Panama: going with the flow

November 9, 2012

It’s amazing what you can find on Twitter. There are shops, libraries, councils and even whole countries on there all sharing their opinions with the world in bite-size chunks. So when I saw the Panama Canal on the site, I couldn’t resist tweeting at it to ask it what I should read.

This came off the back of a long and surprisingly difficult search for a Panamanian writer with literature available in English. I’d emailed numerous organisations and publications. I’d even got a Panamanian student at Exeter University on the case. She recommended Justo Arroyo, but when I contacted him it turned out he only had one short story available in translation. He suggested Carlos Russell, a bi-lingual poet who has lived in the US for many years and has written some prose narratives too.

I was on the point of contacting Russell when the Panama Canal popped up on a Twitter search and, on a whim, I decided to see what it had to say for itself. The Canal came back very politely and, after a brief exchange, it recommended the writer Juan David Morgan.

I was intrigued by Morgan, not only because the Panama Canal had recommended him and I’d never had the opportunity to gain an insight into a waterway’s literary tastes before, but also because my brother’s name happens to be David Morgan.

Having found Morgan’s website, I sent him an email. It turned out that one of his novels, The Golden Horse, had been translated into English, but it was not published yet. He kindly sent me the manuscript, along with regards to my brother, and I settled down to read.

It’s funny that I found this book by way of the Panama Canal, because the novel is about the construction of the Panama Railroad, the first ever transcontinental railway line, which was completed in 1855, 26 years before work on the Canal began. Telling the story of this most gruelling of human endeavours, which saw thousands of workers from all over the globe lose their lives to disease and despair in the country’s tropical swamps, the novel is a tribute to the bravery, folly and ambition of the people who changed the world forever at the height of the Californian Gold Rush.

The book’s events are related through the eyes and sometimes diaries of a number of Americans connected with Howland & Aspinwall, the New York-based merchant firm that conceived and funded the project. There is the young widow Elizabeth, the travel writer John Lloyd Stephens – who is entrusted with securing governmental permission for the work – and the steamer captain Cleveland Forbes, as well as a large cast of lesser characters whose lives and loves all become entangled in the scramble to capitalise on the rich discoveries out west.

Morgan is skilled at keeping the high stakes foremost in the reader’s mind. From the deadly Chagres fever (malaria) and the crocodiles that lurk in the river, to the constant threats to the project from a rival scheme in Nicaragua and the sinister steamship line owner George Laws, who is determined to either profit from or scupper the venture, we are never allowed to forget the risks the characters are taking. This is coupled with an impressive portrait of the destructive impact of the huge numbers of prospectors or ‘argonauts’ passing through the region and turning Panama’s once-sleepy towns and villages into dens of vice and crime. With no government protection and robbery and murder rife, it falls to Howland & Aspinwall to buy in security in the shape of wild Texan ranger Runnels.

Rigorously researched and plotted, the novel works neatly, with many seemingly incidental characters woven throughout so that we have the sense of their lives unfolding beyond the boundaries of the narrative. There are also some very powerful moments. The brutal robbery of Norwegian hotelier Peter Eskildsen and his struggle to save himself from being pecked to death by vultures is horrifying, while the description of the fate of the Chinese railroad workers will stay with me for years to come.

That said, the novel could do with some tighter editing. While the diary entries allow for a more discursive style than might play comfortably in other forms of narrative, there are some repeated descriptions of events and emotions that could be lost without doing any damage to the work as a whole. I also found a few of the plot twists concerning Elizabeth towards the end of the book a little too convenient.

Overall, though, this is an impressive portrait of a pivotal moment in global history. In amongst the rabble of foreign nationals that bustle through the narrative intent on using the country for their own ends, the character of Panama shines through: wild, beautiful and rich. Let’s hope the translation finds a place on an English-language publisher’s list – it deserves to be widely read.

