Tag Archives: Spanish Literature

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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