eairo reads from Helsinki to Helsinki, part II: The Americas
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I've starred your new thread -- always fascinating reading if expensive for the wish list!
While crossing the ocean I also read Chess Story (Finnish: Shakkitarina) by Stefan Zweig, a story set on a cruise ship on a trip from New York to Buenos Aires. Two very different chess players --- one a Chamion, and another a chess-nobody Dr B --- meet and end up playing with each other. They have different backgrounds and they are very different characters, and the game has very different meaning to them.
The author first builds the characters and the the grand finale of the novella are the two games they play.
There are some interpretations and explanations on the allegories the story provides in other reviews, and I am glad I found those: I can nod and say yes with them. But when reading I enjoyed most the intensity of the final games, admiring the author's skill in making such an exciting story about a game where so little actually happens.
Traditionally, a review of Hopscotch Julio Cortázar is to be started by telling that it is an experimental novel that consists of at least two books. The first 56 chapters make a traditional linear novel that can be read from beginning to the end. Stop. Then there is another way. There are more chapters following the first 56, and there is a suggested order of reading a combination of the "basic" and "extra" chapter + an option to read them in which ever order you please.
The second phase of this kind of this traditional review is to tell how annoying and frustrating it is to hop back and forth in the book, and the characters are unpleasant loosers.
I decided I don't need that annoyance and frustration, so I surprised myself choosing the straight story. It was ok. The characters were not that unlikable. Loosers maybe. All that jazz did not speak to me, but I can relate to the feeling. Music, listening to records, was important when I was young. Like was hanging around not doing much, having pseudo-intellectual conversations with friends, all that. That is what Horacio Oliveira, his girlfriend La Maga et al are doing in Paris. All is not well, but life goes on until La Maga's son dies, and she herself disappears. To the water? To another town or back home in Uruguay? This is never told to the reader. However, Oliveira decides to return Argentina. He meets his old best friend there, finds another girlfriend, works as a salesman, in a circus and finally in a mental institution.
The second part in Argentina is lighter, funnier, and at first it actually seems all is well this time. Or at least better.
But he is not over La Maga. She comes back to him. In his mind, in the wife of the mentioned best friend. In the end, and in the company of the (other) mental cases he drifts out of his right mind. Stop.
This "version" of the book, and the reading experience, was quite easy and even a little bit bland, considering the reputation of the book. It left me curious and even a little bit hungry for more. Luckily there is more: the extra chapters with about as much pages as the story I read. I will not start reading it the other way right away. I'll let my memories fade a bit, I let myself forget first. I make an experiment of reading this experimental novel.
From the mental institution I've moved on to a prison. I am talking about movies with a couple of other prisoners and waiting for (or fearing) the kiss of the spider woman.
I liked the touch of crossing the ocean using a book set on a cruise ship. Nice.
I read Hopscotch a couple of years ago and read the non-linear way. I also found it a frustrating book, full of characters who really irritated me and diversions that added little to the book. I wondered if some day I would return to read it linearly, but my instinct, and your review, have persuaded me not to. I would love to hear from people who feel more positive about the book.
btw I loved Kiss of the Spider Woman, a novel written almost entirely in dialogue. Looking forward to your thoughts.
Don't let my comments stop your second take on Hopscotch. Like I said, I will try it again some day. Maybe my thoughts weren't excactly positive, and I am not changing that, but I still think it is interesting and worth a(nother) try.
I have also finished reading Kiss of the Spider Woman now. Like has been said it is not a regular novel either. 99 % dialogue, with lenghty footnotes and stream-of-consciousness like inner monologues here and there. This book could be described as experimental too. Unlike Hopscotch or Ulysses, Kiss... is easy to read, easy to enjoy and like. The experiment does not get into your way: you understand what you're reading and most of the time you get (or at least have a clue of) the idea behind the references, which are plenty.
There are two men, two prisoners, in a cell. Molina is a homosexual convicted for corrupting a minor, and Valentin is a political activist. They talk, no description and no cueword, just their lines in the dialogue. This sounds quite limiting but it works. In fact I think this is one of the most visual and image-inducing texts I have read. The lack of description creates a strong atmosphere of what little space the men have, how they are positioned, the changes of light and dark. And the movies Molina tells to Valentin -- they are their pastime, their escape (and a means of seduction for Molina), they bring the whole wide world to the cell. I was also amazed how the characters are built into persons as the book advances. More so than usually. In the end they were not just a collection of properties or adjectives.
The men talk some politics, of course, as one of them is a political prisoner, but not much. But what makes this a political novel is what they say. But think of why they are in prison: one for what he is and the other for his idea(l)s. And guess who of the two is released? Or is he? What does that tell you about the society outside the prison? (You have to read the book for the answers. I don't want to spoil that part of the story for you.)
The footnotes bring one more level to the story. They are mostly excrepts and summaries of psychological texts on Freud's et al ideas on homosexuality, one often disagreeing the previous (another dialogue). I guess they are about the author's views, important things he wanted to be there, though not part of the actual story. The footnotes refer to real world authors, except the last one (by Anneli Taube). Borgesian? Probably. Lovely.
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato was a difficult read for me.
This short novel is a confessional account narrated by Juan Pablo Castel, an Argentine painter. He introduces himself as the one who killed Maria Iribarne, and then tells the story of what happened, from their first encounter---he sees the woman in his exhibition concentrating on a detail in his painting everyone else has overlooked, and he is then convinced that she the only person who truly understands his art---to their sickly love affair to the killing and his inprisonment.
