Sunday, 27 July 2014

Borges on Woolf

Recently I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Complete Shorter Fiction, a book I started reading something like a decade ago. Instead of writing about it, I realized I could use my time on the more urgent, more essential, more advantageous matter of what Jorge Luis Borges thought about the famous English novelist.

As my readers should know by now, in the mid-eighties, poet Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges met once a week to chat on national radio about whatever they felt like it. Usually Ferrari introduced the theme and asked his partner to elaborate on it. One day he brought up Virginia Woolf since Borges was known for having translated her twice.

“… I thought I did not like Virginia Woolf,” Borges commences, “or, to put it better, she didn’t interest me; but Sur magazine ordered a translation of Orlando from me. I accepted to translate it, and, as I translated it, I read it and, amazingly to me, I grew interested by it.”

The novel, the novel that he feared would be an “unreadable book,” has a “curious theme,” says Borges, namely the Sackville-West family, “that family as a platonic archetype; like a universal form – which is what scholars call archetypes. And so, to achieve that end, Virginia Woolf imagines an individual who lives in the 18th century and then reaches our own.” As always, with his usual pedantic bookishness, he downplays the originality of the concept. “This artifice had been already accomplished by Wells in one of his novels – I don’t remember which one – wherein individuals, for the novelist’s ease, to historically situate them in several epochs, live three hundred years. And Bernard Shaw also played with this idea of immortality.” And no doubt he knew that Wells, one of his favourite writers, was despised by Woolf, so it must have given tremendous pleasure to insinuate that Woolf pilfered techniques from him.

The mention of Shaw leads Ferrari to refer to Back to Methuselah, which leads Borges to one of his usual self-deprecating jokes. “Yes, except that there some individuals are long-lived and others live normally… well, at the moment I run the risk of being one of those long-lived ones, for it’s dangerous to have reached 85 years; I can reach 86 at any moment. But let’s hope not, let’s hope not to be one of those privileged or smashed by time, by lots of time, by too much time.”

Next Ferrari alludes to a second translation into Spanish: A Room of One’s Own. “Yes, now I’m going to reveal to you, since we’re alone, a secret; the book was actually translated by my mother. I revised the translation a bit, the same way she revised my translation of Orlando. The truth is we worked together; yes, A Room of One’s Own, which grabbed me less… well, the theme is, so to speak, a simple text in defence of women and of feminism. But since I’m a feminist I don’t need those texts to convince me, for I’m convinced already. Why, Virginia Woolf turned herself into a missionary of that objective, but since I share that objective I can do without missionaries. Nevertheless the book Orlando is really an admirable book.” But not without its flaws; he quickly notes that “it’s a shame that in its final pages it crumbles down; but that tends to happen in books. For instance in One Hundred Years of Solitude” (According to Alberto Manguel, Borges disliked Gabo); “it seems that solitude should not live one hundred years but eighty, no? But from the title it was necessary one hundred years of solitude.” Wait, what, Borges, what the hell are you talking about? “The author gets tired and the reader feels that tiredness… and shares it. And at the end of Orlando it seems to me there’s something, I don’t know, that I vaguely connect to diamonds, but those diamonds are a bit lost in forgetfulness; I only see the sparkle… but it’s a very, very beautiful book, and I remember a chapter, a page where Shakespeare shows up but his name isn’t said. But there isn’t a reader who doesn’t realize it’s Shakespeare. It’s a man who is watching a party in order to think about something else in the middle of a party: thinking about parties in a comedy or, perhaps, in a tragedy. But you realize it’s Shakespeare. And if she had said his name it would have ruined everything, for allusion can be more efficient than expression.” In other words, Virginia Woolf gets good marks on his chess riddle.

Then he moves on to her essays (oh, he definitely knew she didn’t like his god Wells). “I like Virginia Woolf’s books of criticism less. Referring to writers of a certain generation, she used as an example Arnold Bennett [who happens to be included in Borges’s list of favourite writers]… and it’s strange that she chose Arnold Bennett, when she could have chosen two men of genius like Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells [except she didn’t consider Wells genius, on the contrary]. I think Virginia Woolf said that Bennet had failed in what she thought was essential in a novelist, which is the creation of a character. But I think that that applied to Bennet is false, and I’m also not sure that the creation of character is the essential in a novelist. Well, I don’t know if that remark is exact, but let us consider that, after all, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, and Laurel and Hardy are characters. So I don’t think it’s that hard to create characters, isn’t that so?, they’re constantly created; a penciller can create a character.”

Then we move on to the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, members of Borges’ intimate circle, and their devotion to Woolf. “Victoria knew her personally, but perhaps in a rather subaltern way; because I remember that Victorian told me about a number of Sur devoted to English literature. So we put together, with Bioy Casares, a series of texts and then Victorian went about publishing a selection made by Victoria Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in England. I didn’t want to publish many of these poems because I didn’t like them, but she said no, the number was ready, and it came out like that. Then I continued publishing in Sur the texts we had chosen, texts that had been arbitrarily excluded by Virginia Woolf and by Victorian Sackville-West. I think these two writers wanted to showcase writers from their group. I, in turn, had thought of an anthology that encompassed the whole of contemporary English literature.”

