Category Archives: Spanish Literature

Kissing Circe and Living to Tell It: Essays by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

In an essay entitled “And of My Cuba, What?” author Guillermo Cabrera Infante describes his escape from his island homeland and the Castro regime as “kissing Circe and living to tell it.”  He was born in Gibara, Cuba’s former Oriente Province in 1929 and moved with his parents to the capital city when he was twelve-years old.  Cabrera Infante’s parents were founding members of Cuba’s communist party and the author himself, as a socialist, opposed the Batista regime and supported the Revolution of 1959.

The author, however, quickly becomes disillusioned with the Castro’s increasingly totalitarian regime.   Cabrera Infante was head of the literary magazine Lunes de Revolución, a supplement to the Communist newspaper Revolución, which was shut down by Castro in 1961.  Having fallen out of favor with the Communist government, he was sent off as a sort of minor exile to Belgium to serve as the cultural attaché  in the Cuban embassy there.  When his mother dies in 1965, he travels back to Cuba for the funeral and thinks he will only be there for a few weeks.  But when he attempts to board the plane back to Belgium, he is pulled off his flight by the Cuban authorities who, for reasons never known to Cabrera Infante, will not let him out of the country.  The author is trapped in his homeland, a rapidly decaying and depressing place, that he no longer recognizes.

In August, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Map Drawn by a Spy which is Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical account of the frightening four months he spent in 1965 trying to escape from Cuba.  I highly recommend this fascinating book which portrays his harrowing escape to Madrid and eventually to London where he spends the rest of his life.   After his voluntary exile from Cuba,  he becomes a staunch and frequent critic of Castro and his government.  His essay “And of My Cuba, What?”, written in exile in January of 1992,  and “Answers and Questions,” written in July of 1986, are both included in his collected volume of non-fiction writing entitled Mea Cuba translated into English by Kenneth Hall and published in 1994 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.  Cabrera Infante’s essays are consumed with the nostalgia and longing that one would expect from an exile, a man that never expects to see his birthplace, his family or his friends again.  I chose to write about “And of My Cuba, What?” and “Answers and Questions” because they are two of the angriest, most chilling pieces in the collection and have an important message about corruption and greed in government and leadership.

In “And of my Cuba, What?”, Cabrera Infante directs his fury towards Fidel Castro whom he blames for economically, socially and spiritually ruining Cuba and plunging it back into a primitive time.  He writes:

Now, because of the deterioration of the economy, of capital and of the capital, of the whole country that has ceased to be Cuba to become the Albania of the Caribbean (a phrase with which I portrayed the whole island then), the nation has been demolished, ruined and brought finally to a fate worse than death: to take corruption in life.  Havana is as destroyed physically as Beirut, in a civil war made by one man.  Fidel Castro lives out his last days in his palace (read bunker) surrounded by physical and moral ruins.

Cuba’s history as well as her geography, Cabrera Infante argues, have helped to keep Castro in power for decades.  “All Cuba, as Berlin once was, is surrounded by a wall” he states.  As an island, Cuba’s natural wall, or barrier, is water.  Not even the Americans could successfully breach this “wall” in the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Cubans looked to Castro to free them from the oppression of the Batista regime, but no one expected him to stay in power, through force and violence, for decades.  Cabrera Infante’s anger towards Castro is palpable throughout this essay and he uses multiple, horrifying examples of Castro’s tyrannical leadership to justify his ire.  When  he visits Havana in 1965, he realizes that Castro has “made life regress to infrahuman levels…”  One of the most shocking revelations in this essay is the new form of racism that Cabrera Infante accuses Castro of creating.  Cubans are refused entrance to hotels, restaurants, beaches, night clubs and resorts unless they are accompanied by foreigners and can pay cash with American dollars.  But American dollars are also illegal and the punishment for possessing them is severe.  The author calls this an “indecent apartheid.” In addition to this racism, Cabrera Infante describes the shoot-to-kill policy used against those trying to escape the island, the concentration camps created for homosexuals and the Cuban version of the Nazi Blockwarts whereby every Cuban is forced to spy on his neighbor.