The Golden Horse (El Caballo de Oro) by Juan David Morgan, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen

Honduras: the look of love

November 7, 2012

This was a recommendation from Kathy. In response to my half-way appeal for countries I had yet to find books from, she contacted her friend Erik, who had spent some time living in Honduras.

The familiar response came back that there wasn’t much literature in translation from the country. Erik’s first choice would have been Ramón Amaya Amador’s Prisión verde but as far as he knew – and as far as I’ve been able to find out – this is not available in English. In the absence of anything by Spanish-language authors that I could read in translation, Erik suggested artist and writer Guillermo Yuscarán, whom he described as a ‘quasi Honduran author’.

The quasi refers to the fact that Yuscarán was actually born in the US with the name William Lewis. It wasn’t until 1972 that he came to Honduras, fell in love with the place and eventually made it his home, even going so far as to take a Honduran name. Given my general rule of thumb that a writer has to have spent enough time in a country for it to be part of their life story in order for their work to be eligible to represent that nation on the list, Yuscarán definitely fitted the bill.

Written during his first visit to Honduras and illustrated by the author, Points of Light paints a disturbing and enchanting picture of the country that stole Yuscarán’s heart. By turns brutal and whimsical, the stories shimmer with the hopes and dreams of a multitude of characters engaged in the struggle to survive. There is the chronically ill boy Raimundo who sings in the town and on the buses to feed himself and his siblings, the prostitute Lia who dies in childbirth on the beach, and the poor child Vicente who wants to reach the moon down from the sky. Through them all, moves the blind man Toribio, a magnetic figure who draws the stories together and provides a series of almost other-worldly insights.

Yuscarán’s direct and often apparently simple style is well-suited to telling the stories of characters who are thwarted by life. His portrait of Miguel, for example, a disabled man who was abandoned in Tela at the age of two – ‘a piece of bait for life to strike at’ – and now lives in a shack on the beach, forever cut off from the girls he would love to get to know, is devastating in ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’. Similarly, the discussions between Toribio and a terminally ill child in ‘Emilio Aguilar’ capture of world of feeling in a very few words.

But that’s not all. A strong artistic sense runs through the book, bringing out the richness, beauty and possibility of even the bleakest existences. We see it in the vivid descriptions of the colours of the natural world – the sunrise’s ‘spidery pattern of oranges and yellows for Lia’s song and Pablito’s dreams to ride on’, for example – and in the awakening sensibility of the many artists who people the narratives. While gringo Memo (a self-portrait, perhaps?) ‘had always wanted only to see what was real, no matter how painful or overwhelming’, Vicente experiences the marketplace as being ‘alive with color […] each person [..] a spark of light leaping in and out of a great painting’. And when the painter Soledad, who sees ‘the truth of colour in all things’, completes his magnum opus of a great bird on a wall looking out to sea, his creation takes on an extraordinary life of its own:

‘That night, The Great Bird moved its head, then blinked one eye; the massive wings fluttered. Far out at sea, a fog bank moved rapidly toward shore, sliding across the water to the sheer cliff walls. As the fog passed, dissipating into mist, Soledad saw the moon over Tela, shining downward like some enormous beacon. His eyes widened as the sphere suddenly became transparent, before filling with liquid colours, shades he saw as his own cosmic fluids – his own blood – in transformation: rich incandescent blues and greens; a kaleidoscope of oranges and yellows becoming livid pink, then violet, then crackling into sprays of porous magenta. Blinded by the brilliance, Soledad closed his eyes.’

Though there are many great moments, some of the stories lack momentum. ‘Dona Lina Catero’, for example, in which an old woman goes about her business, waxing lyrical to the village youngsters, is more of a portrait. Similarly, ‘Son of Esquipulas’, the final story in the collection, feels more like a mosaic of incidents rather than a single coherent piece.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the freshness of the vision in the writing. Forty years on, with his place in Honduras’s cultural hall of fame assured, Yuscarán’s first book retains its power to surprise, sadden and transcend. It is in many ways a love letter to the country he would adopt. On the strength of it, it’s hard to see how Honduras could not embrace him.