He apparently admired her father more, who was the editor of something called the English Men of Letters. “Some of the biographies of the collection he directed were admirable; for instance one of Harold Nicholson, of Swinburne, another on Edward Fitzgerald, then a study of Priestley about Meredith, which was extraordinary.”

The best part of the dialogue for me is a possible, discernible subtext that Borges couldn’t care less about Woolf. All the time Ferrari tries to get Borges into a conversation about feminism and he just shoos him away. “Of course; and before I read her I already thought the same thing,” he says when the other argues that Ocampo and Woolf promoted the struggle for the rights of women. Ferrari insists and mentions a letter Victoria Ocampo wrote to Woolf about the oppression women suffered at the time. “Yes, well, now it seems we’re all entitled to the right of oppression and asphyxiation, isn’t that true? Men also; unfortunately we can know that melancholy privilege that used to be exclusive to women.” That’s a great riposte for a man whose country had just come out of a dictatorship.

But here’s the punchline. “I remember Victoria Ocampo told Virginia Woolf that she originated from the Argentinean Republic, and so Virginia Woolf replied that she thought she could imagine that country; and imagined a scene of people in a garden or in a prairie, drinking refreshments, at night, in a place with trees and fireflies. And Victoria courteously said to her that that indeed corresponded to the Argentinean Republic.”

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza & Gabriel García Márquez: The Fragrance of Guava

Not long before he received the Nobel Prize, Gabriel García Márquez agreed to sit down with his long-time friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who had worked in journalism with him since their early adulthood, for the interview to end all interviews. García Márquez did not like renown but One Hundred Years of Solitude had made him world famous and he was constantly pestered about giving interviews and talking to journalists, reporters and academics. A French editor, who was initiating a collection of book-length interviews with famous writers, approached Apuleyo Mendoza to convinced his old friend to join in. When he probed the great novelist, he liked the idea. “That’s a terrific idea. Don’t you see, that way we could get my interviews over and done with for ever.” The book was called The Fragrance of Guava and came out the same year the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize. If he thought he’d never have to worry about interviews again, he was dead wrong.

By the time García Márquez passed away, earlier this year, I had already read all his essential fiction: Strange Pilgrims and all the stories in Collected Stories, Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, In Evil Hour, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in his Labyrinth and Of Love and other Demons. There was a time in my reading life, back in high school, when the curricular books were (and are) unbearable to me, when García Márquez was the greatest writer in the world and One Hundred Years of Solitude the greatest novel ever written. I don’t think that anymore but for a young reader, slowly discovering literature, it was a miraculous floating piece of wood come to rescue me amidst the hostile sea of humourless solemnity and cult of pain that is and has always been, with few exceptions, Portuguese letters. Even now the saga of Macondo, with its mixture of fantasy and realism, its ghosts, magical artefacts and apparitions, its non-linear structure and baroque language, constrains my conception of what literature should be.

Gabo’s photograph has adorned my blog for months now until I had an occasion to write something in his memory. The Spanish Literature Month finally gives me that occasion. The Fragrance of Guava is a carefree book put together by two friends who felt like chatting informally about everything: memories, childhood, family, books, love, politics, fame, superstition, books, a book brimming with humanity and good disposition. I sense Gabo’s immense trust in Apuleyo Mendoza as he opened himself up to him, a friend who had been with him since the worst periods of his life and whose friendship continued through the good ones.

This book of evocations begins in Arataca, in a house full of relatives: his grandmother who told him stories full of ghosts and mysteries in a deadpan, serious tone, without astonishment or surprise; his grandfather, a retired colonel of many civil wars against conservative forces who filled Gabo’s young mind with war stories and showed him his war wounds, the reason why civil wars show up so often in his fiction; his mother, who as she grew older came to resemble the legendary Úrsula more and more; and his father, a conservative telegraph operator, for that reason despised by the liberal colonel, who courted his daughter so obstinately that he gave in. Family and friends were important to him and he himself liked being a family man. He met Mercedes, his future wife, when she was 13 and he straight away proposed to marry her. But they had to wait another decade. Together they had two children and Gabo claims that “my true vocation is to be a dad: I like being one, the most wonderful experience in my love was to help raise my two children, and I think that the best thing I did in my life are not my books but rather my children.” Mercedes managed his life while he shut himself for almost two years to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, she was the one who provided him with everything he needed to continue his work unmolested, going so far as to sell her car for money. When he finished the novel and mailed the manuscript, she asked, “What if the novel isn’t any good after all?” Fortunately it would be the greatest success of his life. Gabo never forgets the people he loves in his books. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for instance, is narrated by him and his mother shows up in it under her real name. And Mercedes shows up in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His family and friends are present in his books, “signs to my most intimate friends, signs only they can discover” and that elude the critics, a pontificating class of people he has no patience for. Uh-oh…

