Monday, December 29, 2014


Two passages from Peter Blegvad's "Numinous Objects and Their Manufacture":
Objects proliferate as never before, but they are mostly dead husks, the shells of things, wherein no daemon resides. We own them merely, or covet them, we are not nourished. Meanwhile, the fundamental appetite for numinous objects grows ravenous. Never mind that it remains unconscious in most citizens and unacknowledged by the authorities. Only numinous objects can make possible the communication between people and so-called "dead matter" which must be established if we wish to avert calamity...

The numinous objects which already exist in our environment are easily overlooked by our harassed and addled species. Education is the remedy, teaching people of all ages to resist distraction and become sensitive to the subtle radiation emanating from these items (which often masquerade as common refuse on the street). I imagine students returning, bright-eyed and exultant, from expedition to dumps, factories, zoos, firing-ranges, hospitals, quarries, ships, farms, forests, cinemas, circuses, cemeteries, and recording studios with their eclectic spoil. Objects thus collected would be tested, graded and catalogued before being made available to the public from a chain of lending libraries.
Excerpted from Kew. Rhone. (Uniformbooks 2014).

What is Kew. Rhone.? 1) "A phantom or spiritual skyscraper which is only visible to specific individuals, briefly, at a specific time and from a specific vantage, though these coordinates are never the same twice"; 2) a map of Kew, overlain with a map of the Rhone river (or vice versa); 3) an anagram of (among other things) KNOWHERE; 4) a 1977 long-playing record credited to John Greaves, Peter Blegvad, and Lisa Herman, or subsequent re-issues thereof in various formats, some of which are no longer supported by 21st-century operating systems; 5) a newly issued companion book to said record, published by Uniformbooks in the UK, and containing contributions by Blegvad (who is credited as the author), Greaves, and Herman as well as other participants, observers, and appreciators, "the aim being," in Blegvad's words, "to illuminate without dispelling the mystery of a work designed to resist interpretation even as it invites it."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Notebook: Lost bibliography

For just shy of thirty years I've maintained a little spiral notebook (now missing its back cover) in which I've recorded the particulars of every book I've read through to the end. I don't often flip through its back pages, but every now and then I hunt up the title of a volume I no longer own, or take a look back to refresh my memory about when I read a certain book or what I was reading during a given period in my life.

I have to shake my head about some of the entries in the notebook — did I truly read two books, a decade apart, about the Iranian revolution, a subject that's of no more interest to me than a hundred other topics I might have read about but never bothered to? Some books, looking back on it, were more or less a waste of time, but in the end not that many. There are some things on the list that I know I read and enjoyed but don't now don't particularly remember much about (Jan Morris's Heaven's Command, Marcia Davenport's biography of Mozart), some I had mixed feelings about at the time but that I've never quite shaken off (David Searcy's virtually unreadable but oddly fascinating Ordinary Horror), and some I've gone back to and re-read multiple times. And then there are the ones I don't remember at all — not many, maybe 1% of the total, and none in the past decade — and those are the ones that really puzzle me.
Arenas, Reinaldo Graveyard of the Angels Avon 1987
I read a lot of Latin American literature and I know exactly who Reinaldo Arenas was, but if you had asked me if I had ever read anything by him I would have been quite sure that I hadn't. The most I can summon up about this one is a vague Caribbean atmosphere, which I could just as well have gotten from reading a review. I read it just before Cortázar's El examen (which I remember quite clearly, though I've never gotten around to re-reading it).
Bacon, Charlotte Lost Geography Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2000
Nice cover (see above). I recognize the story line, but I mistakenly thought it belonged to another novel (see "Michaels, Anne" below). I did like this, and probably would read it again, but I'm not sure if I still own a copy.
Badaracco, Claire Trading Words: Poetry, Typography & Illustrated Books in the Modern Literary Economy Johns Hopkins 1995
This sounds like something I would have gone for but I no longer remember it at all.
Childress, Mark Crazy in Alabama Putnam 1993
I draw a blank on this one. Judging from the publisher's description it doesn't sound like something I would have read. But read it I did.
Forrest, Emma Namedropper Scribners 2000
"Meet Viva Cohen: her bedroom walls are plastered with posters of silver-screen legends, and underneath her school uniform she wears vintage thigh-high stockings. Her best friends are a drugged-out beauty queen and an aging rock star. She lives in London with her gay uncle Manny." Okay, very vaguely familiar.
Huston, Nancy The Mark of the Angel Steerforth 1999
I feel bad about this one. I think I must have liked it, and I know who Nancy Huston is, but I can't say that I recall the story.
Michaels, Anne Fugitive Pieces Knopf 1997
I have good memories associated with this author and title, and I still have the galley, but apparently I've also confused it with another book (see "Bacon, Charlotte" above). Here's the jacket copy:
In 1940 a boy bursts from the mud of a war-torn Polish city, where he has buried himself to hide from the soldiers who murdered his family. His name is Jakob Beer. He is only seven years old. And although by all rights he should have shared the fate of the other Jews in his village, he has not only survived but been rescued by a Greek geologist, who does not recognize the boy as human until he begins to cry. With this electrifying image, Anne Michaels ushers us into her rapturously acclaimed novel of loss, memory, history, and redemption.
It sounds promising but I don't recall it. Update (2019): I re-read this one. It's a fine book.
Millet, Lydia Omnivores Algonquin 1996
Publisher's Weekly describes this as follows:
"Millet's feisty but sometimes awkward debut tells of a young girl's coming-of-age in an extremely dystopian version of modern America. The Candide-like protagonist, Estee Kraft, spends her childhood as a prisoner of a bedridden mother and psychopathic father, who forces her to assist him in a variety of murderous 'experiments,' beginning with moths and culminating with his abduction of an elderly woman."
It doesn't ring any bells.
Offil, Jenny Last Things Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1990
Here's how the publisher describes this:
Grace's father believes in science and builds his daughter a dollhouse with lights that really work. Grace's mother takes her skinny-dipping in the lake and teaches her about African hyena men who devour their wives in their sleep. Grace's world, of fact and fiction, marvels and madness, is slowly unraveling because her family is coming apart before her eyes. Now eight-year-old Grace must choose between her two very different, very flawed parents, a choice that will take her on a dizzying journey, away from her home in Vermont to the boozy, flooded streets of New Orleans — and into the equally wondrous and frightening realm of her own imagination.
If you say so. Maybe the skinny-dipping caught my eye.
Perutz, Leo By Night Under the Stone Bridge Arcade 1990
Perutz, Leo Saint Peter's Snow Arcade 1990
Leo Perutz is a special case. I remember very clearly reading his novel The Marquis of Bolibar, which I still own, and liking it enough that I wanted to read the other books of his that Arcade released at about the same time, but I remember nothing about these two volumes, which I no longer own. Two or three years ago, in the course of a discussion of old Prague legends, someone recommended that I read By Night Under the Stone Bridge. I made a mental note to do so, not recalling that I already had. Update: I read, or re-read, By Night Under the Stone Bridge in August 2016. I enjoyed it a great deal, but still have no memory of having read it years before. This one remains a puzzle.
Teller, Astro Exegesis Vintage 1997
I read a book by someone named Astro Teller? Have I even heard of Astro Teller? The book appears to be science fiction. I remember nothing about it — zilch. The next book I read was Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, all 773 grueling pages of it. For better or worse that's an experience I won't forget.
Wolfe, David W. Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life Perseus 2001
This sounds good but I don't recognize it.
Wolff, Philippe Western Languages AD 100-1500 Phoenix Press 2003
This was undoubtedly a review copy that came into the office where I was working at the time. I've always been interested in historical linguistics but I suspect it must have been deadly dull for it to have made no impression on me whatsoever.

