Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

This was a recommendation from Fran, an Ecuadorian who stopped by this blog a few weeks ago to add some suggestions to the list.

First published in 1985 and brought into English by translator Amalia Gladhart some twenty years later, The Potbellied Virgin follows the political wrangles surrounding a small wooden icon in an unnamed town in the Andes. This strangely shaped representation of the Mother of the Christian God is the repository of local pride and virtue (as well as a secret that comes to light in the course of the novel) and is controlled by a group of local matriarchs from the landowning Benavides clan. Led by the formidable Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin, these women watch over the virgins nominated to dress and prepare the icon for each of the many festivals and rituals built around it. But when communism begins to sweep neighbouring regions, stirring up dissent among the less fortunate residents of the town, the women will need more than prayer to maintain their dominance.

This is a book about female power warped and poisoned by a patriarchal, classist and racist system. The narrative refers at one point to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and the parallels between the play’s eponymous heroine and Doña Carmen are clear. The same dessication of youth and cramping of development that plagues Bernarda Alba’s captive daughters shows in the frustrated virgins who fall under her sway. Similarly, the deployment of proverbs, which  run through the narrative like a kind of psychic chorus, creates a memorable impression of the internalised, punitive voices that limit and direct women’s actions.

Unlike Bernarda Alba, however, Yáñez Cossío’s matriarch does not focus on shutting the world out but on subverting and controlling it. The author shows this in astonishing detail, swooping in on the key moments in which characters manipulate and better one another to show minds shifting and changing beat by beat. Time and again, we see the downtrodden tempted to act against their best interests in the name of short-term security, exhaustion and disillusionment.

What’s more, we feel it too. Yáñez Cossío and Gladhart’s writing is so precise and vivid that, within a handful of sentences, we are taken into the deepest concerns and emotions of figures who often appear only fleetingly in the narrative. The death of the new magistrate at the hands of his former friends is a particularly striking piece of writing. This account of some of his final thoughts is a powerful sample:

‘… he sees with his own bulging eyes the bad movie of his life, its grotesque presence in full color. And he wants to cry because it is a ridiculously sad movie, it’s an interminable melodrama, and the protagonist is a small-town man who would have liked to have had so many things, and would have liked to live in a different fashion and to have died in his own bed with that unknown something that he never had and which is now set aside and he needs it. And he is filled with shame and nostalgia at never having had it, not because he didn’t want it, but because he was never allowed, because if he had had that which is called dignity, he wouldn’t be stretched out on the strangely fresh grass now, although he thinks at the same time that with dignity he and his children would have starved to death.’

Although it centres on life in a small, nameless town, the narrative has an epic quality. It sweeps across the decades in a single piece, unbroken by chapters, like the train of a richly embroidered gown, snagging now and then just long enough for particular details to catch the eye before jerking forward again. This grand quality has the effect of augmenting the bathos of some of the novel’s more ignominious and ridiculous episodes, but it also lends the work a timeless, majestic air.

For readers from other traditions, some of the rhetoric  (in particular, the habit of rehearsing the same mechanism of undercutting expectations over a series of consecutive paragraphs) may feel overblown. It is also intriguing to note which terms the publisher chose to italicise and explain in the glossary, and which they left undefined (often a keen tell on who the production team envisages the reader to be). I found myself having to freewheel over passages with extensive lists of local foodstuffs, materials and practices, although this may not be such an issue for readers in Texas, who may well have more knowledge of Latin American traditions than I do.

Luckily though, this book is more than equal to accommodating sporadic, superficial slippages in comprehension. The narrative glides along like the current of a mighty river, carrying readers with it, however they flail. Irresistible and powerful.

The Potbellied Virgin (La cofradía del mullo del vestido de la Virgen Pipona) by Alicia Yáñez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (University of Texas Press, 2006)

Book of the month: Patrícia Melo

This #WITMonth, my reading has had a particular flavour. In October, I’ll be the inaugural Literary Explorer in Residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (theme: ‘Read the World’). One of the events I’ll be involved in is chairing a discussion about ‘Crime Fiction Around the World’ between celebrated writers Ragnar Jónasson, Mark Sanderson and Manjiri Prabhu.