Arataca, until the death of his grandfather when he was 8, was the joyous period of his life. Then he was taken to the capital, where he pursued and abandoned a Law degree and found a career in journalism, moving around Colombia, living in Cartagena and then in a small town called Barranquilla. As a young man he lived a bohemian, dissolute life: heavy drinking, chain smoking, literary meetings at bars, visits to brothels; as a journalist he had the “same schedules as prostitutes” and rented a cheap room in a whorehouse to live in. His first years as a writer were hard because success was slow to come, because of his political sympathies and because of the wide social divides in Colombian society; he came from the wrong background, had the wrong name, dressed the wrong way to make an impression on the elite that controlled the country, an elite that lived in ignorance of the actual country it ruled. In order to attest this disparity, Apuleyo Mendoza tells that when Gabo accepted the Nobel Prize, he wore the traditional Colombian liqui liqui costume. His friend was asked by “elegant ladies from Bogota” why the author had “suited up like a cook” to receive it.

His first book, Leaf Storm (1955) was written in the early hours of the morning, in the newspaper’s newsroom, after finishing his shift. Sometimes he was so poor that in order to get credit in the brothels he entrusted the manuscript to the bouncer, who knew how precious those pages were to him. Before he became a novelist, Gabo wanted to become a poet and read lots of poetry: Rimbaud and the poets who revolutionized Spanish-language poetry like Rubén Darío and Pablo Neruda. Then he changed to novels: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Faulkner and Kafka, who showed him a non-rationalistic way of writing. He discusses at length magical realism. During childhood he tethered between the supernatural world of his grandmother and the rationality of the colonel. Fascinated by her stories, they nevertheless filled him with dread too. “My grandfather, in turn, was for me the absolute safety inside my grandmother’s uncertain world. Only with him did my anguish disappear and did I feel with my feet on the ground and well installed in the life. What’s strange, thinking about it now, is that I wanted to be like my grandfather – realistic, tough, safe – but I couldn’t resist the constant temptation of getting closer to my grandmother’s world.” Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis (translated into Spanish by Borges), introduced him to a way of writing that was similar to the way his grandmother told stories and that showed him how he wanted to write. Even so, to my surprise he claims to detest “fantasy.” “Because I believe that imagination is just an instrument for elaborating reality. But the source of creation, in the end, is always reality. And fantasy, that is, plain and simple invention, a la Walt Disney, without any basis on reality, is the most detestable thing.” For this reason he credits journalism (and I suppose Hemingway) with “teaching me resources to give validity to my stories.” According to him, his flights of fancy are realistic because women need bed sheets to fly into the air and men need cups of chocolate to levitate 10 centimeters off the ground; “the rigour of a journalist,” he says. Hm. Even weirder is when he claims that “In my novels there isn’t one line that isn’t based on reality.” Hm-mm. Inspiration for him merely means “a reconciliation with the theme on the strength of tenacity and mastery.” In other words, hard work; now that’s sensible talk. At the time he kept a rigid schedule, writing from 9 to 15 every day and carefully editing each sentence in order to be perfect, so that it could be ready to be given to an editor without mistakes or corrections.

Gabo reveals a lot about his creative process and the specific process of writing certain of his novels. For instance, in order to overcome the structural difficulty posed by Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which he wanted to end with the minute description of the crime, he claims that he simply inserted himself in the book in order to “walk at his leisure back and forth in the novel’s structural time. I mean, at the end of thirty years I discovered something that we, novelists, many times forget: that the best literary form is always the truth.” His books always start with a visual image; the one for One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, started with the image of colonel taking Gabo to go see ice when he was a little boy. That became the novel’s first sentence. Although this was the novel that catapulted his name onto the world stage, he accuses it of “almost ruining my life. After published, nothing was the same again” because “fame disturbs the sense of reality, perhaps as much as power, and besides it’s a constant threat to private life.” He was wary of fame. “It bothers me, the worst thing that can happen to a man who doesn’t have a vocation for literary success, in a continent unprepared to have successful writers, is to have his books sell like hot dogs. I detest transforming myself into a public spectacle. I detest television, congresses, conferences, round tables…” During the ceremony in Sweden, Gabo whispered to Apuleyo Mendoza, standing next to him, “Shit, this is like watching your own funeral!”