Points of Light by Guillermo Yuscarán (Nuevo Sol Publicaciones, post 1989)

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

Belize: high praise

May 31, 2012

This was a recommendation from Shirlene at Belizean Publisher Cubola Productions, who I emailed for suggestions. There were several authors she could recommend, she said, but Zoila Ellis was her top pick and she was sure I would enjoy her work.

It turned out Shirlene was in good company. When I opened my copy, I was met by a foreword by Governor-General Dr Colville Young, in which he remembers Ellis’s tentative request that he might look at her work and see if it was worth publishing in 1988 and talks in glowing terms about what he found when he  did. It sounded promising so I settled down to read.

The seven short stories in On Heroes Lizards and Passions paint a powerful and varied picture of life in Belize and the Belizean diaspora. Centring on moments when characters find release from fears, prejudices, assumptions, hopes and dreams, they reveal the way that, wittingly or unwittingly, we can change the course of one another’s lives. There is the lapsed priest who finds a way to make peace with his inadequacies through a neighbour’s chance comment, the pregnant teenager set free by her grandmother’s compassion and the lizard community thrown into confusion by the arrival of humans.

Ellis’s speciality is pinpointing the blind spots and bigotry lodged in her characters’ psyches, all the while keeping their humanity in the forefront of the reader’s mind. The most memorable example of this is ‘And the Subway Takes me Home’, in which Carla struggles against prejudice in her work as a maid for a rich white American pensioner, all the while pondering how to get her son away from his Kerub girlfriend back home in Belize:

‘How could she explain to him: “Son I don’t know her, but I know a lot of people like her. Kerubs are all alike. Clannish, dirty, smell of fish. Before you know it you married to her and her whole generation move in with you.”‘

The power of the story lies in Ellis’s tracing of the steps that have led to Carla’s skewed way of thinking, which makes the explosion of her plans at the end of the story all the more devastating and cathartic.

Ellis’s eye for the wrinkles in the human mind can give rise to a great deal of comedy too. The final story, ‘A Hero’s Welcome’, in which a remote Belizean community prepares a grand celebration to welcome home Mas’ Tom, its one and only member to go off and fight in the second world war, is at once hilarious and touching. As we watch the villagers scrambling to devise fitting entertainments for the man they have pictured playing a pivotal role in secret missions all over the globe and come to think of as ‘their salvation’, the widening gap between their imaginings and the unprepossessing truth becomes funnier and sadder with every page.

Occasionally Ellis’s phonetic representations of Belizean speech can sometime be a little hard to decipher. This disturbed the flow of some of the early stories, although I did find myself keying into it more and more towards the end.

But this was a minor issue. Overall this was a great read by a subtle and empathetic storyteller with a keen awareness of how the cogs turn in the human (and possibly lizard) brain. Shirlene and Dr Colville Young were right: I thoroughly enjoyed it. If only every constitutional figurehead were as proactive in championing writing like this.

On Heroes Lizards and Passion by Zoila Ellis (Cubola Productions, 1997)


I’m a sucker for a good dedication – which is great because the 67 books I’ve blogged about so far this year have provided loads of them. From succinct statements such as Roberto Saviano’s ‘To S., damn it’, which hints at the massive toll taken by his investigation into the Neapolitan mafia, to Dany Laferrière’s playful ‘For everyone who would like to be someone else’, 2012 has given me a feast of dedicatory delights.

Even so, I’ve rarely come across a more intriguing – or even backhanded – inscription than the one that appears after the title page of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness: ‘To S.D., who made me promise I would never dedicate this book to her’. Perverse, playful and wilful, it piqued my interest and, as I was to discover, it sets the tone for the cat’s cradle of contradictions and contrariness of which the novel consists.

