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Archive for July, 2012

Published by Pushkin Press
Translated from Spanish by Anne McLean

It’s one of the most frequent topics for discussion at book group: Can a man write a convincingly from a women’s point-of-view?  Well, let’s take that to a whole new level: can a man offer convincing advice to a melancholy woman?  Is any woman going to accept a man’s wisdom?  Hhhm, thorny subject.

In this unorthodox book offering short pieces of philosophical advice (with the occasional recipe) to deal with the joys and sorrows that life sends our way, Hector Abad successfully manoeuvers round those thorns by employing lots of (very attractive) humour. Sometimes the humour is dry: dinosaur steak is guaranteed to cure sadness by inducing an immediate fit of the giggles.  Sometimes it is dubious: using scripture to defend adultery. Now and again an indisputable but previously unrecognised truth suddenly shines out brightly. Ever been heartbroken?

Because there is an inescapable rule, which now that you hear it will make you even sadder – with the passing of time you will no longer suffer so; …. Even him, yes, him, you’ll eventually forget.  Sorrow as you must and whatever happens – if after thirty-six months you are still suffering as you are now, you’ll not be suffering for him, you’ll be suffering for your guilt at not still suffering.  Even if the love you felt was boundless, pain is miserly, it doesn’t last as long.

Now ladies, I would love your comments on Abad’s advice on how to find the best harmony in a relationship.  This is achieved by sharing the kitchen and teaching your partner to cook. The day will come says Abad when you’re going to see him reading a recipe and finally giving you a surprise.  He must mean a heart-attack.  Has he seen the state of the kitchen and the mountains of washing-up that remain when hubby has been sous-cheffing?

I read this book with a smile on a face.  A cynical smile at first. Then I found myself being vastly entertained. Of course, some of these snippets of wisdom are to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt.  Others rang true and then, quite unexpectedly I found a couple which gave me a more positive outlook on certain aspects of my own life.  Let’s just call that the icing on the cake.

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Now I was hoping that my fictional island hopping tour would meet up with real life at one point.  But, when I went to Tenerife a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find anything set there that I fancied reading.

However, when I got back I found a whole suite of poems by Baby Grace, someone who has obviously holidayed in the same resort as I did:  the champagne breakfast spread, the desperate retreat from sun-bathing boredom that is participation in water aerobics, and the obligatory hike up Mount Teide.  Forgive the pun, but this visit to the highest point in Spain really was the highlight of the trip for me.  So I’m quoting her poem in full together with a picture of me doing my best young lady of Firle impression.

Going up Teide

I have a mountain to climb,
a caldera to traverse:
magma strewn, lava sown.
I wish the Devil would stretch down to hoist me from this scree.

I burn in the light
no grassblade or lichen grows
a dead volcano

The Devil stole the sun,
until the sky god Chaman
heard the beggars’ play
and scattered the ash
on the National Park.

—————————

July’s Poetry Event is hosted by Kelly.

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You may remember that I started the countdown to the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival the moment I left Charlotte Square last year.  I’d just like to point out to my fellow festivalers that at 14:00 today (21.07), the hour count will have reduced from 8400 to just 500.  (Not that I’m obsessed or anything …..)

In preparation I have installed a coffee table in the library and have stocked it with books pertaining to the events I’m hoping to attend.  I have the full 17 days off work but life is being consistent only in throwing wobblies at me this year.   I may get to everything I’m planning to see and then again I may not.

In the meantime, however, I want to read/sample as many books on this table as I can.  The 5 books in the small pile far right are the ones I have already read.  If proof were needed that I should have learnt to speed read by now, this is it!  But I haven’t and so if things go quiet around here between now and the 11th August, you’ll know why.   I’m reading!

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(Seamlessly) translated from Spanish by Beth Fowler.