“Answers and Questions” portrays the dilapidation of what was a once prosperous and beautiful Havana and the effect this has on the every day lives of Cubans.   During his last visit to the island, he is horrified that he no longer recognizes his birth place:

Cuba now was not Cuba.  It was another thing—the double in the mirror, its doppelganger, a living robot from which an accident by its maker had provoked a mutation, a genetic change, a switch of chromosomes.  Nothing was in its place,  The features were recognizable, but even in Havana the buildings showed a new leprosy.

What was most striking in this essay is the author’s description of the lack of basic supplies that we take for granted.  Food, coffee, clothing and medicine are all scare in Castro’s Cuba unless one is lucky enough to have access to the stores reserved for diplomats or wealthy enough to afford items from the black market.  Cabrera Infante writes one of the most thought-provoking quotes which I keep playing over in my mind: “In theory, socialism nationalize wealth.  In Cuba, by a strange perversion of the practice, they had socialized poverty.”

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

One of the saddest stories included in Cabrera Infante’s essay is the death of his mother who suffers and passes away from a basic ear infection because she is not given appropriate and timely medical treatment.  I would argue that such a socialization of poverty is not unique to Cuba.  As I have read quite a bit of post-Soviet literature in the past few years, one of the themes that comes up in all of this writing about totalitarian regimes is a dearth of supplies, food, medicine and other items that are necessary to live an anxiety free and dignified life. Today, as I watched the American president call for the repeal of Obamacare without any viable plan for millions of Americans who will otherwise have no access to health services I kept thinking about Cabrera Infante’s essays.  It’s sickening that The President and the other Senators who are promoting this horrible agenda have access to the best health care in the world while expecting everyone else to go into bankruptcy or die due to the absence of appropriate care.  If we aren’t careful then Cabrera Infante’s nightmare might become our own reality.

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Review: The Proof by César Aira

Aira’s novella has three distinct parts to it, all of which display his masterful ability to play with time in his narrative. The story begins with a sixteen-year-old girl named Marcia walking down a street in Flores, observing other young people talking, hanging out and listening to music.  Marcia, a self-conscious, over-weight, slightly depressed, is shocked yet excited when two punk girls named Mao and Lenin yell out to her, “Wanna fuck.”  Aira’s chronicle of Marcia moving through the crowd of teenagers and her initial encounter with the punks takes up the first thirty pages of the book.  His detailed descriptions of young people gathered on the sidewalk, Marcia’s thoughts as she walks through these crowds and the impending twilight serve to stretch out the events in his downtempo narrative.  His lyrical prose and vivid elements of a night on the streets of Flores kept me earnestly turning the pages in this first part of The Proof:

She came up against floating signs: every step, every swing of her arms met endless responses and allusions…with its sprawling youthful world, arriving in Flores was like raising a mirror to her own history, only slightly further from its original location—not far, easily reachable on an evening walk.  It was only logical that time should become denser when she arrived.

Marcia decides that she is afraid of the foul-mouthed and overbearing punk girls, but she is also curious enough to find out more about these strange girls so she agrees to have a conversation with them at a nearby burger joint.  Aira slows down the tempo of the story in this second part of the book to the point where I was bored and almost gave up on the book.  The three girls attempt to have a ridiculous exchange about what it means to be a punk.  According to Marcia this means listening to The Cure, wearing dark clothes and sporting a wild, purple hairstyle.  The punks, however, reject any such labels.  Aira seems to be making fun of his characters and their ridiculous,  and at times cruel,  “fuck everyone” attitude.  This goes on for what seems like a very long, drawn out thirty five pages; he slows down time to the point of oblivion with a long, slow, nihilist discussion among his characters that goes around in circles:

…despite the strangeness of the two punks, she could make out a shallow depth to them: the vulgarity of two lost girls playing a role.  Once the play was over, there would be nothing left, no secret, they would be as boring as a chemistry class…And yet at the same time she could imagine the opposite, even though as yet she didn’t know why: maybe the world, once it has been transformed once, can no longer stop changing.