Let’s face it, the premise of a ‘depraved atheist’ accepting a contract to edit a lengthy report on massacres in local Indian villages for the Roman Catholic Church, was always going to generate a degree of narrative friction. However, the sparks that fly as the protagonists sinks into paranoia and an unhealthy obsession with the graphic accounts he is working on are something else. Retreating further and further inside his own mind and the visions of the atrocities he is reading about, the editor finds himself wandering the naves of a vast cathedral of craziness in which he is the author of both heaven and hell.

Breathless, furious and funny, the writing reflects the mental unravelling of its subject. Moya sets out his stall on the very first page with a labyrinthine sentence that reels the reader from the editor’s desk through into the heart of one of the massacres about which he is reading. This is complemented by various startling metaphors that reflect the breakdown of the protagonist’s inhibitions as the narrative proceeds – at one point, he tells an acquaintance that Erick, the friend who found him the work, ‘had stuck it in me crooked and without lubrication’ because the manuscript is longer than he expected – and a series of hysterical rants against topics ranging from the media to vegetarianism.

The narrator’s capacity for self-scrutiny keeps him three-dimensional and he lays bare the workings of his mind with disarming frankness. At first his confessions about his tendency to get hysterical and his descriptions of the ludicrous frenzies that leave him standing in the middle of his private office acting out stabbing his mild-mannered colleagues have an endearing quality. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that they are part of the problem themselves.

Much as the editor’s habit of reading out quotes from massacre survivors to everybody he meets to demonstrate the ‘poetic quality’ of the report begins to unsettle his acquaintances, so the unflinching descriptions of his responses to the world around him begin to take on an unsettling quality. The description of his impatience when a woman he is dating breaks down – ‘for there is nothing more repulsive to me than a woman who cries as a result of her own stupidity and who in addition asks for my commiseration’ – for example, displays a cold, almost psychopathic edge. Strangely devoid of the social filtering processes that most people sift their thoughts through, this unedited stream of confessions becomes every bit as disturbing as the manuscript with which the protagonist is working.

The result is a masterful and engrossing portrait of a mind unmaking itself. I want to say I loved it, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable to put it that way. Something gapes beneath the narrative’s surface and makes you wary, as though you might tumble through into its labyrinth and be lost if you allow yourself to get too close.

Maybe senselessness is only one unedited manuscript away from each of us. And maybe the reasons for S.D.’s reluctance to be mentioned in the dedication aren’t such a mystery after all.

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2008)

When Cherie Elston, arts editor of Latin American literature ezine Palabras Errantes, suggested Gioconda Belli as my Nicaraguan author, I knew exactly which one of the writer’s novels I would choose. After all, it’s not every day you come across an award-winning reworking of the Genesis story following the lives of Adam and Eve through and after the Fall. Infinity in the Palm of her Hand it would be.

Inspired by a book of apocryphal versions of Bible stories she found in her father-in-law’s library, the book is Belli’s attempt to ‘imagine the first man and the first woman discovering themselves and discovering life around them, to wonder what they would feel, think and experience’. As such, it charts the coming to consciousness of Adam and Eve, their experience and loss of paradise and the struggles they endure adapting to mortality, parenthood and the realities of an imperfect world.

The rich subject matter provides Belli with some great descriptive possibilities. From the ‘cataclysms… distant darkness and intermittent eruptions’ the characters glimpse beyond the boundaries of the Garden of Eden to the complicated business of growing into and using a body for the very first time, the book is full of deft touches that show how thoroughly the author has inhabited her creation.

The dramatisation of some of the theological problems thrown up by the story of the Fall is particularly good. Positing a thoughtless, deist God, who dashes off his creations before getting bored and wandering off, Belli puts most of the meatiest points in the mouth of the female serpent Satan. A scathing critic of the Almighty’s obsession with his ‘futile exercise not entirely devoid of arrogance’, she at times even assumes the tone of the world-weary spouse whose partner persists in tinkering in the garden shed when there are better things to be doing:

‘Today he is resting. Eventually he will be bored. He will not know what to do, and again I will be the one who has to soothe him. That is how it has been through Eternity. Constellation after constellation. He conceives and then forgets his creations.’

Now and then, the chronology is a little wonky, with day and night coming into being after the Fall rather than on the fourth day of creation. This may be because Belli is working from an apocryphal text rather than from the Bible, but it does get the inner pedant ranting over the narrative now and then.

Similarly, there are several awkward compromises that risk breaking faith with the reader by bending the rules of the harsh ‘reality’ Adam and Eve are forced to endure post-Fall. Animal skins just happen to be lying around on rocks and fig trees spring up overnight to give them food, so that it sometimes feel as though Belli is as impatient as her characters with the rules of the new universe and anxious to wriggle around them to get on with the aspects of the story that really interest her.

Taken as whole, though, this ambitious and poetic book, which won the Biblioteca Breve and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz prizes in 2008, is an impressive exploration of one of the central stories threaded through the culture of much of the world. Belli takes a tale that has been worn and faded by time and familiarity and weaves it afresh in bright colours. She makes us see things differently. Few human creators could hope for more.

Infinity in the Palm of her Hand by Gioconda Belli, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2010)

Guatemala: divide and rule

February 20, 2012

‘I think with the President’s mind, therefore I exist.’

Looking down the list of books from the 196 sovereign states I’m trying to read my way round this year, I’m struck by how many of them are by senior government figures. Coming from the UK, the concept of the politician-novelist is not something I’m very familiar with. In fact the last major work of fiction I can think of by a British prime minister (Tony Blair’s A Journey aside) would have to be Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, which came out around 140 years ago.

All the more striking, then, that so many notable 20th century political players elsewhere in the world should have won acclaim for their literary efforts. However, I suspect few of them can have engaged with the question of governance more directly and passionately in fiction than journalist-turned-congressman-diplomat-turned-Nobel-prize-winner Miguel Ángel Asturias.

First released in Mexico in 1946, Asturias’s most famous novel The President portrays the sharp end of life in a totalitarian state. Beginning with a random killing among a group of beggars that spirals into a witch hunt, the narrative reveals how truth, bodies and even life itself are maimed and distorted to suit the needs of the great ‘protector… who watches over us with a father’s love’.

Violence, both real and imagined, pervades the text, which stitches together a series of personal tragedies and outrages as families, friendships, faith and integrity smash against the intransigence and inhumanity of the state and are destroyed. Many of them stand as synecdochic metaphors for the plight of the people – from the lawyer left struggling in the dark to read and make a case against the lengthy false indictment that will cost him his life to the blind beggar woman ‘dreaming that she was covered in flies and suspended from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop’.

These moments of extremity are thrown into relief by a series of cruel juxtapositions with festivals and celebrations and even bursts of humour that emphasise the ‘grotesque farce’ in which all the characters are trapped and the cold indifference to the suffering of others that terror breeds.

At the centre of this web of fear sits the shadowy figure of the President. Mentioned in every chapter, he nevertheless has a strangely absent quality, and is far removed from the daily realities of his people (he only appears in person a handful of times). This renders his fickle decisions all the more chilling, engendering the same sense of uncertainty in the reader that causes half the guests at a state ceremony to wet themselves in fright when a bandsman drops his drum.

Asturias’s satire is made rich by his use of language and the extraordinary panoramic descriptions with which he brings his nightmare state to life. Eliot glimmers in some of the linguistic effects – ‘Doors and doors and doors and windows and doors and windows flashed past him’ – and he anticipates Beckett in surreal exchanges such as the haunting chapter ‘Conversation in the Dark’. There are even the early outriders of magical realism in some of his more vivid passages.

The result is a compelling manifesto against the mechanisms that enable tyrants to seize and maintain supreme power and a passionate treatise on the fragile beauty of the human spirit. It is a call to arms in the defence of freedom and independent thought more stirring than any keynote speech. Western politicians may not be writing so much any more, but I hope they are reading this book.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge). Publisher (this edition): Waveland Press (1997). First published in Mexico in 1946

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