly more out of frustration than enjoyment.

Isabel Allende / Chilean / 1982 / 488 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin

I was rooting for Isabel Allende. I had grown tired of every conversation about Latin American literature degenerating into the participants’ respective stances on the merits of Garcia Márquez. I was eager to find a female voice that I could add to the pantheon of great Latin American authors. I was interested in the political history of Chile, whose citizens elevated to government the first democratically elected Marxist president on the Latin American continent only to have him deposed by a military coup a few years later. (This famous president’s name was Salvador Allende, Isabel’s distant cousin, so you know that the author comes from good political stock.) I wanted to explore another major work in the hallowed tradition of “magical realism” to see if my earlier misgivings about the technique were well founded. If nothing else, I wanted to prove that some of my Latin American friends were wrong about her, that it was okay to read Cortázar in December and Allende in January and still find good things to say about each despite the damning juxtaposition.

Alas, they were right and I was wrong. She writes as if she were Garcia Márquez’ kid sister.

More than any author I’ve read since Hemingway, however, Allende’s critical reception has been bipolar. Reviled in Chile and described throughout Latin America as a talentless hack, she has nevertheless garnered immense accolades internationally and I first came across the novel in the course of rifling through the Everyman’s Library’s online collection (they tend not to pick up bad novels). Harold Bloom has somewhat famously disparaged her as being immensely overrated while just recently she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I told my friends that I had picked up her novel and they were repulsed. The House of the Spirits was labeled by one to be “beach reading for old women.”

For the sake of commencing with a review that is not hopelessly monotonic (and in the interest of being charitable to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Everyman’s Library, the New York Times book review, and the good people at Cosmopolitan magazine, which, in their substantial literary estimate, also gave Allende high marks) I thought I’d try to explain why the book begins well, boasts some really interesting ideas, but ultimately fails to bring much of anything to fruition. I begin with a summary.

The House of the Spirits focuses on the travails of one family throughout most of the novel, but by the end it has become somewhat evident that we’ve moved into a discussion of Chile as a nation. The narrative tracks the Trueba family through three (or maybe four or ten) generations of offspring and it is in this expansive domestic setting that Allende metes out scathing commentary on the subject of patriarchy in traditional Latin American society. The novel is “magically realistic” in the sense that there are soothsayers and clairvoyants popping out of the woodwork, but little else transpires that justifies applying the label. In fact, as the book progresses, it takes on a more historical perspective and certain major figures in Chilean history (like Salvador Allende and the famous poet, Pablo Neruda) make appearances under generic monickers like “The President” or “The Poet.” Both of these men were instrumental in ushering in socialist governance to Chile and both met unfortunate ends when this government was unseated by Pinochet at the helm of the Chilean armed forces. The ensuing years would be among the darkest in Chilean history as the country sank into a quasi-fascistic quagmire where its citizens were heavily censored, tortured, and frequently murdered. In sharp contrast to the book’s more elemental aspects, Allende eventually sinks us into this disarray with cold empiricism.

But her empiricism doesn’t ring with truth, especially after having recently read Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat with its stoic insight into the nascent hours of democratic governance in the Dominican Republic. I’m not extolling the savagery of his account; indeed, it was at times too much for me. The point I’m venturing, though, is that the palpable dread Vargas Llosa conjures is absent from Allende’s account. The humanness of his characters is nonexistent in Allende’s world where describing a character’s familial relationship to all the other characters in the book is more important than making the reader care about the character in the first place. To this end, the phenomena Allende intends to be surprising are not. When Character X turns out to be the child of the long lost mother of the aunt of Character Y, this is not nearly the watershed moment it’s supposed to be. When something draconian befalls Character Y at some later point in the novel, it’s not immediately clear how I should react. If the worst of her problems is that she’ll never get to see X again, then I don’t think I care either way.

The writing is at times painfully facile and Allende employs an annoying habit of foreshadowing cataclysmic events with disastrous one-liners akin to: “She told him that she loved him so much that she would die for him. Little did she know that one day, she would.” This sort of technique works against her better ideas in two important capacities. First, it is simply bad writing because it pushes the issue one sentence too far. This isn’t so much foreshadowing as it a wholesale plot spoiler. Secondly, it directly undercuts the emotional impact of the event itself (which won’t occur for another 200 pages, mind you, and, by the time it finally rolls around, the garnered reaction is “Phew, finally.”)

The novel is (refreshingly) feminist in nature and (pleasantly) Marxist in tone. Additionally, the basic strategy of projecting the conflicts of the family writ large into the conflicts of the nation as a whole is a good one. But I’m not sure that the underlying ideological and philosophical tensions are ever given their fair share of consideration. It’s almost as if we’ve been subjected to a familial melodrama with some big ideas flying around just above our heads. I kept waiting for the gravity of the situation to come to the fore, but the author never took the bait. Instead, the novel peters out into a pedantic denouement that can be summarized thusly: “All the capitalists realized that maybe communism wasn’t so bad after all and that we are all connected in a large family.” I cannot recommend to anyone the 488 pages of work it takes to draw this conclusion.

Rating: 2 / 10

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Hopscotch

This genreless antinovel is a brilliant curiosity shop of form, function, and structure. Fans of Calvino and Pynchon need to cease reading the book they are currently reading and substitute in its place this one instead. I am not kidding.

Julio Cortázar / Argentinian / 1963 / 576 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

In the novel Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov first presents the reader with a poem and then follows this with several hundred pages of line-by-line editorial annotations that gradually fill in the plot behind the poem’s construction. Italo Calvino, in writing If on a winter’s night a traveler, does violence to the traditional relationship between author and reader by directly implicating the reader in the action of the novel, and by splicing, rearranging, and confusing the plot until one hardly recognizes up from down. Picking up the torch left glowing by James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon and Malcolm Lowry further refined and adapted stream-of-conscious narration in The Cry of Lot 49 and Under the Volcano — two novels where reading a single page oftentimes necessitates taking a deep breath, a swig of coffee, and a peek at the nearest encyclopedia of cultural phenomena.

Julio Cortázar seems to have amalgamated all of these styles in his masterwork Hopscotch, though to say that the novel is simply a summation is to rob its author of his otherworldly creativity. It is the most bizarrely-structured and abnormally-sequenced novel one can imagine and, in many respects, it is a genreless antinovel that employs many styles in the rejection of style, many narratives in the rejection of narration. In the course of fielding Cortázar’s many attacks on the novel as an art form, the reader begins to question the basic contours of storytelling itself. What does it say about me, as a reader, when what is perhaps the most compelling novel I’ve read this year is the one that least resembles a novel? Setting aside my minor existential crisis for the time being, I’ll attempt to continue with the review.

Hopscotch is written in three sections of which the first two together are comprised of 56 chapters and the third of 99 chapters. There are two (two!?) ways to read the book as outlined by Cortázar on the first page of the novel: the reader may either read Chapters 1 through 56 in a linear fashion and forget about what follows or, instead, adhere to his ordering of the chapters that leave the progression of 1 through 56 intact, but splice in at somewhat random intervals the other 99 chapters (if you adhere to the first reading, you are a Philistine). The first 56 chapters resemble, more or less, a watered down Pynchon novel in that there are some coherent plot details and many pages of rambling quasi-philosophical dialogues and monologues. The back 99 chapters are a shoot-from-the-hip assortment of press clippings, quotes from famous authors, quotes from fictional authors, additional plot-driven segments that fill out the backstory on some of the main characters, and other odd experiments in form. One chapter is told exclusively in a series of footnotes, for instance. Another chapter is written as a dramatic script. Another is mumbled in a bizarre transliterated language (“An onorabl soljer, he brawt onor too hiz profeshun in theeoree and in praktiss”) while a fourth is written from the perspective of a man reading a book with every other line corresponding either to his thoughts or the text he is reading.

While many of the characters in the book are expendable, some are rather compelling. Horatio Oliveira is an Argentinian writer living in Paris at the book’s opening. He is a member of The Club, or a group of Parisian bohemians who gather for the sake of drinking mate, discussing jazz, and, in general, over-intellectualizing the most mundane of things. Oliveira is dating a woman referred to as La Maga, a fellow Latin American who fits poorly into The Club’s demographic and has the additional responsibility of tending to her sickly infant son. When the baby dies unexpectedly and La Maga absconds into the Parisian countryside, Oliveira returns to Buenos Aires and rejoins his old friends Talita and Traveler. The three of them join a circus for some time before buying out an asylum where they provide (somewhat lax) security and healthcare for the inmates. The escalating tension between Traveler and Oliveira, two very similar men who both long for Talita, drives much of the second half of the plot.

