Category Archives: Spanish Literature

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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Review: Landing by Laia Fàbregas

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks Publishing via Edelweiss.  The book was originally written in Spanish and this English version has been translated by Samantha Schnee.

My Review:
landingWhat would you do if the man sitting next to you on a plane flight died during landing?  When this story begins, a young Dutch woman and an elderly Spanish man are sitting side by side on a plane flight from Barcelona to Holland.  The kind and gentle man begins to tell the woman the story of his life and how he ended up on this plane to visit his eldest son.  The Dutch woman nods off for a while and upon waking she discovers that the flight has landed and the nice Spanish gentleman has died.

My instinct in this situation would have been to immediately call for help and get the attention of the flight attendants and staff, but the unnamed female narrator acts very strangely and sits with the man until the plane has been completely emptied of passengers.  Before she is discovered by the flight attendants, she takes a small wooden box that the man was holding and secretly puts it in her own bag.  The box doesn’t seem to be anything of value but is a keepsake or a memento from the elderly man’s previous life.

The narrative is told in alternating voices between the Dutch woman, simply referred to as “Her,” and the elderly man also simply referred to as “Him.”  Fabregas’s choice to not name her characters is part of an interesting pattern I have noticed in literature in translation, especially from European countries.  Although both characters in this book have experienced loss and loneliness, the juxtaposition of the “him” versus “her” dialogue serves to highlight and bring to the forefront the profound differences between these two strangers.

The Spanish gentleman grew up in Extremadura with a large immediate family.  He is in love with a woman named Mariana, but this beautiful woman whom he idolizes has chosen his brother Pedro over him.  The narrator knows that he cannot stay in this town if he is to heal his wounds and make a life for himself.  When the opportunity arises for him to move to Holland and work in a Philips lightbulb factory he enthusiastically embraces this fortuitous change in his life.  As different obstacles are thrown in his way he always feels that his only choice is to move forward.  His natural reaction to coping with tragedies and sorrows in life is to make connections with other human beings and this always pulls him out of his strenuous circumstances.  When his future in-laws oppose his marriage, he reaches out to a local priest to intervene; when his beloved wife Willemien becomes sick, he reaches out to his neighbors for comfort and succor; when his wife dies and he is profoundly lonely he reaches out to old friends and his family for support.

The Dutch woman, by contrast, suffers some kind of traumatic experience in her life, the details of which are not fully revealed until later in the story.  This event has had such a profound impact on her that she is stuck, she cannot move forward and is an empty shell going through the motions of her lonely life.  She doesn’t have many friends and keeps her only family, a loving aunt and uncle, at a distance.  Although she technically performs her job well in a government tax office, she is oftentimes scolded at work because she does not engage socially with her colleagues and is not viewed as a “team player.”

The only activity that keeps this woman going is a list of names of one-hundred people that she is searching for and interviewing one-by-one.  This list is somehow connected to the tragedy she suffered early in her life and she feels that someone on this list will give her the answers she needs.  The author gives us the names of several people on the list but, by contrast, she never names the narrator herself.  She still simply remains “Her” all the way through to the conclusion of the book.  This literary device seems appropriate for this character since she has never been able to forge a fulfilling life for herself or make deeper emotional connections to any other person.  But it seemed more unsettling to me that the unnamed male narrator was never given a first name.  He was more jovial, outgoing and optimistic and it would have felt more natural for someone to have called him by his name at least once in the story.  At the very end he is given a surname, but we still never find out what his closest friends and family called him.

Fàbregas has written an absorbing book that explores themes of identity, human connections, art and language.  This is one of those books that perfectly lends itself to a deep and interesting discussion with other bibliophiles and is deserving of multiple reads.  This book has also inspired me to think more about books with unnamed narrators and perhaps  write a longer essay about this topic.

What other books have you read lately that do not give a name to the main character(s)?

About the Author:
l-fabregasLaia Fàbregas (Barcelona, 1973) has a degree in Fine Arts from the Universitat de Barcelona.

Between 1997 and 2010 she lived in the Netherlands, where she worked as a secretary in a bank, graphic designer in a company of industrial pumps, accounting assistant in an art festival and assistant in an art gallery. She also got the Certificate Arts and Culture management from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

In 2003, she was working as a consultant while she enrolled at the Gerrit Rietveld art school in Amsterdam to study a new speciality of art and text. That year she regained some stories she had written in Catalan when she was nineteen, about a girl who only had nine fingers. She translated several paragraphs into Dutch, and continued writing.

In January 2008 the Dutch publishing house Anthos published Het meisje met de negen vingers. The book received praise from critics in the Netherlands and has been translated into Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, Danish, Norwegian and Turkish.

In 2010 Landen was published, in Dutch, Spanish, Catalan and French, and in 2013 Gele Dagen came out, published in Catalan and Dutch.