In the 2005 preface he wrote for the Portuguese edition, Apuleyo Mendoza reveals that although at the time of the interviews Gabo’s considered The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) his best book, his preference later changed to Love in the Time of Cholera. He was not overly fond of One Hundred Years of Solitude, calling it even “superficial” and believing he could surpass it. To him he did just that with The Autumn of the Patriarch. “Literarily speaking, my most important work, the one that can save me from oblivion, is The Autumn of the Patriarch,” because it’s the novel “I always wanted to write, and besides it’s the one where I took further my personal confessions.” His main drive to write this spectacular novel, which he conceived as a “poem on the solitude of power,” was because no one had yet written “Latin American dictator novel.” Although Miguel Ángel Asturia’s The President had been published in 1946, both are quick to decry it, which validates my own negative impression when I read it. Originally he wanted to write the novel as a long monologue by the dictator sentenced to death, but scraped that idea. “First of all, it was anti-historical: dictators either died of old age in their beds, or were killed, or ran away. But they weren’t tried. Secondly, the monologue would have restricted me to the dictator’s single point of view and to his own language.” Interesting, what Roa Bastos would have to say about this? In this novel he mixed times (a sunken US war ship shares the sea next to Columbus’ caravels) and geographies, going for a synthesis of reality rather than an accurate depiction of one regime. But although he wanted to write the Latin American dictator novel, he was conscious that simultaneously a series of novels on the same topic had come out creating a subgenre: Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974) and Arturo Uslar Pietri’s Oficio de difuntos (1976). About this coincidence he says: “I don’t think it was a sudden interest. The theme has been a constant in Latin-American literature since its origins, and I suppose it’ll continue to be. That’s understandable because the dictator is the only mythological personality created by Latin America, and his historical cycle is far from being concluded.”

Sadly the book can’t delve into Love in the Time of Cholera, his last great book. I cherry-picked what I imagined would be the most interesting facts for book lovers, so I’m not going to include his meetings with politicians, his personal politics, or his take on superstitions. But I have to make an exception for his friendship with Fidel Castro, a voracious reader, a lover of literature, and his proofreader. He was in Cuba when he published The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Castro “went to my hotel just to tell me that there was a miscalculation on the boat’s speed,” which turned out to be true. Castro has a keen mind and a great culture and is capable of spotting these little mistakes with hawk-like precision. “So that before I published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, I took the manuscript to him and he pointed out a mistake on the details of hunting rifles.” There you have it, his books were proofread by Castro himself. How can this man continue to surprise and amuse after he's left us?

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

António Lobo Antunes: 10 books to understand him

A few days ago I finished reading António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels and to my surprise I ended up liking it very much (a review is in the works). Lobo Antunes excites ambivalent thoughts in me: he’s a writer of infinite talents who seldom writes anything that grabs me. He’s an ingenious manipulator of language, his longueurs are just as good and intricate as José Saramago’s, and the part of his brain that concocts metaphors and similes must be connected to a nuclear power plant because he just doesn’t run out of the spectacular sort. And yet he uses all that virtuosity to write, for the most part, boring novels about the mundane. I’m always on the verge of giving up on him; but The Return of the Caravels is something else and has renewed my stamina to keep reading him for the time being.

And it got me thinking: if I wanted to immerse myself in the study of António Lobo Antunes’ life and work, what books would complement his novels? So I poked around and came up with a list of essential literature about him:

Os Romances de António Lobo Antunes (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2002)

Maria Alzira Seixo is one of the foremost authorities on the author. She currently oversees the definitive editions of his complete works for the Dom Quixote publishing house and has an extensive knowledge of his oeuvre. This book, at over 600 pages, was the most meticulous analysis of his novels up to that point. Since then he’s published 9 more novels so it’s a bit out of date, and sadly it’s out of print.

Conversas com António Lobo Antunes (María Luisa Blanco, 2002)

María Luisa Blanco, a journalist for Babélia, the literary supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País, sat down with the novelist for a series of interviews. It also contains an interview with his parents. At the time, this was the most intimate look into his personal life. I have this one.

D'este viver aqui neste papel descripto: cartas de guerra (Maria José Lobo Antunes & Joana Lobo Antunes, 2005)

Between 1971 and 1973, Lobo Antunes served in Angola, as a medic in the Portuguese army. The African country was at war with Portugal for its independence, the medic was 28, freshly married to Maria José and not published anything yet. This book, edited by his daughter, collects the letters he sent to his wife, sharing his fears, his love for her, and his literary ambitions. A portrait of the author as not yet the messed up, bitter novelist who’d spend the following decades spewing the bitter traumas of this war into the pages of his books. I have this one too.

Entrevistas com António Lobo Antunes: 1979-2007 - As Confissões do Trapeiro (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2008)

Ana Paula Arnaut, another authority on him, put together a lengthy book of interviews Lobo Antunes gave to newspapers since the start of his career until the publication of this collection. This one provides a concise overview of his changing attitudes over the decades and is full of gossip. Of course I have it.

Uma Longa Viagem com António Lobo Antunes (João Céu e Silva, 2009)

This book is a mega-interview (400 pages) that took many sessions across months to complete. The author visited Lobo Antunes at the warehouse that he’s converted into a writing studio and talked with him on and off. It’s been labelled as the definitive look into his life, but I’m curious to compare it with María Luisa Blanco’s book. I should have bought it this year at Lisbon’s Book Fair but got the Saramago mega-interview instead. Priorities, my friends, priorities.

