Tag Archives: Spanish Lit. Month

Review: Blitz by David Trueba

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Other Press.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Mara Faye Lethem.  This is yet another contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard.  A special thanks to the both of them for hosting this literary event.

My Review:
BlitzBeto is a landscape architect who, like many others, has been hit hard by the economic recession in Europe.  Building and maintaining elaborate gardens and parks is a luxury that businesses and municipalities can no longer afford.  In order to make some money to pay the bills, Beto enters a landscape architecture contest in Munich, where the first prize would be enough to keep him afloat for a while.  Beto and his girlfriend, Marta who is also his assistant and partner in his landscape business, both travel to Munich to attend the landscape conference where the prize winners will be announced.

Beto is having a good time in Munich speaking with other architects and listening to their ideas and proposals.  But one night at dinner Beto receives a text message from Marta that clearly wasn’t meant for him.  He says, “Life changes when the love messages aren’t for you. That love message arrived like a lightning bolt, unespected and electric, and changed my life.”  When he confronts Marta about the message, she admits it was meant for her ex-boyfriend with whom she has reconnected and she announces that she leaving Beto to go back to her ex.

Beto’s reaction to this awful news is one of denial and inertia;  he doesn’t want to face his life again in Barcelona where he lives and works with Marta.  He impulsively decides to stay behind in Munich even though he has no money and is about to be thrown out of his hotel room.  Helga, who was serving as a translator for Beto at the landscape conference, steps in and saves Beto in more ways than one.  Helga, at age sixty-two, is about thirty years older than Beto and her offer of help appears to be a natural,  maternal gesture.  Helga takes Beto back to her apartment in Munich and over a bottle of vodka Beto learns that Helga has been divorced for fifteen years and has lived alone ever since.  Throughout the course of their conversation Beto is surprised to discover that he has become very attracted to Helga and he wants to kiss her.

Beto and Helga spend the night together and do much more than kiss.  Trueba offers a brutally honest and at times graphic commentary on the realities of aging.  Helga has sagging skin and wrinkles and Beto is ashamed that he is attracted to this woman who is so different physically and emotionally from Marta.  As they spend time together after their night of passion, Beto feels that he should be embarrassed to be seen with an older woman in a romantic situation and he realizes that this reaction is hurtful to Helga.

Beto has to face reality and say goodbye to Helga and return to the shattered remains of his life in Barcelona.  Their farewell at the airport is awkward because they don’t expect to see each other again despite two nights of emotional and physical intimacy that they shared.  The last part of the book when Beto is back in Spain is narrated like a diary in months.  Beto moves to Madrid and takes a job in a  landscape firm where his career finally takes a positive turn.  But Beto is not successful in finding another woman with whom he wants to be in  a long-term relationship.  The memory and pull of Helga and their unexpected connection always lingers in the back of his mind.

This book is a brutally honest commentary on age and love.  I especially enjoyed the ending which was a bit of a surprise.  Another unique aspect of the book are the pictures that the author includes to illustrate different pieces of the text.  Beto’s idea for his garden that is entered in the Munich competition is illustrated as well as other important scenes from the story.  Trueba’s character-driven story line with it’s straightforward prose is a great read to bring to the beach when it is released this August.

About the Author and Translator:
David TruebaDavid Trueba was born in Madrid in 1969 and has been successful both as a novelist and as a scriptwriter. La buena vida was his widely acclaimed debut as a film director and was followed by Obra Maestra (2001), Soldados de Salamina (2003), Bienvenido a casa (2006), and La silla de Fernando (2007). He is also the author of two previous novels; his debut, Four Friends, sold over 100,000 copies with twenty reprints.  Learning to Lose won the Critics Award in 2009.