As a result, I’ve been using the summer holiday to catch up on some of the world’s most intriguing who/how/whydunnits, with the help of recommendations gleaned from social media and more knowledgeable bloggers in this field, among them Marina Sofia, a contributor to Crime Fiction Lover and one of the driving forces behind Corylus Books. Female-authored highlights from recent weeks include: The Aosawa Murders by Ritu Onda, translated by Alison Watts, and Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

For me, one of the fascinating things about crime stories that travel is the contrasting ways that regional norms around criminality, detection and punishment shape page-turners based on concepts of right and wrong. A murder mystery set in a country with the death penalty may land awkwardly for readers unused to the idea of criminals being executed; an investigation proceeding in a city where limitations on resources or infrastructure mean that the sort of forensic techniques commonly available in the global North are off-limits presents an author with contrasting choices to those confronting, say, Jo Nesbø. Meanwhile, varied conventions around interrogation practices and the handling of evidence may mean that the unravelling of a particular crime has the potential to play out rather differently depending on where it takes place and who is telling the story.

Bestselling Brazilian author Patrícia Melo embraces this issue in The Body Snatcher, translated by Clifford Landers. Presenting a narrator-protagonist who considers himself morally ‘neutral, to tell the truth’ and is well aware that ‘we’re not in Sweden, the police here are corrupt’, she unravels the mystery not of how a crime is solved but how it is committed and the ways a human mind must contort itself in order to do and try to get away with despicable things.

The premise is outlandish: out fishing one day in rural Corumbá, near the Bolivian border, the cash-strapped narrator witnesses a fatal light-aircraft crash. Discovering that the pilot is the son of one of the region’s wealthiest families and that his backpack contains a large packet of cocaine, he hits on the idea of selling the drugs and ultimately extorting money from the dead man’s parents as they grow desperate to recover their son’s body. What follows is a deft, fast-moving story full of twists and surprises.

Melo and Landers’ writing carries the day. While some of the set up and events, particularly in the early part of the story, would probably feel a little heavy-handed or convenient in another author’s hands (the protagonist wangling a job as the wealthy family’s chauffeur, for example, or his girlfriend having recently started working at the mortuary), this novel sweeps us over bumps in the road with an engaging, witty and beguiling narrative voice that can’t help but fascinate. Reading it is like watching a high-wire act – part of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that the performer could tumble and seeing the flare and skill with which Melo dodges one pitfall after another.

Spare rather than bald, the writing bristles with beautifully succinct descriptions and observations. Consider this depiction of the pilot’s mother ‘being eaten alive by the worms of [her] son’s death’:

‘Every day there was a new health problem, a neck pain, another in the temples, in the neck and temples at the same time, her arms numb, tingling in the legs, tachycardia, vomiting, always some new symptom. And new doctors. If Junior were to appear, even dead, I knew the illness would go away. The same thing happened with my mother. At first the sickness is just a fiction, a kind of blackmail the body uses against the mind, and then, over time, it becomes a true cancer.’

These insights into human psychology are one of the keys to the novel’s success. With an uncanny sense of how the mind moves, Melo is careful to sweep us along in the currents of her narrator’s obsession. Starting with the revelation of a few shabby but relatable traits in her narrator – drawing comfort from disaster headlines because of the satisfaction of being outside the events, for example – she brings us along on his journey towards the unforgiveable, taking us through the loops of rationalisation and justification by which almost any act can be made acceptable to the doer.

Except that in the world Melo presents, the acts are not quite as unforgiveable as they might appear in some other places. With corruption revealed at every turn – indeed, with double-dealing repeatedly offered as the only way to afford a decent standard of living – the moral compass swings increasingly wildly as we journey through the book. By the end, the question is not so much whether the protagonist will be found out but whether we would want him to be. What makes this novel great is that rather than leave us on the outside, looking at the conundrum through the prism of our own society’s conventions about law enforcement and justice, it draws us into its centre, filling us with the same doubts and contradictions that besiege its characters.

A novel about a plane crash leading to an extortion attempt set in the British countryside might take very different twists and turns. And that’s precisely the point. This is a story that is the product both of its characters and of the world in which it takes place. In great writing, the two are inextricable.

The Body Snatcher (Ladrão de cadáveres) by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015)

Picture: ‘Pantanal, Corumbá/MS’ by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on flickr.com

Book of the month: Leonardo Padura

This book was a recommendation from two visitors to this blog. Suroor said it was ‘about the events leading up to Trotsky’s assasination’ and ‘about “corrupted utopias”: the Soviet Union, Cuba and Spain during the civil war,’ while CarolS told me that her book group had enjoyed Padura’s work, finding him a ‘superb conveyer of atmosphere’.

When I looked up Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, translated by  Anna Kushner, I found that it had garnered a sheaf of enthusiastic reviews and that the word ‘masterpiece’ had been liberally applied to it. This set alarm bells ringing for me. Could this novel really live up to such hype?

