Thursday, 24 July 2014

'Dead Stars' by Álvaro Bisama (Review)

This is my third review for Spanish-Language Literature Month, but it's a big welcome to a new writer, and a new publisher.  Ox and Pigeon are a fledgling online presence with a focus on Spanish-language writers, with three works available so far purely in digital form.  After a couple of collections with stories by various writers, their third offering is their first by a single writer - and while it's fairly brief, it's a great way to kick things off :)

Álvaro Bisama's Dead Stars (translated by Megan McDowell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novella in eighty-four brief chapters, and a story within a story.  The book begins with two unnamed narrators having coffee in the city, waiting for offices to open (to let them get on with the business of dissolving their marriage...).  Their plans are altered, however, when the woman opens the newspaper and sees a photograph of a woman she once knew - a woman who has just been arrested.

Shocked by the picture, the woman then turns to her husband, the real first-person narrator, and begins to tell him all about Javiera, the woman she met during her university days.  As the words pour out of her mouth, we learn all about the charismatic friend and her young lover, Donoso.  However, Bisama's novella is a story that's just as much about the couple in the café - and the country they live in - as about the woman in the newspaper...

Javiera is, though, the stand-out character of the book, a woman with an impressive past:
"Javiera use to talk so loudly that sometimes you'd think she was shouting.  The next day we heard half her life in five minutes, when she asked us to stay after class to choose a student representative.  Of course, we immediately elected her.  That day, she told us she'd been expelled in the eighties.  She told us how the rector had called for her head and she was kicked out of school.  She left the country.  The rest of us had all been just kids back then.  None of our life stories could compete with hers."
Chapter 8 (Ox and Pigeon, 2014)
In a time of caution and moderation, Javiera is a woman who makes no secret of her political leanings.  Having suffered horribly under the previous regime, she's determined to make herself heard, the one person who refuses to hide in the shadows.

The crux of the story is her meeting with Donoso in class.  The younger man becomes her lover, the start of a tempestuous affair that eventually goes sour.  There's an underlying clash of cultures between the die-hard revolutionary and the more pragmatic middle-class, post-Pinochet kid, and the two eventually struggle to really understand each other.  Perhaps it's a little too tempting to read a lot into these generational differences, though...

However, as mentioned above, while Javiera and Donoso dominate the story, we constantly return to our nameless, disillusioned couple.  From the vantage point of their seats outside the café, they cast an eye back on a different time, the unexpected photograph in the paper reminding them of their own experiences (including depression and addictions).  In many ways, the end of the marriage is a suitable metaphor for the crushing inertia felt in the country after the euphoria of a potential change of direction.

While the story is fascinating, Dead Stars stands out mostly for its style.  It consists of a series of brief chapters, highly effective, several of them consisting of simple one-sentence gems:
"You remember Valparaíso back then? she said.  I said: Yes, the whole city was in ruins." (Chapter 16)
In many ways, it's a recital, an outpouring of memories, and the story of Javiera is representative of a communal need to release the suffering.  The story is written in short, plain sentences for the most part, communicating the apathy felt after the draining oppression.

With Chilean authors writing about the years of oppression, there's always an elephant in the room, and there's certainly a Bolaño influence, in themes if not in style.  Of course, it would be hard for a Chilean writer not to mine that particular vein given the country's recent history.  Dead Stars has a foreword by Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean writer, poet and literary critic, which touches on the era and looks at why the characters would feel and act the way they do.  For most Anglophone readers, though, this is probably still not quite enough, and it might be a good idea to briefly look up the history of the era (Chile in the 1980s and 1990s).

In short, Dead Stars is a story of a melancholy time, seen through two relationships, where the hope of the past has gone, leaving ruins in its wake:
"The university was truly the museum of a revolution that never came, a resistance that had been slaughtered in the trenches." (Chapter 19)
Depressing?  Grim?  Yes - but an excellent little read all the same :)

If you're looking for more from Bisama, Ox and Pigeon give you some tips on their website, including a short story in one of their previous collections.  Issue 1 of The Portable Museum contains Bisama's 'Nazi Girl', along with stories by three other Spanish-language writers (including a certain Enrique Vila-Matas...).  That's a book I'm sure I'll be checking out soon too ;)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

'The Shadow of Arms' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

After enjoying The Guest, I was looking forward to the second of the Hwang Sok-yong books I received from Seven Stories Press a while back.  As you can see from the cover, though, while The Guest was a slow, reflective novel about a man's return to Korea, today's choice is a slightly different work.  War, what is it good for?  Well, small business and the black market, apparently...

The Shadow of Arms (translated by Chun Kyung-ja) is, rather unusually for a Korean book, set outside the Korean peninsula, taking us further South-West.  The novel takes place during the Vietnam War, where we meet a Korean soldier Ahn Yong-kyu, who is whisked out of the trenches to the city of Da Nang.  The lucky soldier has been chosen to replace a returning officer at the Joint Investigation headquarters - meaning his job has changed from hunting the Vietcong to looking for blackmarket cigarettes.

However, while life is certainly more comfortable in the city, it's by no means simpler.  The scale of the war entails a massive influx of consumer goods from America and elsewhere, leading to a black-market economy on a breath-taking scale.  Both sides in the conflict are syphoning off food, money, white goods and weapons from the warehouses scattered around the city, and it's inevitable that connections will be made between people on opposing sides.  When it comes to business in the back streets of Da Nang, Yong-kyu soon learns that you're never quite sure who exactly you're dealing with...

The story may start in the jungle, but The Shadow of Arms is a book which mostly plays out in the city.  It's a story of Koreans in the Vietnam war, there as support for their American allies and protectors, a story many people will be unaware of.  At times, it comes across as a kind of M*A*S*H* for black-market investigators, but without the humour - this is a serious book exploring serious issues.