My apologies to the authors; it's not you, it's me.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fighting words

The Spectator, 6 November 1852:
Five publishers were yesterday summoned by Mr. Panizzi for the non-delivery of books at the British Museum. They were all convicted and fined. Mr. H. G. Bohn was one of them. He had not sent in a copy of Andrew Fuller's Works. There was a rather warm scene in court between the librarian and the publisher. Mr. Bohn contended, that a courteous intimation that the book had not been sent would have insured its being sent with an apology for the oversight: that was the course followed by Mr. Panizzi's predecessor. Mr. Bohn further said, it was well known that he sent his books to the Museum, yet it constantly happened that his friends could not find them. Mr. Panizzi (very warmly)— "That's untrue, and you know it." Mr. Bohn— "I know that I have applied for one of my books myself, without being able to get it." Mr. Panizzi— "What book? Name any book." Mr. Bohn— "Why, Schiller's Works, for one, I remember." Mr. Panizzi— "It is false. You shall not make such a charge in public."

Sunday, November 30, 2014


At first glance, Ana María Matute's 1960 novel Primera memoria seems much of a piece with the narratives with which she ended her career some five decades later, Paraíso inhabitado and the unfinished Demonios familiares. Like the later books, it takes place during the first months of the Spanish Civil War and centers around an adolescent girl in a conservative Catholic family divided by death, separation, or emotional remoteness. There are even some common allusions: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," a toy theatre, and so on. But though there's a bittersweet, autumnal sorrow even in Matute's last books, Primera memoria, written and published in the dead years of the Franco era, is a very different, much more troubling tale.

The heroine, Matia, fourteen years old, has lost her mother years before; her subsequent caretaker, a family retainer, has taken ill shortly before the novel begins. With her father absent (and regarded as a black sheep due to his allegiance to the Republic), she is packed off to her grandmother's home on an island that is unnamed but presumably Majorca or one of its neighbors. The forbidding figure of her grandmother reigns over the house and much of the vicinity, but Matia and her male cousin, Borja, who is a year older, regularly escape to drink and smoke on the shore, out of sight of the family and the slightly older tutor who is supposed to be keeping tabs on them. Borja also steals money, weapons, and other contraband from his grandmother and elsewhere, and caches them in a stranded boat. Inevitably, the two lonely adolescents form close, but deceptive, bonds.

Nothing on the island is above board, and nothing is what it seems. Smuggling is rampant, adultery widespread, and with the outbreak of the war old scores begin to be settled. Some of the scores are ancient: on the outskirts of town there is a ruined district — the plaza de los judíos — where, centuries earlier, the Inquisition had burnt the island's unconverted Jews. The descendents of the conversos, the Jews who chose to adopt Christianity in order to save their lives, are taunted as chuetas, the worst imaginable insult; nevertheless their bloodlines, like subterranean streams, in fact appear to be everywhere on the island. A rival gang of teenagers, armed with meat hooks, sets bonfires and immolates straw men dressed up to resemble Borja, in order to draw him into battle. But in the end, they all fear Borja, and with good reason; he is charming, but as Matia delares, he also has "an absolute absence of pity." His streak of ruthlessness will do terrible damage by the novel's end, and he will not pay be the one to pay for it.