The fruit of many years of research, thinking, discussion and writing, The Man Who Loved Dogs makes no secret of its ambition. Centring around the assassination of  the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, it sets out to explore how ideologies are built and betrayed, how wars are won and lost, and how history is manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. To do so, it moves between multiple perspectives – weaving together an account of Trotsky’s years in exile, the reflections of late-twentieth century Cuban writer Iván Cárdenas Maturell and the strange story of a frail man he meets walking two Russian wolfhounds on the beach.

The novel is as weighty as its subject matter. At 576 pages, it is on its way to rivalling the classics of Russian literature for girth. The similarities don’t end there: the book’s expansive scope recalls the sweeping arcs of the works of Tolstoy, and like Tolstoy, Leonardo Padura capitalises on the richness that such long-form storytelling affords, taking time to establish motivations, personality shifts and moments of crisis that are all the more devastating for their extended build-up.

The drawn-out description of the radicalisation and indoctrination of Ramón Mercader, for example, and the painstaking delineation of the days leading up to his assassination of Trotsky are exceptionally powerful. The same goes for the detailed depictions of Trotsky’s sufferings and the struggles of many secondary characters, chief among them Mercader’s flinty mother, Caridad, and Maturell’s brother, who pays a heavy price for openly acknowledging his homosexual relationship at a time when this is still illegal in Cuba.

Through these haunting, engrossing episodes, which immerse us in the feelings and thoughts of those living them, we see how ‘the decisions of history can come in through the window of some lives and destroy them from the inside’.

The history in question, however, is somewhat different to that with which many English speakers will probably be familiar. As I discovered repeatedly during my quest to read the world, one of the mind-expanding things about literature from elsewhere is its tendency to portray familiar stories from unfamiliar angles, revealing aspects of well-known events that we may not previously have appreciated.

Here, we see the coming and unfolding of the second world war not from the familiar vantage points of London or Washington, but from the Soviet Union and Spain. The devastating implications of the pact between Stalin and Hitler – which, among other things, led to the suicide of numerous Communists imprisoned under Franco – leap from the page far more vigorously than they do from many anglophone history books.

In addition, Padura lays bare a mindset that many readers in Western capitalist countries may never have penetrated before. Through the discussions between Mercader and his mentor, he reveals what drives those who sacrifice their lives and identities for an idea:

‘I’m just one person , so very small, in the fight for a dream. A person and a name are nothing […] : a man can be relegated, substituted. The individual is not an unrepeatable unit but rather a concept that is added to and makes up a mass that is real. But man as an individual isn’t sacred and, as such, is expendable. […] The dream is what matters, not the man, and even less the name.’

This is a truly fascinating novel. To get through it takes commitment: even speedy readers will have it in their lives for the best part of a week. Yet, when I finished it I found myself wishing it had been longer – I wanted more of the hardships of life in late-twentieth century Cuba, as glimpsed through the eyes of Maturell, and I wished Padura had turned his talents to conjuring the thoughts of Trotsky’s nemesis, Stalin, who is a sinister, shadowy absence at the heart of this excellent book.

The term masterpiece is often used and seldom merited. It is justified in this case.

The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros) by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013)

Picture: ‘Trotsky’s Gravesite’ by verifex on flickr.com

Book of the month: Liliana Colanzi

With a few notable exceptions, South American countries are generally poorly served when it comes to having their literature translated into the world’s most published language. If you want to venture beyond Colombian, Argentinian or Brazilian literature, you quickly find that quite a few nations only have a handful of their authors’ works available in English.

Bolivia is a case in point. When I cast about for something to read from there in 2012, there seemed to be very little choice. In the end, on the recommendation of the country’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, who graciously responded to my request for thoughts on lesser-known Bolivian writers I might discover, I plumped for the striking and savage short-story collection Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

Five years later when a translation of another short-story collection by a female Bolivian writer came onto my radar through #WITMonth, I thought it might make an interesting comparison.

A brief summary of the content of some of the stories in Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, translated by Jessica Sequeira, immediately shows up common ground between the authors. Stories of mental breakdown, maternal cruelty, child death, indigenous slavery and suicide make up the meat of this collection; like Rivero, Colanzi has an eye for the darker side of life.