When the trio finally decides to leave the restaurant, the time in the narrative picks up speed to the point that the book feels like it goes by in an instant.  I am glad that I stuck with it until the end.  The punks decide that they want to prove their love for Marcia by a violent holdup of a grocery store which scene feels like something out of a big budget, action movie.  Explosions, shootings and decapitation are all packed into the last twenty-five pages of the novella.  By including so much action and description, to the point of shock and gore, Aira brings his narrative to a quick, unsettling and astonishing end:

That was when Mao appeared in a hole created by the broken glass, revolver in one hand and microphone in the other.  She looked calm, self-assured, an imposing figure, in no hurry.  Above all in no hurry, because she wasn’t wasting a single moment.  Things were happening in a packed continuum which they had perfect control of.  It was if there were two distinct times happening simultaneously: the one the two punks were in, doing one thing after another without any pause or waiting, and the other of the spectator-victims, where everything was pauses and waiting.

The final scene solidified for me the story as metaphor for the ridiculous things we sometimes do to prove our love for another person.  Mao claims that the depth of her love-at-first-sight for Marcia is worth creating such havoc and chaos.  Before robbing the cash registers, Mao shouts an interesting message to her victims in the grocery store: “Remember that everything that happens here, will be a proof of love!”  Not all of us rob and set fire to grocery stores to prove our love to another person, but some days the hell we put ourselves through in the name of this complex emotion makes us feel like we have gone to the same extremes as Mao.  As I was reading Aira’s final, astounding conclusion to The Proof I was reminded of a few lines of the poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams:

I cannot say
that I have gone to hell
for your love
but often found myself there
in your pursuit.

This is my first contribution to Spanish Literature Month hosted by Stu and Richard.  Please visit their blogs to see the list of the great selection of books being reviewed.

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Review: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 1890 and this English version has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

My Review:
his-only-sonBonifacio Reyes has spent his whole life carrying out the commands that others have bestowed on him.  When he is a young man he is coaxed into eloping with Emma Valcárcel , the spoiled only child of Don Diego Valcárcel, a prominent lawyer in what Alas describes as a “third-rate provincial capital.”  When the couple’s plans are thwarted and they are captured , Emma is confined to a convent and Bonifacio is banished to Mexico where he will live a sad and lonely existence for the rest of his life.  Or so he thought.

When Emma’s father dies she is finally released from the convent and as her father’s sole heir, she lives a comfortable and pampered life.  Despite the time that has passed, Emma continues to pine away for her beloved Bonifacio but in order to avoid a town scandal, she wants a different husband first before she marries Bonifacio.  Emma manages to capture a sickly husband who doesn’t last very long, and once she is done playing the role of mournful widow, she has her family track Bonifacio down in Mexico where he is working for a newspaper.  Bonifacio is easily lured back to Spain where, within three months, he becomes the kept husband of Emma.

Alas slowly unravels Emma’s dark side throughout the novel.  Emma declares very early on that the honeymoon is over but she keeps her handsome Bonifacio around her, dressed in the finest clothes, to show him off to the rest of the provincial town whenever it is convenient.  Bonifacio spends most of the day playing a flute which he finds among his deceased father-in-law’s old papers.  The couple appears to settle into a comfortable, yet affectionless, existence together:

Emma never asked him about his interests nor about the time they filled, which was most of the day. She demanded only that he be smartly dressed when they went out walking or visiting. “Her” Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town’s society ladies. She showed off her husband, for whom she bought fine clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to present him as a good, simple soul.