Though she had a long and successful career, Ana María Matute reportedly ran afoul of Franco-era censorship at times. Primera memoria, which won the Premio Nadal and is the first part of a loosely linked trilogy, may simply have been too subtle and ingeniously crafted to set off the censor's alarm bells. It is no less subversive for all that. It has been translated into English twice, once as Awakening and once as School of the Sun.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mark Strand (1934-2014)


A man walks towards town,
a slack breeze smelling of earth
and the raw green of trees blows at his back.

He drags the weight of his passion as if nothing were over,
as if the woman, now curled in bed beside her lover,
still cared for him.

She is awake and stares at scars of light
trapped in the panes of glass.
He stands under her window, calling her name;

he calls all night and it makes no difference.
It will happen again, he will come back wherever she is.
Again he will stand outside and imagine

her eyes opening in the dark
and see her rise to the window and peer down.
Again she will lie awake beside her lover

and hear the voice from somewhere in the dark.
Again the late hour, the moon and stars,
the wounds of night that heal without sound,

again the luminous wind of morning that comes before the sun.
And, finally, without warning or desire,
the lonely and the feckless end.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I seem to be reading the late Ana María Matute in reverse chronological order, having started with her last, uncompleted, novel, Demonios familiares, before moving on to Paraíso inhabitado (Uninhabited Paradise), which was published in 2008. Since she began publishing in the late 1940s there's a lot of territory left to be explored.

Like Demonios familiares, Paraíso inhabitado is set around the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and centers around a young girl in a conservative upper-class family, though in this case the girl — Adriana, or Adri — hasn't yet reached adolescence. The youngest of four children whose parents have separated, she leads a solitary existence, roaming the corridors of her home at night when the grown-ups (the "Giants," as she calls them) are asleep, and relying on her books, the family servants, and her imagination for companionship. She dreads school, where she is bullied, and has no friends until a Russian boy — Gavrila, or Gavi — appears outside one day playing ball with his dog. Despite her family's ambivalence, the two quickly become devoted friends, "Siamese twins" as they call themselves.

The narrator occasionally tips her hand that the events she is describing happened long in the past (and like a garrulous but fascinating old aunt she is sometimes guilty of repeating a point), but otherwise the story is told entirely from within Adriana's childhood perspective, carefully respecting her understanding (a very limited one) of the events that are beginning to take place outside her own horizons. The novel skirts the borders of the fantastic; there is, it's true, that unicorn that is occasionally seen to escape from the frame in which it hangs in the family home, but really nothing that can't be understood as being a realistic part of Adri's interior life, which is as rich as her external circumstances are confining. As she approaches adolescence, Adriana begins to rebel against the restraints under which she lives, in which "boys play with boys and girls play with girls" and even the deepest rifts are papered over with false propriety. That rebellion can be seen, perhaps, as symbolic defiance of the old, conservative Spain that was about to reassert itself, or simply as a reflection of Matute's own personal development; perhaps it is both.

Matute reportedly contemplated a sequel, to be called La rama normanda (The Norman Branch), but it was never written. Thus far, Paraíso inhabitado has not been translated into English.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Aurora Bernárdez (1920-2014)

Aurora Bernárdez, the first wife and literary executor of Julio Cortázar, has died in Paris. Though the couple divorced in the 1960s, after Cortázar began a relationship with Ugné Karvelis, they retained strong bonds of mutual respect and friendship, and upon the death of Cortázar's second wife, Carol Dunlap, in 1982, Cortázar assigned to Bernárdez the remaining half of his estate that was not already intended for her. Bernárdez cared for Cortázar during his final illness, and after his death oversaw the publication of his posthumous papers, including a splendid edition of his letters. More information is available at El País.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Good people

After the scarcely mitigated hell of the recently concluded election cycle, nothing would be easier (or, it would seem, more defensible) than to simply throw up one's hands and walk away in despair. And maybe we all do need to walk away, for a moment, just for the sake our mental health.

But on reflection, what really has changed? It's never been easy to change anything for the better in the US, and that will still be the case two years or ten years or twenty years in the future. We are what we are and that's the territory. Take a few deep breaths, then remind yourself that what you learned to be true and right when you first became of an age to understand these things is probably still true and right. We all learn from experience (or ought to) but the fundamentals are eternal: compassion is still better than cruelty and pettiness, truth and understanding are better than lies and ignorance, and extending one's horizons and empathy to encompass others and our own future is better than short-sightedness, greed, and xenophobia. End of sermon.

Below are links to three organizations that are directly involved in improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens). None of their activities ought to be regarded as controversial (though to varying degrees no doubt they will be so regarded by some) and none of them are political in the sense of affiliating themselves with parties or candidates, but each of these organizations works, on a more-or-less modest scale and in its own way, to make a concrete and positive difference in people's lives. Check them out, or find one of your own.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Immokalee, FL)

Neighbors Link (Mt. Kisco, NY)

Workers Defense Project (Austin, TX)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Last words

No quiero ser un espectro más de esta casa...

