Friday, January 30, 2015

A death remembered

This short novel, published in 1981, is based on an incident that had taken place some 30 years earlier, when a young man named Cayetano Gentile Chimento, a friend of the author, was murdered in the town of Sucre, Colombia by two brothers of a woman he had allegedly "deflowered" in advance of her wedding to another man. The narrative apparently follows the outlines of the actual event fairly closely, even to the extent that relatives of the narrator (who is never himself named) bear the same names as Gabriel García Márquez's own family members, at least one of whom witnessed the killing. (Gerald Martin's fine biography of the author has the full background.)

Still, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a work of fiction, not reportage, and one that remains tense and compelling throughout even though we know the outcome from the very first sentence (not to mention from the title). As the book progresses we learn the reasons behind the killing (although some important things are never explained), and we follow the fatal chain of events that, far from being inexorable, could have been interrupted at any number of points. In fact, the killers, reluctant to carry out an act that "honor" compels them to perform, seem to go out of their way to make the final result preventable. The death is not just "foretold" in the sense of being predicted; it's announced (anunciada) in advance to virtually everyone the killers come across. The victim is one of the few people not to get the message.

For a book that runs to only 193 generously spaced pages in its Spanish text (120 in Gregory Rabassa's translation), there are an astounding number of named characters. That's a key to the nature of the book, which is not simply about a tragic series of events involving a few key participants, but about how an entire community witnessed, participated in, and remembered those events, which the narrator reconstructs years later. Here, from my notes, is a by no means complete dramatis personae:
Santiago Nasar; the victim
Plácida Linero; his mother
Victoria Guzmán; their cook
Divina Flor; her daughter

Angela Vicario; the bride
Pablo Vicario; her brother
Pedro Vicario; Pablo's twin, six minutes his junior
Pura (Purísima) Vicario; their mother
Poncio Vicario; their father
Prudencia Cotes; Pablo's girlfriend

Bayardo San Román; the groom
Gen. Petronio San Román; his father
Alberta Simonds; his mother

María Alejandrina Cervantes; a prostitute
Clotilde Armenta; the proprietress of a grocery store
Rogelio de la Flor; her husband
Flora Miguel; the victim's fiancée
Nahir Miguel; her father
Cristo Bedoya; a friend of the victim
Carmen Amador; a priest
Lázaro Aponte; the mayor of the town
Dionisio Iguarón; a physician
Leandro Pornoy; a policeman
"the widower Xius"; the former owner of a house purchased by the groom

The narrator
Luis Enrique; his brother
Margot; his sister
Another sister; a nun
Jaime; another brother
Wenefrida Márquez; the narrator's aunt (who makes an appearance even though her namesake was already dead at the time of the events)
Mercedes Barcha; the narrator's future wife (and the author's wife's real name)

And on and on through to the very last pages; various townspeople:

Yamil Shaium
Indalecio Pardo
Sara Noriega
Celeste Dangond
Meme Loiza
Polo Carillo
Fausto López
Hortensia Baute
Faustino Santos
Aura Villeros
Próspera Arango
Poncho Lanao
Argénida Lanao

Plus a bishop, an unnamed judge, and present only by allusion, the ghosts of Col. Aureliano Buendía and Gerineldo Martínez.

The delight that García Márquez felt in inventing names is evident. It will be noted that several of them, including that of the victim, are Arabic in origin; these are members of the town's population of second- or third-generation Arab immigrants, sometimes referred to as "the Turks," a reminder of Latin America's complex ethnic heritage.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Visiting professor

Clases de literatura: Berkeley, 1980, published in 2013, presents the transcription of a series of seminars that Julio Cortázar conducted (in Spanish) during one of his infrequent visits to the United States. Cortázar was not a professional academic (he had done some teaching in his native Argentina before emigrating to France), and was quite upfront about being neither a literary critic nor a literary theorist. For that reason, some of the ideas preserved here, such as his thoughts about the differences between the fantastic and the realist short story, may seem a bit half-formed and arbitrary, but not so his comments about his own works and writing methods, which include a discussion of Rayuela that is likely to be seen as indispensable to any future readings of that much-discussed work, even if some of the points he makes are repeated elsewhere. Here, for example, is his explanation of how that novel's interpolated "expendable chapters" were put into sequence:
I ought to say that many critics have devoted many hours to analyzing what technique I might have used to mix in the chapters and present them in their irregular order. My technique wasn't what the critics have imagined: my technique was that I went to the house of a friend [Eduardo Jonquières] who had a kind of large studio the size of this room, I put all of the chapters on the floor (each one was fastened with a paper clip, a fastener) and I started walking around through the chapters leaving little alleyways and letting myself follow lines of force: where a chapter connected well with a fragment that was made up of, for instance, a poem by Octavio Paz (one is quoted), immediately I attached a pair of numbers and went on connecting them, assembling a package that I hardly modified. I thought that in that manner chance — what gets called chance — was assisting me and that I had to let chance come into play a little: my eye might notice something that was one meter away but not see something that was two meters away which I would only see later. I don't think I was mistaken: I had to modify two or three chapters because the action started to go in reverse instead of forwards, but overall this ordering into different levels worked in a sufficiently satisfactory manner for me and the book was published in that form.
(I have changed two verbs in the above translation from the present tense to the past in the interests of consistency.)

