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Posts Tagged ‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez’

Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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On paper Siddon Rock had many of the elements that I like: magic realism, an Australian setting, a wide cast of odd characters, all in a debut novel and thus a new ‘voice’ to enjoy.  It had also garnered a positive appraisal view from Lisa’s excellent review at ANZLitLovers.  It had won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.  It is also short-listed for the 2010 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in the ‘New Writing’ category.  Would it match my expectations?

Siddon Rock is the story of the fictional town of the same name located somewhere in the Australian inland, its founding & naming, and the large cast of characters that inhabit it – many of whom are subject to miraculous visions, and each of whom carry secrets that bubble to the surface and infuse magical events.  And it is a very interesting cast of characters, including an agoraphobic Methodist minister, a cross-dressing dressmaker who is Alistair by day, Allison by night, and the disturbed returned soldier Macha Connor, who grew up wanting to be a boy and, whilst serving as a nurse in the war in Europe, comes across her male namesake Mark Connor and takes his place on the front line after his death.  There she witnesses the horrors of war and is never the same again, her arrival back into Siddon Rock marked by her naked, vigilant wanderings around the town with her .303.   The second half of the book focuses on the arrival of Catalin and her son Jos, émigrés from Eastern Europe, looking for a home and an escape from their own war-torn past.

The novel’s stronger and more interesting characters are all women (or wannabee women in the case of Alistair!).  Nell, the maligned local aboriginal woman vies with Granna, caretaker of the Aberline family, for wisdom and mystery, and there is Sibyl the daughter of the local butcher who was abused by her father until he left and now runs the shop herself, always ambushed on Sundays by painful memories of her childhood.  Indeed, men come off pretty poorly for the most part, including the befuddled Minister, the barman Kelpie Crush who hides a dark secret, the hapless Young George Aberline, and Fatman Aberline, cousin of Macha, who envies her abilities as they grow up.

Whilst I love the magic realism of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, or Peter Carey as an Australian example, some of the early fantastic events in Siddon Rock seem so over the top that I found some of images a little jarring for some reason.  I also found the writing a little mixed.  It is excellent in parts, but some sections seemed not as polished or well-edited as others.  I found the constant use of names, particularly surnames, bordering on annoying.  Kelpie Crush, barman at the pub run by Marge and Bluey, is pretty much always ‘Kelpie Crush’, hardly ever just ‘Kelpie’.  But as a counterpoint there are lovely images such as Henry Aberline sitting on the rock that becomes known as ‘Sitdown Rock’, which is then corrupted to ‘Siddon Rock’.  Henry, an Englishman who ventured to Australia in search of a butterfly, forsaking his cotton-mill wealth, eventually disappears, and the family of Jack, the aboriginal guide who lead him to this spot, say of his disappearance: “He’s a butterfly”, and, “He flew”.  Henry leaves behind not just an interesting story, but a family tree and the fledgling town which becomes known as Siddon Rock.

Once through the first 50-60 pages or so the writing is more polished.  The ideas and images are well chosen and well depicted.  Guest has found her stride, and the reading experience is a lot better for it.  One of the central themes – that of the secrets the characters carry – really comes together.  The idea and image of Catalin’s cello, on which her family history paints itself, is wonderful.  There is also the hat that Alistair has designed and asked a Parisian milliner to make for him – it arrives looking nothing like the design he sent away, but the “rich maroon-red to black” and its wings remind us of the exact same colour of the butterfly that Henry had searched for when he also journeyed from Europe to Australia – a nice echo of the magical past in the magical present.  There is Young George Aberline’s ill-fated plan to harvest the salt from the lake and sell it as Siddon Rock Salt – a humorous linkage of word and idea.  Later, we have Catalin giving a talk on the history of Germany in the war to the school children through the use of shadows thrown onto the wall by her hands – it is a wonderful scene, poetic and emotionally charged.

The story is quite ambitious for a first novel with quite a large cast of characters.  The majority of the writing measures up to the ambition very well.  It’s just occasionally let down.  Take for instance (p114): “And so Majorie began the journey towards her music. We don’t need to follow the beginning story too closely.” (Emphasis added).  ‘The beginning story’ sounds awkward.  There are many examples like this.