The turning point that really sours their marriage is a miscarriage that Emma suffers which affects her health and prematurely ages her.  After this distressful brush with death, Emma becomes an unbearable tyrant and unleashes all of her frustrations and abuses on Bonifacio.  Alas’ story reads like a tragicomedy in which neither partner in the marriage is happy but neither party can be without the other.  Bonifacio is on call in the evenings so that he can rub unguents and lotions on his wife’s sickly body and while he does these and other demeaning tasks for her she hurls abuses and insults at him.  The most awful part of this for Bonifacio is not the name-calling or even the completion of these tasks, but the sheer noise that Emma raises when Bonifacio is carrying out his duties.  Bonifacio craves, more than anything in life, to have peace and quiet in his house.  Whenever Emma calls his name, the poor man shutters:

Telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation; she could not do without his attentions nor, equally, without rewarding him with shrill, rough words.  What doubt could there be that her Bonifacio was born to put up with and to care for her.

Bonifacio, who prides himself on his appreciation for music and the arts, finds a second home at the local theater where a troupe of second rate opera singers have temporarily set up shop. Bonifacio finds the peace and quiet he so craves among the opera singers who view him, at first, as a cash cow and as a sucker that will pay for their expensive dinners.  Bonifacio gets into a couple of touch spots trying to get money out of his wife’s uncle, who serves as the family accountant.  Bonifacio quickly realizes that the best way to get into the heart and the bed of Serafina is to give her partner Mochi money whenever he asks.  Bonifacio engages in a passionate and sensual love affair with Serafina and he carefully keeps his musician friends away from his home and his wife.

At this point in the story Alas ramps up the comedy as Bonifacio and Emma engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.  Emma has gradually been recovering her health and is only pretending to be an invalid.  One night when Bonifacio comes home from the theater smelling of rice powder, Emma suspects that he is having an affair.  But instead of screaming and yelling at her husband, she seduces him and for the first time in years they start having sex again.  The sex, though, becomes, like Emma’s character, a bit crazy and depraved.   Emma admits that she has been hatching a maniacal plan to bring down both her adulterous husband and her accountant uncle who she believes is stealing from her:.

The first part of her plan is carried out when Emma insists on going to the theater and meeting Bonifacio’s music friends with whom he has been spending so much time.   But while at the theater, Emma is herself smitten with one of the opera singers, a baritone named Minghetti.  Emma and Minghetti flirt shamelessly with one another and arrange to see each other on a regular basis when Minghetti offers piano lessons to Emma.  This is where the story reaches its pinnacle of farce as Emma and her lover carry on right under Bonifacio’s nose.

It is also at this point that Emma finds out that she is pregnant.  Bonifacio becomes maudlin and sentimental over the fact that he will now have a son and promises to changes his ways.  He swears he will take more financial responsibility for his family and he gives up Serafina as his lover.  Bonifacio’s final act of absurdity is his refusal to believe that anyone besides himself is the father of Emma’s baby.  The novel concludes with this one statement that Alas puts in the mouth of his unheroic hero which deftly mixes the tragic and the comic: “Bonifacio Reyes believes absolutely that Antonio Reyes y Valcarcel is his son.  His only son, you understand, his only son!”

 

About the Author:
LEOPOLDO ALAS (1852–1901) was the son of a government official, born in Zamora, Spain. He attended the University of Oviedo and the University of Madrid, receiving a doctorate in law. A novelist and writer of short stories who adopted the pseudonym Clarín (Bugle), Alas was one of Spain’s most influential literary critics. He became a professor of law at the University of Oviedo in 1883 and published his first and best-known novel, La Regenta, in 1884; his second novel, Suúnico hijo (His Only Son), was published in 1890. He died in Oviedo at the age of forty-nine.

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Review: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

My Review:
33-revolutionsI first became interested in the tumultuous history of the small island of Cuba when I took a Caribbean politics course in college.  It fascinated me that an island which is so geographically close to the United States could be so very different in its political system.  33 Revolutions captures life under the Castro regime from the point-of-view of an ordinary citizen who has become disillusioned from promises of change and is trying to scratch out a bare existence.

