Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Chase

Having read this short novel by Alejo Carpentier in Alfred Mac Adam's translation many years ago, I cockily told myself that I would be able to whip through it now in Spanish in a couple of nights. As it turned out, I made it about thirty pages in, then bogged down and decided to re-read the translation instead first before giving the original another stab.

Why the difficulty? I've plowed steadily through much longer books in Spanish than this one, which is barely over a hundred pages. Though the author was Cuban there's no Afro-Caribbean dialect issue to speak of; there's nothing comparable to the exuberance of Mexican regionalisms found in Elena Poniatowska's brilliant Hasta no verte Jesús mío, for example, or to the elaborate twists and turns of narrative perspective in Cortázar's novels and some of Vargas Llosa's. Maybe I just had too many distractions; in any case, the novel does present some obstacles to the reader, not insuperable ones to a native speaker, perhaps, but enough to make reading it a bit of a challenge. In Spanish or in translation (and Mac Adam's seems to be good), it repays persistence, though.

Carpentier told the critic Luis Harss that he had composed El acoso in imitation of sonata form, "with an introductory section, an exposition, three themes, seventeen variations, and a conclusion or coda." I tend to be skeptical of such claims (Milan Kundera has made similar statements) but in fact the narrative, the bulk of which consists of one long flashback, is framed within an evening's performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony in a Havana concert hall, and probably should be read with that piece of music in mind.

The first character to whom we are introduced is an impecunious classical music buff who is employed as a ticket seller in the concert hall. As he sits in his booth a patron rushes in, flings down a bill many times more than sufficient for even the most expensive seat, and hurries into the hall, closely pursued by two other men. Pocketing the bill (which may or not be genuine), the ticket seller goes for a stroll, calls on a prostitute of his acquaintance, and returns, at the end of the book, in time for the final notes of the performance — and for the brief, violent aftermath of the opening incident. It is the figure he sees fleeing into the hall who will dominate the long central section of the novel. A native of the provinces, this man has incorporated himself into some kind of vaguely outlined revolutionary cell, but ideological purity has degenerated into betrayal and murder-for-hire and he is now a marked man. As we follow the series of steps that lead him to the concert hall events that were narrated in the book's first pages take on new significance.

Carpentier's vocabulary is rich ("baroque" was a word he himself used to define the character of his writing), but the greater challenge is posed by the fact that the reader often doesn't know — and isn't yet supposed to know — exactly what is happening. One section, for instance, begins, in Mac Adam's version, as follows; the ellipses and parenthesis are in the original:
(... this pounding that elbows its way right through me; this bubbling stomach; this heart above that stops beating, piercing me with a cold needle; muffled punches that seem to well up from my very core and smash on my temples, my arms, my thighs; I breathe in gasps; my mouth can't do it; my nose can't do it; the air only comes in tiny sips, fills me, stays inside me, suffocates me, only to depart in dry mouthfuls, leaving me wrenched, doubled over, empty; and then my bones straighten, grind, shudder; I stand above myself, as if hung from myself, until my heart, in a frozen surge, lets go of my ribs so that it can strike me from the front, below my chest; I have no control over this dry sobbing; then breathe, concentrating on it; first, breathe in the air that remains; then breathe out, now breathe in, more slowly; one, two, one, two, one, two ... The hammering comes back; I am shaking from side to side; now sliding down, through all my veins; I am smashing at the thing holding me in place; the floor is shaking with me; the back of the hair is shaking; the seat is shaking, giving a dull push with each shudder; the entire row must feel the tremor;
And so on and so on. It's only gradually that we realize that this passage is being told from the point-of-view of the man who has fled into the concert hall; we won't understand why he is there, or why his thoughts are frantically racing, for many more pages. Carpentier professed a disdain for "the little psychological novel" and a preference for the "big themes" of historical and social processes; perhaps the fracturing of perspective here is conducive to that more analytical, even didactic approach. El acoso was first published in 1956; since then its technical innovations have been widely borrowed and extended by other writers, but it still retains its nervy intensity.

Alejo Carpentier's description of the musical structure of The Chase, as well as his comments on the psychological novel, are quoted in Harss and Dohmann's landmark Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers, which includes a respectful but sharply critical evaluation of the Cuban novelist's work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

HWY 62

Peter Case is kicking off a Kickstarter campaign for his next CD, HWY 62, which is scheduled to be released in 2015. Details here.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The living

These two faded and stained studio portraits of African-American couples were taken sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century and printed on postcard stock. The one above, which is probably the earlier of the two, is the work of the Flett Studio in Atlantic City, which operated for at least fifteen years or so and must have produced countless similar images. "Mr. & Mrs...," followed by a family name, has been written on the back, but I can't make out the surname. The third figure, standing in the center, may have been the best man at the couple's wedding, or just a relative or friend.