The great thing about the magic realism of Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie or even Peter Carey is that it feels necessary for the story; it adds meaning to the realism.  Indeed, I often think that people neglect the second word of that description: magic realism – for the magical seems best when it serves realism rather than be on show for the sake of itself.  For the majority, the magic in Siddon Rock serves the story and sense of place very well.  There’s a lot to like about it and it is a wonderful debut novel.  I think there are some fabulous ideas and some great writing, but it fell just shy of my (probably too high) expectations.  That said, I’m very interested to see where Guest’s writing goes from here.  Siddon Rock would be a perfect choice for a book-club, with lots to dissect and discuss, including, in my view, the poor ending!

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest

Vintage

ISBN: 9781741666403

291 pages

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Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works.  However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers.  Intrigued?  Allow me to explain…

Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”.  It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel.  Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph.  Sentences often go on for pages.  Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks.  It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it.  There is barely a chance to draw breath.  Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*

Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter.  He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”.  (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?!  It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.)  Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition.  There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real.  The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.

The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death.  The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud.  The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double.  Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day.  Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death.  Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.

The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight.  Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins.  He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them.  When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”.  He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation.  It all sounds eerily familiar.  Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him.  The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”.  He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.

Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt.  The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution.  At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.”  It pays to stay on the General’s good side!

In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother.  He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony.  The effort to have her canonised fails.  Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See.  The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.

When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write.  He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno.  He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’.  As always, it is the people who suffer.  In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country.  Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”.  Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her.  The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel.  As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”.  (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’).  After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.

The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”.  The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her.  He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves.  The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man.  When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”.  Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.

The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified.  One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read.  The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too.  He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans.  The only thing left to sell is the sea.  When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents.  The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.

Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics.  This is definitely the case here.  García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975.  So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).  García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years.  Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.  García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.”  The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975.  Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship.  Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez.  So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear.  This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro.  Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”.  Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’.  Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech.  Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco.  In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn.  It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing.  Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.

Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**.  I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’.  I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special.  This is one of those books.  Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long.  Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist.  I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.

One last thing: spare a thought for the translator!  Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this?  Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141032474

229 pages

* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him.  Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.

** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed.  (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!)  It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982).  The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.

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Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course whilst a freshman at Princeton ran by Joyce Carol Oates who took an interest in his writing, saying he had: “that most important of writerly qualities, energy”.  This observation is spot on – and for those readers who enjoy narrative pyrotechnics and manic energy in the style of Dave Eggers, Everything is Illuminated is most definitely the book for you.  Published in 2002, and winner of that year’s Guardian First Book Award, the story traces the journey of a Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to the Ukraine, in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi destruction of his family’s shtetl – or township, named Trachimbrod – during WWII.  The search is facilitated by his local interpreter, Alexander, Alexander’s supposedly blind grandfather, and ‘Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior’ – the grandfather’s supposed guide dog – or “Seeing Eye bitch”.

The story is constructed in two arcs, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s high-energy magical-realist novel-in-progress – which tells the story of the people of the imaginary Trachimbrod in Ukraine where his forebears are from – and a straightforward, but equally humorous account of their travels, written by his interpreter Alexander, whose interpreting skills are not up-to-scratch.  He boasts that he is ‘fluid’ in English and each sentence is littered with wild attempts at writing good English, but they betray the use of a ‘fatigued’ thesaurus without any real, first-hand experience of English.  He is excited by the chance to work: “… I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer.  It would be unordinary.”

There is much ‘reposing’ (sleeping), things are often ‘rigid’ (hard or difficult), ‘currency’ is used instead of money, and things are not so much wonderful as they are ‘majestic’.  Good things and people are ‘premium’.  And Alex signs his letters ‘guilelessly’ rather than faithfully.  And this is not even the ice atop the iceberg of translation transgressions.  This comical translation yields a great deal of fun, where absolutely nothing is ‘unordinary’, but some will find that Alex doesn’t quite ring true – a real person trying to learn English might make mistakes of tense and quickly ape any English they hear with their ear.  ‘Reality’ is sacrificed here for the sake of comedy, which I enjoyed, but others may not.

Meanwhile, Safran Foer’s story arc captures the hilarious and odd townsfolk of Trachimbrod, where there is a balance between the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Human Three Quarters’.  This arc commences with the death of Trachim B, in 1791, whose wagon has rolled on top of him in the river, pinning him to the bottom.  There is much debate amongst the people as to whether to proclaim anything – it seems proclamations are very important – the candy-maker saying they need a proclamation … “not if the shtetl proclaims otherwise” corrects another(!)  In amongst the wagon’s rising detritus a baby is found – none other than Safran Foer’s great-times-five-grandmother.