It's made abundantly clear from the start that money is behind everything taking place in the country, with a picture drawn of people hooked on both opium and consumer products.  Early on, Yong-kyu has a glimpse of the packed American warehouses:
"What is a PX?  A Disneyland in a vast tin warehouse.  A place where an exhausted soldier with a few bloodstained military dollars can buy and possess dreams mass-produced by industrial enterprises.  The ducks and rabbits and fairies are replaced by machines and laughter and dances.  The wrapping paper and the boxes smell of rich oil and are as beautiful as flowers."
p.6 (Seven Stories Press, 2014)
A third-world country and first-world goods - it's no wonder that many people are led into the temptation of the black market...

The Korean newcomer proves himself to be surprisingly adaptive, soon making a name for himself in the markets of Da Nang.  While having to take part in the game in order to do his job, he's not greedy, diving into the black market mainly to make connections.  In doing so, he introduces the reader to a world of clubs, whore houses, American warehouses and back-street dealings - at which point many of you will be wondering where the war went.

It is out there, though, and Hwang does take us on occasional visits to the 'real' Vietnam.  The two other main characters in the book are Pham Quyen, a powerful Vietnamese Major, and his younger brother Pham Minh - an undercover agent for the National Liberation Front.  Away from Yong-kyu and his work, it's here we see some bloodshed amongst the corruption, receiving an insight into the mindset of both sides.

We also hear of atrocities, mainly from American court-martial reports.  These chapters take the form of written statements, in which soldiers are interviewed by the military police for their involvement in attacks on civilians.  Whole villages are murdered, women are raped and disposed of, yet the statements are taken calmly and filed away.  The way the crimes are handled is eerily clinical, in contrast with what actually happened...

The Shadow of Arms is a fascinating view of the Vietnam war from a different angle to the one most of us will have used before.  Yong-kyu acts as a quasi-neutral observer - he's mostly detached, but his mask does slip occasionally:
"Drink, drink, you'll feel great at heart, peel and and eat it while it's still soft and tender, chew it, relish it, suck it, suck it, stick it in deep and suck it, see you in a clean bedroom with graceful designs and tasteful decor, soft touch, for diminishing stamina, for indigestion, it'll make you younger, it'll make you sleep, stocks and savings and investments will make a deluge of money, of rifles machine guns rockets grenades cannon napalm helicopters tanks kill me take the GI money and run for the room down the hall, hey, whore here's your customer, take him to your room sit down lie down undress go ahead spread insert suck pay soldiers of the Cross rise up for the Lord go away brimstone is burning God bless Americans God bless America." (p.236)
As you can see, while he's usually cool and professional in his work, even he gets a little disillusioned with what's going on in the country...

While both sides have their bad points, the book certainly dwells more on the shortcomings of Americans.  Certainly, an American (especially one with a personal connection to the war) might be more affected by the negative portrayal of their behaviour than I was, and there's little about Vietcong atrocities until the end of the novel.  For this reason, The Shadow of Arms (based on Hwang's own experiences in Vietnam) was a controversial book in Korea; in fact, the second part was only published after a political change of regime.

The Shadow of Arms is an interesting read, but there are a few issues I had with it.  The book needed a conclusion after the development of relationships between Yong-kyu and the two brothers, but it seemed a little forced, too quick and contrived.  As a whole, the book suffers a little from the uneasy mix of literary fiction and thriller (similar to the issues I had last year with Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland, With Love).

In some places, the translation also seemed a little off.  There were unusual typos ('of' for 'off' in some phrasal verbs, 'taught' instead of 'taut') which perhaps should have been picked up (and may have been in a later print).  I also found it hard to distinguish between the Americans and Koreans at times, although I actually found that the Vietnamese characters were much clearer and more distinct.

Perhaps a question to resolve here is who would enjoy this book most.  I have a feeling that it's less for lovers of K-Lit and literary fiction than readers interested in the Vietnam War, as it's a solid novel which looks at the conflict from a new angle.  It gives us a picture of Da Nang as a temporarily multi-cultural city, a Vietnamese Casablanca, if you will.  The moral of the story, though?  Well, that's hard to distill into one idea, but where there's a war, you need cocktails and dancing, and there's always someone who can get his hands on them - at a price...

Sunday, 20 July 2014

'The Mahé Circle' by Georges Simenon (Review)

As many of you will know, Penguin Classics have committed themselves to bringing out new translations of all of Georges Simenon's 'Maigret' detective novels/stories over the new few years (and there are a lot of them).  However, as someone with little interest in crime novels, I didn't really expect to get involved in reading the Belgian author's work - until, that is, I was tipped off about something a little different.  You see, Simenon's work isn't all about Maigret, you know...

The Mahé Circle (translated by Siân Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel set on an island in the South of France, and on the first page we meet our 'hero', the good doctor François Mahé, out in a boat, trying to catch fish in the company of one of the locals.  It's the first time Mahé has brought his family to the island of Porquerolles, and initially his decision seems to have been a poor one, as both he and his family struggle to adapt to the southern way of life.

However, once he returns to his comfortable bourgeois existence, the doctor realises that he misses the unstructured, chaotic life of the south, and he gradually begins to loathe his daily life.  At the age of thirty-five (and tipping the scales at ninety kilos), Mahé slowly comes to think of his world as a conspiracy against him, an identity which has been gradually built around him, without his permission - a stifling circle preventing him from living his own life.  It's inevitable that by the time the holidays come around again, Doctor Mahé is itching to pack up the car and head South again...