There's even less we can say about the couple below, except that they're dressed to the nines. The studio is unidentified, but the Azo postcard stock used was manufactured from 1904-1918. Like the first postcard, this one was never mailed.

When an artifact is removed from its context without adequate documentation some of its potential for bearing information is lost; we no longer know as much about how it relates to the world that created it. The orphaned photographs above would be much more potent if we knew anything at all about the sitters' identities, life stories, occupations, and families, but people die childless or separated from their families, children have their own lives to lead and can't be bothered, any number of things can sever the thread. Things drift off and go their own ways.

The Dead in Frock Coats

In the corner of the living room was an an album of unbearable photos,
many meters high and infinite minutes old,
over which everyone leaned
making fun of the dead in frock coats.

Then a worm began to chew the indifferent coats,
the pages, the inscriptions, and even the dust on the pictures.
The only thing it did not chew was the everlasting sob of life that broke
and broke from those pages.

— Carlos Drummond de Andrade; translation by Mark Strand

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Chile, the slender nation that lies along the Pacific margins of South America, has faced more than its share of disasters, natural and otherwise. This neat road novel by the Mexican-born writer Andrés Pascoe Rippey imagines an apocalyptic future in which a nuclear war between the great powers has wiped out modern communications and the electric grid worldwide, even in countries — like Chile — that are far from the center of the conflict. As the authorities lose control, rioting and looting break out, and are followed in turn by the rise of brutal paramilitary units, and, more disturbingly, by armies of crazed, cannibalistic merodeadores (marauders) in whom we — although not the characters, at least initially — recognize the characteristic traits of the zombie.

The novel's central character, Alberto, is a left-wing Mexican journalist living in Santiago. As violence breaks out, he at first withdraws to the security of his apartment, but when the situation in the capital becomes increasingly grim he flees south in a commandeered Range Rover, acquiring two companions along the way. One, Max, is a teenager from a wealthy and conservative Catholic family; the other, Valentina, is an Argentinian woman who is both a formidable hand-to-hand fighter and a sexual powerhouse. Hoping to find shelter in an isolated region, they find that little they encounter along the way — a pious farm family, a neohippie commune — is what it seems; moreover, the paramilitaries and merodeadores are also swiftly making their way south. Much of the latter part of the novel takes place among the idyllic scenery of Chile's Alerce Andino National Park, though the events that transpire there — including, of all things, a cavalry charge, are anything but tranquil.

The novel's political and social overtones are obvious and at time explicit, and memories of the violent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet are never far from the surface, but the novel also draws on the conventions of horror cinema, as well as, I suspect, books like John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and the disaster novels of J. G. Ballard. It manages to be well-written and astute in its observation of society and character while supplying a ripping, well-paced narrative.

Todo es rojo is, thus far, available only in Spanish. It has been published, in a handsome edition, by a tiny Chilean press, Imbunche Ediciones, and appears to have limited distribution outside that country. (It is, however, available as a PDF download from Lulu.) Hopefully it will eventually gain wider exposure and translation into other languages.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Destroying Angels

Kyūsaku Yumeno was the pen name of a prolific Japanese writer who died in 1936 and whose work is apparently relatively little-known in the English-speaking world. Satori Ediciones in Spain has just published El infierno de las chicas (The Hell of Girls), a Spanish-language translation by Daniel Aguilar of the three dark, intricate stories that were originally collected in Japanese as Shōjo jigoku. As far as I can tell the stories have never appeared in English.

All three tales included here are narrated largely or exclusively in epistolary fashion, though in each case we read only one side of the correspondence. One story makes use of fictional news articles, and now and then letters from third parties are nested within the letters of the primary correspondent. The first story, "No tiene importancia," (It's of no importance) takes the form of a long missive written by one physician to another, describing the case of a young woman who has worked as a nurse, first for the recipient and then for the sender. We are told from the first page that the woman, who goes by the name of Yuriko Himegusa, has killed herself; the remainder of the story, which is approximately one hundred pages long, is in effect an extended flashback explaining this act. Himegusa was, to all appearances, a model employee: pleasant, conscientious, skillful, and beloved by her patients. She was also, it seems, a pathological liar, and the eventual unraveling of the skein of lies she has wound around herself proves her undoing. Or does it? Both Aguilar, the translator of this volume, and Nathen Clerici, the author of a recent doctoral dissertation (PDF here) on Yumeno, point out that the final outcome of the story is in fact highly ambiguous; no body is found, and the "suicide" (revealed, naturally, by means of a letter) may simply be one more deception.