The two story arcs move in opposite directions: Safran Foer’s starts way back in 1791 and moves forward, whereas Alex’s begins in the present day and travels backward to find out the truth of what his grandfather did in WWII.  This structure and interplay works well and is one of the successes of the book.  Like Dave Egger’s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Safran Foer’s narrative bristles with verve, energy and wit.  Reading Safran Foer is like having a marching band trump through your room with symbols clashing and trumpets blaring.  No-one can deny the brash, brute-force energy of it and its willingness to test the limits.

Laughter is never far away when Jonathan arrives in Lvov on the train to be met by Alexander, who describes the meeting:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh, God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought.

The knowing and wink-wink letters from the ‘guileless’ Alex to the ‘hero’ are rife with suggestions on how to make the story better, as well as questions over whether the story should be so funny given the sad events it depicts.  Alex writes:

“We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes?  The both of us?  Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?” … and after suggesting alternatives, he adds: “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”

But the life of the story is not going to be easy or ‘excellent’.  When they arrive where Trachimbrod once stood, in the dark of night, Augustine says: “It is always like this, always dark”.  It is as if they are physically stepping into the dark past and the end of the shtetl.

Some sense greatness in Safran Foer’s style, whilst others point to a overuse of devices and pretension.  And yet others will sit somewhere in between, enjoy and go along with it to spot all the styles and cues of authors past – such as Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Dave Egger’s narrative exuberance and pyrotechnics, and Günter Grass’s wonderful The Tin Drum whose protagonist Oskar hides beneath a relative’s skirt – just like a character in Safran Foer’s novel.  I find myself in the later camp, and whilst budding authors naturally tend to echo the styles of authors they in turn admire or borrow ideas or images to suit their own story, I’m less convinced of other reviewers’ claims of Safran Foer’s ‘startling originality’ and statements to the effect ‘that the novel will never be the same again’.  The Dilettante eschews such over-exuberance!  That said, there is much to admire, and given that Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass are two of my favourite authors, reading something excellently written, humorous and poignant that also reminds me of them was a very enjoyable experience.

It is a hard task to sustain such energy for the duration of a whole novel, but Safran Foer manages it.  His climactic remembrance of past evil is well executed, and the memory of it will live long, although others have pointed out that it reminds them of Sophie’s Choice but lacking its emotional knockout punch.  What does ring true is that whilst this is a story of Jewish history and the ‘Final Solution’ inflicted by the Germans upon European Jews in WWII, Alex’s grandfather rightly states at the beginning of this scene: “Just because I was not a Jew, it does not mean that it did not happen to me.”  For the truth is that when Evil occurs, it occurs to us all.

For a gushing review, see: The Times’ (UK): Luminous Talent in the Spotlight.

For a more balanced review, see one of the Guardian’s reviews.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141008257

276 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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Ah, a return to the bounty of Latin American magic realism, and not to just any book, but one of the banner examples of the genre according to some – at least that was the promise; the reality was slightly different.  The House of the Spirits is a sweeping family saga that (eventually) intersects with a crucial part of 20th Century Chilean history with devastating consequences.  In this sense, it gives us a dramatic insight into the history of Chile, a history that Allende’s extended family was a large part of – but more of this later.  Each page is packed with ‘story’.  For the most part, sentences are indulgently long and paragraphs are packed with all manner of story slivers that break-off from the main plot-line like shards of a broken mirror.  Written in flowing, accessible language, it is clear from the opening that Allende is a born story-teller and that this is a very personal story.  What is less clear is whether her execution matches up to the scale of her ambition.

What is immediately clear is Allende’s humour, use of magical realism.  We have one of our main protagonists’ Clara Trueba’s ability to move the salt-cellar across the dinner table, accompanied by her acutely sensed prognostications and general clairvoyance.  And we have her fantastic uncle Marcos whose failed serenade of his love throws him into a deep depression – but only for a melodramatic two to three days!  He then travels the world and upon his return constructs a flying machine; everyone turns out to see the spectacle of flight as Marcos elegantly takes to the sky and disappears.  Allende’s world is populated with such wondrous characters, events and humour.  On the flip side, deaths are gruesome; take Nívea’s – Clara’s mother’s – decapitation, foreseen in a dream by Clara, and the madcap search for her head.  Only Clara the clairvoyant can track it down days later whilst heavily pregnant.  Indeed, finding the head proves too much for her and she goes into labour.  Rushed back to the ‘big house on the corner’ – the rambling family pile and a character in its own right – she gives birth to twins whilst the startled eyes of her dead mother’s severed head look on.