Simenon's short novel is an excellent portrait of a man whose average, unthinking existence is shattered by the realisation that there's something more to be had from life than Sunday dinners with friends and a spot of fishing at the weekend.  While most of the 'action', as it is, happens on the island, much of the psychological drama takes place back at home.  It's a place where he should be in his element, an environment of his own, yet this simple truth turns out to be an enormous lie.

The truth is that Mahé, like many people, has been formed by his environment.  He lives in the house of his dead father (his mother still lives with him), and his wife is a woman chosen more for her ability to fit into the running of the house rather than from any true feelings of love.  Mahé realises that most people would be happy:
"What more could he ask for?  He had a quiet life, plenty of free time to go hunting and fishing whenever he wanted to.  Good dogs.  And anyone from the village would readily keep him company."
p.52 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
For him, though, those village people, many of whom bear the same family name as him, form a tight circle, smothering his hopes of freedom.

Where there's a mid-life crisis, there's usually a catalyst to set it off, and while life on Porquerolles is lazy and sunny, it's not just boules and pastis in the evening that have the doctor in a spin.  At the start of the novel, he is called to the house of a dying woman in place of the absent local doctor, and a glimpse of her elder daughter, an eleven-year-old girl in a red dress, sets off an explosive chain reaction of thoughts in his head.
"No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession.  And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment." (p.75)
It's here that his rebellion against 'normal' life begins, and the comparison above is remarkably apt in many ways...

...all of which will undoubtedly trigger Lolita warnings in most readers' minds, but that's not quite the way The Circle of Mahé goes.  The young Elizabeth is less a real sexual target than an embodiment of the allure of the South, a representative of the freedom Porquerolles offers in the face of the staid, stifling village of Saint-Hilaire:
"Here men drained the life out of day after day, with tasks that followed the inexorable rhythm of the ploughman's almanac.
 There..." (pp.111/2)
The implication here is that in Saint-Hilaire, life is merely a form of serving time, whereas back on Porquerolles life is truly worth living - which sounds suspiciously like a hankering after greener grass.

The Mahé Circle is a brief read, 150 pages (with fairly large type), and you can skip through it at a brisk pace, thanks in part to a nice, breezy translation from Siân Reynolds.  By keeping some words in the original French, particularly in the Porquerolles chapters, she gives the book a Mediterranean air, one which would be spoiled by translating absolutely everything into English (don't forget, many of these things are alien to Mahé too).  I have absolutely no idea what the English for péquois is, but I suspect that if the fish the doctor is obsessed with catching does have an English name, knowing it would make me none the wiser ;)

While the Lolita comparison doesn't stand up, I was reminded of a few other works over the course of the book (not least Moby Dick, in Mahé's obsession for catching a péquois!).  One is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, particularly in the way Newland Archer's life is skilfully manipulated in Wharton's novel by the women in his family circle.  For a more contemporary slant, though, I often thought that Mahé's troubles could see the book fit right into Peirene Press' 'Male Dilemma' series - Simenon's work is a book verging on a novella with a male protagonist at a pivotal point in his life...

In the end, though, The Mahé Circle is an excellent story that stands on its own, a clever work which, in a way, forms its own circle, leaving the good doctor back where he started in more ways than one.  It's a book I enjoyed immensely (for more than just the hour or so it took me to read it!), and while I'm still not convinced about crime fiction, I may just be tempted to give Maigret a go.  You see, I did get another book along with this one, and... well, it can't hurt, can it? ;)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

'Paris' by Marcos Giralt Torrente (Review)

Time for my second contribution to Spanish-Language Literature Month, and today's offering is from a publisher who deserve to be highlighted this month.  Hispabooks is a fairly recent addition to the ranks of publishers who focus on literature in translation, with their speciality being... well, Spanish literature :)  I've already reviewed a couple of their titles, and this book is one which comes very highly recommended indeed - an intense story made (mostly) in Madrid...

Marcos Giralt Torrente's Paris (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is an excellent, psychological novel, a book which looks at the weakness of memory and the dangers of reliance on a single person in your life.  It's written in the form of a monologue told by a middle-aged man looking back to his childhood and, in particular, events surrounding his ne'er-do-well father and his enigmatic, saintly mother.

While the pair have long since parted, there was a strange attraction between the two, one which even the father's spell in prison failed to break, and this forms one of the central issues the narrator attempts to get to the bottom of.  However, he's also fascinated by something which he will never be able to learn the whole truth about (his mother, the only one with full knowledge, is suffering from dementia and has no memory of earlier events).  He believes that the key to the final breakdown of his parents' relationship lies in the time his mother spent in Paris, a time which could reveal several secrets - but it's possible that there are other, darker truths out there, just waiting to be brought into the light...

Paris is intense and powerful, and the combination of great writing and an intriguing secret makes for an excellent novel.  It was the unanimous winner of the 1999 Premio Herralde de Novela (a Spanish prize for debut novels), beating Andrés Neuman's Bariloche into second place.  For a first novel, it's a surprisingly complex and developed piece of writing.  However, the flip side of that is that it should come with a warning - you'll need a lot of concentration to stick to the task at hand.

The novel centres on the figure of the mother, a portrait of the mother as a martyr to her family.  She's a woman who's very good at keeping secrets, holding her true feelings deep within:
"Talking about herself would have meant allowing her "self" to surface, and that was something she simply could not allow.  What she felt and how she really was had to be covered up, concealed beneath hundreds of protective veils - either learned or innate - that established a distance between her and the suffering or hopes that were watching and waiting inside her."
p.40 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The author develops his picture of the mother with a slow, steady build up of details.  A controlled, measured woman who knows her man will disappoint her, she wants to believe in him, despite knowing full well that he will never change. Which rather begs the question - why does she stay with him for so long?  And, more intriguingly, does she have a few more secrets of her own?