Mara Faye Lethem is the translator of Spanish and Catalan authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, Jorge Semprún, and Pablo DeSantis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she has lived in Barcelona since 2003.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendariz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Jonathan Dunne.  Hispabooks specializes in publishing contemporary Spanish books into English translation.  For more information about their titles please visit their website: http://hispabooks.com/

My Review:
Plimsoll LineThe author explains to us in the introduction of the book that the Plimsoll Line is a mark on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be immersed into the water when it is loaded with cargo without being sunk.  In the 18th century, British merchants would overload their cargo, knowing full well that the ships would sink and then they would collect the insurance money on them.  The Plimsoll Line was then marked on all ships to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.  The main character in this book bears so much cargo in the form of tragedy that he wonders if he has overstepped his personal Plimsoll Line and will sink into oblivion.

Gabriel Ariz is a university professor and an art critic who loves working and his job even though he doesn’t have to work for a living.  His wife’s inheritance would allow them to live quite comfortably with a nice custom-built home in the forest and luxury vacations.  Gabriel and his wife’s comfortable world is shattered by the death of their only child, their daughter, who dies at the tender age of twenty in a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve.  This event marks the beginning of a series of misfortunes that weigh heavily on Gabriel.

Before their daughter died, Gabriel and his wife seemed to be drifting further and further apart and this tragedy precipitated the end of their marriage.   When Gabriel’s wife, Ana,  announces that she is leaving he is neither surprised or terribly upset.  But the constant loneliness in his big house with no one but his cat Polanski for company starts to wear on him.  To top it all off, he doesn’t feel well and his doctor diagnoses him with kidney failure.  Because of his illness he is forced to quit his beloved job and go to dialysis three times a week for five hours at a time.  Is this what will sink him below his Plimsoll Line?

One of the hardest parts of the book to read are the very detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s dialysis treatments.  He talks about insertion of tubes and machines and the cleansing of his blood through this process.  I was so uncomfortable when I was reading these passages that I almost skipped over them to spare myself from these graphic scenes.  But then I realized that Armendariz is providing for us the a realistic view of what it means to lose one’s precious grasp on health.  Our health and our well-being is never something we should take for granted.

In addition to Gabriel, the author also gives us different points-of-view throughout the story.  For instance, in order to describe Gabriel and his home the author puts us in the place of an invisible observer whom only the cat can see.  We walk through Gabriel’s house as  if we are getting a private tour of it’s décor, pictures and personal touches.  We are also given the point-of-view of the cat who knows that there is something not-quite-right about his owner who sleeps at strange hours and wanders around the house in his tattered bathrobe.  Polanski’s favorite pastime is keeping Gabriel’s garden free of mole’s.

The most intriguing and the lengthiest point-of-view we are given is Gabriel’s daughter who has been deceased for three years when the story begins.  Gabriel finds a diary that was hidden in the garden and was dug up when there was a tangle between Polanski and a mole.  A large part of the second half of the book includes these diary entries written by Laura.  As Gabriel reads her entries, which were recorded during the last few years of her life, he realizes that he didn’t know his daughter very well at all.  She had struggles, worries and concerns that were typical of a young woman on the verge of adulthood but his relationship with her only existed on the surface.  Laura’s diary also reveals a very shocking detail about her life about which Gabriel and his wife were completely unaware.  I haven’t read a book in a long time with such a shocking twist or revelation in the plot.

Finally, I would like to make one  more comment about the author’s writing style.  I’ve already mentioned the details he gives about Gabriel’s medical treatments, but this style of providing information about minutiae pervades the book.  At times the details seem cumbersome and make the narrative feel as though the author has strayed too far from his plotline.  For example, towards the end of the book Gabriel makes a decision not to commit suicide because he enjoys light too much.  The author goes on for several paragraphs about different types of light we experience.  I think he could have made the same point with fewer examples.

Overall, this is a great book for Spanish Lit month and I would recommend it just for the plot twist revealed in the diary entries.  But the remarkable resilience and strength of character we encounter in Gabriel makes it well-worth the read.

How is everyone else doing with the Spanish Lit month reading?

