Category Archives: Spanish Literature

And Then The Storm of Shit Begins: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

I got a true sense of the horror and brutality perpetrated by the Pinochet regime in Chile in a Comparative Politics class in college when I was assigned to read Jacobo Timerman’s book Chile: Death in the South. The most frightening and memorable parts of the book are the personal accounts of Chileans who were beaten and tortured under Pinochet’s reign of terror. The details of the horrific tortured described by these victims has stayed in my mind for 25 years. Timerman also reveals the strategies of ordinary Chileans to avoid being murdered, tortured or disappearing without a trace. I had this book in the back of my mind as I started to read Bolaño’s novella about a priest who lives through the overthrow of Allende’s socialist government and Pinocet’s seizure of power and implementation of a ruthless dictatorship.

Bolaño, who was himself imprisoned for a short time during Pinochet’s rule, takes a different approach towards describing, or not describing, the human suffering of totalitarianism. This brief story is told by a priest named Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix who is on his deathbed and no longer wishes to remain silent about what he has witnessed in his life: “One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too….” Father Lacroix enters the seminary as a teenager and, in addition to his duties as a priest, becomes a prominent poet and literary critic in Chile.

Lacroix has access to the most prominent literary figures of the time including Pablo Neruda whom he meets at a weekend house party. The priest tells various stories about literary friends as well as himself. It’s remarkable that Bolaño not only uses a large variety of literary techniques in his narrative but he makes them flow mellifluously in such a short work. There are stories embedded within stories and Lacroix, as he is telling one of his longer tales, goes on for two or three pages in one long, uninterrupted sentence. For example, the priest takes an extensive tour of European churches and cathedrals in order to study the preservation of these buildings. He finds out that the greatest threat to these monuments are pigeons and priests throughout Europe have taken up falconry to deal with this menace:

…Fr. Pietro whistled and waved his arms and the shadow came down from the sky to the bell-tower and landed on the gauntlet protecting that Italian’s left hand, and then there wa no need to explain, for it was clear to me that the dark bird circling over the church of St. Mary of Perpetual Suffering was a falcon and Fr. Pietro had mastered the art of falconry, and that was the method they were using to rid the old church of pigeons, and then, looking down from the heights, I scanned the steps leading to the portico and the brick-paved square beside the magenta-coloured church, and in all that space, as hard as I looked, I could not see a single pigeon…

One of my favorite literary techniques that Bolaño uses is during a discussion between Lacroix and his mentor, a fellow literary critic, named Farewell. The anaphora employed throughout the conversation makes it appear more like a long-form poem then a dialogue. It’s also a good sampling of Bolaño’s erudite writing which alludes to authors ancient and modern:

And I: You have many years left to live, Farewell, And he: What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows. And I: Like the shadows you have been watching? And Farewell: Quite. And I: There’s a very interesting book by Plato on precisely that subject. And Farewell: Don’t be an idiot. And I: What are those shadows telling you, Farewell, what is it? And Farewell: They are telling me about the multiplicity of readings. And I: Multiple, perhaps, but thoroughly mediocre and miserable.

But what about Pinochet’s horrible regime and the horrors he inflicts on his fellow Chileans? I had expected something more gruesome, a work of fiction that would as detailed and honest as Timberman’s. But Lacroix, as he says in his opening words, has chosen to keep silent and his account of what takes place in Chile continues to be allusive throughout his deathbed remembrance. One has to pay careful attention to the hints he gives, like the mention of curfews throughout Santiago. Lacroix is recruited by Pinochet and his generals to give them a six week course on Marxism. The dictator and his men are kind to the priest and are good students, but he is riddled with guilt as to whether or not he did the right thing. Could he really have refused Pinochet’s request? Lacroix never says what could have happened to him if he refuses. He doesn’t even speculate. And a female author named Maria Canales holds a weekly literary saloon in her home despite curfews. Her writing is terrible and we can only assume that she is somehow connected to the regime in order to be allowed these privileges.

And so during Pinochet’s 14 year rule, Lacriox continues to read, and write poetry and criticism and only alludes to the vile parts of this dictatorship:

…my howling could only be heard by those who were able to scratch the surface of my writings with the nails of their index fingers, and they were not many, but enough for me, and life went on and on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look at it closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain…

And what does this deathbed recognition of his continued silence in the midst of totalitarianism accomplish? Few details are given—no torture, rape, accounts of families disappearing in the middle of the night— but he only remarks that the “faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The face I protected, those I attacked, the face I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.”

His concluding words do not sound like those of a man who has confessed his sins and is contrite: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

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Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.

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Engrossed, Selfsame, Directionless: The Poetry of Omar Cáceres

While at home today, feeling under the weather, while listening to the weather—pouring rain and loud, booming thunder from the remnants of a hurricane—-I reached for some poetry on my shelves.  The selections from Ugly Duckling Presse never disappoint.  From their “Lost Literature Series”, Defense of the Idol, first published in 1934, is the only collection ever written by Chilean poet Omar Caceres (1904-1943).  Due to typos in the original printing, he tried to burn every copy of his only book.  It is translated for the first time in English by Monica de la Torre.

I share two poems that are favorites, so far, in the collection.  His imagery, his language, his emotions, somehow controlled—not overwrought—struck a nerve:

Angel of Silence

1

I will remember her grand story,
her anguished panting that pulls cities apart.
Days pass by blindly like sleepwalkers,
like large propellers drunk on resolutions,
but time sings in a drop of water then…
I know she’s as far away as I want her to be mine.

Speed, then, leapt past the hidden horizon of things,
its uniform distance
on the trapezes of my scream.

So as to avoid crying, I remember, rain, your message
your great book I’d read without opening,
near the window whiplashing down
and crucifying my eyes on its black scars

The wind lurches forward with the sea, smoothing out its wrinkles
a gust of blue muscles, it gathers its perfumed ashes.

There I wait for her, alone
like the useless portraits,
multiplying the shadow’s waves

and her song won’t leave my window anymore.

Uninhabited Blue

Now, as I remember my former self, the places that I’ve inhabited,
that continue displaying my sacred thoughts,
I understand that sense, the plea with which all alien solitude surprises us,
is nothing but the proof of human sadness that remains.

Or, also, the light of the one who smashes his security, his
consecutiv’ atmosphere,
to feel how, upon returning, his entire being explodes within a great number
and to know that he “still” exists, “still” encourages and impoverishes
steps on the earth,
although he’s there engrossed, selfsame, directionless,
alone like a mountain saying the word then:
so that no one can console the one who suffers like this:
what’e seeks, those for whom he grieves,
what he loves, it’s all gone far away too, reaching itself!

The poet himself provides a description of his poems as an afterword in this edition.  It is equally as beautiful, and enlightening, as the language of his poems:

This is how I have lived.

My attitude, however, is not that of a nihilist, a narcissist, or someone who dehumanizes…

No.

It is the attitude of one who went too far into the heart of man and into his own heart; of one who is proud of his conceited hopes and who, all of a sudden, believing that he has the whole universe at his disposal in an unsurpassed enumeration, instead trips on the torn ubiquity of his I, while an index of revelations points to that stillness with its individual fire.

Hence my dreadful problem.

Those who have loved much, and who have reflected on the WHY of their suffering upon losing the objects of their love forever, they ought to understand me.

This, I didn’t write, as I said to a poet one day, “guided by the desire to WRITE LITERATURE,” such a common affectation in this land, but rather following irresistible urges: the need to define, by expressing them, my inner states of being and the TRUE situation of my I in space and time…

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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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