When she died earlier this year, the Spanish writer Ana María Matute left behind an unfinished novel, Demonios familiares ("Family Demons," or conceivably "Familiar Demons"), which has just been published in Spain by Ediciones Destino. Though she was 88 at her death and had suffered from various ailments, it's quite clear from reading it, and from the brief "Nota final" by María Paz Ortuño, that she died with her wits and her gifts soundly intact.

Like much of Matute's work, Demonios familiares is set during the Spanish Civil War and centers on an adolescent girl, in this case one who would have been just a few years older than the author, who was born in 1925. As the story begins, Eva has just been retrieved from a convent school where she has been living with the intent of becoming a novice. The convent has been set ablaze by persons unknown and the fire is visible from her childhood home, where her father, a retired colonel who is confined to a wheelchair, lives accompanied only by a taciturn male servant, Yago, and an elderly cook and housekeeper, Magdalena.

Eva has grown up, motherless and almost friendless, in a household presided over by the colonel's mother, known to everyone as Madre. Madre is now dead but her presence lingers everywhere, especially in Eva's attic refuge, where her portrait is now stored. Restored to her home, and abandoning any thought of becoming a nun, Eva is now fiercely determined to gain her independence, but with the outbreak of full-scale war her world will be turned upside-down by the discovery of an injured parachutist — one of "the enemy" — in a nearby forest. The text ends abruptly, perhaps half-written.

There are familiar elements in this scenario: the old house inhabited by memories and retainers, the remote and despotic paterfamilias (though he is beginning to soften his grip), the love affair that cuts across battle lines, but their presence should not mislead us. Matute's inhabitating of Eva's thoughts and emotions, and her ability to resuscitate in Eva the spirits of her own childhood, keeps Demonios familiares fresh and original throughout.

There are two attitudes customarily taken when a writer leaves unfinished work behind; the first — and this applies particularly if the writer was elderly at her death — is that the work, being unfinished, is of interest more to scholars than to readers; the second is that it's a terrible shame that the work was never finished. Neither attitude is really appropriate in this case; no doubt the concluding chapters of the book would have provided additional pleasures, but there's something satisfying about it in its unfinished, indeterminate state. It's as if Matute's long career as a writer did not end but simply opened out into generous possibility.

The jacket art, by the way, is by the Canadian painter Michael Thompson. The book's epigraph is by the poet Luis Cernuda: "Todo lo que es hermoso tiene su instante, y pasa": everything that is beautiful has its moment, and passes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A poet looks back

Back in the late 1970s I read this translation by the late Gabriel Berns of what is actually only the first volume (comprising Books One and Two) of La arboleda perdida, the memoirs of the Spanish poet and artist Rafael Alberti, but I've only just now finished reading it in the original for the first time. The translation, published by the University of California Press in 1976, is now out-of-print, which is a bit of a shame although it doesn't really surprise me, Alberti long ago having been displaced in general literary circles as the one peninsular Spanish poet whom one is obligated to know by his contemporary and friend — how close a friend is a bit of a matter of dispute — Federico García Lorca.

In fairness, Lorca, in addition to having died the death of an unwilling martyr during the Spanish Civil War, was the better poet, but not by such a margin that Alberti's achievements should have been forgotten. It's true that Alberti wrote too much and that inevitably some of it is of uneven quality, but the best of what he wrote — the poetry collections Sobre los ángeles and Retornos de lo vivo lejano, as well as the present volume — still holds up rather well. For those interested there are a number of selections of his poetry in English, including volumes translated by Ben Belitt (badly), by Mark Strand (nicely), and by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno.

As for The Lost Grove, it covers the first decades of Alberti's life, beginning with his birth in Andalusia in 1902 and ending in 1931, that is, well before the Spanish Civil War, the outcome of which led to his long exile in South America and Italy during the Franco years. An ardent supporter of the republican side, Alberti would also become, and remain until his death, a committed communist, but that aspect of his life is in this volume largely held in abeyance; the focus here is on his childhood in Andalusia and his search for a vocation first as a painter and later, definitely, as an artist. By the end of his twenties he had gained a solid reputation, published a half-dozen volumes, and become acquainted with such prominent literary and artistic figures as Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and at least three future Nobel laureates in Literature: Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, and Juan Ramón Jímenez. He had also met the woman — the writer María Teresa León — who would remain his wife and creative partner for the rest of her life.

Much of Alberti's most interesting work was prompted by crisis and loss, whether it took the shape of bitter romantic disappointment, war, or exile. (As he tells us here, even his shift from art to poetry was prompted by an illness that kept him away from his easel.) The writing of this initial volume, which seems to have been done at widely-separated intervals over a long period, is shadowed but also enriched by his separation from his homeland, in particular his beloved Andalusian seacoast. Memoirs are inevitably self-serving, and at times Alberti appears to write with the freedom of assuming that he would never see many of his old friends and relations again. As it would happen, he outlived virtually all of them, as well as — by decades — the Franco regime, and survived to the age of ninety-six.

Gabriel Berns's translation is capable and reads smoothly. It clarifies (or footnotes) a number of allusions that would be likely to confuse the English-language reader, and in one case, perhaps due to the censorship of the original text (my copy of which is a Seix Barral reprint from the 1970s), it provides a fuller account than the Spanish version, specifically of a comical anecdote involving a purported relic in the possession of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. One section of several pages has been left untranslated; it describes a notorious lecture ("performance" would be a better word) that Alberti gave to a women's literary society, leading to a minor scandal. The account of the incident, while perhaps not completely untranslatable, would undoubtedly remain somewhat opaque in English, and its omission is perhaps understandable.