About the Author:
ArmendarizJuan Gracia Armendáriz (Pamplona, 1965) is a Spanish fiction writer and contributor to many Spanish newspapers. He has also been part-time professor at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, and has many works of literary and documentary research. As a writer, he has published a book of poems, short stories, nonfiction books—biographical sketches and a historical story—and several novels. The Plimsoll Line is part of the “Trilogy of Illness”, formed by three separate books that reflect his experience as a person with kidney trouble. The novel was awarded the X Premio Tiflos de Novela 2008.

7 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spain, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Clouds by Juan José Saer

I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter via Edelweiss.  This review is my second contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos.  I am also very excited to say that this is the 300th post on my blog.  I have worked hard on all of my reviews for the past two years and thanks to everyone who has visited and supported my modest endeavors.

My Review:
The CloudsThis interesting tale begins in modern day Paris when Pichón Garay receives a disk with the contents of an absurd story about two doctors in 19th century Argentina whose mission it is to cure the mad.  As Garay reads the beginning of the story he learns that no one is sure whether or not this story is pure fiction or has any truth to it.  At times the story seems far fetched and ridiculous, but the ways in which these doctors treat the insane is compassionate and for this reason we hope it’s true.

The narrator of this manuscript is Dr. Real, whose ironic name is a not-so-subtle stroke of genius by Saer. Dr. Real meets his mentor in Europe while in medical school and accepts the position to serve as his assistant while they establish an asylum for the insane in Argentina.  Saer handles the sad plight of the mentally ill in the 19th century with sympathy as he describes their illnesses which are little understood in that time period.  Most of the patients in the hospital are dropped off by the rich and elite who are embarrassed by their mentally ill family members.  It is sad that many of the patients end up with Dr. Real, not because a family wants their loved one to be cured, but because they are fend up and ashamed by the stigma of such an illness.  Saer dwells on the fact that Dr. Real and his mentor employ the kindest possible treatment for these discarded and abandoned patients.

When the clinic is built, Dr. Real is given the task of going to Santa Fe to collect five of the patients that will be treated in the clinic.  The journey from Argentina to Santa Fe is perilous for many reasons and doing it with five very ill patients makes the journey seem absolutely absurd at times.  Saer meticulously describes the symptoms and backgrounds of all five mental patients.  Among them are a nymphomaniac nun who believes she needs to have sex with as many men as possible in order to unite the human with the divine.  There is also an upper class gentlemen who seems well-dressed and charming at first, but after speaking with him for only a few moments Dr. Real discovers this man is severely manic.  There are also three young men, two of which display symptoms of Tourette Syndrome as they repeat certain phrases and noises.  The other is a young man who repeats the same motions with his hands and seems to be suffering with some type of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

The real danger presents itself on the trip back to Argentina when Dr. Real must keep his patients calm while navigating the various treacheries of the plains.  When they set out it is winter and the constant cold and damp makes everyone miserable.  They must constantly alter their course to avoid the flooding river and the constant threat of hostile Indians.  The nun is someone that Dr. Real has a particular time controlling because she is successful at seducing the military troops who are supposed to be guarding the caravan.  By the end of the journey the nun is the best guarded person in the caravan as the soldiers rarely leave her side.

The Clouds showcases Saer’s genius of  describing vivid landscapes.  We feel cold when the winter sets in, damp when the rivers flood and terrified when a fire threatens the caravan.  Dr. Real is reading Vergil’s Aeneid during his journey which epic could not be more appropriate for his excursion.  The comparisons between Dr. Real and Aeneas are endless as I thought about both stories.  But on the most basic level, Aeneas is the perfect hero and role model for Dr. Real who is attempting his own dangerous and seemingly impossible trek across a harsh landscape.

This is the second work I have read of Saer’s and I was captivated by his storylines and his prose in both.  I cannot recommend this author highly enough.

About the Author:
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.

11 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, Spanish Literature

Review: I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I am so excited to be participating in Spanish Lit Month again this year hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.  My first contribution this year is a fantastic read from And Other Stories.