I read Argentinian Iosi Havilio’s Open Door  last week for Spanish Literature Month.  The start of the novel was as hypnotic as anything I have ever read.  After losing her girlfriend in the city, the female protagonist witnesses a suicide jumping from a bridge over a river. It turns out that she was witnessing her girlfriend jumping to her death. Or was she?

Thereafter, traumatised protagonist retreats to the countryside village of Open Door and takes up with an older man, …. and a younger woman.  The rest of the novel consists mainly of  their liaisons – and a number of visits to the city to identify a series of corpses.   You can tell from my prosaic language that the second two-thirds didn’t live up to the promise of the first, despite some wonderful flowing prose and the tantilising fact that the village and the novel are named after a psychiatric asylum.  In fact, I found myself wondering as to its point.

Then I read the afterword writen by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera which claims that Open Door lives up to Borges’ challenge.

Borges contended you couldn’t approach truth,  ultimate meaning or ideal beauty directly because doing so, and being able to experience such things as the face of God, the meaning of the universe, or truth, would turn out to be a nightmare. The experience would be blinding and destructive. …

It is best to proceed by revealing one layer of appearance after another in the same way as one peels an onion, but without expecting to get to the hard kernel.  Warning: onions do not have a hard kernel. …

… Havilio proceeds as Borges recommended: he describes effects rather than their causes and works through narrative rather than by naming.

Except it seems there is a clue on the back of one of the Spanish editions where Havilio names the causes, his monsters …. capitalism and every man for himself.

Well, knock me sideways.  There I was thinking this was just a sordid little tale in which those with no limits or sense of decency eventually grow up and become responsible adults. Well, put like that I suppose I can see the allegorical application to Havilio’s named monsters.

Perhaps I should reread this book, because nothing in this novel is quite what it seems as Guardiolo-Rivera, convinced of its masterpiece status , exhorts.  Then again, perhaps I should just acquaint myself with Borges.   I don’t think he’ll be anywhere near as grubby.

1/2

This post is part of Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu.

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Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Inevitably my island-hopping expedition brings me to the most famous fictional island of them all. Or is it? Fictional, I mean.

It’s 12 July 2004 and the Swiss author, Alex Capus, has taken his family for a holiday in Samoa, the island in the South Pacific where Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last five years of his life. Capus’s mission is to prove that Treasure Island actually exists, albeit not in the place that the treasure-hunters have been seeking it for generations. The resultant book Sailing by Starlight – In Search of Treasure Island is a slim one, packed with facts and theories supporting Capus’s argument that Stevenson’s island is not located in the Caribbean where those of the Pirates of the Caribbean generation (myself included) would automatically locate it. Nor is Treasure Island, the exotically named Cocos Island, to the east of Costa Rica, where in 1821 Captain Thompson, an honest man whose head was turned by the wealth that was entrusted to him for safe keeping,  allegedly buried  priceless ecclesiastical treasures from Lima Cathedral.  Through the history of the Cocos Island and the experiences of August Gissler, a German who spent 19 years of his life systematically digging up the island inch by inch,  Capus shows that the treasure, which was real enough, could not have been buried there.  The question is where is it?

The clue Capus argues lies with Robert Louis Stevenson’s seemingly snap decision to locate to Samoa and to stay there despite the fact that the climate was detrimental to his tubercular health.  The attraction, according to Capus, its close vicinity to a second island, formerly known as Cocos.  All that effort off the coast of Costa Rica was misdirected due to a simple case of mistaken identity!

Now I can’t say whether Capus is right, and nor can he, because by the time he had pieced together his thesis, Royal Tonga Airlines had gone bankrupt and he couldn’t reach his ultimate destination.   The argument or conjecture (as Capus calls it) stitched together with pieces of Stevenson’s life, general pirateering and treasure-hunting history (some stranger than the strangest fiction),  and clues from the plot of Treasure Island itself spins a mighty fine yarn. One of which Stevenson himself would approve.