What made reading it difficult was that Castel is quite unlikeable, distrurbed and disgusting character. And what he tells about Maria doesn't help. I try, and usually manage to keep my dislike for the characters separated from what I think of the book on the whole but this time I could not.
At first he shows himself merely annoying person, and at that stage I could relate. I recognized his insecurity and the way he builds up potential conversations beforehands, or muses over recent conversations coming to figure out what he'd meant to say only afterwards. I know that guy. It goes worse as the story goes on. He is totally self centered, madly jealous, obsessed with his own perceptions on what's happening, and a bully. There is no ray of light in this Tunnel, no joy in finishing this book other than that it was over.
I have hard time deciding should I give a one star rating fro my dislike or four stars for the strong effect it had.
It is not appropriate to visit Argentina without a dose of Borges, so I have been browsing the Book Imaginary Beings and Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha (a Finnish collection of essays and stories by Borges) on the side. I don't think I'll read either of those from the beginning to the end this time, so I won't write a full review on them. I an enjoying both, though.
Other than that, I am now in the beginning of The Ministry of Special Cases which is a novel set in Argentina by an US author.
I know what you mean about The Tunnel. I was impressed with the atmosphere and lingering unpleasant impression I was left with, but it was one of those books that I was relieved to be done with. I felt like I needed a shower after I finished it.
I felt like I needed a shower after I finished it.
Wow, I feel like I need a shower just from reading your comments and eairo's!
It was an unusual book. You know from page one that the narrator ends up murdering Maria, and I was expecting to find some redemptive explanation for the act somewhere. Instead Castel becomes increasingly unlikable. There were some great observations of petty jealousy turning into obsession, and the book was tremendously atmospheric. It just wasn't very nice.
Yikes! I'm planning to read The Tunnel for the fourth quarter Reading Globally theme, as I have it on my Kindle. I'll probably still do so, but I'll keep your comments about it in mind.
I've slowly read on after The Tunnel, and been even slower to write about my reading, it seems.
The Ministry of Special Cases is a novel by an US author set in Argentina and in the years of dirty war in the 1970s. During those years 10 000 to 30 000 (depending on the source) disappeared or were killed.
Englander narrows the perspective of this huge tragedy to one family who also are members of the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, the Poznan family: Kaddish, his wife Lillian and their young adult son Pato.
This way the horrible history comes closer to the reader, and makes it -- not understandable -- but possible to handle. The story doesn't talk about numbers but makes it obvious there were more, lots more.
As even the title hints, absurdity is another tool for the author. The title ministry is the place were the hopeless end up trying to make their case official: waiting, forms, endless paperwork, more waiting. They have to prove they had a son, and that it was their son that disappeared, et cetera ad infinitum.
Other absurdities are the weird economy and trade of services that emerges from tha strange times.
Kaddish's trade is to chisel out names from gravestones in the Jewish cemetery. There are successful businesmen and respectable members of the society who would like the world to forget their connection to their less than respectable ancestry, criminals and prostitutes of the 1920s and 1930s. Luckily, during the war erasing the names is enough. But unluckily for Kaddish, during the war, all the clients doesn't have enough money to pay for his services. One of them, a plastics surgeon, suggest he does a nose job for Kaddish and Lillian in stead. They accept, which later on makes it difficult for them to prove that Pato (nose untouched in the picture) is their son.
The absurd, I think, is partly a tool to lighten the heavy theme. But it is also the only valid description of the state of things. What else is a situation where anybody can just 'disappear'? Toward the end, the absurd things Kaddish ends up doing---robbing a grave to take a hostage, and when that doesn't pay, claiming the bones he's carrying aroudn are his son's to have him officially buried---seem rational.
The story good and important, the writing is ok. Still, somehow, something is missing. I am not sure what it is. I've read in other reviews that Englander has been compared to the great Jewish authors, and comes so close that it is sometimes difficult to find the difference. May it is his own touch that is missing?
I have to confess I have never been able to read Englander, after trying to read one of his short stories in the New Yorker years ago.
>16 rebeccanyc:: Was it so bad, and I didn't even realize?
Reading on. I have since last writing visited Uruguay for two books and three short stories.
Lands of Memory is a collection of two novellas and some short stories by Felisberto (Hernández). Or writings, for only one or two of them are stories as I see a story. The writings are always in first person. The arrator is always a pianist. Typically not a very successful one who can barely, or not at all, support himself and his family with his musicianship. And one more 'always' is that the narrator becomes distracted by his memories, things that happened in the past, and these memories often remind him of more memories, so the narrative quickly becomes a network of distractions. Some of the are interesting and others are not so.
Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano tells an anecdotal history of football (soccer). Those who have read his Memories of the Fire will immediately recognize the style. And I guess the reasons to enjoy or dislike these histories are the same in both cases. I love (playing) football (and occasionally watch others play it) and I like Galeano's writing and his humour and his attitude, so I enjoyed the book quite unconditionally. Like he I am one of the greatest footballers in the world -- during the night, in my bed -- and while watching a game it doesn't matter who wins as long as I get to see even a minute of beautiful football. Galeano tells deliciously about the game itself, about a few great players, wonderful matches and even about individual goals, summarizes all the World Cups, and about the shady business and cabinet politics connected to the great game.