As much as the novel is about the mother, though, there's also a lot to discover about the narrator, a man searching for truth among the rubble of half-remembered events.  He's never really sure of the events he discusses, constantly talking around the facts, either because he can't remember them or because he never knew them in the first place (in several places he explains that he was never privy to the whole truth).  In fact, the same is true for the poor reader as we are strung along a little, never really knowing what, or whom, to believe.

While calling him an unreliable narrator might be a touch extreme, it's true that caution is called for when trying to get to the bottom of the story.  His mother's loss of memory fuels his obsession with the past:
"I can no longer separate what she told me from what I know now, from what she gradually confided to me in later, lonelier years, and from what I've since found out for myself, what I dared to think, or what I made up." (p.64)
Much of what he tells us is 'pieced together later', the product of his imagination, although he is the first to admit the problematic nature of his conclusions.  The language used reflects this; it's incredibly tentative and halting, full of conditionals and modals.  The text abounds with phrases such as 'must have been', 'may have said' and 'I will never know if...'.  Still, that doesn't mean he isn't playing with us...

Paris is also about subjectivity, and Giralt Torrente discusses at length the way in which we can confuse facts and feelings:
"Things happen, and later on you might recount them to someone else with more or less exactitude, and the image you convey will not be so very different from the original events.  What you were feeling, though, what was going on inside you while those things were happening, is more a matter of silences.  We can get quite close in our description of events, but we will never be able to describe their very essence, an essence tinged with despair, or joy, or with both at once." (p.37)
Which doesn't stop the writer, and narrator, from trying to pin down the essence of those distant events.  We are drawn into this game too, tempted to judge the characters - the mother, the father, the narrator, his Aunt Delphina.  The problem is that with only a few of the facts, we can never be completely sure that we're right.

The writing is excellent, with a style reminiscent of Saramago and Marías (there are definite shades of A Heart So White here). Paris consists for the most part of long, precise sentences, full of complex clauses, constantly folding back on, and contradicting, themselves.  Of course, this is all aided by the choice of translator - Jull Costa, as always, does a wonderful job, meaning that the book never reads like a translation.

Paris is a very good book, and for those who like his style, there's more out there from Giralt Torrente in translation.  His story collection The End of Love is already available, and Father and Son (which, as Tiempo de Vida, won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa in 2011) will appear in English in September.  So is he the next big thing in Spanish?  Well, there's certainly a lot to like.  Paris is a fascinating, complex novel - even the cover, while initially plain, reveals something about the plot.  It's definitely not an easy read, but it's certainly a rewarding one :)

Before I finish, there is one little issue I want to address here.  This is my third Hispabooks work, and all three have had British translators (Rosalind Harvey, Jonathan Dunne and Margaret Jull Costa).  While the translations definitely feel very British, for some reason, the books use American spelling conventions, plus the occasional, jarring Americanism.  It's a trend I'd already picked up in the first two books, and reading Paris merely confirmed it.

These (rare) Americanisms particularly stand out in Jull Costa's excellent translation.  Examples include 'jelly' instead of 'jam', 'wash up' instead of 'wash his face'/'have a wash', 'bills' instead of 'notes' and 'Mom' instead of 'Mum'.  It's not a huge thing, but it seems an odd stylistic choice to me, almost as if the publishers are hedging their bets with the variety of English.  It's likely that most people wouldn't notice, but I like to think that when it comes to translations, I'm not most people ;)

Any thoughts?  I'd love to hear if anyone else has noticed this trend - and what you make of it...

Monday, 14 July 2014

'The Book of Rio', Toni Marques & Katie Slade (eds.) (Review)

The World Cup is about to end (disappointingly) for Brazil, but with the Olympics taking place in Rio in 2016, it's not like the eyes of the world will be leaving the country for long any time soon.  Realising this, Comma Press (still on a high from Hassan Blasim's IFFP victory) have taken it upon themselves to introduce Anglophone readers to the city with the big statue.  How?  Through literature, of course ;)

The Book of Rio (edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of Comma Press' excellent city guides, short-story collections helping readers to familiarise themselves with foreign shores.  This one contains ten short stories by Brazilian authors, each of which looks at life in Rio from a slightly different angle.  From Copacabana to the favela shanty towns, there's something for everyone here (even if football is conspicuous by its absence!).

Cesar Cardoso's 'Spare Me, Copacabana' (translated by Ana Fletcher) is the first story of the collection, a monologue from a party girl, which tells of her (and Copacabana's) faded glory.  The idea of women trading favours for pleasure (and more) also comes up in Patrícia Melo's 'I Love You' (tr. Daniel Hahn).  This one is a short, nicely-written story in which an escort gets caught up in a domestic squabble, all the time checking on how her friends are getting on at a nightclub.  The wonders of the smartphone age :)

Things get a lot more serious on the pleasure front in 'Song of Songs' by Nei Lopes (tr. Amanda Hopkinson), a story which takes the reader into the world of carnevale.  Lopes introduces us to a man running one of the many carnival organisations, showing us the grit and politics behind the glamour.  This is a tale about business, sex and money - and keeping it all in the family in the worst possible way...

Of course, it's not all fun down Rio way, and several stories look at those less fortunate inhabitants of the city.  In Luiz Ruffato's 'Lucky was Sandra' (tr. Jethro Soutar), a girl dreams of escape from the suburbs, determined to make a go of her life.  However, what goes up, must come down, and it's not long before Sandra ends up back in her old neighbourhood - whether she's better or worse off is hard to say.  Another sob story is João Gilberto Noll's 'Something Urgently' (tr. Sophie Lewis), where a boy from a criminal family is old before his time, doomed to a life on the margins of society.