From the point of view of the doctor narrating her history, Himegusa represents simply an unfortunate if rather bizarre case of female psychopathology. But Himegusa sees herself as a victim of misunderstanding and suspicion, and her suicide — real or faked — amounts to a salvo in the drawn-out battle between women and a male-dominated world. This aspect is heightened in the two remaining stories in the volume, in both of which the central female characters are at once victims and avengers of the crimes of men. The briefest, "Asesinatos por relevos," (roughly, Murders by relay) takes the form of a series of letters written by a young woman who works as a conductor or ticket-taker on a bus, in which she seeks to dissuade a friend from leaving her rural home and taking up the same career. Her contention that such a career only serves to subject a woman to the whims and abuse of men is chillingly documented in the course of the correspondence, as a new male driver who appears to be a serial killer of women takes the wheel on the bus route she is assigned to.1 In the end, the man gets his comeuppance, although what amounts to a happy ending, in both this and the last story in the volume, may seem appalling to contemporary Western readers.

The final story, "La mujer de Martes" (The woman from Mars), which, like the first, is novella-length, is the most intricate of the three. It begins with a newspaper article about the discovery of a charred body after a fire in one of the outbuildings of a girls' school, and proceeds breathlessly through a series of follow-up reports, which document an increasingly bizarre and inexplicable series of events, including disappearances, a hanging, and the desecration of a cross inside a nearby Catholic church. Only after these events have been catalogued is the explanation teased out, in the form of a long letter from one of the students at the school (the gangly misfit whose nickname gives the story its title) to its headmaster, a pious bachelor who has inexplicably gone insane since the fire. As in the previous story, there is a woman wronged and vengeance to be exacted in disturbing — and in this case extraordinarily elaborate — fashion.

Daniel Aguilar notes that those stories are written from a feminine, almost feminist viewpoint, and there is something to that, bearing in mind the limitations of the time and place (1930s Japan). What is certain is that men don't come off well at all; if not all entirely depraved, they are nevertheless very bad at running things. But there's something more here too, a sense that the world is essentially amoral and devoid of meaning. The men, blinded by lust and vanity, may not acknowledge that fact, but the women know it all too well. In the words of Utae Awakawa, the "woman from Mars":
Little by little I began to feel with greater and greater intensity that the emptiness that lay in the depths of my heart and the emptiness that could be found above the blue sky were exactly the same thing. And I began to think, as well, that the act of dying was something simple and of no importance.2
This bleak sense of futility that emerges over and over throughout these stories may perhaps owe something to Buddhist thought, but in its incarnation into 20th-century urban Japan it takes on a character that is very much Yumeno's own brilliant creation.

1 The bus is staffed by two employees: the man at the wheel (conductor in Spanish), and the female cobradora or revisora who accepts tickets and provides assistance to the driver.
2 My translation from the Spanish version.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Here are four undated photographs of the same young man, all probably taken within a few minutes of each other. There's a severity to his angular features, projecting an indispensable image of male toughness to a tough world, but as we see him trying out poses — with hat or without, looking now left, now right — do we detect as well a certain lack of resolution, as if he were unsure about exactly how to best project that image?

He selects four different varieties of card mount, to be given away as keepsakes to unknown kin or girlfriends, but they're all passed down together, as if he never did quite make up his mind (or maybe he found that he had no one to give them to). A name scrawled in ink on the back of one of the cards may read "Owen Lewis," but next to it there are also traces of a different set of initials, ornately written in pencil.

The photos themselves are barely more than an inch high, and the embossed cardboard mounts that hold them are about 3.25 x 2.25. Based on the man's hat, collar, and necktie, I'm guessing that the photos date from the early 20th century. They may have been produced in an early automatic photo booth, like the one patented by Anatol Josepho, which debuted in 1925. (The technique of sealing the photos within embossed card mounts originated in the tintype era, decades earlier.)

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Cold Trail Blues

Peter Case at the Mug and Brush Barber Shop in Columbus Ohio, May 10, 2014.

"Cold Trail Blues" originally appeared on Flying Saucer Blues, and is also included in the compilation album Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?, both from Vanguard Records.