My Review:
I'll Sell You A DogThis book is set in an apartment building in Mexico City in which a group of elderly retirees live.  The residents of the building engage in various activities together in order to fend off boredom, including the most popular activity which is the daily gathering and discussion at the literary salon.  Francesca, the building president and leader, is also the head of this salon.  As each new member moves into the building, he or she is given a warm welcome and an invitation to the salon.  The only person who has ever dared to turn down an invitation to the salon is our witty, clever and crabby narrator, a man who goes by the name of Teo.

When Teo moves into the building hilarity ensues because he is not quite so willing to conform to all of the rules set forth by Francesca and her fellow tenants.  Teo also drinks too much and has some interesting visitors over to his apartment, including a Mormon missionary who is constantly trying to preach the Word of the Lord to Teo.  Teo’s days also include frequent visits to the local pub for several beers and visits to the greengrocer where he discusses life and politics over more beers with Juliet the proprietor.  He also spends quite a bit of time recording his thoughts in a notebook and because of this the salon thinks that he is writing a novel.  They seem to know everything that he writes in his journal and he can’t figure out how they are reading his personal thoughts.

The story also flashes back to Teo’s earlier days and we get some background on this roguish, alcoholic, funny old man.  Teo mostly grew up with his mother and his sister and lived with them until he was in his fifties.  Important events in his younger years were oftentimes brought about by the dog his mother happened to dragged home at the time.  The original family dog caused the unraveling of his parents’ marriage and his father moving out.  Like his father before him, Teo fancied himself an artist and when he was younger he attended art school for a year to try and cultivate his talents.  But this all came to an end when the family dog was diagnosed with marijuana poisoning which resulted in his mother finding out what he was really doing with his fellow students.

After his mother forces him to give up attending art school, Teo gets a job with his uncle at his local taco stand which is a very lucrative business.  It is also due to dogs that Teo becomes a local legend with his “Gringo Tacos.”  I did find the story lines with the family dogs rather funny but those who are sensitive might need a warning that the fate of dogs in this book is never good.  All sorts of local politicians and arts patronize his taco stand and have intriguing discussions about art with this astute taco seller.  Teo’s favorite book is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and later in the retirement home he uses his cherished copy of this book to fend off the cockroaches.

The fight between Teo and the members of the literary salon reach a fever pitch when they get their hands on and hide his cherished copy of Aesthetic Theory and he,  in turn, steals their copies of In Search of Lost Time.  This is no small feat for Teo because Proust’s masterpiece weighs a ton.  In the end Francesca has to blackmail Teo into returning the salon’s books and the scandalous information that she has on him involves, of course, a dog.

This is one of the funniest books I have read so far this year. It is cleverly written and has characters that manage to be silly but endearing at the same time.   I look forward to reading more of Villalobos’ books.  What is everyone else reading for Spanish Lit Month?

About the Author:
Juan-Pablo-Villalobos-and-pygmy-hippo-6-460x250Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. His first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was the first translation to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (in 2011). He writes regularly for publications including Granta and translated Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s novel All Dogs are Blue (also published by And Other Stories) into Spanish. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in Barcelona and has two children.

11 Comments

Filed under Humor, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Life Embitters by Joseph Pla

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through NetGalley.  This is my second contribution to Spanish Literature month host by Richard at http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com/ and Stu at https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/.

My Review:
Life EmbittersThis is an interesting book to categorize as far as literary genre is concerned. At first glance these narratives are really a set of short stories and each have their own plot and can be read individually.  However, they also remind me of the popularity nowadays of fictional autobiography: the works of Karl Ove Knausgard, Elena Ferrante and George Gospodinov all come to mind.  Pla relates to us different experiences in his life with some creative embellishments or inventions of conversations for which he was not present.  Pla takes us across Europe, from his native home in Barcelona to Paris to Rome he describes interesting characters and beautiful settings.