I like biography far better than fiction myself; fiction is too free.  In biography you have your little handful of facts, like bits of a puzzle, and you sit down and fit ‘em together this way and that, and get up and throw ‘em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk.  And it’s real soothing’ and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful.  Of course, it’s not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it, the fathoms of slack and the miles of circuitous tedium.  Still, that’s where the fun comes in” (Robert Louis Stevenson to Sir Edmund Goss, 18 June 1893)

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I have a problem with translated Latin American writing – there’s a large stack of it in my TBR, lying unread because a lot of it concerns dictators and fascism and man’s inhumanity to man.  Now, given the history of the place, that’s understandable but I can handle such subject matter in very small doses.  I chose, therefore, to read this anthology published by Granta in 2010, simply because, as it states in the prefaces, all the writers were under 35 years of age at that time of publication, and, therefore, not as obsessed with the Pinochets as the older generation(s) of writers.  A secondary benefit of reading this anthology – a literary tapas, if you like –  is that I discovered a plethora of new-to-me authors and visited 8 Spanish-speaking countries. (Thereby accepting the subliminal challenge of the Spanish Literature Month badge – how many countries can you visit in one month?)

Full list of authors, pictured on the right. I didn’t know many of them before.  I had read Zambra and knew of 2 others;  Roncagliolo who won the 2011 IFFP and Andres Neuman, whose epic Traveller of the Century is on my Edinburgh Book Festival reading pile. Perhaps the authors on this list are household names now in their home countries.  Certainly, if the list of awards listed on the individual biography pages is anything to go by, I was keeping illustrious company.  That statement is also applies when referring to the list of 20 translators, which includes the big hitters of Spanish translation Peter Bush, Edith Grossman, Anne McLean and Frank Wynne alongside others less familiar to me.  (Let me add that caveat lest I insult someone).

The showcase writings are either short stories never previously published, or excerpts from novels in progress.  The subject matter is far ranging: the life of an anonymous hotel reviewer,  excerpts from the family life of a drug addict,  the sly and witty revenge of a university profession on his enemies, a teenager’s crush on a Mormon missionary.  I can’t possibly mention them all individually but I will name my top 3.

3) The Bonfire and The Chessboard – Matías Néspolo (Argentina)
A 2-part  extract from a novel in progress. In the first part the protagonist El Tano flees to the hills to a wooden shack where a lady friend awaits him.  Only he doesn’t seem to know her, although she is very familiar with him.  In the second part, two men meet over a chess board.  It soon becomes obvious that Mr Manicure is seeking to track down El Tano.  The chess game is actually a metaphor for an interrogation.  Will the other player crack?  On the strength of this, I immediately purchased Nespolo’s 7 Ways to Kill a Cat,  published in 2011.  Whether I get to it later this month, remains to be seen.

2) A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs – Patricio Pron (Argentina)
 The final story in the book and one in which a budding writer finds inspiration in the night-time back and forth pacing of the established author who lives in the flat above.  (The reasons for that unrest so mundane that they are laughable.)  Incidentally this story provides a matching bookend to the collection which begins with a story by Lucia Puenzo (also from Argentina),  set in a writing school.  The less-than-generous tutor is none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

1) Small Mouth, Thin Lips - Antonio Ortuño (Mexico) 
A story designed to make me eat the words in my opening paragraph because it’s set in a prison where a writer, imprisoned by one of those dictatorships, awaits his execution.  But before he can die, his spirit must be broken.  This is not a tale of physical brutal violence.  He is subjected to psychological torture.  14 pages long, with two narrators: the writer and the letters he writes, the tormentor elucidating on his methods.  It is a marvel of compression and all the more powerful for that.

More information on the anthology here, including interviews with all the authors.

This post is part of Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu.

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I first came across Jason Webster on a soggy autumn day in Wigtown.  He was cooking paella on the beach, that had been specially imported to the town’s centre for the Wigtown Book Festival. And a mighty fine paella it was too.