Each seminar included a question-and-answer session in which Cortázar was asked about various topics, from the fairly predictable (the Padilla affair) to the unexpected (whether he wrote his works in Spanish or in French), but also prompting interesting evaluations of such figures as Boris Vian and José Lezama Lima. The transcription includes various excerpts from Cortázar's writings which he read to the class, one or two of which I don't recognize. No word thus far on a possible translation into English.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Guru and Disciple (Yuri Arbatsky)

From 1933 to 1942, the composer and ethnomusicologist Yuri Arbatsky traveled in the Balkans, studying and recording the folk music traditions of the region. Much of the material he collected was confiscated and lost during World War II, but after the war his dissertation, "Das Mazedonische Tupanspiel," publication of which had been forbidden by the Gestapo, was translated into English and published by the Newbery Library in Chicago as Beating the Tupan in the Central Balkans. Though most of the book deals with musicological arcana, the following section, in which he recounts his apprenticeship with a sort of Albanian version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elderly master of the tupan (a kind of drum), may provide some amusement.
The facts as given in the following chapters are the result of my studies with the folkmusician [sic] and famous tupanist Mehmed of Spinadija near Prizren. These studies were made, with certain interruptions, in the years 1933-1937. […]

During my period of study with Mehmed I kept a detailed diary of my progress as a folkmusician, although I had no intention of making a special record of this relationship. I must confess that, being “spoiled” — Mehmed conferred that designation on everyone who had concerned himself with the study of Occidental art music — I did not at first take his teachings seriously. What could a primitive man teach me about music? With the first lessons, however, I began to perceive the subtleties of his instruction and the scope of the material to be mastered. All of my former studies and my professional practice of years were useless here. I began to work in earnest, and eventually advanced to a proper understanding and respect for the art of folkmusic. As a novice, and one even more handicapped than the native beginner who had been aquainted with the peculiarities of this great folkart since childhood, I worked at a great disadvantage. For even the untrained native, through constant contact with the music of his region, was furnished with some general knowledge of it.

When I began my studies with Mehmed I fancied that I had an excellent knowledge of this kind of music, to which I had often listened before. Thus my irritation was considerable when, on requesting him to play something to which I would “beat time” on the tupan, Mehmed, after smilingly taking up his zurla [a wind instrument] and beginning to blow, put aside his instrument and told me with deepest contempt that I was a dunce. I had always held my own playing in high esteem; I had often listened to how the tupan was beaten; and had of course read many books on Balkan folkmusic. But I was just beginning to discover that there existed other rules of which nothing is written in any book, and that the tupanist, in his playing, is bound by principles unknown in the Occidental science of music. I had yet to be convinced that it was insufficient to beat the tupan in the way I had seen and heard, merely by imitation. It is, indeed, hard for a person brought up in the Occidental tradition of art music not to consider these musical performances as primitive. How could I suspect that in this “indescribable din” lay concealed a wealth of musical wisdom?

In Mehmed's eyes I was just a musical dunce. When I urged him to tell me why, he only repeated again and again, “You are spoiled! You are spoiled!” When I pressed him for an explanation he remained mute. He was either unwilling or unable to explain his judgment of my abilities. I decided to become his pupil — and was flatly refused, in spite of my repeated entreaties. I offered him payment for his instruction, but that was the worst approach I could have made. He became furious and shouted: “You are my friend and I will never accept anything from you! But you are spoiled and will never be able to learn anything.” Nevertheless I finally succeeded in persuading him. He agreed to teach me, for the sake of God, but I had to promise never to resist his methods and “to obey him blindly.”