The 600 pages of this book take quite a while to get through and such a long book makes it difficult to write a focused review.  But I want to highlight a few patterns and themes that I noticed are weaved throughout the stories.  What struck me most about Pla’s narrative is that one is never really sure where he is going next with his tales.  We follow him on this meandering path of sentences and all of a sudden a new character is introduced, or a character dies, or a story abruptly ends.

Pla is never a permanent resident at any one place for a long time; as a result of his extensive travels, one of Pla’s favorite settings is the boarding house, many of which he resides at in various cities.  His story entitled, “A Death in Barcelona ” is a great example of the unexpected twists that appear in the narrative and is also set in one such boarding house in Barcelona.  The male boarders fight and bicker with each other and there seems to be a division along the lines of those who pay and those who live off of the others for free.  They all seem to be secretly in love with the mistress of the boarding house, Sra Paradis.  The story takes an unexpected turn when one day, a Swiss boarder living in the house dies and the story revolves around arrangements for the funeral of the Swiss man.  All of the boarders dress up and attend the funeral and on the way back a fight breaks out among the boarders.  Their petty complaints and annoying habits bubble to the surface as the funeral procession is winding its way home.  The story ends when two of the residents decide to leave but have no real prospects of where to go next.

Another patten of  Pla’s is that he likes to tell stories about his friends.  We are introduced to many friends and acquaintances who have interesting life experiences.  One of my favorite of his “friend” stories is about a fellow Catalan named Mascarell who, at age thirty-four, is engaged to a woman fourteen years his junior.  He is embarrassed and depressed when she breaks off their engagement.  Pla goes through a long and interesting story about why the young woman broke off with Mascarell.  Apparently the young woman’s father all of a sudden decides that he does not approve of his daughter marrying an old bachelor.  What really pushes her father over the edge is when she adopts a kitten and names it after her fiancé; the father is horrified that she does such an impulsive thing and demands that she break off the engagement.

At this point Mascarell disappears to Paris where he will not run into anyone he knows.  He meets a woman named Fanny that he is attracted to and with whom he has many interesting conversations.  But Mascarell’s old melancholy keeps creeping up on him and one day at dinner she calls him an “un homme fatal.”  This upsets Mascarell greatly and, in typical Pla fashion, the story takes an unexpected turn when Mascarell consults his Neopolitan barber, Sr. Giacomo, about Fanny’s comments.  The narrative at this point includes a long description of the barber, his clientele, and his relationship with Mascarell.  The barber is finally direct with Mascarell and tells him that being an ” un homme fatal” means that one is a “moron.”  Mascarell is so upset by the barber’s answer that he immediately decides to leave Paris and with Mascarell’s departure from this city the story ends.  We are left wondering what happened to Mascarell and if he was ever able to get over being a “homme fatal.”

I am so glad to have come across Pla’s stories in time for Spanish Literature month.  I highly recommend giving these stories a try–the book can be read all at once or the stories can be read individually over an extended period of time.

About The Author:
Joseph PlaJosep Pla i Casadevall (known as José Pla in Spanish) (March 8, 1897, Palafrugell, Girona – April 23, 1981, Llofriu, Girona) was a Catalan journalist and a popular author. As a journalist he worked in France, Italy, England, Germany and Russia, from where he wrote political and cultural chronicles in Catalan.

The most important characteristics of the “planian” style are simplicity, irony, and clarity. His works show a subjective and colloquial view, “anti-literary”, in which he stresses, nevertheless, an enormous stylistic effort by calling things by their names and “coming up with the precise adjective”, one of his most persistent literary obsessions.

Pla lived completely dedicated to writing. The extent of his Obres Completes – Complete Works (46 volumes and nearly 40,000 pages), which is a collection of all his journals, reports, articles, essays, biographies and both long and short novels.

His liberal-conservative thought, skeptic and uncompromising, filled with irony and common sense, keeps sounding contemporary, completely current, even though it seems to contradict the current cultural establishment same as it did with its completely opposed antecessor. His books remain in print and both Spanish and Catalan critics have unanimously recognized him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature