Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Bartleby & Co.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 / 10

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Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Considerably longer, denser, and more self-indulgent than his other notable works, Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is a seriously challenging affair for the reader; all the Nabokovian thrills are there, but the typically brilliant prose occasionally wanders into the realm of the needlessly obtuse.

Vladimir Nabokov / Russo-American / 1969 / 620 pages

I tend to give Nabokov high marks because he messes with me. In Lolita, I found that I rather enjoyed the novel despite its ostensibly inappropriate subject matter; subsequently, I felt bad about myself for forgetting what the book was actually about. But, props for the diversionary tactics. In Pale Fire, I was nearly driven mad by its open-ended conclusion which allows for any number of divergent interpretations. Why are so many very smart people finishing this novel on different pages, so to speak? How do you write a book that prompts critics to argue about whether or not some of the characters were real in the first place!? Even Nabokov’s simpler efforts, like the beautiful and often overlooked Pnin, employ clever prose stylings to tackle characters, their thoughts, and their actions in indirect or sideways capacities. You’ve got to stay on top of every line and allow for pauses between sentences; otherwise, you’ll never have the opportunity for the hundreds of ” … oh, okay, I get it” revelations that are crucial for successfully deciphering (and appreciating) Nabokov’s insanely unparalleled prose.

But the guy might have overdone it with Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is a huge tome (by Nabokovian standards) clocking in at over 600 pages with an accompanying series of end notes that may or may not be worth your time to flip through (I have yet to make up my mind on this point). Laced with tracts of Russian and French phrases and substantial discourses tending toward the biological, entomological, chronological, and psychological (that is to say, not literary), Ada is something of an frustratingly labyrinthine exercise with an ultimate thesis along the lines of I am a bigger polymath than you. Considering the fact that this is something I would have granted Nabokov long ago, I cannot say that it required such long-winded substantiation.

All that being said, the novel’s novelties are many and bear mentioning.

The book is more-or-less about a romantic relationship between Van Veen and Ada Veen who, through a quirk of cross-marriage infidelity, are actually brother and sister (a piece of information they discover after consummating their love, i.e. after it is “too late”) rather than first cousins (they were raised by different sets of parents which would have made them, ahem, “kissing cousins” rather than the considerably more incestuous “coital siblings”). So the name of the game is incest and the preponderance of Ada‘s passages might be best characterized as (juvenilely, unfortunately, uncomfortably) erotic in tone. You have to give Nabokov credit (or, perhaps, not give him credit) for returning to such racy material after all the allegations of perversion that Lolita drummed up. Do I think that Nabokov was a pervert? Probably not. Taken together, do Lolita and Ada add up to a significant dalliance with the literature of perversion? Um, yeah.

The novel is divided into five segments, with the first comprising more than half of the novel. Something of an ode to Tolstoy’s novels of the family (like Anna Karenina), the first section is set in an idyllic rural mansion during Van and Ada’s childhood. For all of the weird romantic tension, the landscape and its inhabitants are happy, content, and in many ways are living out the prime years of their lives. The children read great works of literature in the mansion’s expansive library, forage the woods for excellent specimens of butterflies and insect larvae, eat rich meals late at night, and carry on extensive conversations with a rotating cast of distant relatives who visit during holidays. Previous readers of Nabokov will recognize his uncanny ability to drum up such comfortable, idyllic scenery. It really is an event of high nostalgia. The subsequent sections of the novel chart the trials and tribulations of their adulthood and eventually relate the happenings of their old age, where they collaborate on something of a mutual autobiography that is supposed to be the very pages of Ada, or Ardor that rest in the reader’s hands.

But nothing in the Nabokovian universe is simple. Van’s formal education is in psychology and, as he grows older, he begins to specialize in humans’ ability to think back on the past and recall events from their childhood (which is, obviously, the linchpin underlying the entire narrative arch of Ada). The children and all of their relatives — indeed, everyone they know — live on a world called “Antiterra” (or sometimes referred to as “Demonia”) that resembles in many geopolitical senses our “Earth” yet differs in some important respects (like, for example, substantial swathes of North America are inhabited extensively by and, indeed, managed by Russian and Irish immigrants). The names of cities and universities are different than those on “Earth” and the historical development of Antiterra departs dramatically from that of the planet we’ve all grown up on. Furthermore, Van’s psychological patients fall prey to collective, mass illusions of a sister plant — Terra — that has its own history, inhabitants, and geography. Terra, as such, never makes an actual appearance in the novel, but its presence is felt. Many people conjecture that it might be the location of the afterlife once one’s life on Antiterra has expired. Others doubt its existence. Movies are made, books are written, and scholastic energies are devoted to the study of Terra and Van Veen, himself, spends a considerable portion of his career thinking about the mysterious planet.