The three stories by Mario Benedetti I read were "Stars and You", "Listening to Mozart", and "Exodus" (titles translated by me from Finnish). They all are set in the 1970's and tell about the horrors of the period of the military regime in Uruguay. These stories are short, sharp and shocking --- they are economical and effective. About a once relaxed police officer's change when the times change, and how his once friend, a writer of newspaper horoscopes, decides to help the stars' message come true; and what a tortured does when his son once comes to ask him if he is a torturer; and the third story was a satirical account about how people one by one leave the country gone bad, first those with a reason, then their relatives, and in the end even those who the others escaped from---for what is the point of ruling a country with no one left to rule.
Five Seasons of Love took me to Brasília, the artificial capital of Brazil. I first thought this would be a brief visit to the country on my way to the West and the Andes. Little did I know. It took a whole month to drag through the slim book. It wasn't bad in the way that would've made me quit, but putting the book away I just forgot it and reading it required concentration and quickly tired me.
The main protagonist and narrator is Ana, who now is retired from her university job. She came to Brasília more than thirty years ago, when the city was young. Others came too, and Ana with her friend back then formed a group who named themselves "The Useless". Now the group has mostly spead around the big country and the world. Until one of them, Berta---who used to Roberto---reminds Ana that they had promised to meet again in thirty years, in year 2000. Berta comes, others come, Berta gets killed, Ana tries to kill herself but fails. She feels herself just useless, no more one of the Useless. And the she finds love from so close it never occured to look there.
Sounds bad, right? Yet it was not the story that made it hard for me. The problem was with the narrative: lots of self reflection, memories and other in-the-head-stuff, and when the story came back to outside world again, big things had happened, at the background, just like that.
But what was working was Brasília. Its geometry, the way this city build in the middle of nowhere still leaves its inhabitants outsiders (whether this is true or not). A strong sense of place and not really belonging at once.
I, The Supreme beats me. I can not finish it.
The book is written as at least 1) internal monologues, 2) remaining papers, and 3) conversations of The Supreme Dictator of the Republic of Paraguay from the 19th century. Plus commentaries by an anonymous editor.
It is not badly written, it is not uninteresting in form or in content. It was too dense, too difficult and these two things considered too big too.
Hmm. I have I, the Supreme on the TBR based on an LT review some time ago. but I guess I won't move it up any time soon.
I read I, the Supreme as my Paraguay read on my own journey. I didn't give up on it, but I kind of wished I had. Oddly, I liked the style (in places), but the dense and impenetrable narrative had me tearing my hair out.
The most frustrating thing was how slow reading it was. I think I would have read on had it been in my own language. Like Andy says there are things to like in it. I think it was worth a try.
Have to say that I really enjoy reading Pakeneva joki (Río Fugitivo) just because how easy and uncomplicated it is and how quickly the pages turn.
Pakeneva joki (Río fugitivo) was a easy-read coming of age story with a twist of crime and tragedy set in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
The first person narrator is Roberto, or Roby, who writes versions of classic detective stories for his class mates and dreams of becoming a real author some day who writes a "perfect crime". Beside writing his life is filled with school (last year), family, mates, dreams and talk about girls, getting drunk or high once in a while, etc; more or less normal. Until his younger brother dies on drugs. Crime becomes more than fiction in Roby's life. Where did the kid get the pills?
Roby starts his own Poirot and Holmes style investigation that lead him to his own crime in the end.
Despite being an easy read not all the themes and developments in the story are easy: death, drugs, fear and feelings of failure are ever-present in Roby's life. The book tries to cover most every difficulty and pain in growing up, which is both a plus and problem: it gives the story fuller flavour but there are so much going on that some interesting themes are left half-way developed.
What I liked best was the local feel (re my world tour). I was convinced this was a Bolivian story which was, however, universal too. It was more than just names of the places or characters. I don't exactly know what it was, but like I said I was convinced.
Three books for Chile: By night in Chile (Finnish: Chileläinen yösoitto), Elokuvankertoja (originally "La contadora de peliculas"), and The stories of Eva Luna (Eva Lunan rakkaudet).
By night in Chile is a condenced cultural history of the 20th century of Chile. It is told as a delirious monologue of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, an important and influential literature critic and a mediocre poet. On his death bed he goes through his life, explaining and excusing his past deeds the best he can. Basically most of the actual events are realistic but the tone of the narrative takes the story near Kafka-like absurdism. Mostly quite enjoyable but at some points I felt outsider, I knew the story was referring to something outside itself but I did not know what to.
Elokuvankertoja is a nostalgic story of a sodium nitrate mining community somewhere in Chile. María Margarita's family loves movies but they are so poor they can only afford one ticket at a time. Their solution is to send the girl to see the film and then she is to tell it to the others afterwards. She is so good a teller that after some time she develops a reputation and more and more people want to hear her versions of the movies. Until the television replaces the movies and later on the mine empties up and the whole community withers. Basically the story is touching in a by-the-book manner, and will probably be made into a movie that you'll see and think it is ok but forget quickly.
The stories of Eva Luna is a collection of short stories on love, sex and violence. There is an Arabian Nights like framework bringing Eva Luna (of Eva Luna by the same author) to this book too. I enjoyed most of the stories though in my opinion the presence of Eva Luna did not make them any better.
(Edited to add some missing words.)
Interesting reviews -- I need to get back to some Latin American books soon, and you've introduced a couple that sound very intriguing.
By Night in Chile was the first Bolaño book I've read. Before that I'd read loads of reviews on his books, and they always sound interesting and demanding at once. I have known I'l read some of them some time, but I've never felt need to rush to them. And now, after this one read, I know they are somewhat demanding. (And this was a small book of merely 112 pages.)