It is the intersection of family and country – the political differences, challenges, and history – where the story tries to come to life.  Yet for most of the novel, the ‘nationalist’ angle barely simmers to the surface of things, yet we are clear that the seeds of betrayal and exploitation that Esteban Trueba sows in his rise to both familial and political power will be bear a most bitter harvest.  Esteban’s rise is accompanied by philandering and the rape and exploitation of the peasants on his hacienda, Tres Marías.  It is at the end of the novel that the Chilean historical angle is laid bare.  Before this, Allende’s feminism and sense of social justice is clear, from the discussion over women’s right to vote, to the growing unrest in the peasant populace over the distribution of wealth and the exploitation of workers’ rights.  It is this growing tension that plagues Esteban as he seeks to control everything in his domain – from the produce and workers of his hacienda to the all the women in his life.  Unfortunately for him, Allende’s leading lady Clara is more than a match.  She is never his to claim despite their marriage.  She never loves him, which only serves to increase his rage and desperation to possess her.

Given Allende’s leftist political connections, it is no surprise that Esteban – a Conservative – is such a thoroughly malicious character. The irony is that Esteban becomes almost sympathetic after he loses power, despite his conspiratorial plotting, particularly when he returns to Tres Marías to find it taken over by the peasants who once worked the land for him, whereupon they take him hostage.  But this slight reprieve cannot last, and we see the true terror Esteban unleashed come home to roost.  As he sips champagne at the moment of the coup’s success, members of his family – who have grown to admire more socialist and even Marxist views – are being tortured by the military.  Esteban soon learns the military have no intention of handing back Congress.  ‘The Poet’ – thought to be Neruda – dies and with him is buried democracy.  Soon after Esteban expresses his “regret that the Army’s action, whose purpose had been to eliminate the threat of a Marxist dictatorship, had condemned the country to a dictatorship far more severe, one that, to all evidence, was fated to last a century.  For the first time in his life, Senator Trueba admitted he had made a mistake.”

This is where the book becomes something altogether different, or attempts to, for its focus falls on the decline of nationhood and democracy after the military coup and the accompanied terror campaign.  It becomes an altogether different book.  But this is where it starts to struggle too, for it deals with this terror only at the end, it is the climax of the book, but the book which has been a family saga now becomes a form of historical fiction.  The writing itself changes too – gone are the long, sweeping and florid sentences that characterise the first 400 pages, and in their stead are now short, sharp, action-filled sentences that ripple with the tension of the coup and its terrible aftermath.  This section in itself works well, with the delightful rescuing of Esteban by Pedro Tercero Garcia in Tres Marías mirrored in the rescue of Pedro by Esteban.  But overall, it doesn’t seem to gel.  It tries to be too much.  There is so much going on in this story, it is a wonder that it comes together at all, (and it would be a mighty task to try to summarise the labyrinthine plot with the successive generations of Truebas, their loves, their lives).  You have to admire the scale of ambition shown by Allende, particularly given this is her debut novel, but the execution of the story is not, in my view, up to the task set by such vision.  It feels like an attempt to be a Chilean One Hundred Years of Solitude fused with a tense political thriller.  As a result, it feels disjointed, as if Allende was trying to write her way through to one storyline from another – perhaps a symptom of many a debut novel.  Perhaps even Allende herself recognised this afterwards, for she again turned her attention to the harsh reality of the Chilean dictatorship with reportedly better success in her third novel Of Love and Shadows.  But I’m sure others will find this fusion exhilarating, and interesting it certainly is.

I mentioned this was an intensely personal story for Allende.  Indeed, there is debate as to whether the story is a roman à clef, with ‘The Poet’ character being Neruda, and ‘The Candidate’ and ‘The President’ characters one in the same – and both Allende’s cousin once removed: Salvador Allende.  (Salvador helped to found the Chilean Socialist Party, a Marxist party that eventually won power in 1970.  The CIA then got involved to overthrow Allende who was indeed ousted and killed in a military coup in 1973, to be replaced as President by none other than the military dictator Augusto Pinochet).  The book is preceded by a dedication: “To my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story”, which is then followed by some of Neruda’s poetry.  All of which lends itself to the belief that indeed a hidden reality underpins the narrative.  This viewpoint is further bolstered by the portrayal of the right’s plotting to oversee the economic collapse of the country with the help of foreign “gringos” later in the story.  Allende herself was forced to leave Chile when she was added to wanted lists for helping others escape the brutal Pinochet regime.  It is not surprising that the heartfelt tragedy of her lost nation comes through so strongly in her writing.  She now lives in California, and owing to the success of The House of the Spirits – which she commenced writing on the 8th of January 1981 – she has started writing each of her subsequent works on the 8th of January too.

There are nice plot turns and sections of beautiful writing.  When Clara realises she is close to death and begins to put her affairs in order, her diaries are organised, and she finds all the jewels that she had put in shoeboxes and the like over the many years of marriage, placing them all in a sock and handing it to Blanca, saying: “Put this away, darling. Someday they may be good for something besides masquerades.”  You get the sense that we’ll see these jewels again and so it proves when Blanca is forced to sell them to make ends meet after Esteban turns his attention away from the upkeep of the house.  Clara is not perturbed by death; she sees it as merely a ‘change’, and because of her ability to confer with those who have passed over, she feels that she too will be able to communicate with those in the here-and-now, that “death would not be a separation, but a way of being more united.”  But Clara is the glue that had kept the big house alive, and with her departure the house begins an inexorable decline toward oblivion.  The decay of the house is well depicted; only Clara’s blue silk-covered room remains unadulterated.

SPOLIER ALERT IN NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY

The depiction of Alba’s incarceration and torture is particularly affecting; eventually, she decides that death would be a welcome thing and stops eating, but Clara comes to her “with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.”  She then tells Alba to live so she can write down the horrible truth of what has gone on so that everyone will know the story.  In the meantime, Esteban finds himself calling upon an old whore he once lent money to, Tránsito Soto, who pops up in the storyline every now and then.  It is she who finally helps Esteban to free his grand-daughter.  A circle is completed here in the history of the family and the nation – Esteban raped Pancha García, a peasant in Tres Marías, and the grandson of this rape now rapes Esteban’s grand-daughter in a wretched parallel.  This circularity is reflected in the way Alba reads again the first line of her grandmother’s Clara’s notebooks as a place in which to finish the story, just as it had started, and reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses.

OK TO READ FROM HERE!:

But aside from the finer moments, there were plenty of clunky ones in this edition, which I’ll put down to the Spanish-English translation and poor type-setting. Examples: “Amanda clasped him to his breast frenetically”, seems a poor choice, and: “… no-one could accuse him of any greater offense that tax evasion”, [pages 258 & 259 respectively, emphasis added].  It would be interesting to see how Allende herself – now fluent in English – would ‘translate’ her own work.  There are also small inconsistencies in the plot – on the one hand Esteban is shocked when the socialists win government, whilst on the next page he has supposedly foreseen this eventuality and has prepared for it in minute detail.  Why would he be shocked if he had foreseen it?

Elsewhere, parts left me under-whelmed.  Early parts are over-written and there was a little too much repetition; I felt myself wanting to skip ahead which I rarely do in books I’m enjoying. In short, the book could be shorter, tighter and more focussed.   But I ask myself: would more ‘focus’ take away from the sheer exuberance of the tale which is what ultimately sustains interest?  We’ll never know, but all I can say is that it is a worthy read and a fairly memorable story, but the problems of execution were a let-down for me, which means it does not rate as highly for me as it will for others.  But it is a great debut novel, and strongly persuades that Allende deserves to be read further.  More highly rated by my old copy of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide and also a 1,001 Must Read is Allende’s Of Love and Shadows which is on my TBR list.  I hope for a better read from an even more accomplished author.

There is much to admire both about The House of the Spirits and Isabel Allende herself.  For more on Allende, see her wonderful, impassioned TED talk on women’s rights.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Black Swan

ISBN: 9780552995887

491 pages

Source: Personal Library aka: the Bookshelf Rainbow.

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