Crime is also evident (from a distance) in Sérgio Sant'Anna's 'Strangers' (tr. Julia Sanches).  One of my favourites from this collection, the story has two strangers inspecting an apartment at the same time - and noticing some suspicious holes in the walls.  This one has it all, bullets from the favelas, sex in the afternoon and the joys of an uncertain, dangerous life.  A reflection on life in Rio?

Like many developing cities, Rio is changing at a rapid pace, but this brings uncertainty and danger for the workers bringing this change.  Domingos Pellegrini's 'The Biggest Bridge in the World' (tr. Jon S. Vincent) details the experience of an electrician on a major project, a... well, read the title ;)  It's a gig that's certainly well-paid, but money's not everything:
"Let's see some hustle, boys, let's see some hustle, because we only have three weeks.  Let's see some hustle because we only have two weeks.  One of the guys who worked with me, Arnold, fell asleep on his face on the seventh day, with his mouth right next to the end of a high tension cable.  He left the bridge and went straight to the hospital and never came back."
'The Biggest Bridge in the World', p.27 (Comma Press, 2014)
A real bridge of sighs, this grand project shows the price of progress (and might remind readers of certain projects which were implemented for the World Cup...).

Of course, traditions are important too, especially in an impersonal modern society.  While João Ximenes Braga's 'The Woman who Slept with a Horse' (tr. Zoë Perry) is thankfully free of bestiality, it does detail the struggles of an unhappy career woman looking for meaning in life:
"Andréa wanted to be everywhere, because she never wanted to be anywhere.  She especially did not want to be at home.  If she actually thought about it, she would realise that she didn't even want to be in her own body." (p.87)
Modern life being rubbish, Andréa attempts to spice things up by hooking up with a man involved in a native religion - but is she in over her head?

This malaise is also evident elsewhere.  In Marcelo Moutinho's 'Decembers' (tr. Kimberly M. Hastings), a man sees his grandfather through different eyes at three points in time, leaving him wistful for the past he never knew.  Finally, 'Places, in the Middle of Everything' by Elvira Vigna (tr. Lucy Greaves) gives us a melancholy piece to finish off with.  It's a story about a woman, her lover, a lot of rain and very little hope.  In fact, it's the perfect story to reflect the mood of the country after the events of the 8th of July...

The Book of Rio is a great collection, but (of course) it's a mere glimpse of what the city (and Brazilian literature in general) has to offer.  My only quibble with the book is that it's a tad on the short side, with most pieces being fairly brief.  Still, that's a minor concern, and the book is well worth checking out, leaving the reader with lots of names for future reference.

And if you like the sound of this kind of trip, you should definitely check out Comma Press' website.  You see, while today's post has concentrated on a Brazilian metropolis, there are plenty more literary holiday destinations for the discerning reader to discover in their series of city- and country-based collections.  So, where do you want to go today? ;)

Thursday, 10 July 2014

'Paradises' by Iosi Havilio (Review)

Over the last couple of years, I've discovered many great books and writers, mainly in translation, but it's always nice to return to old favourites.  However, in some cases, these discoveries have quickly become old favourites, with sequels appearing within a decent space of time.  Good examples of this are Jon Kalman Stefansson with his Icelandic sagas, Karl Ove Knausgaard and his very public midlife crisis and (of course) Elena Ferrante's bitter, twisted and compelling tales of two women in Naples :)

Let's see if today's post, my first for this year's Spanish Lit Month, can add another name to that worthy list...

Iosi Havilio's Open Door was a novel I enjoyed a few years back, and Paradises (translated by Beth Fowler, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a follow-up book, featuring the same protagonist.  It picks up several years after the events of the first book, with our nameless heroine still living on the old farm in the country.  However, right from the start, Paradises shows us that things will be a little different this time around - her partner, Jaime, has just been killed in a hit-and-run incident, and our friend decides that it's time to head back to the big bad city.

However, things are a little different this time around.  First, she lands a job at a zoo, mainly thanks to Iris, a Romanian migrant who lives at the same lodging house.  Then, Eloisa, her oversexed friend from the country, manages to track her down.  Oh, there's one other thing - did I forget to mention her four-year-old son, Simon?

While the story and setting are different from those of Open Door, the style is very much the same.  It's just as detached, just as world weary - and just as lacking in sentiment:
"In this new Jaime, the final Jaime, who I'll only see this once, in addition to his stillness, the smell of alcohol or formaldehyde, I'm not sure, I suddenly discover an oddity that bears little relation to death.  Instead of his lips being sealed, as was his habit, somewhere between resignation and embarrassment, I catch sight of a small opening at the right-hand corner of his mouth, a sarcastic, sly smile, as if death had caught Jaime mocking something."
(And Other Stories, 2013)
We don't waste too much time grieving poor Jaime.  Instead, his departure merely marks the start of a new stage in his widow's life.

She moves on, then, just as she arrived, without leaving a trace, and with all contacts left behind.  Simon is one addition to her baggage, but he too is quiet and unassuming, not a boy to overcomplicate her life.  However, for the first time in years, she has to find a job, entering the world of work once more.  From the country to the city, you might think it's back to reality - the truth is that none of it seems real...

In fact, Paradises is pervaded by a dreamlike, grotesque quality at times, and when she moves into an old tower block, it's almost like a journey into a twisted fairy tale.  Not that you'd find much like this in a kids' book:
"But the thing that keeps me from sleep more than anything, adding to the insomnia of recent days, is not the noise from the street or the music or conversations, but those strange murmurs produced in the bowels of the building and which at times I think might be in my head.  Metallic sounds, wind-like, flushes, hums, sputters, like the secretions of a decomposing organism."
What awaits her there does remind the reader of certain of Grimm's Tales, though.  There's Tosca, the gigantic, cancer-ridden, morphine-addict matriarch of the building, watching over the goings on with the help of her mentally handicapped son.  Together, they sit at the top of a society of drug dealers, drag queens and other assorted human jettsam in a squat with unreliable power and water...