I've been a lazy writer lately but not so in reading-traveling. I visited Peru for three books: The Bad Girl, Red April, and The Storyteller.
The Bad Girl is a story of desperate, obsessive, and destructive love of a Peruvian translator whose two dreams in life are to live in Paris and the love of the "Bad girl". The girl comes and goes, plays her tricks on him and disappears again, and again and again. The story covers several decades and they "lovers" encounter many times in many countries. The book takes the reader from Peru to Paris (Yes, that dream comes true for him for a long time.), stays some time in London, and visits Tokyo, even Helsinki (my hometown ... and says some nice words about it) and then Madrid.
The unconventional love story is frustrating at times: how can this guy be so stupid so many times? But the writing is guaranteed Vargas Llosa quality, easy and quick to read. And the different periods of near history are covered nicely. The most obvious descriptions and qualifiers of, for example, the 70s are mentioned so you know what it is about, but there is always some twist that gives you a slightly new angle to those times.
The Bad Girl is probably not the or even one of Vargas Llosa's greatest works but it is still another enjoyable novel by him.
Are there other Peruvian authors than Vargas Llosa? I tried to remember but could not. Google did but Roncagliolo was about the only one whose titles were available here. That's how I came to read Red April. No great expectations. Yet I was a little disappointed after reading it.
Associate District Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar (which is the way the main protagonist is called quite often in this book. Too often.) is a man who believes in order and formalities and the authorities. Writing reports that help him forget too difficult thing seems to be his main goal in his work. Quite often that is enough. But then he becomes involved in an investigation in a case that looks a lot like the work of the Sendero Luminoso that is not supposed to be around any more. After more killings the terrorist involvement seems more and more obvious, and even the district prosecutor's superiors begin to believe in his theories. And when he realizes that anyone who gives him information in the investigation soon dies, it is nearly too late.
I was not convinced by this novel. Or I was about these things: the time of the Sendero terrorism was horrible for Peru; no one (sane) wants it back; there are deep wounds that have not healed yet; Peru is a corrupted country.
But as a crime novel Red April was difficult to follow at times and somehow its logic was off. Some of the plot twists where hard to believe in, as was the fact that the press or the public didn't notice anything when people are being killed bloodily and showingly all around. And again, the main male protagonist was annoyingly naíve and stupid, even more so than in the Bad Girl.
The Storyteller is one of my favourite novels by Vargas Llosa. Again, it is probably one of his greatest novels, not as impressive as The War of the End of the World or not as funny as Aunt Julie (which is more a matter of taste, of course). But my favourite it is. This was my third reading of the book which I have had around since 1990 and I still enjoyed it, the Machiguenga myths are funny, their attitude toward life (á la VL, of course) is respectable and the story of the two friends that take different paths in life is ok too, even though the indigenas win every time.
Nice to catch up with your reading. The Bad Girl is one of the few Vargas Llosas I haven't read, although I do own it. I enjoyed The Storyteller although it wasn't one of my favorites. And I was very disappointed by Red April too; I couldn't help thinking about MVL's Death in the Andes, which covers some of the same territory, and how infinitely better it was.
After the Storyteller I revisited Brazil with Isä Belmiron rikos. (Which could be "The crime of Father Belmiro" but I don't think there is an English translation.)
The novel tells the (fictional as far as I know) story of the first openly gay (and black) priest in catholic church in Brazil. The reader knows from the page one that he will be killed in the end, so there is no suspense or surprise there. After that introduction the novel goes back in time to tell how he came to be a priest and how he was sent to the parish of Vale Verde in the Mato Grosso area. He finds a church in bad shape, cleans it and starts the masses again, gets friends (high and low), and impresses most of the people in the town with his charm and sincerity. Being gay causes some problems too, of course, in the church and in the city. After a couple of scandals he is taken into custody, nearly sent to Angola but released to be killed soon after.
The story is good. There are a lots of interesting and eye-opening details told about the history of sexuality in the catholic church as well as the variation in the attitudes towards it. But (there is always a but) 270 pages are too much for this. The writing and translation were ok, it reads fine, but there are so many slow-downs, letters and meditations that I quite often fell asleep after less than 10 pages. (It may have something to do with the time of day I was reading too, I have to admit.)
So, this is not a literary masterpiece, but it was still good enough and interesting to finish.
I have Deep Rivers (Los rios profundos) but haven't read it yet. I am a big Vargas Llosa fan so it will be interesting to compare it. I also have other books by Peruvian authors that I haven't read: Chronicle of San Gabriel by Julio Ramón Ribeyro and A World for Julius by Alfredo Bryce Echenique. All three of these were recommended here on LT. I also have The Smoke of Distant Fires by Eduardo Chirinos, which I received through my Open Letter subscription, and I read Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, which I found disappointing.
35: Sounds interesting but his work is easily available (=in the libraries here) to me only in Spanish or in Swedish. I've studied both but can not read any "real books" in them.
36: Of those mentioned here a collection of short stories by Ribeyro, Marginal Voices seems to be available and really seems something worth checking.
Visited Suriname to meet the Queen of Paramaribo or Paramaribon kuningatar.
This novel is a fictionalized biography of a famous prostitute Wilhelmina Angelica Adriana Merian Rijburg alias Maxi Linder (1902-1981). The author explains that the character of Maxi Linder in his novel is build on known facts and anecdotes and that he used the names of other known prostitutes from the era but inventing the characters.
The writing (and translation) was a little clumsy but in every other respect this was an enjoyable read with nice touch of what I'd imagine Suriname was in the past century. Maxi Linder was an interesting and self-contradicting person: seductive, competitive, bad mannered, violent, and very very generous. She charged a high price for her services and became wealthy but she also fed her neighbours in need, provided for the education of their children. A real character!
Structurally The Queen... was more ambitious than an average biographical or "based on real characters" novel. Most of the book is told from the point of view of other people who influenced Maxi or were influenced by her. The chapters are titled with names and tell their mutual story or their encounter. Other unconventional yet functional solution was that the author was not trying to tell everything: several years were often omitted. Things had happened and conditions changed between chapters. This might be disturbing if the book were a real biography but not here.
The Queen of Paramaribo is not great literature but it was a good stop for my world tour.
Interesting reviews -- i think The Storyteller is my favorite too of the Vargas Llosa's books I have read.
The Eye of the Scarecrow by Wilson Harris -- read for Guyana.
What a strange little (physically) book, a hundred pages or so. Yet it took me three weeks reading it, stopping for more than a week in the middle. I felt no interest in continuing reading, more like curiousity. And now, I don̈́'t know what it was about. Or what it was.
There are three sections or books inside. The first part is a sort of diary, apparently written forty years after the dates on the diary. Things from author's youth (at age of ten years) are told more or less understandably. A visit to his grandfather's tenement to collect rent which never was paid; how he pushed his friend L--- into a canal; him being ill and hospitalized, and coming back home from the hospital. The second part is a sequence of dreams or hallucinations, repetitive, transforming, symbolic (?), nonsesical (??). (This was the part that stalled.) In the third part the author and L--- are young men now. There is a woman, Hebra, maybe a prostitute or not, a place called Raven's Head. Somebody is killed, strangled, probably Hebra, or some other her, the killer is L---, the I or maybe the Scarecrow; there are letters to L---, confessions, descriptions of old photographs ...
The author's note in the beginning is as obscure as what follows it. Strange stuff.
Despite The Eye of the Scarecrow was a bit difficult I decided to spend the Christmas and the New Year in Guyana, in the sly company of people who care.
This supposedly fictional and also supposedly based partly on author's own experiences travelogue-like-novel is a strange bird as well. Not difficult though. The most challengin part was the use of vernicular and patois but reading that was a fun challenge.
The story is about a young Indian man's one year stay in Guyana. He'd visited the place before as a journalist and liked it. And when he feels he must get away from home, India and his family.
Getting away, leaving things behind is one of the main themes of the book. Being a stranger, an outsider, and finding before himself the things one thought he left behind, are others that come to mind.
There isn't a single plot in the book. But there are three parts taking the narrator to different places with different people. The first part takes him searching diamonds in the rainforest in the middle of nearly nowhere; the he's being sick and stuck home and nearby, reading and learning things about the country, its history and the people who live there, crimes, criminals, polititicians, and the people in his street; and finally, in the third part he meets a woman and takes her with him to Trinidad and Venezuela, and due to that adventure he nearly misses his flight back to India. For however much he wanted to, and he had to get out of there, all the time he'd had his return ticked waiting.
It was fun to read it. I was traveling in Central America at the same age, and I really could relate to the narrators feelings, the things that excited him and the things that scared him; the freedom and the fact that one is still stuck with himself, despite how far you go. So, this a book of meditation and feeling, and maybe of memories to some.
The narrator and his short time girlfriend in The sly company... found out there is no easy and cheap way of going directly from Guyana to Venezuela. They went to Trinidad first and from there to Venezuela. I decided I do the same.
I stayed in Miguel Street in Port of Spain. Great people there, all of them. Their life isn't easy, and they are not always nice but they are great as they are. Most of the stories are funny and sad at the same time. Very lifelike. I liked it there, and I liked Naipaul's writing so much I decided to stay in Trinidad for one more book, and got A House for Mr Biswas today.
I took me forever and a day to read A House for Mr Biswas but it was not a problem with the book or the story. I enjoyed it all the time! It is a richly textured story of life from Mr Biswas' poor beginnings, born under bad signs, not expected to live long, to fulfillment of his all time dream: an own house for himself and his family. He goes through different jobs from poster painter to a journalist to an civil servant; he gets married, he goes mental, he becomes a father of four before thirty. A novel full of life.
I remember having this book in my hand many times years ago when I started to browse the adults shelves in the smallish library of my then home town. What I remember is the little clumsy title, and I remember wondering why someone with an Indian name is writing about Trinidad. It took thirty years or so to find out but I am happy I did.
Now on to Venezuela.
I nearly lost myself in the forests of Venezuela. It took me three months to finish Canaima (Pahan valta in Finnish, translated by Kaj Kauhanen in 1961). But, actually, loosing oneself in or to the great woods is what the novel is about.
Marcos Vargas, an anventurous young man leaves his old life and old mother in Ciudad Bolivar for business, rubber and gold in the jungle. He finds them all, and is mostly successful in whatever he tries. But after a murder he commits in revenge for his brother (who had gone the same way before) he had lost his peace, and no success makes him happy. Until in the end after years of rambling he joins one of the local tribes of indigenas, and settles.