António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2009)

I’m not sure what this is, but I suppose it’s a sort of primer. It’s included in a collection about writers so I guess it’s written for curious laymen. It may have some value. I don’t own it yet.

As Flores do Inferno e Jardins Suspensos (Maria Alzira Seixo, 2010)

Maria Alzira Seixo’s follow-up to her monumental study of Lobo Antunes’ novels. The second half of this book is devoted to his texts for periodicals. Lobo Antunes has kept a biweekly column at a magazine for decades now, which have been collected in four or five thick volumes. I don’t have this one either.

A Crítica na Imprensa 1980-2010 - Cada Um Voa Como Quer (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2011)

The scholar edits a companion piece to her anthology of interviews. This time she puts together reviews written about his novels. It’s certainly a valuable tool to appreciate how his novels were received at the time. I also need to get this one.

As Mulheres na Ficção de António Lobo Antunes (Ana Paula Arnaut, 2012)

I needed a volume to round out a list of 10 items. Ana Paula Arnaut is the winner. There are several books that study the novelist in a general way. But this book is specific about the way women are portrayed in Lobo Antunes’ fiction. Another lacuna in my book pile.

Os Escritores (Também) têm Coisas a Dizer (Carlos Vaz Marques, 2013)

This is not a book about Lobo Antunes; it’s a collection of interviews with several Portuguese novelists, including him. I actually bought it because Saramago is one of the interviewed and I obsessively collect his interviews. But reading both interviews in tandem is great because it sheds new light on the hilarious theme that is the mutual hatred Saramago and Lobo Antunes nurture for each other. In Lobo Antunes’ interview he explains why he fell out with the Nobel laureate, providing a flimsy, ridiculous reason. In Saramago’s interview he’s confronted with the charges and blows a fuse. It’s a he-did-no-I-didn’t-he’s-lying squabbling worthy of children. Obviously I own it and treasure it.

Meanwhile I’m trying to gather courage to read The Inquisitors’ Manual.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón: El amigo de la muerte

Once upon a time Jorge Luis Borges made a list of fantasy and science fiction literature for an Italian editor who, for marketing reasons, called it The Library of Babel. Since I ambition to read all the authors on the list, the Spanish Literature Month gave me the encouragement to take another name off it: El amigo de la muerte: cuento fantástico (1852), by Spanish writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891), better known for the comical The Three-Cornered Hat. There’s nothing comical about this bizarre novella: it’s a tragic love story, but also fantasy with hues of science fiction since it takes place in the future; oh, and it’s also a dystopia since the world is about to implode as the apocalypse draws near and souls are being prepared for Judgement Day.

First of all a succinct synopsis: Gil Gil is the son of a shoemaker who dies in his infancy (his mother died giving birth to him) and he’s brought up by Count of Rionuevo, who dies a few years later. As his page he meets and falls in love with Elena, the daughter of a duke who visited the house often. After the count’s death his scheming wife throws Gil Gil out. He returns to his father’s shop, which was for rent all these years accumulating dividends managed by an old lady who gives him back all the money and helps him. He doesn’t have a lot of work to do and sometimes goes to the San Millán church to spy on Elena. One day he meets her with the countess who publicly humiliates him. Shortly afterwards the old lady dies. He takes to bed in a violent fever. When he wakes up he discovers his neighbour had to sell all his goods to take care of him. A destitute man, Gil Gil decides to end his miserable life with vitriol. Only to be stopped by Death. Death has taken pity on him. “I’m Death, my friend… I’m Death, and it’s God who sends me… God, who reserves a glorious place for you in Heaven! Five times now I caused you unhappiness, and I, implacable divinity, have taken pity on you. Tonight, when God ordered me to take before his court your impious soul, I pleaded with him to entrust your existence to me, and to let me live alongside you for a while, offering to return your spirit free of guilt and worthy of his glory. Heaven was not deaf to my request. So you’re the first mortal I come close to without his body converting into cold ashes! You’re my only friend! Now listen and learn the way to your happiness and your eternal salvation.” Death devises a plot to help him conquer his beau (and as I describe this ridiculous premise I realize how this could be a quirky Hollywood comedy). “My power is very limited, very sad! I don’t have the gift to create. My science concerns destruction. However I can give you a strength, a power, a wealth greater than princes and emperors can… I’ll make you a physician; but a physician my friend, a physician who knows me, sees me, speaks to me! Guess the rest.”  The rest is that Gil Gil gains tremendous reputation predicting when people die, which gives him some leverage in the politics of the time. The year, at this time of the story, is 1724, during the historical Spanish royal crisis. King Filipe V abdicated in January to his son, Louis I, who is gravely ill, and now craves the throne again. Gil Gil promises to tell him when he’ll die in return for wealth. Gil Gil predicts Louis I’s death, becomes rich and famous, marries Elena and they leave to Madrid, with the fake physician worried about avoiding Death for the rest of his life so he can live happy with his lovely wife. “And the story could have ended here, but it’s precisely here that it starts becoming more interesting and more understandable,” so says the omniscient narrator. And this is where I start spoiling the whole denouement.