The similarities don’t end there, for Colanzi’s writing possesses a similar muscularity and violence to Rivero’s. She has no hesitation in plunging us into disturbing scenes – such as the brutal killing of a pig, which opens the story ‘Alfredito’. These she fleshes out in precise and alarming detail, revealing that cruelty lives not in the summary of the things we do but in the moment-by-moment choices to deny, impose, withhold or force.

As with Rivero’s work – and indeed a number of the other Latin American works I’ve read – mental illness and the uncanny loom large. The world is never quite stable or trustworthy. The wave that travels through a university campus, triggering a spate of student suicides, is never explained. Neither are the spooky animals glimpsed by a homesick space traveller on Mars.

What gives Colanzi’s writing its own unique flavour, however, is her love of unusual perspectives. From ‘Family Portrait’, in which the surfacing of longstanding grudges between generations is told largely through the eyes of the photographer’s assistant helping to set up a group photograph, to ‘Story with Bird’, in which the narrator steps back briefly from events to envisage a time when humankind is extinct and other unimaginable beings inhabit the earth, the writer delights in showing us her characters from surprising angles.

The most delicious example is the way she crashes together space time and quotidian human existence at the start of ‘Meteorite’:

‘The meteroid traced the same orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until the movement of a comet pushed it toward Earth. Even so, it took another twenty thousand more years before it collided with the planet, during which time the world passed through an ice age, mountains shifted and the waves gave land masses a new shape. Innumerable life forms died out forever, while others battled ferociously, adapted and repopulated the Earth. When the object at last entered the atmosphere[…] the igneous ball, a meter and a half in diameter, fell on the outskirts of San Borja. Its spectacular descent from the heavens was witnessed by a couple at home, arguing at five-thirty in the morning.’

Sometimes this playfulness topples into the outright weird. There are digressions and odd turns of events that feel too loosely threaded through the narratives. And, as is almost always the case with collections of this kind, certain of the stories are more successful than others.

On the whole, though, this is an arresting book. Its pieces work together to remind us that, although we are small, short-lived organisms in a vast and ancient universe, we nevertheless have the capacity to do startling things.

Our Dead World (Nuestro mundo muerto) by Liliana Colanzi, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)

Picture: ‘Abandoned steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery’ by Jimmy Harris on flickr.com

Book of the month: Samanta Schweblin

When I was at university, I saw the following question on an exam paper: ‘Literary prizes often go to the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’ It was one of my earliest exposures to the doubts that often surface as the book world’s award ceremonies come round each year.

It’s easy to see why some people are cynical about prizes. With so many publications competing for attention (according to the Guardian recent years have seen more than 20 titles released every hour in the UK alone, with a total of 184,000 new and revised works coming out in 2013), it seems inevitable that awards are at least partly luck of the draw.

Indeed, history is littered with the names of literary greats passed over for accolades that subsequent generations of readers would have rushed to heap upon them. Neither Virginia Woolf nor James Joyce received the Nobel Prize for Literature, for example, while several of those lauded over the decades have slipped into obscurity.

Nevertheless, during my quest to read a book from every country, I found book prizes could act as useful signposts when it came to selecting reads from literary traditions and markets that were largely unfamiliar to me. The fact that Sunethra Rajakarunanayake’s Metta had won the Best Sinhala Novel State Literary Award, for instance, emboldened me to choose it for Sri Lanka with positive results.

So, although I appreciate that book prizes are an inexact science, I nevertheless look out for the announcement of the major longlists and shortlists each year. And for those of us interested in reading books that originate beyond the English-speaking world, they don’t come much more major than the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded for the first time last year to Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, a book of the month pick of mine some months before.

April’s book of the month, Argentinian novelist Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell, comes from the shortlist for the 2017 award. I read it some weeks ago after seeing lots of excitement about it on social media and it stayed with me. Earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that it was among the six novels in contention for the award.

Framed as a vision arising from a woman’s delirium as she lies dying, the narrative centres on a holiday gone sour. Terror glints in the sunshine as Amanda haltingly recalls meeting flamboyant Carla and the macabre story she shared about her desperate attempt to save her poisoned son, David, by submitting him to a process of partial  transmigration conducted by a local medicine woman. Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the malevolent forces in question are not confined to Carla’s memory, and that Amanda and her daughter Nina could be at risk from them too.

Concision is central to the narrative’s power. In this slender, 194-page novel, Schweblin and McDowell know the weight of each word and deploy them to achieve maximum pressure.

Mystery abounds as the familiar becomes strange. This is a world where the most mundane of things – a child waking in the night, a lesser-known brand of peas – acquire a horrid weirdness. And as Amanda swerves in and out of the story, urged on by the very David whose eerie unmaking lies at the heart of the book, the ground of the narrative shifts unnervingly beneath our feet.