There are other sleights of hand as well. The book opens with a brief statement that every character in the book is now dead except for Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Oranger. Despite seeming to be of some consequence, this statement ends up being almost entirely meaningless as neither of these characters appear until the last dozen pages of the novel. When they do, it is not at all clear why our attention should have been drawn to them in the first place (my hypothesis is that Nabokov just threw us a red herring). It takes a while before the reader realizes that the setting of the novel is not actually located on “Earth” and the significance of this is also not immediately obvious. Vague and passing mention is made of flying carpets (weird). In an attempt at suicide, Van pulls the trigger of a gun he has pointed at his head only to have it turn into a banana (the most plausible explanation from my perspective is that he’s now found himself in some sort of afterlife with only the faintest of transitions). Later on, he insults a person in a hotel lobby who shoots him in the back. Nabokov writes that Van is now in the “next phase of his existence” but it exactly mirrors his previous state (is he dead again? how many parallel universes are we running through, here?)

If this all sounds needlessly bizarre, then you’ve taken the correct interpretation. Nabokov has always written weird stuff, but I’ve generally found that the weirdness services a broader aim in a pleasantly productive way. Ada, by contrast, comes off as being a bit too self-indulgent: there are too many in-jokes, too many obscure references, and too many hopelessly opaque passages. I have this picture in my mind of Nabokov laughing over a typewriter and, perhaps, calling his wife / editor / assistant Vera into the room to partake in his mirth. I wish I could join in the hilarity, but I don’t know enough about butterflies, biological taxonomy, Russian history, and French grammar. And neither, I would guess, does anyone else.

Rating: 5 / 10

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The Interrogation

Something of a mad scientist mash-up of Kafka, Camus, and Fuentes, The Interrogation will certainly leave you reeling. At times great and at others too absurd, the novel is nonetheless a nice selection for those looking to round out their French literary chops.

J. M. G. Le Clézio / French / 1965 / 223 pages
Translated from the French by Daphne Woodward

If the word “interrogation” inherently smacks of Kafka, then the association is well-placed with Le Clézio’s first novel. But it’s not a perfect fit. We get some sense of an individual’s fight against an institutionalized, insidious bureaucracy, sure, but not really until the last 30 pages or so. If you flip through the first few pages of The Interrogation and find yourself thinking that the lean characters are rife with existential crises like the ones that pop up in Camus or, perhaps, Kundera, then I think you’re on to something. But, again, the fit isn’t perfect. By the novel’s end, Le Clézio’s rendering of the protagonist is a good deal more humane (and slightly more disjointed) than the treatments wrought by either of those authors. And, finally, if The Interrogation‘s smoke screen narrative style and delusional monologues strike you as resembling the stuff of Fuentes (at their best) or Donoso or Gombrowicz (at their worst), then you’re not far off the mark. The musings of Le Clézio’s protagonist range from thought-provoking decouplings from the material world to bewildering explorations of metaphysical hellscapes where nothing comes at you from the anticipated angle.

So although the antecedents are there, The Interrogation is a thing of its own. This is sometimes sufficient and occasionally frustrating. At any rate, it’s a bit of a ride.

The novel opens with Adam Pollo, a young man living by himself in an abandoned beachside vacation home who cannot remember whether he was (a) just recently relieved of military service or (b) just recently escaped from an asylum (it doesn’t take much progression in the narrative before our educated guesswork settles on the latter scenario). He writes letters to a female acquaintance of his who was either (a) his former lover or (b) his former object of sexual assault (the jury is still out on this one, to my way of thinking, but the relationship is at least dysfunctional in the extreme). Adam is unemployed, marginalized, alone, and contents himself by following dogs around, throwing cue balls at rats, filling notebooks with wildly imaginative writings, drinking, smoking, and stealing chocolate bars. The Interrogation camps out in this environment for quite a while and, I must admit, it makes for pleasant reading. One feels as if one might be on holiday right along with Adam.