Three months reading time does not mean this is a bad or boring novel. It is actually a likeably average one. The story is ok, writing too, and it has aged nicely. Some of the drama has turned into melodrama, but not badly. What was more than ok was the sense of the greatness of the forest, the powers that reside there, and what they did and do to people, both giving and taking.
Like I said, it wasn't solely the book's fault I advanced very slowly. This spring was busy, and now, for the first time after I started this tour five years ago, I felt I needed to read something else than just what my challenge brings to me. And that's what I've beed doing beside not reading Canaima.
I've been a slow reader and lazy reviewer lately. After Canaima I crossed the border on to Colombia. I guess a literary visit to Colombia is impossible without García Marquez, but I tried to find something else. With little succes though, reading only one book by one author other than him.
Good offices by Evelio Rosero was a nice little novella about a very special/peculiar night at parish church in Bogota. Father Almida and the sacristan are away for a few hours. Father Matamoros, Almidas replacement that night's mass, opens the eyes of the workers of the parish, the hunchbank Tancredo, the sacristan's goddaughter Sabina and three older woman known collectively as the Lilias. They open a few bottles of wine too, and find a whole new territories along the eveing. A little satire about hypocrisy, and about how thing (or people/characters) are not always what they seem to be.
Of Love and Other Demons ... this is not for you if you're not into magical realism. But if you don't mind the over-used, goes-for-nearly-anything-South-American label, this is a very nice love story of a kind; the story of Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles, a 12-year-old marquise who died two hundred years ago; a story full of gloom, madness, strangeness and medieval darkness. Most importantly: well written as anything by García Marquez.
Strange Pilgrims is one of the later works of the late master storyteller. Twelve short stories that he says in the foreword travelled with him for years before he could finish them. They are mostly set in Europe, Geneva, Vienna, Barcelona and other places in Spain, somewhere in Italy etc., even though the protagonists are mostly from the Carribean area. There is humour, though the main tone of the stories is probably melancholy, and the realism is more strange than magical this time.
I am now readin Living to tell the Tale, but advancing slowly again, thinking about moving on to Panama...
It was hard to find fiction from Panama. Books set in Panama and about the Canal were quite a few but other than that seem to be rare. What I finally found was Contemporary Short Stories from Central America containing more than ten mostly very short short stories from Panama (along ohter, of course).
The stories were mostly nice, nothing spectacular but ok. There were roughly three kinds of stories: (sligtly magically) realistic descriptions of rural life; absurd or stream of consciousnessakind of experiments; and a couple of stories about modern (80's) town life and the people's wish to get away. Canal and the Zone were mentioned only in two or three stories. The Zone and the Americans there were mostly a gateway, and a means to leave Panama - a dream not coming true.
The story I remember best now, more than a month after reading, was one from the first category: a family in a small town wanted a family photograph of themselves, but, at the same time thinking the idea somehow frivolous and futile. No one outside the family was not supposed ever find out about the picture, and it would be even better if even the photographer would be kept in dark. They finally find a blind photographer to do the job, and the result is... foreseeable and the picture is never mentioned again.
Other two books I read for Panama were those easily available, thrillers set in Panama because of the Canal. Tailor of Panama by le Carré and Canal Dreams by Iain Banks.
Le Carré was an amusing and smart story about fake spy who creates one more international conflict. I liked the story but somehow the writing/translation was somehow clumsy.
Banks is a better writer, the text was beautiful, even when the story was not. The initial setting about a cellist stuck in the Canal (she was sailing because of fear of flying) was intriguing, but towards the end I found the story just disgusting and most of what I think tried to be "character development" unbelivalbe, uninteresting or unconvincing. I've liked most books by Mr Banks I've read, but not this one.
Costa Rica : a traveler's literary companion is a collection of short fictio. The title describes the concept very well. A concept that works. This book was like made for this kind of around the world -reading, the same thing in miniature.
Beside a good concept book this is a nice compilation of 24 short stories and passages of longer works. These stories are not world classics, probably not even hidden/forgotten gems but they were interesting, there was variation in subjects themes and styles enough to make it an good read. There were realistic stories about the hard life in the rural societies far away, some fairytale like pieces set in the old times, a couple set in modern urban settings, a little about the colonial times, a visit to both oceanside, and a few mentions of the banana companies' inequities ... and a two or three magical realism kind of stories.
An additional source of fascination for me was, for the first time in years, to come again to a country I have visited in real and not just in reading. It was a little bit different, not just knowing the universal or wondering the new and unknown in a new country; to feel and remember things distantly familiar or partly forgotten -- it was a long time I was there and I did not live there.
I read three books for Nicaragua. They were all about the Nicaraguan revolution or its aftermath, written in or set in the 1980s or early 1990s.
Matka rajalle by Matti Rossi is a Finnish novel set in Nicaragua and in the last weeks of the civil war. Several characters including a Finnish "internacionalista", ex-national-guard-helicopter pilot freed from his inprisonment, a Salvadorian revolutionary, and a madman/saint travel from Managua, the capital, toward the Honduran border where the last contra fighters still fight. Decent writing and storytelling but most of all very recognizable characterization and localization. My first visit to Nicaragua took place in 1993, and I could see and feel what this novel told. The Finnish title translates "Journey to the border".