‘You know. But you don’t understand,’ David tells Amanda. Is he addressing us too?

Loathe though I am to make too much of comparisons between writers from markedly different times and traditions, I couldn’t help but find echoes of the work of one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, here. Schweblin’s management of unease and foreboding is every bit as deft as the building of giddy queasiness found in such classics as The Haunting of Hill House. (Incidentally, Ruth Franklin’s outstanding biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, is a must-read for all those who have enjoyed Jackson’s work.)

The result is memorable, haunting and brave. Like all books that test the limits of what words can do, Fever Dream takes risks and there are odd occasions where the narrative knots or sags, such that some readers might flail to regain the thread. These are few, however.

Not having read Schweblin’s other works, I can’t say how this compares and whether or not it is the title from her oeuvre most deserving of global recognition. But if the Man Booker International Prize judges see fit to honour Fever Dream this year, I would count it a worthy second winner.

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate) by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Image from manbookerprize.com

WITmonth pick #5: Lina Meruane

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When I tweeted that I was reading Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane last month, @infinitetexts responded: ‘hold on tight. It’s a brilliant ride!’ It turned out to be good advice because this slender work, my fifth and last pick of the 17 books I read during Women in Translation month, is a roller coaster of a story.

The autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of Lina, a doctoral student in New York who loses her sight after a stroke. Forced to depend more and more on her boyfriend, Ignacio, and relatives back in Chile, the fiercely intelligent, ambitious and self-reliant protagonist has to renegotiate her relationships with those around her and the world. As she does so, she is obliged to look at life, humanity, the body and science afresh.

Meruane’s ability to take readers into the experience of sight loss is extraordinary. Her descriptions are fresh, immediate and memorable, inviting comparisons with passages from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Although the catastrophe that Meruane evokes is private and individual, as opposed to the public and universal breakdown of society that Saramago depicts, it is every bit as engrossing and devastating. In this narrative we discover that to lose your sight is to risk losing your self – an eventuality which could cost you the world as utterly as any mass outbreak of sightlessness might.

At root, this is a book about what happens when the familiar suddenly becomes strange, rendering the methods by which we have known and judged the things around us useless. It reveals what happens when the known is made mysterious – when simple acts such as moving around your apartment or recognising an acquaintance turn into minefields, when the street ceases to be a place and becomes instead ‘a crowd of sounds all elbowing and shoving’. In showing us life through a scuffed lens, the novel helps us to look at everyday occurrences differently.

The idea that blindness opens up alternative channels of vision and insight is hardly new – storytellers have been playing with it since the creation of the first Ancient Greek myths involving the blind prophet Tiresias and probably long before that. Yet, in Meruane’s hands, the familiar trope takes on a fresh urgency, helped by startling language use and imagery that makes the text leap from the page. Indeed, praise is due to translator Megan McDowell, who has not only managed to deliver an English version full of surprising and challenging repurposements of words, but also had to contend with a scene in which Lina and Ignacio try to do a crossword – surely no easy thing to bring successfully from one language to another.

The consequence of the odd brilliance of the prose, which is sometimes bewildering in its breathlessness, is that it makes reading itself strange. Much like the protagonist, who has to remake her interaction with texts by way of audiobooks, we also have to relearn to read in order to inhabit this novel. And just as Lina stumbles over the once mundane objects of her life, we may find ourselves blundering between sentences, having to stop now and then to reorientate ourselves and ensure that our interpretation is on track.

The result is powerful and memorable. Although I wish Meruane had opted for a different final sentence (the existing one being a little on-the-nose for my liking), there is no doubt that this book is a valuable addition to the literature of blindness, as well as an excellent read. It is exhilarating – a brilliant ride as @infinitetexts said. I came away with my vision sharpened and my head spinning.

Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo) by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Deep Vellum, 2016)

Picture: ‘Blurred vision’ by Judy on flickr.com

Book of the month: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

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Brazil is certainly not short of stories. When I was collecting recommendations for my year of reading the world back in 2012, many people suggested tempting-sounding titles from South America’s most populous country. Since then, booklovers have continued to get in touch with ideas, leaving comments on the post I wrote about João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s House of the Fortunate Buddhas (the novel I chose for my project), and whizzing over emails and tweets.