But things get complicated when, for want of resources, he’s forced to make foraging incursions into the village down the hill. There, the narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed and Adam seems to be fundamentally incapable of successfully navigating basic interpersonal exchanges. For a span of a dozen pages or so, Adam and his thoughts practically disappear altogether. When they come back into focus, Le Clézio throws them to the reader in the form of scattered and fragmentary pages from Adam’s notebooks. One has little upon which to hang one’s hat at this point in the novel.

It is here that Adam wanders out into a public square and mumbles through an insane oratorical presentation in front of an ever-growing crowd of on-lookers. Eventually he becomes so overwhelmed that he flees the square (with police in pursuit) and locks himself away in a school classroom. The next several pages are comprised of newspaper clippings dedicated to describing Adam’s rather public apprehension as well as the near-simultaneous murder of a couple of German tourists. One isn’t left with the impression that Adam had anything to do with the crime, but the juxtaposition is sinister.

We check back in with Adam after he’s been committed to an asylum and is being interviewed (here “interrogated” is much too strong a verb) by a group of psychology graduate students. In the course of the interview, we learn about Adam’s educational background and the ease with which he’s able to dispel the students’ supposedly insightful questions. They make passing reference to some act (or acts) that Adam committed (but cannot remember) that might have been the source of his diagnosis as a lunatic. The nature of these acts are never explicitly spelled out for the reader, but hints are dropped throughout the narrative. Le Clézio, who at times has been an intrusive narrator, breaks off the novel by half-heartedly scolding the reader for wanting all the loose ends tied up and promising more fiction about Adam or, perhaps, about people who are similar to Adam. It is a weird, unexpected, and jarring conclusion.

In the final analysis, I believe The Interrogation needs more ballast. It is a slim offering at just over 200 pages and there is little plot, only trace character development, scant dialogue, and too much reliance on elemental narration and thematic presentation. Seeking a similarly French comparison, I found his book to resemble Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road in terms of its frustration-to-brilliance ratio. That being said, I can also see why people got excited about this novel (it was Le Clézio’s first and launched him on a trajectory that would culminate in 2008 with the bestowal of a Nobel Prize). It is a novel with many nice ideas and draws extensively from various techniques, many of which are quite compelling. On a page-to-page basis, the writing is often very good and descriptively beautiful. And at several points, I found Adam’s thoughts, speeches, and arguments rather hilarious. I would recommend this book with a bit of reservation to people who were serious about reading deeply into more modern European literature.

Rating: 5 / 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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Manhattan Transfer

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

John Dos Passos / American / 1925 / 342 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 / 10

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The Late Mattia Pascal

The prose isn’t going to blow you away, but this fine work by a little-known Nobel laureate infuses the age-old presumed-dead-but-came-back-to-life trope with a hefty dose of philosophical musings on the nature of identity.

Luigi Pirandello / Italian / 1904 / 272 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

We all know the story. Guy and girl fall in love; something happens, like the outbreak of war, and the two are separated; at some point the girl mistakenly presumes the guy is dead and, painful as it may be, moves on with her life; after many trials and tribulations, the guy eventually makes his way back to the girl; depending on how charitable the narrator is at this point, the guy is either welcomed back with open arms or begrudgingly shunned on account of her jealous interim beau. Thematically, the narrative is usually painted in broad, overly romanticized brushstrokes and readers are bludgeoned about the face with obtuse lessons on the nature of love and fidelity. Put differently, simplicity abounds. Every other year, a major Hollywood blockbuster along these lines is released to huge commercial success as the masses gorge themselves on this intellectually inbred material. When they leave the theater, the members of the audience might think for a few minutes about the contours of their own romantic attachment. They doubt their resolve. They are glad that they don’t have to fight in World War II.


Enter Luigi Pirandello with a fresh perspective (actually, given this novel’s 1904 publication date, I’m not sure there’s really anything “fresh” in the approach; the fact that Pirandello’s twist on the presumed-dead-but-come-back-to-life story line has been around for a hundred years makes novels like The Notebook seem particularly egregious; but I digress). The perspective is fresh because Pirandello creates a “dead” man who, surprisingly, doesn’t mind being dead. Mattia Pascal has recently lost his two infant daughters to illness and his marriage with his wife is completely spoiled. They reside with his horrible mother-in-law (who Pirandello suggests is a witch with 50-50 probability) and can barely make ends meet on the scant income he brings in from his job as a librarian at a library that no one ever visits. His own beloved mother and brother have moved away and are happily living their separate lives in isolation. He gets to the point where he can no longer tolerate the miserable status quo.