In the coming months I hope to move on to the untranslated second volume of La arboleda perdida, which covers the period from 1931 to 1987.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Celebrating Andy Irvine

Andy Irvine has just released a live CD of his 70th-birthday bash two years ago, with a DVD promised soon, both of which are available directly from Andy's website. Participants include members of several of the various combos Andy's been associated with, including Sweeney's Men, Planxty, Mozaik, and LAPD (which stands for Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin, and Dónal Lunny), as well as Paul Brady, George Galiatsos, and Manolis Galiatsos. Most of the twelve songs have been recorded previously on other records, but the versions are strong, the sound excellent, and everyone's in great spirits. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Things that fit in the hand.
Things that follow us, but only from a safe distance.
Things that are closer than they appear in the rear-view mirror.
Things that have no reflection when they are held up to a looking-glass.
Things that have not yet been described by science.
Things that are best left unspoken.
Things that have no names.
Things whose names have been forgotten.
Things people call you if they can't remember your name.
Things that are not bilaterally symmetrical.

Things that spin on an axis for a brief moment or two, then topple over and stop moving.
Things of potential utility during rainstorms.
Things that fell into a crack in the floorboards, and when they were at last retrieved, no one knew any longer to whom they belonged.
Things found floating in the water.
Things washed up on the shore.
Things found in the belly of a hippopotamus, in surprisingly good condition.
Things that make people blush, at first, or maybe always.
Things that left-handed people find it particularly difficult to use.
Things that can be shaken to make percussion instruments, at least until they break.
Things in my pockets.

Things that fell through a hole in my pockets, rolled into the street, and disappeared down a storm drain.
Things Mama don't allow.
Things that all came out in the wash.
Things the dog chewed.
Things you originally bought for yourself but decided to give as a present instead.
Things that can be folded repeatedly without tearing.
Things you never learned.
Things whose nature can not yet be publicly revealed, but which probably weren't worth the trouble in the first place.
Things supposedly nicknamed "George" by those who were there at the time.
Things nobody ought to ask you if they don't want to know.

Things that got moldy and had to be thrown out.
Things you shouldn't stick in your ears.
Things that only grow under beech trees, in the deepest part of the woods.
Things marked "unknown artist, c. 1930."
Things that aren't remembered.
Things that can't be placed.
Things that are different.
Things that aren't the same.
Things you don't have to declare when you cross the border.
Things that once released, can never be put back in the bottle.

Things you can't buy on Sundays in parts of Pennsylvania.
Things marked with several small perforations, perhaps from a BB gun.
Things someone stuffed in a brown paper bag and shoved in the back of a desk drawer, and that's the end of it.
Things lemons are good for.
Things that most likely got left behind when the neighbors moved out.
Things nobody knows.
Real things.
Things that never were.
Things that are gone.
Things that remain.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Loss of faith

This 1913 novel by Roger Martin du Gard may come across today as a somewhat curious project, a book that is not only a "novel of ideas" in the sense of being about ideas or structured around ideas but which in fact is largely composed of discussions of those ideas. The period is the late 1890s and early 1900s, a time of open conflict in France between the forces of traditional authority, both clerical and secular, and a vigorous positivism bolstered by scientific advances and by the undermining of religious faith by scholarly criticism. The book consists in large part of responses to that conflict, particularly as viewed through the life of the title character, who inherits both the scientific outlook of his physician father and the pious Catholicism of his mother. In the course of his own intellectual development, the young Jean comes to question and eventually to wholeheartedly reject Catholic teachings; his militant public atheism provokes a breach with his wife, Cécile, with whom he separates brutally shortly after the birth of their daughter. Barois becomes the editor of a prominent freethinking journal, Le Semeur, and is caught up in the Dreyfus Affair, during which he vigorously denounces the decisions of the military courts; later, as his health declines, he is overcome with existential horror at the thought of death and finally relapses into Catholicism. His daughter, whom he does not see again until she turns eighteen, becomes a nun, in part, it is suggested, to ransom her father's soul.

Martin du Gard was not religious, but for the most part he is too scrupulous both as a scholar and as a novelist to openly take sides. A broad range of views are put forward, each of them plausibly articulated, from the uncompromising materialism of Barois's middle years to his daughter's unshakable piety in the face of objections posed by science and reason ("Mais, père, si ma certitude était à la merci des objections ce ne serait plus une certitude..."). Ironies and subtleties abound. Barois, devastated by illness and personal estrangements, reverts to Catholicism; a steadfast friend and collaborator, Marc-Élie Luce, dies serenely an atheist, surrounded by his large and loving family. The priest who guides Barois in his return to faith, secretly troubled in his own convictions, is a longtime admiring reader of Le Semeur who, at the end of the novel, stands by as Cécile burns a document, penned years earlier, in which Barois, foreseeing the possibility of a deathbed conversion, had explicitly denounced it in advance. As the pages burn, the priest thinks of the Church, which had eased Barois's last days, and to which, he concludes uneasily, this sacrifice is due "— peut-être."

