Tag Archives: Argentina

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.


Filed under Spanish Literature

Review: The One Before by Juan José Saer

July is Spanish literature month and Stu over at Winstonsdad’s Blog and Robert at Carvana de recuerdos are co-hosting this fantastic event.  Visit their sites to see which bloggers are participating and to read lots of great reviews of books by Spanish authors.  I chose as my first book The One Before by Juan Jose Saer, an Argentine author; this copy was given to my by Open Letters Press via Edelweiss and is translated by Roanne Kantor.

My Review:
The One BeforeThis collection of stories do not necessarily have a plot or read like traditional stories.  They are more like intense philosophical observations made about various aspects of life by the author.  The book is divided into three sections, the first of which is called “Arguments.”  The “Arguments” are short pieces that range from one to three pages and include the author’s thoughts on a variety of topics such as insomnia, geography, dreams, existence and memory.

A few of the “Arguments” were exceptionally well-written and astute, especially the one that deals with insomnia.  The author’s struggle with sleeplessness appears in several of the pieces, but the story which describes it most vividly is “A Historian’s Insomnia.”  He works as late as he can and when there are finally no more excuses he forces himself into his pajamas and into bed next to his already sleeping wife.  He writes:

The procession begins immediately, the mute creaking of insomnia, interwoven with changing forms that assault me and never leave until daybreak. Almost always, it ends with increasingly wild disintegration, whose final phase I forget most of the time, or perhaps I’m already asleep, or perhaps I believe that I’m already asleep, or perhaps I’m absorbed in a thought of which I’m not conscious, but that nevertheless I believe I understand.

Even if we don’t have chronic insomnia like the author, everyone at one point in life experiences a sleepless night or two.  The meandering, almost frantic, prose of this story relates perfectly the panic we feel when we cannot sleep and toss and turn and wonder if sweet drowsiness will ever come to us.

The last two sections of the book are longer stories entitled “The One Before”  and “Half-Erased.”  In the latter story, Pidgeon Garay is packing up and saying his final goodbyes as he is preparing to leave Argentina for Paris.  I found this particular plot interesting because the author himself spent much of his life in a self-imposed exile in Paris in order to avoid the oppressive political regime in his native country.  Pidgeon is clearly struggling with leaving his native home; he goes into great detail describing and taking in all of the sights, sounds, smells and scenery of his home in what, I perceived,  as his attempt to store as many memories as possible before his departure.  Memory and how we remember and what we remember is a common theme in this story as well as in the “Arguments.”

Also, as Pidgeon is trying to leave Argentia, there is a rising flood that keeps threatening to overtake his home town.  The army is desperately trying to do what they can to save the city and the suspension bridge that connects the city to other parts of Argentina, but the flood shows no signs of stopping.  I wondered if this flood is a metaphor for the political regime that swallowed up Saer’s native land, so much so that Saer never felt like he could return and died in exile in Paris.

Pidgeon also seems to have a crisis of identity due to the fact that he has an identical twin named Cat.  People are always mistaking him for Cat and we can’t help but wonder if part of his reason for fleeing to Europe is to try and discover his own identity and become his own man.  At one point his visits Cat at his home but Cat is not there.  Cat’s roommate, a man name Washington talks to Pidgeon but the entire time Pidgeon keeps wondering if Washington realizes the difference between the identical twins.

These stories are stream of consciousness writing, sometimes rambling, and oftentimes profound.  Saer’s prose is abundantly descriptive and he is fond of the long sentences which use little or no punctuation.  This is a short book at only 130 pages, but it took me a few days to read it at a slow pace so that I could understand and absorb Saer’s thoughts and ideas.  I highly recommend giving Saer a try if you are interested in Argentine literature.


About The Author and Translator:
SaerJuan José Saer was one of the most important Argentine novelists of the last fifty years.  Born to Syrian immigrants in Serodino, a small town in the Santa Fe Province, he studied law and philosophy at the National University of the Littoral, where he taught History of Cinematography. Thanks to a scholarship, he moved to Paris in 1968. He had recently retired from his position as a lecturer at the University of Rennes, and had almost finished his final novel, La Grande(2005), which has since been published posthumously, along with a series of critical articles on Latin American and European writers, Trabajos (2006).

Saer’s novels frequently thematize the situation of the self-exiled writer through the figures of two twin brothers, one of whom remained in Argentina during the dictatorship, while the other, like Saer himself, moved to Paris; several of his novels trace their separate and intertwining fates, along with those of a host of other characters who alternate between foreground and background from work to work. Like several of his contemporaries (Ricardo Piglia, César Aira, Roberto Bolaño), Saer’s work often builds on particular and highly codified genres, such as detective fiction (The Investigation), colonial encounters (The Witness), travelogues (El rio sin orillas), or canonical modern writers (e.g. Proust, in La mayor, or Joyce, in Sombras sobre vidrio esmerilado).

His novel La ocasión won the Nadal Prize in 1987. He developed lung cancer, and died in Paris in 2005, at age 67.

Roanne Kantor is a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin. Her translation of The One Before won the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation. Her translations from Spanish have appeared in Little Star magazine, Two Lines, and Palabras Errantes.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature

Review: Please Talk to Me-Selected Stories by Liliana Heker

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Yale University Press through NetGalley.  This edition has been translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France.

My Review:
Please Talk To MeHeker shows us in these short stories her ability to successfully write about a wide range of topics: from the relationship of servant and master, to the Oedipus Complex, to the toll that mental illness takes on an entire family.  The stories follow a stream-of-consciousness style, oftentimes involving abrupt and confusing transitions, that weaves us through the minds of many different types of characters.

The most clever story in the collection is “Strategies Against Sleeping.”  Señora Eloisa is being driven by a chauffer on a long ride during which she is very tired; she wants nothing more than to close her eyes and take a good long nap.  But the driver starts talking to her about how he could not sleep a wink on the previous night.  As a result he is very tired and wants her to talk to him so that he stays awake while he is driving.

We feel the pain and discomfort of the woman and the driver who are both fighting to stay awake for different reasons.  At one point during her forced conversations the woman becomes desperate for any kind of relief:  “For a very brief moment she had to suppress a desire to open the door and throw herself onto the road.”  In her delirium,  Señora Eloisa lets slip a very dark and personal family story that horrifies the driver and will definitely serve to keep him awake.

The story “Early Beginnings or Ars Poetica” includes the most extreme examples of the author’s abrupt transitions; this story reads like a dream sequence.  The narrator begins the story by imagining that a lion or a horse is present in his apartment when he goes to sleep .  The narrator then transitions to a philosophical musings about God and the beginnings of the earth.  Then the narrator transitions to imagining that he is four years old and is sitting in from of four cups of chocolate and a yellow plastic tablecloth on his birthday.  The story continues on in this fashion until the ending which is equally jarring.

This is my first taste of Argentinian literature and I will definitely look for more authors from this country.  I highly recommend PLEASE TALK TO MY as a quirky and symbolic collection of stories from Liliana Heker.


About The Author:
Liliana HekerLiliana Heker began her literary career at age 17, mentored by Argentine writer Abelardo Castillo. She was a collaborator in Argentina literary magazine “The Paper Cricket” and founded, along with Castillo, The Golden Bug and The Platypus. She has published several short story books which have been collected in “Cuentos” (Alfaguara). She has also written two novels, “El fin de la historia” and “Zona de clivaje”, and a collection of essays called “Las hermanas de Shakespeare”.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Short Stories