So Mattia shoots off to a gambling house in a far away Italian city without telling any of his relatives. He sets up camp for several weeks and, due to inexplicable luck, quickly wins enough money at the roulette table that he’ll never have to work another day in his life. His plan is to return home, slam the money down on the kitchen table, and make it explicitly clear to anyone who will listen that he’s the one who wears the pants in the house and hereafter will no longer be taking guff. While he’s on the train home, however, he picks up a newspaper with an obituary announcing his own suicide back in his hometown. Apparently the body of another man (who may or may not have resembled Mattia Pascal) was pulled out of a river and promptly identified as Mattia by his wife and mother-in-law. He sees an open door and runs through it: at the next train station, he disembarks, gets his beard and hair trimmed down to nothing, and catches a new train in the opposite direction. He invents a new name for himself, buys new clothes, and — for the next two years — spends his time flitting about continental Europe touring the major capital cities.

Eventually he tires of this wandering and settles down as a tenant in a rented bedroom of a family comprised of a retired teacher and his young, unmarried daughter. He falls in love with the woman, grows comfortable in the city, and turns his thinking toward settling down, buying a house of his own, and obtaining a marriage certificate. He’s stopped short in these musings by an obvious fact, however: as a man who has renounced a true identity and constructed a false one, he must live entirely off the grid or people will begin to ask questions. He cannot put a name down on a housing purchase, for example, and he can never pay taxes. Mattia must buy his meals and pay his rent in cash so as not to leave a trail of receipts by which he might be traced. Gradually, he begins to realize that, far from the freedom he thought he was going to win, he’s actually boxed himself into a circumscribed existence that he must work to defend with an increasingly elaborate network of lies and deceptions.

Eventually he returns to his hometown and receives a (predictably) unpleasant welcome.

But the gist of the story is Mattia’s conflicts over his own identity. He can’t live the life he wants, so he bails out and constructs a new life; but the very fact that he’s abandoned a past life virtually eliminates the freedoms he thought he was buying himself with his new identity. Pirandello suggests that people are fundamentally unable to change the basic aspects of their character. And even if they could construct a thoroughly sound set of lies upon which to base a new existence, Mattia experiences such a lack of emotional connection to his invented past that it almost hardly seems worth the trouble; in order to feel rooted to a history, it needs to be the real one. Fabricated stories about births in foreign countries, affable grandfathers who took us to art museums, and a childhood predicated on transience might trick our listeners, but will rob us of our own core.

The writing in The Late Mattia Pascal is not going to blow you away. Pirandello frequently takes us inside Mattia’s head and his thoughts are a cluttered and highly repetitive run of anxieties, confusions, and aspirations. This can get old after a while. Additionally, Pirandello is not so concerned with setting the scene and describing the environment. Rather, his characters just kind of run into one another in generic spaces that might be located in major European metropolises or somewhere in your own backyard. But some of this probably arises from the facts that the novel was not Pirandello’s chief medium (indeed, it was theater) and his focus was more on philosophical and emotional considerations. This is why the novel seems, well, novel despite its all-too-familiar narrative arch. This is also why The Late Mattia Pascal comes off like a masterwork when compared to another Italian novel about an unhappily married man by Pirandello’s contemporary Italo Svevo. That book is called Zeno’s Conscience and I would never recommend it to anyone. Whereas Zeno is a near-total narrative disaster populated by capricious and flat characters whose motivations never seem clear, Mattia Pascal is at least decently funny, decently thought-provoking, and decently written. That might not sound like the best sales pitch in the world, but I think it suffices: if you ever find yourself working through the Italian canon, be sure you place Pirandello on the list, but not before you’ve knocked out some other Italian heavyweights like Levi, Bassani, and Calvino.

Rating: 7 / 10

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A High Wind In Jamaica

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

Richard Hughes / British / 1929 / 279 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 / 10

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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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The Name of the Rose

Pairing big ideas with a barnburner of a plot, this book is typically billed as a seriously intellectualized version of The Da Vinci Code; if you like your murder mysteries set in 1300s monastic Italy and infused with critical discussions of Catholic doctrine (which, after the fact, it seems that I kind of do), then you’ll no doubt enjoy The Name of the Rose.