With the very first lesson I began to see how little I knew. I was told to beat with the drumstick on the tupan at regular intervals. This is usually the simplest of musical performances, if the intervals are short; but it is extremely difficult it the intervals are thirty to forty seconds apart. It was beating of this kind which Mehmed first asked me to do.

Needless to say, the first lesson was a complete failure. Yet I was warned for the second lesson. I looked at my watch — unperceived — and succeeded! Mehmed was puzzled and obviously content with my progress; he said that I might accomplish something after all.

With this measure of success behind me, I exercised myself thoroughly in the beating with long intervals. It took me about eight months until I had mastered this exercise which native musicians generally learn in two or three weeks. Moreover, I still looked at my watch during the lessons, but Mehmed was not aware of it. The lessons took place every day, for myself as well as for the native pupils. When Mehmed had made sure that I was able to beat slowly in regular intervals, he explained to me that there are short and longer beats and told me to perform a short beat and a longer one alternately. To my question about what difference there was between a short and a longer beat he was not able to give an answer; he merely ordered me to play.

Reflecting that a short beat might have the value of one unit, and a longer one that of two units, I began to play accordingly. Mehmed glanced at my compassionately, but did not give the least explanation as to why the intervals of the beats were wrong. He only said, “Now you can see how spoiled you are!”

I became impatient and was about to abandon his teaching when he reminded me of my promise to work obediently and never to offer any resistance. I then asked him to demonstrate to me on the tupan what he meant by short and longer beats. He only replied that this would be undignified — whether on my part or on his I could not tell. Nor did I dare ask another question, for he had become angry.

Finally, however, he took my hand and began to guide it. As it was hard for me to find out the real length of the beats, I again resorted to my watch for help. Thus I learned that the short and the longer beats had the proportion of 1: 1 1/2 to each other. Now I knew the proportion, and with the help of my watch, to Mehmed's great astonishment, I could perform correctly. Later I learned that the use of short beats and longer ones constituted a fixed musical conception among the natives, not requiring any explanation. […]

My studies with Mehmed lasted about three years. What deep and extensive knowledge must be at the disposal of the folkmusicians of great style who study for ten years or more!
Arbatsky comments on his tutor: “Mehmed himself, whose age was difficult to determine — he was then about eighty years old — declared that he had never attended a folkmusic school. When still a youth he had been taught by an old folkmusician who in his time had attended such a school in Koritza. But it was impossible to find out when this had occurred, since the Albanians consider a man of forty still a youth, and sometimes one of sixty a young man.… Mehmed at eighty did not in the least think of himself as an old man! He was only a man in the years of his maturity. Shortly before I made his acquaintance, he had married a girl of thirteen, who even gave birth to children of his. Who knows how long he would have lived had he not been killed in 1938 by a bullet while crossing the frontier west of Djevdelija!”

Arbatsky failed to learn longevity from his master; he died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 52.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Palace of the King of Night (Introduction)

In the spring and summer of 2007 I wrote a narrative entitled The Palace of the King of Night, described in its subtitle as "a novella, or folly." Later, when I phased out the website where I had originally posted it, I elected not to transfer it over to my current blog. Not being inclined to revise or or even re-read it at that particular moment, I suspected that the length and likely artistic shortcomings of the piece would render it a distraction from what I was interested in doing at my new address. For whatever it's worth, I have decided to make it available now, in installments, but spun off onto a separate blog [here].

The novella originated, as does much of the (relatively little) fiction that I write, in a dream or half-dream, and the opening scene and perhaps a little more derive directly from that source. Once the story got going, however, I more or less consciously steered it according to a preconceived plan, and it became a kind of ersatz Grail legend, set not in a forest, as is traditional, but in an arid landscape that perhaps was also a kind of underworld or land of the dead. The peculiar artwork of Charles-Frédéric Soehnée (see above) was a partial inspiration, at least for atmosphere, and their were faint traces of what I knew about ancient Egyptian mythology, which was (and remains) very little.

I am far happier composing shorter forms (a few paragraphs) and so the writing of the novella was both exhilarating and grueling. I'm afraid its deficiencies will be all too evident, but perhaps something of what impelled me to keep at it will come across. I dislike reading long texts on a screen, and ideally I would print this up as a chapbook, give the copies away to the twenty or so people who would be polite enough to pretend to read it, and leave it at that. Until I get around to doing so, here it is, warts and all.