Jean Barois looks back at the Dreyfus era, but also prophetically ahead to the debacles of twentieth-century Europe. Before his final return to faith, Barois, like his allies, looks confidently forward to an age in which scientific progress would solve not only medical and technical problems but social ones as well. Martin du Gard foresaw that even as the disappointment of those expectations would lead some, like Barois, to reach for the familiar emotional comforts of faith, it would lead others — notably two young Catholic nationalists who debate with Barois near the end of the book — to an irrational politics that arguably prefigures Fascism. Some, like Luce, face the void bravely and with eyes open; others spiral into despair. One hundred years later the terms of the debate are very different, but the stakes remain the same.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unearthly Loves

I started reading modern Japanese literature in Spanish translation because there were a couple of books I wanted to read that didn't seem to be available in English, but at this point I'm just doing it for fun — or perhaps in part because the psychological effect of reading a book in a foreign language — any foreign language — gives me the illusion that I'm reading it "the original," which in the case of Japanese is something I'm utterly unable to do. Plus I just like these editions from Satori in Spain. Putting aside such eccentricities, three of the four stories in Izumi Kyōka's El santo del monte Koya are readily available in English in a volume entitled Japanese Gothic Tales, translated by Charles Shirō Inouye and published by University of Hawaii Press.

And they're great stories, intricately told, shocking at times, richly atmospheric; each of them rewards — in fact demands — a second reading. I'll pass over the two shorter ones, as good as they are, and say a few words about the title story, which in Inouye's translation is called "The Holy Man of Mount Koya," and the novella-length "Un día de primavera" ("One Day in Spring"). Both can be found in the Inouye translation mentioned above.

The former follows a classic Japanese storytelling pattern: a lone traveler — here, a Buddhist monk — hiking through the remote countryside encounters a figure — in this case, a woman — who turns out to be other than what she appears. Kyōka, who died in 1939, was adept at nesting stories within stories, and the events in the tale are actually narrated by the monk to a traveling companion he shares a room with much later. As the monk recalls, during the original journey he had fallen in with a traveling salesman whose vulgar behavior had offended him; the two come to a fork in the road and the salesman chooses a path which, the monk is subsequently informed, will lead him to great danger, perhaps even certain death. After some hesitation, the monk decides that his Buddhist principles require that he set out to persuade the salesman to turn back, since allowing his personal antipathy to sway his duty towards the man would be a great sin. The route he thus follows subjects him to gruesome, skin-creeping horrors — told in vivid detail by Kyōka — but eventually he makes it through, only to find himself the guest of a kind of Japanese Circe, with whom he almost decides to remain forever.

As exemplary a tale as "The Holy Man of Mount Koya" is, it can't quite match the measured, uncanny beauty of "One Day in Spring." Again we have nested narratives, although in this case it is the frame-tale that involves a traveler, a lone figure who arrives at a remote temple and hears from the resident monk a bizarre tale about an earlier pilgrim, who had taken up residence in a nearby cottage and become obsessed with a beautiful woman with whom he had — in this world, at least — only the most fleeting of encounters. Drawn to an isolated spot by the sound of music, the pilgrim had witnessed an oneiric pageant in which he and the woman — or their semblances — appeared as the principle players; a few days later he is found drowned at the edge of the sea. Having heard this strange tale, the second traveler has his own encounter with the woman, then witnesses an appalling and unexpected denouement.

There's at least one additional collection of Kyōka's tales in English, also translated by Charles Inouye and published by the University of Hawaii Press; it's entitled In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales. I've ordered a copy.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seeing in the Dark

I read this novel by Rupert Thomson shortly after it first appeared in the US in 1996 and again last week, and both times I had the same reaction: I was impressed with the writing, intrigued by the premise, but more than a bit baffled by the way the story played itself out. Not that the story, bizarre as it is, is particularly hard to follow; but it is, in the end, a little hard to know exactly what to make of it — if indeed that matters.

The story is relatively simple to relate, but I'll just give you the set-up: one Martin Blom, resident of an unnamed European country (most of the names are German- or Slavic-sounding) is shot by an unknown assailant while carrying a bag of groceries across a car-park. The injury, to his head, destroys his visual cortex, leaving him, according to medical opinion, permanently blind. While recuperating in a clinic, however, he discovers that he is in fact able to see, but only in the dark — either that or he is suffering from a phenomenon called Anton's Syndrome, in which a patient, though blind, believes that he or she can see. The truth of the matter is difficult to pin down, especially when Blom also begins to believe that he is receiving television signals through the titanium plate used to repair his skull, and suspects that he is part of an obscure neurological experiment engineered by his doctor. Thomson occasionally drops in little hints that cast doubt on whether Blom is really able to see, but on the other hand there will be an otherwise inexplicable incident in which he drives a car...

Blom is discharged from the clinic and moves into a seedy hotel which may or may not be a brothel (he witnesses things that no one else seems to see, or will admit seeing) and meets a mercurial young woman named Nina, with whom whom he begins an affair that ends when she suddenly vanishes. Following her traces he comes to a remote hotel in the hinterlands, where the proprietress spins a bizarre tale-within-a-tale — about which I'll say nothing — that runs on for more than a hundred pages and concludes shortly before the novel's end.

In one sense, The Insult is simply one more brooding, atmospheric thriller, the kind in which dark secrets will eventually be revealed and the hero (who of course must have his own complicating backstory) will himself become a suspect, at least to the police. It could be objected that Thomson's novel isn't even a very accomplished representative of the genre, leaving too many fundamental matters unresolved and being essentially made up of two only tangentially related narratives. But there's something about Thomson's lean but evocative narration, about the book's unsettling psychological realism even when skirting into territory that, on the face of it, seems wildly implausible, that keeps the reader from feeling cheated.

Thomson has written eight other novels, most recently the fairly lackluster Secrecy. Of the ones that I've read, The Insult and the earlier Dreams of Leaving, which likewise combines an outlandish premise with meticulous writing, seem the most successful.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Plan for an impossible novel

There will be paragraphs.

There will be punctuation.

There will be no epigraph in Greek.

There will be no cell phones, computers, or televisions in the novel because such devices belong to the domain of science fiction and this is not a science fiction novel. The presence of radio and ordinary telephones is probationary.

The novel will be, at least in part, a bildungsroman, because only young people are interesting.

Infidelity in a novel is much easier to make interesting than fidelity; as a consequence there will be no infidelity, except perhaps among characters of secondary importance.

There will be sex.

The novel will take place primarily in an urban setting because the modern novel is fundamentally an urban form, the countryside being more suited to poetry. The city will be made up of layers, like overlapping transparencies, and the movements of the characters will take the form of trajectories across and sometimes through the layers. Since cities are more interesting after dark, most of the novel will take place at night.

There will be no violence unless its presence is impossible to ignore. No civilian character will own or handle a firearm, except possibly for humorous effect, as when Alfred Jarry shoots off a pistol in The Counterfeiters.

There will be no autistic savants, evil albinos, children wise beyond their years, or secrets of any kind.

The novel will be a social novel, in the sense that the way in which society is organized will be one of the determining elements in the lives of the characters. It may or may not be a political novel, in the sense that the characters may or may not participate in or be affected by political movements, but it will not be a novel "about politics" or much less about politicians, few of whom are morally interesting enough to be merit preservation in the pages of a novel.

The novel will not be a contingent novel. That is, it will not be "about" anything the subtraction of which would render the enterprise meaningless.

No character will be stupider than the author of the novel.

No character will be wiser than the author of the novel.

The novel will not end with the death of the protagonist. It will not have a happy ending, nor an unhappy ending. This is not to imply that the characters may not, at the end of the novel, be either happy or unhappy, or both simultaneously.

There will be no sequel.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Beast (Óscar Martínez)

A few years ago when I was doing some volunteer tutoring, one of my students was a young man from Guatemala (I'll call him S., though that wasn't his initial) who already spoke and understood English fairly well, even though he was a bit embarrassed not to be able to speak the language better than he did. I don't know whether he was in the country legally (it was none of my business), but he was fortunate in having found a fairly regular full-time job that was a solid step above unskilled casual labor. I have no doubt that he was good at what he did, and it sounded like he got along well with his employer and co-workers, most of whom knew no Spanish. I worked with him for the better part of a year and in the course of the lessons we talked about a lot of things — whatever served as a way of practicing his conversational English — including his job, his life back home, what he did on the weekends, and so on.

Most of the Central American students I worked with had a good sense of humor and were fun to be around, and S. was certainly bright and likeable, but he was a little more serious than most of the others. He didn't seem depressed, like the occasional student who really seemed to be suffering serious culture shock — in fact I think he was fitting in pretty well — but it was clear that he'd been through a lot and was haunted by his experiences. He volunteered one time, without going into details, that Americans had no idea of what people like him had gone through in getting to this country, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that whatever he had personally gone through had to have been pretty bad.

Óscar Martínez is a young journalist from El Salvador who has investigated what may be the grimmest aspect of the ongoing migration crisis: not the crossing of the border itself but the nightmarish journey of Central American migrants through Mexico, an ordeal that annually subjects thousands to rape, murder, and organized kidnappings for ransom as well as to lethal falls from the northbound freight trains known as "the Beast." Unable to travel openly because of their undocumented status, these migrants are preyed upon by violent criminal syndicates who have either bought off local authorities or intimidated them into submission. At every step of the way they are fleeced or threatened; some resist and are killed, others make it through to the border only to be turned around by US authorities. Increased enforcement at the US-Mexico border has only exacerbated the situation, as newly built sections of border wall have funneled migrants into the most dangerous crossing routes, where many are extorted or forced to serve as mules for drug smugglers. Given the odds against them, the motivation that drives them must be powerful indeed. Some come for economic reasons, but as Martínez makes clear, many come simply to save their skins, having been directly threatened by local gangs or having lost family members to violence in what are currently some of the most dangerous societies on Earth: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The Beast (the Spanish title is Los migrantes que no importan — "the migrants who don't matter") originated as a serious of articles for the online publication El Faro. Originally published in book form in Spain in 2010, it appeared in Mexico in 2012 and has now been issued in English by Verso Books. It predates, but clearly foreshadows, the recent upsurge in migration from Central America that is being driven by ongoing violence in the region. As a work of primary first-hand journalism, it makes no attempt to propose comprehensive solutions for the migration crisis, but in providing a powerful sense of the human dimension of that crisis its value is immeasurable.

For an update, see the same author's "Why the Children Fleeing Central America Will Not Stop Coming" in the Nation, August 18/25, 2014.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


"The circumstances of my birth weren't extraordinary at all but they were a bit colorful, because it was a birth that took place in Brussels that might have taken place in Helsinki or Guatemala; it all hung on the assignment they had given my father at the time. The fact that he had just gotten married and that he arrived in Belgium virtually on his honeymoon led to my being born in Brussels at the same moment that the Kaiser and his troops launched upon the conquest of Belgium, which they carried out in the days of my birth. So the story that my mother tells me is absolutely true: my birth was an extremely warlike one, the outcome of which was one of the most pacifistic men on the planet."