Umberto Eco / Italian / 1980 / 560 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

This novel is omnibus. Heretics burn, monks sermonize, politics are palavered, the saints are eulogized, history and philosophy are trotted out in between the discovery of corpses, there are visions both dreamt and hallucinated, arguments both casual and deadly, and books both banned and holy. This is a novel written by a scholar who is unafraid to truck in the mundane and the simple; a renounced Catholic who brings a steadily critical eye to bear on church dogma; a semiotician whose symbolic proclivities range from the crass to the gorgeous. The narration is, at times, forcefully propelled and speckled with witty dialogue; at other points, the prose wanders off into overly long and self-indulgent theological tracts. And, oh, the discussions about old books! At nearly every conversational turn, the characters rattle off a litany of infamous old texts and literary allusions. Eco weaves deep contexts and subtexts in with more standard narrative techniques and the effect is generally well-executed.

While not a particularly stellar prose stylist (nor, for that matter, the most accommodative writer in town), I still give Eco high marks for his book: this is an intellectual and serious work that succeeds in what I might call the “administration” of the various disparate elements contained in its pages. To compare it with its most immediate competitor, I’d say that it comes off as a somewhat more successful effort than My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Also, to reach a bit further, I’d say that it occasionally bears striking similarities to The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in its management of philosophies, dialogue, and atmosphere. Mann wrote a better book than Eco, but I’d heartily recommend both novels to many of my literary friends.

The plot of Rose is a thing to behold. The Catholic church in the 1300s was rife with infighting between its various priestly sects — the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Benedictines, etc. While today these groups persist side-by-side in relative harmony, such pluralism was not exactly among the hallmarks of Catholicism in the 1300s. Debates on dogma (such as interpreting the gospels, figuring out what Jesus intended when he said this or that obscure phrase) were of high consequence: the losers were typically pilloried, tortured, burned at the stake, or worse. To be on the wrong side of the papal stance on a particular issue (however well-intentioned) was to be branded a heretic and excommunicated. These debates didn’t get any easier to navigate when realpolitik bled into the theological. Oftentimes kings would play sects of priests off against the pope as a means of jockeying for more power over the poor, religious hordes under their purview. In this shifting, capricious landscape, the beliefs that could damn a person on Tuesday may well be his saving grace on Thursday … that is, if he hadn’t yet been burned alive.

Eco skewers this historical ridiculousness with an inventive plot. The pope is looking to rectify his beliefs with those of a wayward priestly sect and, in order to do this, proposes a summit to hear out both sides of the argument before eventually settling on a position (ostensibly, at least) upon which everyone can agree. The priests, however, don’t want to meet the pope on his home turf; they suspect foul play and aren’t eager to be decried as heretics. To this end, then, a neutral meeting place is chosen: a monastery far off in the countryside where the monks have no personal stake in the doctrinal debate. The man who  will oversee the event is named William, a powerful British monk who is famous for his even temperament, analytical mind, and humorous repartee. The book opens with William’s arrival at the monastery a few days before the summit is set to begin. He is immediately confronted with the first of what ends up being a series of murders within the monastery’s walls. His task is to identify the murderer and set the monastery to rights before the two delegations arrive.

The book is as much about ideas as it is an historical whodunit. The chief doctrinal argument that must be settled is whether or not priests (and, by extension, the entire Catholic hierarchy) should pursue lives of poverty (because Jesus was poor) or material wealth (to bring greater glory to God’s institutions on earth). Eco delves impressively deep into Catholic theology and biblical interpretation to provide for the reader both sides of this argument. As the text plays out, it becomes rather clear, however, which stance is the more justifiable in Eco’s mind. Other peripheral questions are also raised, debated, and tentatively resolved. What challenges does rigorously analytical philosophy pose to God’s grace? Did Jesus laugh and should religious adherents indulge in laughter from time to time? What can European Christians learn from the scholarship of African and Middle Eastern Muslims? What is the purpose of a library as a private, cloistered amalgamation of knowledge?

I tend to struggle with murder mysteries, so I was glad when Rose turned out to adhere only very loosely to that genre. The fun of reading the novel comes in linking the physical life-and-death struggles to the metaphysical and theological struggles. Eco’s point is well-taken and stands as true today as it did in the 1300s: ideas, no matter how abstract, govern our world in ways as tangible as the physical laws of nature.

Rating: 7 / 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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