When I read the novella I despaired at the clumsy, rushed and unpolished language. Basically it has all the stylistic flaws that fantasy and science fiction genres tend to have, decrying style in favour of straightforward storytelling. But as I re-read bits and pieces for this write-up I realized what a marvel of foreshadowing this novella is! One of the added bonuses of this collection is that Borges wrote a preface to each volume. Of this book he says, “This tale, in its first half, may look just like an irresponsible series of improvisations; however as it goes on one realizes that everything, up to the Dantesque climax, is deliberately prefigured in the initial pages.” I shouldn’t have doubted Borges.

This novella relies on a twist. I sort of guessed the finale since the twist has been done to death (as you can tell, I’m writing with my punning hat on today) thanks to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Yes, this is one of those narratives where the character is dead all along. But that doesn’t diminish the intricacy of the clues. The author drops lots of hints and nearly every dialogue with Death has an implicit meaning. When Death first meets him, she claims to have “caused his misfortune five times.” This numbering at first was odd to me: there was his mother, his father, the generous count, and the old lady who took care of his shop while he lived at the count. Only on re-reading did I realize that the fifth was his suicide. Then there’s her insistence that she’s interested in his “eternal salvation.” This is because his suicide, rather than having been averted by her arrival, was successful. “I want to unite you to her,” she says about Elena; since he’s a suicide they could never meet in the afterlife. Another clue is that he’s always asking Death if she’ll leave him, and she promises not to; she can’t since he’s already in her realm. Another hint: he’s worried Death may kill Elena one day. “Elena will never die for you.” She can’t since she’s already dead too. We also learn that Gil Gil was in fact the Count of Rionuevo’s bastard son; again there are hints: his father’s marriage was “short but bad,” an allusion to his being knowingly cuckolded. More evidence arises when he spies on Elena in San Millán church. “Naturally no one from those stops suspected that our young men were a poor shoemaker, and everyone thought him in possession of some legacy from the count of Rionuevo, who, in life, showed too much predilection for the young page for one to believe that he had not thought of securing his future.” Indeed he made him his heir, but the jealous countess withheld this information and kicked him out. A tinge of sadness permeates the novella. Gil Gil is shown the life he could and should have had, if justice and honesty prevailed in the world. He should have inherited a fortune, married Elena and lived a happy life. The fact that he’s only allowed to experience a simulacrum of this life in a fantastic afterlife adds even more tragedy to the tale.

After Gil Gil wins Elena he vows never to see Death again, thinking he can succeed. But Death reappears to destroy their idyll and to disclose the nature of his existence. Riding on a flying cart, they travel across the world, visiting distant continents, watching battles and discussing lofty themes like life, death, time, goodness, vanity and salvation. Some of the novella’s trippiest lines are in this section: “Very well, what is Earth seen from this height but a sinking ship, a city at the mercy of fire and plague?” And: “You’d only need to make a map of all the cemeteries that exist on earth to understand the political geography of your world.” They visit the continents and watch battles and see people from all lands.” Or how about their trip to Jerusalem: “That’s Golgotha! That’s where I spent the great day of my life! I thought I had defeated God himself… and indeed I had him defeated, for many hours… but unfortunately it was also on that hill that three days later I was disarmed and annulled, on the morning of a Sunday… Jesus had resurrected!” And finally Death flies him to her abode, the North Pole, a logical destination since nothing can live there, or so was thought at the time. “Imagine a total absence of heat, a total negation of life, the total cessation of movement, death as the only way of being, and you still won’t have an exact idea of that corpse world…”

And in this desolation Gil Gil finally learns the truth: he’s been dead for 600 years; it’s the year 2316 and Earth only has a few hours left before it “explodes like a grenade.” He drank the vitriol and should have gone to hell. But fair and pure Elena, who died of grief after learning of his death, went to heaven and there pleaded with God to save his soul, and so God allowed Death to attempt to reform him. Since Alarcón is writing from a Christian perspective, the purpose of man can only be to save his eternal soul. And now Gil Gil has redeemed himself and both lovers will rest side by side forever in the afterlife, brought together by a Death that can finally rest from her mission as the world is finally dying. Borges was doubly right about the Dantesque ending: it’s a series of horrible images and a celebration of love as Elena becomes Beatrice and guides her lover’s soul to the Star of Truth.

If this were a movie, I keep imagining the last minutes as a slick montage of previous scenes as the whole twist is put together and Gil Gil discovers that his soul is saved and that he’ll spend eternity with Elena, a bittersweet finale playing to dreamy, elegiac but hopeful music by Sigur Ros, M83 or Max Richter, ending in an emotional crescendo with female vocals. And people would be coming out of the room in tears and I’d be one of them.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Las islas extraordinarias

Las islas extraordinarias, published in 1991, follows an unnamed private detective hired by a henchman’s dictator to investigate and defuse a possible conspiracy against the tyrant of a three-island archipelago. A large sum of money eases his moral qualms for the time being and he travels to the Islands to start his mission. This is the kind of oddball premise I’ve come to expect from Gonzalo Torrente Ballester.

We don’t know much about the detective’s life, he has a minimal personality; he has no past to speak of, save a reference to a wife (Isabella) whom he divorced and who is now happily married; apparently he still phones her from time to time, but not this time. He clearly has a moral side like the best detectives, and this shows in the novel’s denouement. But sixty pages in I began realising this was not an ordinary detective novel. For one thing, no actual detective work had been carried out so far. Clearly GTB is less concerned with a mystery than he is with creating a pretext to organize and bring to life a series of scenes of live under a dictatorship. By no means is it a realistic dictatorship; as with everything else I’ve read by him, it leans towards the grotesque, the burlesque, the buffoonish. But notwithstanding this exaggeration he creates a world that reflects our own in its relationship with dictatorships, and explores the true meaning of power.

“The last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me of certain data regarding the history of the Islands, of their geographical situation, of the reason why, them being so close to my country, they’ve remained independent, although their economy complemented our own in a certain way, and they depended as much on us and we did on them: this reason being why my country had always remained in the margins of the political circumstances that dominated the Islands, of its always extraordinary regimes and of whether or not they complied with the minimum social conditions that permitted us to consider them a country similar to our own.” This is interesting. So close and yet so far, like in our world; those who are lucky to live in free states know from television and newspapers that dictatorships exist, and yet they’re mysterious, distant places, a bit like enchanted kingdoms in fairy-tales. And yet it’s ironic that the archipelago can be reached from the continent via a simple bridge. And notice the little critique of democracies: dependent on dictatorships for their economy, they turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

The detective operates by questioning his Excellency and his family: his son and wife, who rule the second and third islands, respectively. First he meets the dictator. After passing through several control checks in the vast palace, he arrives at his office. He’s warned not to smoke in front of him, an advice he wisely follows. His first meeting with the dictator leaves him with a clear idea of his ruthlessness. The tyrant orders coffee for both; a servant brings a tray in; the tyrant orders the servant to taste the coffee. The servant tastes it and falls dead, under the dictator’s indifferent gaze. “Don’t worry. For these cases I have a coffeepot ready, next to the rum that I offered you. But it’s sad not being able to trust in the personnel, don’t you think?” His Excellency also gives him valuable information that may help him, not to solve the case, but to operate more clearly inside that bizarre society. “To sum it up: approximately each month there’s a conspiracy against me, whose chiefs are promptly punished. These conspiracies are organized by government agents. I know their development hourly. They don’t worry me, as you may imagine: they’re an instrument of power that I wield with certain dexterity. But there is another conspiracy which I haven’t started, which I haven’t organized, and that’s the one you have to find out. You ought to read these reports in order to be aware of the others and not get confused.” Like every great politician, his Excellency knows the usefulness of inventing one’s own enemy to keep the masses under control.

The detective’s trip across the archipelago brings him into weirder aspects of that nation. The second island contains the “most important scientific centre in the world.” “Did you know that NASA depends on us? Of course we also depend on them, but it’s our initiative.” They’re so strategically important the civilized, democratic world pretends the centre doesn’t exist. “Every country is our potential buyer.” And so they’re protected and kept hidden from the world. “Somewhere in the Third World they’ve denounced us, but the denouncing was received as fantasy. Those who don’t believe in the existence of this centre are right and that’s why they’re wrong: they don’t believe in the incredible, and that’s what we are. However, for once the incredible is real.” The dictator’s son rules the second island, kept under martial law, and is the military chief, the man who administers justice and is known for “having sent lots of people to the other world.” Effectively he’s the most powerful man in the world. The dictator’s wife rules the third island, called the Island of Vice, a den of crime, drugs, brothels, casinos. The islands are self-sufficient and money circulates inside them without loss, for what is earned on the other islands are spent on the third one. A final note on their economy: they make money from customs taxes. “In our docks, in our airport, ships and airplanes, loaded with merchandise whose nature doesn’t matter to us, buy, sell, barter without any other requisite but paying, thanks to which our seaport is the busiest in the world, and our airport the most visited.” In other words, they’re a purely capitalistic society, without regulation on whatever passes through them, and obviously with the consent of the free world.

The detective’s guide, secretary and driver is Gina, who works in the palace. She hardly has any self-will and the detective tries to instil some of it in her again. She’s mostly a prop, really, to give exposition, lead into the climax and explain the bizarre sexual politics of the islands. Gina is one of the women randomly chosen to bear the dictator’s children, which means she’s state property. Raised into that society, she’s deeply honoured to participate in the creation of the new ruling class; they intend to produce a new aristocracy, although some idiots show up. “Those, when the day comes, will be docilely suppressed.” So they also practice eugenics. It’s a very complete dictatorship.

As the detective takes in these horrors one after another, he begins to wonder where the poets are:

“Here we don’t know of anyone who writes verses. Not even those who praise power and the powerful.” “And if one were to appear?” “I suppose we’d send him to the Isla of Vice.” She slowed down and looked at me. “Don’t you understand? Any poet would be a disturbing element.” “There are those who show talent.” “Here, those with talent have their place reserved and well paid. We don’t buy more brains than necessary.” I started imagining: the drama of distraught adolescents, constrained to use their talents in bureaucracy, or in the improvement of war ships. “Sometimes poets are incoercible and inevitable. Can’t you think of anyone? Not even a national poet, those who proclaim with enthusiasm the superiority of their fatherland over all other fatherlands?” “That’s so obvious we don’t need poets.”

My favourite character is Professor Martin. I’ve always O’Brien from 1984, the bureaucrat who spills diatribes about control and obedience. Professor Martin is an O’Brien-esque figure, the thinker who provides the intellectual framework to justify everything through reactionary clichés, upsetting the “old mental structures” that the detective was born with: democracy is “the suppression of superior men;” equality “is the weapon of the mediocre to triumph in the world and in society.” “We have to think that man, whoever he may be, is an accident, no more no less than a rock or an insect. His existence is justified by his function. If he can’t function, what’s the point of keeping him?” “He said that people needn’t think, said that it was dangerous that people thought for themselves, said that people needed a satisfactory thought, said that it was especially convenient that people believed that they thought for themselves. There were two dailies on the Islands. Opposed in their expression, even though both started from the same principles and arrived at the same conclusions. People followed one or another and thus believed to freely elect their way of thinking.” What’s despairing about this is that GTB is clearly describing any ordinary democracy, with its citizens’ belief that they’re under control, that they’re not being manipulated by the media. This is all to conclude with Professor Martin’s philosophy in a nutshell: “People need to believe they think…”

As for the actual conspiracy, yes, well, there’s not a lot about it. After investigating, the detective concludes there’s nothing to go on; the island is a highly stratified paradise of order and peace. There is no evidence of a conspiracy, no one talks about it. There’s no sense of it, no rage or violence in the air. The only people who could throw him down are his son or wife, but they’re content in their little kingdoms, and anyway the dictator’s power is illusory. “His Excellency doesn’t govern; he just rules.” He’s a title, a job, a position, he doesn’t give commands or orders. His son has all the power and could crush him. He’s just an old man who’s tolerated and allowed to carry on with his farce. The detective intends to quit, but that’s not the end of the story.

Las islas extraordinarias is my fourth Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. In invention and in ambition it does not reach the heights of La Saga/Fuga de J.B and Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. It's a rushed, short narrative. But even his minor efforts have a special flavour. His gift is to create and pepper his narratives with otherworldly situations; in essence he fulfills one my requisites for writers: to write sentences I never imagined logically possible.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

State of the Book Pile Address

Back in January I pledged to reduce my book pile to 100 books. Six months later it is time to make a report on my efforts to accomplish this resolution. The resolution at the time seemed feasible, for I had but 130 or so books. However the vicissitudes of existence, over which I have no control, have contributed to foil my promises. Highly credible data informs me that my book pile has ballooned to the unprecedented number of 212 books.

The main reason, analysts have discovered, was the influence of July’s Lisbon Book Fair. A painstaking inventory reveals that I purchased 65 new books on a total of six trips to the fair. Although the pundits have come out to criticise the necessity of this expenditure, you should see the lovely stacks of books I brought home! The great thing this year is that I went there always after work, at 21:00, when the evenings are cool and the fair is almost empty. Not to mention that at 22:00 there's a special hour called the H Hour, when certain book publishers offer amazing discounts!

My main areas of interest this year were Portuguese History, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Aquilino Ribeiro and Eça de Queiroz. I have 8 new books about Eça, including A. Campos Matos’ monumental biography.

What else did I buy? A bit of Jorge de Sena, Alexandre O’Neill, Miguel Torga, Ana Luísa Amaral, Pepetela, António Lobo Antunes, Camilo Castelo Branco and Luís de Camões. I bought enough books from young (born c. 1970) Portuguese novelists in order to devote a month to contemporary Portuguese literature: Gonçalo M. Tavares; João Tordo; José Luís Peixoto; Afonso Cruz; Pedro Guilherme-Moreira; valter hugo mãe – they’re all as mysterious to you as they are to me. My only foray into foreign literature was Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Currently my book pile has disintegrated and scattered like the tribes in the Bible: I have a modest pile next to my bed; then half a shelf in the living room’s bookcase harbouring a few dozens; another shelf in the adjacent bookcase contains a few more. But the bulk resides horizontally on a sturdy shelf inside a wardrobe, above my jackets and pants. That’s the state of my book pile.

It's just a matter of time until sooner or later all these books will show up, directly or indirectly, in my blog.