— Julio Cortázar, from a television interview with Joaquín Soler Serrano for A fondo, 1977.

The exact nature of Cortázar's father's employment in Brussels in 1914 seems to be uncertain; family accounts that made him out to be some kind of minor diplomat or trade official attached to the Argentine embassy are said to be unconfirmed. The family spent the war years in Europe, and when the young Julio Florencio Cortázar eventually arrived in Argentina, he carried with him, according to some sources (but this point is also in dispute), a detectable French accent that would remain with him through the rest of his life. His father — Julio José Cortázar — eventually deserted the family, and it was young Julio's mother and maternal grandmother who would dominate his childhood, but the accident of his parents' sojourn in Europe made him, along with such contemporaries as Alejo Carpentier (born in Switzerland) and Elena Poniatowska (born in France), part of a generation of Latin American intellectuals who moved easily between continents but remained firmly rooted as citizens of the twentieth century and its disruptions.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Walking Around

Every morning for the past few weeks I've been taking advantage of near-perfect weather and my early-rising habits to go for a long walk before I start the day, and to get better acquainted with the town I've known all my life and have lived in for twenty-five years, something that, no matter how many times one drives through the streets, really has to be done on foot. I get up when the cat wakes me up — generally around six — read the newspapers, eat a couple of eggs, and set out, joining the early-morning joggers and the Central American immigrants already on their way to work at an hour when most of the town is just beginning to stir in their beds. I walk for forty-five minutes or so, sometimes an hour, and whatever route I take I eventually always wind up downtown, where the little stream that runs right through the center of town widens into a slow-moving pool where on some mornings a great blue heron watches for small fish or frogs and turtles climb up on the mud banks, ever alert to retreat into the water at the first sign of commotion.

I walk through the vast silent necropolis on the edge of town, following its circuitous drives and watching crows harass a hawk. In some sections the headstones are mostly those of Italian immigrants of a generation or two go, some with surprisingly evocative names: Manna, Eraclito, Astrologo. In the backstreets live new immigrants, some with carefully tended front gardens lush with sunflowers and vegetables just coming into maturity. Two neighbors greet, in English, discussing one of these little plots. "Y maíz," he says, and regards the developing ear; "soon," he says, in English again. These plantings are too small to be of any economic importance, even to one family's budget; their value is symbolic, a reminder of the milpas back home, a little connection to a distant world and another life.

By eight o'clock or so the town is waking up, the whoosh of traffic beside me is steadier now, and I turn for home. It's time to get to work.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dark End of the Street

There are countless covers of this Dan Penn / Chips Moman tune, some of them very good ones, but to me this live performance by Richard and Linda Thompson is on a different plane from all the rest. The directness and intensity of the vocals, the stark one-guitar arrangement, and the quicker tempo set it apart from the smoother, bluesier versions, and when you listen to it in the context of some of the songs that Richard Thompson was writing during roughly the same period when it was recorded, songs like "Wall of Death," "Walking on a Wire," "When I Get to the Border," or "Just the Motion," it suddenly ceases to be a song about an illicit love affair and is transformed into something much more haunting: a song about the way life relentlessly exposes the vanity of our passions and dreams but can't quite extinguish the defiant longing for something transcendent, call it spirit, call it love, call it God, call it what you will (as if anybody could explain what it is or where it comes from). The real fire is in the bridge, which in this rendition is so stirring it is sung twice:
They're going to find us
They're going to find us
They're going to find us someday
We'll steal away
To the dark end of the street
There's something here akin to the Borges story "The Secret Miracle," in which a writer is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to die, but in the single instant before the order is given to the firing squad — an instant that, in his mind and perhaps (who is to say?) in reality as well, lasts for an entire year — is able to complete his unfinished masterpiece in his mind, though it will be known to no one but himself. It's not external circumstances that matter; it's the secrets, the dark interior that no one can see, that provide a final promise of redemption:
If you take a walk downtown
And you take the time to look around
If you should see me and I walk on by
Oh, darling, please don't cry
Tonight we'll meet
At the dark end of the street
Call it a love song if you will (and a love song it is), but there's something else here few love songs can aspire to: at once an acknowledgment of death and a furious rebellion against it.
We'll steal away
To the dark end of the street
You and me
To the dark end of the street

Thursday, August 07, 2014


Our species: an interesting idea, but poorly executed.

Given the inescapable fact of our propensity for cruelty, how is anything else not trivia? It's not just our well-established willingness to ignore the suffering of others; our darkest secret is that given the slightest breakdown in the façade of social customs that keep us more or less on peaceful terms with each other we quickly degenerate into torturers and killers. And once the habit of cruelty begins nothing is harder to break, all the more so when we have, as inevitably we do, our own sufferings that cry for vengeance. No flag is unstained. Blood for oil, blood for land, blood for blood, blood, blood, blood.

Our tragedy is that our technological ingenuity has far outstripped our ability to manage the tools at our disposal in a manner that benefits our own species. How could it be otherwise? How could seven billion individuals with conflicting histories, destinies, and needs ever hope to find common purpose? Where is the will? If we can't find a way of destroying ourselves and much of the natural world around us, we will try harder.

Our overfull boat steams ahead
in the darkness with the pilot fled
and the captain mad
and though we huddle cold and numb
day may not come.

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.)