It's inevitable that Eloisa, the most memorable character from the first novel, crashes back into the life of the main character.  The younger woman is as mad as ever, but slightly different in this new environment, and this actually sums Paradises up nicely - it's very similar to Open Door, yet very different at the same time (if that makes sense...).  While the older woman is happy to see Eloisa again, she's never quite sure whether to go along with her stunts or cut her off.  There's some excellent interplay here, and for readers who remember the first book, the sexual tension between the two is skilfully drawn out.

Havilio's style is simple, but hypnotic.  While the plot is quite ordinary, the author's handling of it makes it seem as if it's happening a world away.  It can all seem hidden behind a veil of fog - you see, the main character just isn't quite on our wavelength:
"Simon has taken advantage of those seconds of distraction to escape from my sight.  He's hiding or being hidden by the landscape.  One of the two is using the other.  I'm not going to shout, I wouldn't know how.  I wait, to see if he appears, surely he'll appear, but he doesn't appear.  I stand up and walk without alarm, accommodating my flip-flops between the holes and the stones."
She seems incapable of strong emotions, no matter what life throws at her, and her inability to really get upset adds to the dreamlike feel of the novel.

While I'm not quite sure Havilio is up with the writers I mentioned at the start of the post, Paradises is very enjoyable and well written with a good translation (one with a noticeably British-English feel).  In truth, it's not really about the story, it's all about the 'vibe' - it's a mellow book, with occasional (deliberate) jarring tones of swearing and drugs, just enough to keep the reader on their toes.  Enough of my thoughts though - I'll leave the last words to our anonymous friend, words which sum up her style perfectly:
"I offer no opinion, nor do I contradict her.  I prefer to let things follow their natural course, then I'll see."
And that pretty much sums her (and the book) up ;)

Monday, 7 July 2014

'The Beautiful Team' by Garry Jenkins (Review)

Everyone has a favourite World Cup, usually from their youth, and mine (as I said last week) was Italia '90.  However, people of a certain (ahem) vintage have a different opinion, and most experts agree - when it comes to World Cups, you really can't beat Mexico 1970.  Why?  Well, that's because it saw the emergence of a team that many consider to be the best ever...

The Beautiful Team is writer Garry Jenkins' attempt to relive those heady days in Mexico by tracking down the eleven superhumans who played in the final in Mexico City's imposing Azteca Stadium.  From Felix the (crazy) cat between the posts to Gerson imposing order at the back, all the way to the lightning-fast Jairzinho on the wing.  Oh, and there's one more man up front that I'm sure most of you will have heard of ;)

Jenkins has some issues tracking everyone down (and finding the time and money to arrange the interviews isn't easy either), but when he does get to talk to the players, the story of one glorious month unfolds.  While the focus is on the footballing side of events, there is more to the story though.  Jenkins also has a look at what came next for the players - and the country.  As I've said before, sport and politics are rarely completely separate...

The Beautiful Team is an interesting look at a group of footballing legends redeeming their country's pride and creating history in the process.  After the disaster of their 1966 title defence in England, Brazil drew up detailed plans to return to the top.  For perhaps the first time in football, a team adhered to their training and diet with military precision, giving them a physical edge they had lacked four years earlier.  These were still very different times though - a couple of the players couldn't get by without their half-time cigarettes...

The Brazilians are all great characters, and very generous with their time.  We get to meet Gerson, the general, a commanding, colourful presence on the pitch - and off:
"In the flesh Gerson is part papagaio, part pega, a magpie.  Gold jewellery drips off him - a chunky chain hangs around his neck, two equally weighty bracelets around his wrist.  Throughout he seems intense, watchful and wary.  He has long since given up the battle with baldness.  His polished head accentuates the nobility you noticed even back in Mexico.  You look at Gerson and suspect he probably commanded Roman legions in a previous life."
p.7 (Pocket Books, 1999)
Jenkins certainly doesn't shy away from letting his descriptive muse free ;)  We also meet such characters as Felix, the mad goalkeeper desperate to counter views that anyone could have stood between the Brazilian sticks, and Tostao, the intellectual who returned to a medical career after becoming disillusioned with the game.

Of course, the star of stars was Pele (at the time of the book, he was Special Minister for Sport), a man who exudes charisma and is adored worldwide (one of my favourite parts of the book is an anecdote of Pele being sent off in a match outside Brazil, where the crowd rioted so much that he was brought back on - and the ref was escorted from the stadium by the police instead...).  In his office in Brasilia, politicians queue up to visit him, starstruck supplicants desperate for a photo with the great man - an example of politics and sport...

And the sport was also used for politics...  As much as the book is about the team, it's also about Brazil, a country with many issues (as the protests surrounding the current World Cup show...):
"When Le Corbusier came here in the 1930s he mapped out a community with half a dozen towers.  Six decades on there are more skyscrapers than there is sky.  If the economist Schumacher was right and small is beautiful, then Sao Paulo is the third least beautiful city on earth.  I do not ever want to see the first or second." (p.79)
Ugly cities aren't the biggest issue though.  After a military coup, one government focus is using the team for propaganda purposes, which involved getting the original coach fired, and attempting to influence team selection.  It seems there was a dark side to the wonderful triumph...

The Beautiful Team is a great read for football fans, but in comparison with All Played Out, it's simply out of its league.  Davies' writing gradually increases the tension, creating a narrative that stands up to any work of fiction, but Jenkins constantly repeats himself, ignoring a wider narrative in favour of individual interviews.  In addition, while Davies is analytical and insightful, weaving tournament, society, media and players into one absorbing story, Jenkins is more repetitive and doesn't really do much more than say what actually happened.  I'm not sure if Jenkins ever read All Played Out, but he could have picked up a few tips if he had.