This book is more of an ode to a an island that has been betrayed by promises of revolution than a novella.  In order to capture the atmosphere is his life the author’s constant refrain throughout the writing is “like a scratched record.”  His monotonous job is like a scratched record;  the small and nondescript apartment he lives in alone is like a scratched record;  the monotonous routine of his office where he performs minimal tasks for a government agency is like a scratched record.  Guevara’s prose is lyrical and captures the frustration of citizens like this unnamed author who feel stuck and trapped:

The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetitions, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording—the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur.)

The narrator tells us about the beginnings of the revolution in Cuba and as a result of which upheavel his well-bred mother and his ignorant peasant of a father were able to connect:

They met—or rather, bumped into each other— at one of those huge meetings where anger and fervor fused, and further encounters in various associations and assemblies ended up giving rise to an awareness that they were equal, that they had the same dreams, were part of a project that included them and made demands on them equally.

The narrator spends the rest of the novella explaining the countless ways in which this revolution failed its people and took away any spark of fervor that they once had to make their lives better. The narrator himself is brought up fully indoctrinated into the ideals of the revolution and the regime.  He was the model citizen until one day when he started reading and a whole new world, one outside of Cuban Communism, opened up to him.

One of the most interesting and enlightening descriptions in the book is that of Cuban citizens using makeshift rafts and boats to try and escape the Communist regime.  The author comments that boats full of people used to attempt to escape under the clandestine cover of night, but now people are brazen and openly board their skiffs in public during the day.  It is an incident with a large group of young people who try to hijack a government boat in the harbor that serves as the narrator’s breaking point.  He decides he can’t take the scratching of that broken record any longer and declares, “I’m not going to suppress anybody.”  And with these simple words, he declares his own minor revolution and never looks back.

About the Author:
canek-sanchez-guevaraCanek Sanchez Guevara, grandson of Che Guevara, left Cuba for Mexico in 1996. He worked for many of Mexico’s most important newspapers as a columnist and correspondent, and he wrote a regular newspaper column called “Motorcycleless Diaries.” He was a measured and informed critic of the Castro regime. He died in January 2015 at the age of forty.

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Review: Two Lines 25 World Writing in Translation

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher, Two Lines Press.

My Review:
two-linesA few times a year I find a book that I rant and rave about and recommend to everyone I know.  I become rather obnoxious with my comments that gush with praise.  I am giving you fair warning that Two Lines 25 is one of those books.  Literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish are all contained within the pages of this 192-page volume.  I am in awe of the fact that the editors crammed so many fantastic pieces into one slim paperback (there I go gushing again.)  This is the type of book that everyone needs to experience for him or herself; but I will attempt to give an overview of some of my favorite pieces.

The volume begins with a humorous and absurdist short story written by Enrique Vila-Matas and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.  I have to mention that not only is the English translation provided in these brilliantly collected pages, but an excerpt from each text in the original language also appears on the facing page in a colorful light blue that matches the artwork on the cover.  Vila Matas’s begins his story, Sea Swell, on a jarring and depressing note:  “I had a friend once.  Indeed, at the time, I only had one friend.”  This nearly friendless narrator, who is also completely broke, visits his one friend, Andre, who is living in Paris.  The unnamed narrator is an aspiring writer and Andre graciously agrees to introduce the narrator to Marguerite Duras.  The story becomes increasingly absurd when Duras offers the narrator an attic flat to rent for practically nothing.  But the narrator almost ruins the entire encounter because of his edgy demeanor which due to the two or three (he isn’t sure exactly how many) amphetamines he has ingested.    The expectation throughout the first few paragraphs is that the narrator is an absolute emotional mess and his friend Andres will have to come to his rescue.  But after Andre drinks two bottles of wine at a dinner party hosted by Duras, it is the narrator who has to pull Andre out of the Seine.  Vila-Matas, in the span of a few pages, writes a ridiculously funny tale but one that finishes with unexpected and surprising turn of events.

Russian author Dmitry Ivanov’s writing can also be found within the pages of this brilliant book.  His short story, Where Sleep the Gods, which is translated by Arch Tait, revolves around the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Putin’s strategy to sell the Olympics to the people of Sochi.  The main character in the narrative, a self-proclaimed “creative,” is named Anton and lives a comfortable life in Moscow while working for an ad agency.  Anton is used to dealing with wealthy customers who only demand the best that their money can buy.  Anton’s strategy in dealing with his wealthy clients is to adopt an air of aloofness: “He was accustomed to treating these types in a perfunctory, even insolent manner.  This was not risky, but, on the contrary, the surest approach to respect.”  When Anton is escorted in a private jet to meet a particularly important client he prepares to don his mask of insolence;  but when Vladimir Putin enters the room any and all attempts at smugness instantly dissolve.  Anton is quickly given the task of marketing the Olympics to the Sochians and is whisked off to that city to set up his Olympic headquarters.  What Anton discovers about the Sochians is astute and funny.  After spending about an hour in that city he decides that his slogan will be: “Thieves, because poets.”  You must read Ivanov’s humorous and brilliant story to fully get the joke!

Finally, I would like to discuss a piece in the collection that occupies the creative literary space somewhere between poetry and philosophy.   Nude Enumerated, written by Jean-Luc Nancy and translated by Charlotte Mandell, is a lyrical reflection on the different societal and emotional views and reactions that we have to nudity. The writing reminds me of Pascal Quignard whose philosophical poetry has also been written in shorter pieces which manage to be unexpectedly thought-provoking with only a minimal amount of words.  This was my favorite translation from the collection and the purchase of the book is worth it just for this one piece.  Nancy begins his reflection with a series of antonyms:

Nude: conquered, triumphant; undone, reassembled; lost, found;

undressed, costumed; obvious, indiscernible; shameless, virtuous;

sexed, neutralized.

Nancy proceeds to challenge us to look at different types of nudity that occur in different circumstances; his words make us uncomfortable but at the same time they make us think more deeply about the experiences we have with our unclothed human bodies.  Note also in this passage that Nancy’s asyndeton, lack of connectives like “and” or “or”, emphasizes the complexity of nudity:

Always elsewhere the male/female nude; not here, which welcomes

only clothed people, but over there somewhere undecided  at a

distance, within reach of desire of touching flattering hiding staining.

If you buy one book this month, if you only buy one more book for this entire year then I implore you to make Two Lines 25.  I haven’t even mentioned the poetry and essays that this volume also offers.  I am wondering how the editors at Two Lines go about choosing what literature to include in their collections.  I have in my mind an image of them exhaustively scouring the world in search of only the best of the best.  I don’t know how else they could produce such an astonishing collection.

To read the full index of works included in Two Lines 25 please visit: http://twolinespress.com/two-lines-journal/

About the Editor:
cj-evansCJ Evans is the author of A Penance (New Issues Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and The Category of Outcast, selected by Terrance Hayes for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets chapbook series. He edited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

CJ is the editor of Two Lines Press, the publishing program of the Center for the Art of Translation, which has quickly grown into a premier publisher of international literature, and he has edited translations of the works of authors like Marie NDiaye, Jonathan Littell, and Naja Marie Aidt. He also edits Two Lines: World Writing in Translation, a bi-annual journal of the best international literature in translation and curates Two Voices, an event series in San Francisco. He is a contributing editor for Tin House, and occasionally teaches, most recently in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.

Prior to working at Two Lines Press, CJ was an editor at Tin House for 8 years, and worked at the Academy of American Poets. He received his MFA from Columbia University, and his BA from Reed College, where he wrote a thesis on the poetics of American Hip-Hop. He was the recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, and currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, daughter, and son.

For more information visit his website:  cjevans.org

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