The the barebones structure of the “plot” I reference here is generally less important than the ideas that flesh it out. However, some scenes are set and explored with such dramatic keenness that I would be remiss were I to leave out a few complementary words. Four passages in particular are absolutely astounding in their ability to ring with concrete clarity amidst a maelstrom of genre mash-ups. The first takes place where Oliveira sits through a horrendous classical  music performance and volunteers to walk the aging performer back to her apartment. The second covers the scene where La Maga’s baby is discovered dead in his cradle. The third involves a woman being suspended between two apartment buildings on a narrow board while she attempts to throw a package of tea through a window. The final scene takes place as an intense standoff in one of the rooms of the asylum. These four chapters (which are also much longer than the rest of the chapters in the book) could each be read as a well-crafted standalone short story. Indeed, Cortázar spent much of his career focusing on short story composition and it is obvious that we’re watching a master at work in these passages.

Typically, the book progresses with one or two plot-driven chapters, followed by a handful of extraneous chapters, followed by another plot-driven chapter, etc. After the death of La Maga’s baby, however, the concreteness of the narrative melts into oblivion as the reader is taken through a maze of 22 uninterrupted extraneous chapters before finally coming up for air at the baby’s funeral. In this way (and in many others) Cortázar uses his splicing technique purposefully. The baby’s death catalyzes an extended period of disconnected, free-thought association that closely parallels the emotional whirlwind it induces in La Maga. This splicing technique is used to great effect at the very end of the novel as well, where a clever set of staccato dialogues bounce back and forth across the final few pages, bringing the novel to an unsettling and ambiguous conclusion. Elsewhere, certain characters appear either only in the plot-driven chapters or only in the extraneous chapters, thereby creating a substantial gulf between readers who opt for the first (linear) method of reading and those who opt for the “hopscotch” method of reading. More astute literature consumers will be pleased to see many references to and quotes from other novels (both Lowry and Gombrowicz receive mention, for example) and lovers of jazz will enjoy the characters’ prolonged discussions of some of the improvisational greats. Moving beyond substance to technique, however, much of the prose itself appears in a jazz-like format where loosely correlated riffs circulate around a repeated theme.

This book was recommended to me as one of the powerhouses of Latin American literature. Along with Gacia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar is widely held to have written one of the continent’s two most important books with Hopscotch. Obviously the former has made more substantial inroads with American audiences than the latter and, having now read Hopscotch, I can understand why that is the case. The book is a difficult one (especially in the first 50 pages while the reader is struggling to get a handle on just what in the bloody hell is happening), but a certain sort of reader will derive great enjoyment from the immense variety presented therein.

Rating: 10 / 10

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The Feast of the Goat

A unique and challenging read that pushes the boundaries of historical fiction and defies traditional narrative structures. Fledgling interests in Latin America will be stoked by Vargas Llosa’s deft handling of a country’s political history that doubles as a thought-provoking exploration of memory, personality, and morality.

Mario Vargas Llosa / Peruvian / 2001 / 404 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

The political history of my country is not terribly complicated. Never once, despite numerous assassinations of high level public figures, was the political apparatus – or the country itself – seriously threatened. When the president is killed, the vice president assumes command. When a Senate seat is vacated, a snap election picks the candidate to fill it. When one presidential administration reaches the end of its tenure, another takes its place in January. These processes constitute one of the main advantages democratic rule holds over its authoritarian counterparts: the dependable, peaceful succession of rulers. An American’s understanding of the alternative – the unmitigated maelstrom that is the replacement of a undemocratic dictator – is sparse. Perhaps this is why I found Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat so terrifying. Due to the author’s fastidious management of details, artful integration of fact with fiction, and passionate indictment of the cult of personality, I also found the novel both unique and exciting.