Asuttu nainen (originally La mujer habitada) by Gioconda Belli is mainly a story about a young, privileged woman's turn into Sandinista revolutionary fighter, and how she ended up participating one of the first significant operations in the capital, that probably became some sort of a turning point in the Nicaraguan revolution. A background story of an exceptional woman warrior of the past, from the time of Spanish invasion of the area, is told as if it were an inspiration to the main character. The name of the country, the city, and the characters have been changed, but there is no question this is about Nicaraguan revolution, and the Finnish translator's post scriptum tells that the main character is not so loosely based on a real female revolutionary fighter's life who later became Nicaragua's UN ambassador. (But not the author herself as I've seen said in some reviews of the book.)
My car in Managua by Forrest D. Colburn is a sort of travelogue based on the author's several visits to Nicaragua in the 1980s, from right after the revolution 'till the end of the civil war and the election of Violeta Barrios as the president. The story begins with the car mentioned in the booktitle, how he got it and how it became his means to get around in and around Managua, and more importantly to get to know Nicaraguan people. There were always people in need of transportation and once in the car the contact has been made and the conversation started. This is how he learned a lot and met a few Nicas of different backgrounds. Later in the book there is not so much directly car related anecdotes, but different observations and stories about Nicaragua and the development and changes there during the first decade of the revolution. The author is smart, has open eyes, and is a decent writer, so this was a nice ending to my literary stay in Nicaragua.
Could not find much (any) Honduran books in English of Finnish in the libraries in Helsinki, so I checked again the anthology Contemporary Short Stories from Central America. There were seven short stories, a quick trip via Honduras, from Nicaragua to the Salvadoran border.
I read them all seven but I have to say the story titles were the best part in most cases... Tarzan of the Apes, The Last Act, The Attack of the Man-Eating Paper, Reality before Noon, The Final Flight of the Mischievous Bird, The Author, The Forbidden Street...
Tarzan of the Apes by Eduardo Bähr and The Final Flight... by Jorge Luis Oviedo were somehing to remember. The former is about a crazy mission to catch a deserter in an unnamed local war, and the latter about a young man's crazy (hmm, a pattern here?) dream to fly like Icarus, with self-made wings, which he eventually did and never came back.
El Salvador -- Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated by Katherine Silver and seven more short stories from the anthology Contemporary Short Stories from Central America by authors José Roberto Cea, David Escobar Galindo, Jorge Kattán Zablah, Hugo Lindo, Ricardo Lindo, José María Méndez, Alfonso Quijada Urías, and Napoleón Rodríguez Ruiz; stories titled The Absent One Inside, Restless, The Raccoons, That Confounded Year...!, Cards, The Circle, To Tell The Story, and The Suicide of Chamiabak.
Senselessness is a short novel about a writer who accepts a job editing a report on the civil war and a mass murder of the people of an unnamed country (which appears to be Guatemala, not El Salvador): 1100 pages of horrifying stories of the survived. The story is told in first person, and that person is a heavy drinking, sex-obsessed, paranoid, ever-complaining miserable guy. About the only positive thing in him is that he is touched by the horrendous experiences of the poor people the report he works on is about. This and the strange little twist in the end make reading the book worthwhile. "Kafka on amphetamines" describes a blurb in the back cover this book. In a way it fits.
You probably have not heard of any of the short story authors listed above. I hadn't. And there is a reason for that. They have nice ideas, but they were not great story tellers.
The Raccoons about an old couple fighting for years to get rid of a pack of raccoons messing their garden and realizing they'd lost the reason to live when the animals disappear; That Confounded Year...! being the only sci-fi story I have encountered on this continent so far; and The Suicide of Chamiabak about an ancient tribe and their most ancient member's death were more memorable than the rest.
Weekend en Guatemala by Miguel Ángel Asturia (Finnish translation: Weekend Guatemalassa, by Pentti Saaritsa).
Eight short stories about the 1954 coup in Guatemala, and what followed it. If I get it right these stories cover only a period of a few months. But that short period was followed by more than thirty years of terror and murder.
The main characters are from differents sides and different classes, having different views on what is going on: there is an US colonel who had been smuggling weapons to Guatemala; a tourist guide who witnesses the murdering but has no part in it; native Guatemalans who just became minor land owners and proud of it; big land owners who feel threatend by the reforms, and just can't get it etc.
These are strong but sad stories. Who ever is the main character in each story, it is always clear whose side the author takes: the indians, the ordinary farmers. And that is what makes the stories sad: they always end up dead.
At first I had a little trouble getting into the stories. I think it was the language, the translation from 1961. It has aged but not really well. But in the end the stories won.
Carcel de arboles by Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a novella of 45 pages about a strange experiment a doctor makes on prisoners in an unnamed country. It is not very clear what is done to them, probably some brain surgery, maybe something to the tongue. Anyway, they cannot speak. Each of the can produce only one syllable like "yu" or "zu", and the doctor's idea sounds like (s)he is trying to create a great human music box with the monosyllabic slaves as the sound source. She has invented some system of co-ordinating the prisoner's simple utterances to create great and beautiful music or singing.
The main story is told as if written by one of the prisoners in a notebook he somehow found and managed to hide from the guards. He has found out that he can still write even if not speak. The writings create him a memory. His normal memory seems to be damaged by the operations. The prisoner with the notebook escapes from the jungle prison (thus the name of the story) and ends up dying in the hands of another doctor down the river, in the neighboring country... who then reads the notebook.
I guess this is an allegory about dictatorship. About how the dictators can make the whole country sing their tune. Forced yet beautifully -- for it is kind of beautiful how the singing of the prisoners is described.
Strange littl story. Me reading it with my long forgotten Spanish skills made it probably even stranger an experience than it is.