Still, it's certainly worth a read, particularly for the insights from the players themselves.  It's fascinating to hear them talk about the importance of the England game in the group stage and the struggle to find the best team for the later stages, the team that would become greats of the game.  The truth is that the performance of the 1970 Brazil team is the stuff of legends - all later teams are mere shadows of Pele and co.  Perhaps it was inevitable that it was Brazil that produced these legends:
"The world is full of countries in which football is enmeshed in passion, power and politics.  Nowhere else, it is nice to think, is it so inextricably linked to the concept of freedom." (p.143)
Ah, Brazil...

Saturday, 5 July 2014

June 2014 Wrap-Up

June has been a bit of a tough month - as a result, I've just been coasting a bit with the blog.  Still, there were some books read, and a fair few reviews as well...

Total Books Read: 6

Year-to-Date: 62

New: 4

Rereads: 2

From the Shelves: 2
Review Copies: 4
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 1 (1 review copy)

Novels: 2
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 1
Non-Fiction: 2

Non-English Language: 4 (3 Korean, Spanish)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 8: 0 (1/1)

Books reviewed in June were:
1) I'll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin
2) Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
3) The House with a Sunken Courtyard by Kim Won-il
4) Granta 127: Japan, ed. Yuka Igarashi
5) Our Twisted Hero by Yi Mun-yol
6) Black Flower by Kim Young-ha
7) The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
8) Modern Korean Fiction, ed. Bruce Fulton & Youngmin Kim
9) All Played Out by Pete Davies

Tony's Turkey for June is: Nothing

Nothing disappointed me in June - that's the kind of month I like :)

Tony's Recommendation for June is:
Arnon Grunberg's Tirza

There were some great books here, and it's hard to single any out.  The two collections were excellent, and the other four Korean books were all entertaining.  All Played Out was an enjoyable trip down memory lane, while Elena Ferrante is always top-class.  However, Tirza is a horrible, twisted book - and a very, very good one to boot :)


I'm not going to make any promises for July, but as Spanish-Language Literature Month is around the corner, I'll do my best to get a couple read from my TBR pile.  As I said, though - no promises ;)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

'Stingray' by Kim Joo-young (Review)

Recently, I received an e-mail with some welcome news regarding the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature, namely that the series will be adding five more books to its collection later this year.  Before I start thinking too much about those, though, there's the small matter of trying the rest of the first ten (see my other reviews here), and today sees my review of the sixth of those original ten - and a very good one it is too :)

Kim Joo-young's Stingray (translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra, review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in a small Korean village in the 1950s.  Se-young, a teenager living alone with his mother, is alarmed one morning by his mother's cries, and when he goes to see what has happened, he discovers an unexpected intruder - a young woman who has crept in to shelter from the cold.

Her name is Sam-rae, and after initial arguments, she temporarily becomes a part of the family, helping out with the housework.  She eventually disappears, leaving Se-young and his mother to fend for themselves, and it seems as if this has just been a brief, memorable interlude in their lives.  However, Sam-rae is to return, and her initial arrival is just the start of a chain of events which have a huge impact on the young boy's life.

Stingray, at 124 pages, is more of a novella than a novel, and it could definitely be seen as a sort of Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story.  Throughout the work, Se-young begins to understand more about the world around him, forced to grow up a little more quickly by the events unfolding at home and wider afield.  By the end of the novella, circumstances have changed completely, but the reader feels that Se-young is better equipped to deal with whatever happens next.

The title has a significance as the stingray is a fish which is left tied to a door handle as a symbol of the father's possible return.  While Se-young has few memories of his father, nevertheless, he longs for his return, flying the kites which act as a symbol of his childhood:
"On those days I would often lose my kites, their strings usually snapping after becoming too taut when the kites soared so high.  After the kites broke free, they would fly away over the mountain ridges, flapping up and down as they did, and I used to watch them vanish from my sight while feeling a great loss, and all this always reminded me of my father, who had left us behind a long time before."
p.9 (Dalkey Archive, 2013)
While the mother rarely mentions her absent husband, she is complicit in Se-young's behaviour, dropping her sewing and making new kites whenever he loses one...

One of the unanswered questions of the story is why Se-young's father left (we know who he left with...).  One thing that is clear is that he is another example of a common K-Lit figure, the no-good, drunken, lazy husband - if there's one thing I've learned from my recent reading, it's that Korean writers don't think much of family men of the past century.  Of course, this is contrasted with the saintly, hard-working, long-suffering (and domineering) mother, again, a typical literary character (c.f. The House with a Sunken Courtyard).  Se-young's mother is another overworked character of the type, in ill health and socially isolated.

Se-young himself doesn't quite get everything that is happening (and has already happened), but the beauty of the story is that neither do we.  The reader is frequently (deliberately) left in the dark, forcing us to identify even more closely with the adolescent hero and underlining Se-young's innocence and naivety.  In fact, what appears to be a fairly simple story turns out to have a lot going on beneath the surface.

The actual writing, and translation, is fairly accomplished and elegant, with some nice, poetic observations:
"Two days later it snowed again.  Being naturally shy, snow always fell during the night and thus people could only see her figure in the morning." (p.47)
Stingray is far from plotless, however, the plot is far from the only concern of the book.  It's a story which flows along slowly, with the reader constantly aware of something happening away from the main events, an effect achieved in part by the indirect language used, drifting (like the snow...).

A book I was reminded of on reading Stingray was Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, another elegant, wintry novella.  There's the snowy setting, of course, but there's also a sense that there's far more to the story than the Western reader is able to glean on a first reading.  One surprise is that a few of the major characters are a lot more tangential than most readers would expect.  Both Sam-rae and Se-young's neighbour, Jang, turn out to have much smaller roles than I would have thought half-way through the book.  It's all part of getting to grips with a slightly different literary culture :)

Stingray is one of my favourites from the series so far, at the same time simple and enjoyable, yet puzzling and slightly inaccessible.  This is partly due to cultural differences, but I'm convinced that this was also Kim's intention, putting the reader in the shoes of an adolescent attempting to come to terms with life and the big, wide world, without all the tools required to fully understand the games people play in society.  It all makes for another great entry in Dalkey's K-Lit library - can't wait for the next one ;)

Monday, 30 June 2014

'All Played Out' by Pete Davies (Review)

As the observant among you may have noticed, there's a little football tournament on at the moment down in Brazil, and (understandably) I've been slightly preoccupied recently.  For many teenagers all over the world, Brazil 2014 will turn out to be the tournament that all others will be measured against.  For me, however, my formative footballing experiences happened a good generation ago - and today's book tells everyone exactly how it went...

Pete Davies' All Played Out (recently rereleased - and filmed - as One Night in Turin) is the story of Italia '90, the most memorable World Cup of my younger years.  As many of you may know, one of the better performers in the competition was England, and Davies takes the reader on a ride with the team, starting with the qualifiers, moving onto the first, stuttering steps in Sardinia during the group stage, before getting lost in the euphoria of England's success in the knock-out stage.

While the focus is on the football, what makes All Played Out so good is the way in which Davies sets the team's progress against background concerns.  Each game is sandwiched by interviews with the team, comments on the chaotic organisation of the Italian hosts and the constant tussle with the hyper-critical press.  However, the overriding theme of the book is that of a country which has lost its way - in the era of the hooligan, England, to the outsider, certainly appears all played out...

From the very first paragraph, touching on the wonderful opening game of the competition, the memories came flooding back.  It's the start of a story about the beautiful game, and of the importance of the national team to the country, as the then England manager confirms:
"The national team is the flagship of that - but it's more than that, the dimensions of it are frightening.  When you become the national manager, you realise how important it is to the country, because people are patriotic about it.  And winning does mean such a lot."
p.84 (Mandarin, 1991)
That being the case, can the England team do the country proud and improve the country's mood?

As anyway who remembers those times will recall, it was certainly needed.  1990 was a time when football was at its nadir in England, what with the clubs still being banned from European competitions after the events of Heysels, and the stadium tragedy at Hillsborough the previous year.  Much of the focus pre-tournament was on the notorious hooligans and their constant running battles with the police:
"These, it seemed, were the new horror days of a nation that was all played out, a nation of riot and yobbery, a nation whose football was oafish and whose fans were louts, a nation with a ridiculous government, an economy in a tailspin, food you daren't eat and weather you daren't go out in... England, England, whatever the hell happened to England?" (p.6)
And, twenty-four years on...  It was little surprise when England were exiled to Sardinia for the group stages, only being allowed into Italy 'proper' once the knock-out stage had begun.

Sadly, the football was just as dire as the behaviour off the pitch, and another running theme of the book is the need to change a failing system - or, to put it in footballing terms, to 4-4-2 or to 3-5-2.  In many interviews with the manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, Davies tries to understand the thinking behind his stubborn defence of his tactics (and the violently sudden about-face during the tournament).  Robson is a man from another generation, and it shows in the way he views the World Cup, with war metaphors never far from his description of England's (ahem) 'campaign'.

We also get access to the players, and with the book not coming out until after the tournament, the men in the middle were surprisingly candid in their views about the team and the country.  There are several great in-depth interviews with stars like Chris Waddle, John Barnes and Gary Lineker in which they voice their frustration about the way in which they are forced to play.  Of course, the football fans amongst us will know that there was a happy ending :)

Of course, off the pitch, thing are slightly different.  Davies spends a lot of time talking about the England followers, and the conclusion he comes to is that the fans are simply a reflection of the country; expecting ill-educated, boorish young men, most fuelled by alcohol, to act as if they were sitting at Wimbledon's centre court is slightly unrealistic.  It's English society which has created the issue, and the hooligans are merely the public face of the country's failings.  However, Davies also discovers that the hype doesn't always match up to reality:
"Because people behaved, people paid, and they were welcome to come back.  But this, of course, is one headline you'll never read:

And this is where we come to the first villains of the book, the English press.  With legions of reporters sent to the country, there's a need to find content, even if that involves making up stories - or urging hooligans to throw bricks through windows.  Once the indignation has been dialled up to eleven, it's then time for the politicians to get involved (as was the case when Margaret Thatcher wanted to withdraw the team from the competition...).

Of course, as fascinating as the background is, it's ultimately all about the football, and if the press are the minor villains, it's Argentina, and Maradona in particular, who are the ultimate supervillains.  From their initial catastrophe against Cameroon, the ugly Argies march on and on, upsetting fans, players and knee-caps aplenty.  With a supporting cast of efficient Germans, flawed Brazilians and nervous Italians, it all makes for one hell of a show ;)

All Played Out is simply a great football book, particularly for those who remember the summer of 1990, and it's one I highly recommend.  I'll just finish this post by sharing a little story with you all, one of my experiences of the tournament.  As a fifteen-year-old Ireland fan, this was a great competition to watch, except for when it came to the second-round penalty shoot-out against Rumania/Romania.  As it was about to begin, there was a knock on the door, and our rent collector, a proud Irishman, asked politely if he could just come in and watch the shootout.  After eight goals and one save, David O'Leary stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty - and the rent collector, my Dad and I danced and cheered all around the living room...

What memories will be made at Brazil 2014, I wonder?