It is difficult to relate this book to any other I’ve read. It smacks to a certain degree of the quasi-journalistic prose of Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, but possesses a more liberal engagement with historical facts similar to the approach taken in Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, who begins his novel by noting that although his characters are fake, the circumstances in which they are situated were more-or-less real. Also, like Koestler (and to a lesser degree Orwell and Solzhenitsyn), Vargas Llosa seems more concerned about the machinery of government than its ideological orientation. The reader very clearly understands that it is not so much the regime’s policies (in this case, a degenerate form of capitalism) as it is its methods. And, indeed, the methods were horrible.

“The Goat” of the novel’s title is the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who led the small Latin American country out of financial ruin in the 1930s and 1940s, but who did so through ruthlessly suppressing opposition, massacring poverty-stricken Haitians, and bribing American diplomats. The book mostly covers the events of the early 1960s when Trujillo’s erratic behavior had alienated his international allies and provoked economic sanctions that threatened to destroy the country financially. Vargas Llosa opens the novel at a time when the Trujillo regime was poised at the edge of collapse: its longtime friend, the United States, could no longer tolerate the regime’s disgraceful human rights violations and Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, had launched a small (unsuccessful, but troubling) land invasion of the Dominican coast. The Catholic Church had begun to publicly speak out against the regime’s practices of torture and midnight executions, and Trujillo’s botched assassination attempt of Rómulo Betancourt, the president of Venezuela, had uniformly angered the Latin American world.

The stakes are high and by the end of the novel, they get higher. What Vargas Llosa charts out is the transformation of a dictatorship into a quasi-democracy – a process that’s riddled with murder, political infighting, and palace intrigue. Along the way, much will be demanded of the reader as well. The book is complex both in structure and narration, fraught with cliffhangers and the purposeful withholding of details, and seethes with a level of violence that is sickening in its detail and depravity. We are not at all comforted by the fact that most of it, perhaps all of it, was real.

Vargas Llosa gives us a story with many faces. On one front, we have the narrative of Urania Cabral (a fictional figure who serves as a foil to the many real ones portrayed in the novel). Urania is the daughter of one of Trujillo’s advisors and was a girl of 14 during the year Trujillo’s regime collapsed. This side of the story is told using present tense verbs (which is unsettling, if you’re not used to that sort of thing) and is set in the capital city of the Dominican Republic, which she is visiting for the first time in nearly 30 years. The chapters told from her perspective gradually shed light on her personal memories of the regime’s horrors and also explain her self-enforced exile from the country after the regime fell. On a second front, we have several chapters that are devoted purely to the activities of Trujillo over the span of one day. We follow his actions and his thoughts as the dictator awakes in the early morning and we will follow him into the late evening when he is unexpectedly gunned down on the side of a highway. On the final front, we have the story of Trujillo’s four assassins (who were all real people). This third “type” of chapter first meets the assassins as they wait endlessly in a car late at night — the night of the same day that Trujillo’s narrative begins — and follows them through the assassination itself as well as the events that play out afterward.

The book is a bit of a high wire act. At first, Vargas Llosa alternates nicely among the three perspectives. Chapters 1, 4, 7, etc. are devoted to Urania, chapters 2, 5, 8, etc. to Trujillo and so on. But once Trujillo is murdered, his chapters and those of the assassins bleed together into the same narrative and, for a space of at least 100 pages, we forget about Urania altogether. Additionally, although the main actions of the novel are confined to the 24-hour period leading up to the assassination, long story arcs fill in the backgrounds of each character. These past stories are often told as flashbacks that are seamlessly integrated into the present, sometimes with the same character answering two different questions in his own head: one to the person he’s currently addressing in the present and another to a person he remembers from his past. It is the sort of thing seen frequently in movies, but attempted rarely in books; if the writing is not incredibly precise, the author risks losing readers altogether.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the novel is that, despite the previous paragraphs, I have really given away very little about its content. There are countless other well-developed characters in the book (so many that, admittedly, it gets confusing as times) and countless other sentences, paragraphs, and even pages that are so artfully rendered that I sometimes found myself shaking my head in awe. What simmers under the cover for the first 250 pages literally explodes into relentless (and unexpected) chaos in the last 150 and the novel’s closing pages are harrowing and haunting, but hopeful. I cannot recommend the book for the faint of heart, but if you trudged through Blood Meridian and were able to appreciate its mastery of form, then expect to enjoy this novel as well.

Rating: 8 / 10

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