I tried to find something from Belize to visit there too. But nothing is easily available here. But it seems Belize is a popular setting in fiction by not very well known US authors. Two thirds of these stories are erotic advetures, and the rest just adventures. I'll go to Mexico now.
Really enjoying your grand tour of The Americas. Mexico should certainly provide you with lots of reading.
Thanks. Yes, the first problem with what Mexico provides is where to start.
It seems I spent rest of the year planning my visit to Mexico. Now I have spent three books there, three books by Mexican authors: Plain if flames and Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo and Eagle's throne by Carlos Fuentes.
Plain in flames is a collection of stories set in the 1920s and 1930s in rural Mexico. The vast plains and mountains of the country, little villages and farms in the middle on nowhere are the stage of these stories. Civil war, revolutions, violence and poverty are ever present. They could be a little alien to me but they are not. Humanity is what they are about. Rulfo's manner of storytelling is great. I often felt like listening to the stories while reading; in a ring of listeners, in a bar. Right there where the stories are set to.
Pedro Páramo is a novella of about 120 pages. A young man promises his mother, on her death bed, to find is father a certain Pedro Páramo, in a villace of Colima, and demand from him what is his due. He travels there he finds Colima dead but filled with ghosts that talk all the time. They talk about how things once were and how they turned bad. Very often these stories revolve around Pedro Páramo, who turns out to have been father to many, the biggest landowner around and bad man in many ways.
This may sound simple but the little book is very dense, there are many many voices talking and lots of names (like in those big Russian classics). I had hard time following the story but I enjoyed the atmosphere. I will read this one again.
Eagle's throne is an epistolary novel (or at least it tries to be) se in near future in Mexico. The president of the state says something to make the US angry, and Mexico becomes isolated from the rest of the world. They are dropped out of the internet, no TV, no radio, no telephone... the president who made the mess falls seriously ill and dies. There are a few wannabe presidents, their "friends", and even more of those who want to take advantage of the situation in other ways, and they have no other ways of keeping in touch than to write letters to each other. Which is, at first at least, a horror to them: the first rule in Mexican politics is not to leave any documentation behind.
The idea is great but the execution is not. It reads ok, but this is not true epistolary. The chapters are mostly not like real letters from person to person. Even those who are intimate with each other explain things the other surely must know and remember (unless seriously demented). Other problem is most of the characters don't have a distinctive voice or writing style -- the drunken general planning a coup is about the only one, and he too, only when he's drunk.
The story itself is ok. Nasty people being not so nice to each other unless being nice might help themselves, scheming and plotting, craving for power, corrupted and corruptive. House of Cards in Mexico.
After these three, I have three more novels set in or related to Mexico but written by authors from different countries: Savage Detectives, La Lacuna, and The man who loved dogs -- all of the quite big books which means I'll spend weeks more in Mexico. The man who loved dogs will take me to Cuba, eventually.
I enjoyed Pedro Paramo too -- I thought it packed a lot into a novella.
I finished Savage Detectives some time ago, and started The Lacuna yesterday.
I enjoyed the Detectives, first mostly the writing, the feeling, the flow - not so much the story... that was during the first part, the diary of Maduro. The setting felt so much like something I had read so many times before: young man's coming of age story with insecurities and the first sexual encounters, and some more sex (nothing wrong with sex), and poetry. Then it changed. No more diary. Changing narrators telling anecdotes and remembering the two searchers, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano twenty years of their life, from Mexico to Spain to Israel to Africa. I learned to know them - as much or as little as you can know someone. They disappear, they are forgotten...
This is something special.
Greetings! Thought I'd just say hello. Today I've started Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi. Cheers from California, USA.
Hello... wow... hope you'll enjoy. It is old and it shows, but in a good way. And your timing is good: October 10th was the author's birthday.
The Lacuna seems to have been real slow for me. It was not bad, I never thought of quitting but I was often drawn to other stuff.
The novel tells the story of Harrison W. Shepherd, a fictional author who published two novels. Before becoming an author he was first a young boy living in Mexico with his mother, then a plaster boy working for Diego Rivera, cook for his wife Frida Kahlo, a secretary for Lev Trotsky and so forth. He moves to the US just before the WWII, ends up working for the National Gallery, and then becomes a writer. His two first novels are successful but the winds turn and his relation to the international communists Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky stops his career. Then comes the end with a surprise and a couple of twists, which I'll not tell here.
That was the story, but what is this book about? Is it world politics? Artists' life? The war and its aftermath communist-hunt in the US? I guess all that, and a few more things too. I did forget to mention Shepherd is gay too. The psychology of all that. I cannot say I got it all but there was plenty of food for thought, and I learned a lot of details from the US in the 1940s and early 1950s. Kingsolver has used a lot of real (so she says) news stories and articles from that time. They are interesting but the part where the most of the are, together with the letter Shepherd wrote to Kahlo, sort of stops the flow of the story. They are part of the story but in such a different format that it did not fully work for me. Most of the story is told by Shepherd's diaries and some parts by Violet Brown, Shepherd's stenographer and friend, and a sort of editor of this story.
This comes from kingsolver.com's lacuna-faq: "Lacuna is a word with many meanings: an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript, a tunnel through time or substance." It may be the main thing in this novel is something it does not talk about at all... or maybe not.
Big part of the novel is set in Asheville North Carolina, but it sort of ends (at least Shepherd does) in Mexico so that's where I still am. My next read for this trip will be The man who loved dogs which will take me from Mexico to Cuba.
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