Since February 2012, she teaches creative writing at the writing school Laboratori de Lletres in Barcelona. Since February 2014 she is also partner and co-director of the school with founder Laia Terrón.  For more information about the author please visit her website: http://www.laia.nl/en/. 

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Review: Zama by Antonio de Benedetto

This book was originally published in Spanish in 1956 and this English version has been translated by Esther Allen.

My Review:
ZamaDon Diego de Zama is a clerk serving the Spanish monarchy in a remote town in Paraguay at the end of the eighteenth century.  His position as an assistant for the Governor is supposed to be one of prestige and the first step as he moves up in his political career.  But if only he could find a way to get out of the backwater of Paraguay and be assigned a better position in Buenos Aires, which would also be closer to his home and his wife.  Zama is a lazy, selfish, and even at times stupid man who only seems to do things that hurt his career and his family.

There is a scene in the book in which Zama has just finished spending what little money he has at the racetrack betting on horses.  He decides to take a siesta in the shade where he encounters another man resting.  While this man is sound asleep Zama sees a poisonous spider about to jump on this man’s face and Zama decides to do absolutely nothing about it.  He doesn’t lift a finger to dispose of the spider or even warn the man of the impending danger of the venomous arachnid that is about to jump on his face.  Zama simply sits there and watches the scene unfold and seems rather detached from the fact that a poisonous spider is crawling on another man’s face.  This episode perfectly exemplifies Zama’s selfish attitude not only towards the world around him, but also towards his life, his job and his family.

The book is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in 1790.  When we are first introduced to Zama he is waiting for a ship to come in that might contain a letter from his wife and the salary that is owed to him by the Spanish crown.  Zama misses his wife a great deal, but the lack of intimate contact with her for almost two years drives him to find a woman to fulfil his sexual desires.  In a scene that is reminiscent of the Actaeon and Artemis story from Greek mythology, he accidentally sees a local upper class woman naked while she is bathing in a river.  Once he finds out who this woman is he does everything he can to scheme his way into her home without attracting the notice of her husband or the rest of the town.  His attempts to seduce this woman are clumsy and not well planned.

The novel skips forward four years to 1794 and Zama is still stuck in this town in Paraguay. But by this time he has moved into a ramshackle farmhouse with a widow named Emilia and has a son with her.  Zama’s salary that he is owed by the Spanish crown is very seldom paid to him, so he lives in poverty and doesn’t have very much to offer his mistress and child.  He notices the child is oftentimes dirty and crying but he is never moved to console the child or find a way to provide a better life for his family.  When he has extra money in his pocket he doesn’t offer it to Emilia or his son but instead he buys his own meals at the local inn or tavern.  His own needs continue to always come first.  Zama’s wife, whom he was so eager to be near in the first part of the book, is not mentioned at all during this time.  Zama’s emotional detachment from the hardships that his families suffer is astonishing.

In the final part of the book  Zama’s selfish nature finally brings about his downfall.  The year is now 1799 and Zama is sent on an expedition with the local militia to hunt down a notorious pillager and thief.  The sole reason that he volunteers for the mission is that he thinks it will finally get him a promotion.  The final part of the book is the most exciting as Zama travels with soldiers into remote parts of South America that are dangerous because of Indian tribes.  There is also a bit of intrigue during this part of the book when the bandit’s true identity is revealed and the only one who knows this key piece of information is Zama.  His selfish and clumsy reaction to this situation is typical of his character throughout the book but this time his impetuous actions bring about his own demise.

Reading about Zama’s life is like watching a train wreck.  We know from the beginning that because of his clumsy behavior Zama is headed for a bad end, but we can’t put the book down because of our morbid curiosity to know how he finally does himself in.

 

About the Author:
A BenedettoAntonio di Benedetto, (born 2 November 1922 in Mendoza – died on 10 October 1986 in Buenos Aires), was an Argentine journalist and writer. Di Benedetto began writing and publishing stories in his teens, inspired by the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Luigi Pirandello. Mundo Animal, appearing in 1952, was his first story collection and won prestigious awards. A revised version came out in 1971, but the Xenos Books translation uses the first edition to catch the youthful flavor.  Antonio di Benedetto wrote five novels, the most famous being the existential masterpiece Zama (1956). Los suicidas (The Suicides, 1969) is noteworthy for expressing his intense abhorrence of noise. Critics have compared his works to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sábato.  In mid-sixties or early seventies he caused a diplomatic faux-pas at a NATO meeting when during a ceremonial toast he raised his cup and said “cin cin” to bystanding Japanese diplomats. This caused an international pandemonium, as “chin chin” is a slang term for penis in Japanese. This later led to his prosecution. In 1976, during the military dictatorship of General Videla, di Benedetto was imprisoned and tortured. Released a year later, he went into exile in Spain, then returned home in 1984. He travelled widely and won numerous awards, but never acquired the worldwide fame of other Latin American writers, perhaps because his work was not translated to many languages.

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