This seems to have set a precedent because it now seems that I cannot read his crime novels without resorting to Spanish food and drink.  The first novel, Or the Bull Kills You,washed down (and colour-coordinated) perfectly with a lovely glass of Sangria.  This was a coincidental discovery.  I was in Tenerife.  Rule Number 1 : When in Spain, drink Spanish …..  Rule Number 2:  Read books set in Spain.

 

When I came home to a very wet UK – this summer has been even wetter than last autumn – I needed to extend the feeling of being abroad.  I discovered Tesco’s Finest Valencia Orange and Passionfruit Tarts and that Webster had just published the 2nd in the series: A Death in Valencia. Great timing and another perfect match!

 

(Perhaps the third novel could feature gazpacho?  Just to complete the 3-course dinner menu …. )

Webster’s crime novels are set in Valencia, the 3rd biggest city in Spain, a port with a constant flux of people coming in and out.  Lots of crime, particularly the drug-related variety.  The politicians are – and I’m quoting Webster from my notes here – very corrupt.    The undercurrents from Spain’s violent political past can still be felt.  It is possible to recognise political affiliations from the way people dress.  Spain remains deeply divided, he said.

Webster is well-qualified to comment.  He has lived for several years in Valencia and written some well-regarded Spanish histories.  He said he didn’t give it much thought when turning to crime novels. Had he realised what a crowded field it is, he might not have done so.  That would have been a loss.

The best crime novels document contemporary society.  Webster’s vivid depiction of the divisive and explosive issues occupying Spain today (bullfighting, abortion, urban redevelopment) and almost even-handed depiction of both sides of the arguments guarantee engaging and informative reads.  His characters, even the criminals, are 3-D flesh and blood.  If there’s any partiality shown, it’s because his detective is often affected on a deeply personal level.  And  I’ve taken to Chief Inspector Max Cámara in the same way as I took to Dibdin’s Zen.  Not that Cámara – whose name means observer – is as detached and cynical as Zen; well, not yet.  He’s young, there’s time for him to develop – one way or the other.  Not sure if Webster, was hinting at anything here, but when discussing bullfighting, he likened bullfighters to mythological monster-slayers.  The bulls, he said, are stubborn.  They keep going, despite all the suffering, until they die.  Like humans.  Like Max?  I do hope not,  although que será será.  Hopefully not before I’ve enjoyed at least another half-dozen outings with him.

Or The Bull Kills You  

A Death in Valencia 

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5 from the Archive is the brain child of Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book who invited us to use his idea if we so wished.  And I do, now that the blogosphere is concentrating on Spanish language literature thanks to the hosting of Spanish Literature Month by Stu of Winston’s Dad and Richard of Caravana De Recuerdos.  I haven’t read much Spanish literature but the little that I have read and reviewed here is very good indeed.  So, if you’re looking for something to read this July, I heartily recommend the following. Listed in chronological date of the English language publication.  Links are to my original reviews.

1) Chronicle of A Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia)
English Translation 1981
A contemporary classic in which the ending is given away in the title without lessening the shock at all.

2) No Word from Gurb – Eduardo Mendoza (Spain)
English translation 2007
Comic brilliance. Perfect for an olympic year.  Barcelona, whilst preparing for the 1992 Olympics, is invaded by aliens.  You’ll never look at Madonna in the same way again!

3) Child’s Play – Carmen Posadas (Uruguay)
English translation 2008
A satiric mystery examining the uncomfortable question:  can a child really be born evil?

4) Down the Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villabolos (Mexico)
English translation 2011
Precocious child narrator chronicles his reality and unwittingly reveals the horror of being a drug baron’s son.

5) The Scent of Lemon Leaves - Clara Sanchez (Spain)
English translation 2012
A meditation of the past and a reconciliation with the present as a geriatic concentration camp survivor continues his hunt for former Nazis on the Costa del Sol.

Which Spanish literature would you recommend me to read?

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