Indeed, only this morning, Carlos left a comment to tell me about ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’ (Grande Sertão: Veredas in the original), which he regards as ‘the greatest Brazilian novel’. He went on to say, however, that he believes it’s untranslatable because author João Guimarães Rosa invented many of the words in it, creating ‘a unique reading experience’, which Carlos fears would be lost if the book were converted into another language. (It would be interesting to hear what others think about this.)

Beyond the personal recommendations I’ve been lucky to get from readers, a number of anthologies of Brazilian writing have opened up the work of some of the nation’s newer authors to English-language readers in recent years. Thanks to publications such as Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, writers such as JP Cuenca, Vanessa Barbara and Tatiana Salem Levy are on the anglophone radar. Their work (or some of it at least) is accessible to the huge number of people who read in English, the most published language in the world.

As a result, there are thankfully a relatively large number of translated Brazilian works that I could have chosen as November’s Book of the month – both recent novels and fantastic blasts from the past. Over the past year, for example, I’ve found myself enthralled by the writings of Clarice Lispector and could happily have written an enthusiastic post about her wonderfully strange novel Hour of the Star. 

However, in the discussions I’ve had about Brazil recently, one title in particular caught my attention. It was a novella translated by my friend Daniel Hahn for Berlin-based ebook company Frisch & Co: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’s Family Heirlooms.

I was intrigued by Frisch & Co and by Hahn’s comment that Tavares was not likely to be known to many English-language readers, despite her being much-lauded at home in Brazil. This month, there was another incentive too. Having spent the last few weeks reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace, the idea of a book I could finish in a handful of hours was very appealing! So I decided to give the book, which was first published in Portuguese in 1990, a go.

Set in Itaim Bibi, a district in São Paulo, the novella follows Maria Bráulia Munhoz, an elderly, yet formidable, widow who is putting her affairs in order with the reluctant help of her nephew. When one of the pieces in her jewellery collection, a handsome pigeon’s-blood ruby ring, is found to be a fake, the discovery triggers an avalanche of recollections and revelations that uncovers the foundations of the central character and the bourgeois world that is fading with her.

The discrepancy between our private selves and the faces we present to the world is everywhere apparent in the book. From the formal ceremony of the rose-petal-strewn fingerbowl that Maria Bráulia Munhoz insists must follow every meal, to the ritual of her make-up routine and the awkward posturing of her nephew, Tavares captures the thousand ways we shore ourselves up with pretence.

Often, this is very funny. In the description of the nephew’s sensitivity about his thinning hair and the way that he is ‘more afraid of his aunt’s migraines than the movement of shares on the Stock Exchange’, we see the glimmer of Tavares’s sense of the ridiculous. The author (or perhaps more accurately Hahn in his translation) makes rich use of lacunae too, frequently deflating characters’ pretensions by the inclusion of pithy, bracketed dollops of interior monologue.

The writing is inventive. At several points, for example, life itself crops up, personified and spoiling for a fight, ready to beat characters down. And for my money, you have to go some distance to find a simile better than the description of a stroke that afflicts one of the lesser characters towards the end of the book:

‘His words seemed to be coming from very far away, like the roar of the sea – they were transatlantic words – only to die there in the corner of his mouth, forming, in front of his embarrassed friends, a slight layer of froth that took a while to disappear […] All that muted volume, that threat coming from so far away, a thought coming from such a depth, and soon just a little bit of froth, nothing at all, just a little froth, a mere trifle.’

It’s fair to say that not all the devices work as well as this. Labyrinthine sentences leave the reader foundering occasionally. Similarly, some of the imagery cancels itself out by changing tack from one phrase to the next.

All in all, though, this is an enjoyable and illuminating read. It walks the tightrope between humour and insight with aplomb, finishing with a flourish. I found it a joy – and a delightful counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars.

Now, back to Tolstoy’s Moscow, where the enemy has entered the gates…

Family Heirlooms (Jóias de Família) by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Frisch & Co., 2014)

Picture: São Paulo by Júlio Boaro on Flickr

Paraguay: remembrance of things past

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Sometimes when you’re trying to read a book by a writer from every country in the world, you have to travel in time as well as space. While there may not be any translated literature from that nation available in print at the time you’re looking, if you dig back into the past you can occasionally get your hands on an edition of a translation published decades ago that will take you into an imaginary universe from which you would otherwise be shut out. These out-of-print books are like portals, opening and closing  at will: not everyone can get to them, they pop up in surprising settings and you’ll rarely find one in the same place twice.

My Paraguayan pick was one of these books. As far as I can find out, there is little other than Helen Lane’s 1986 translation of Augustos Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme out there for us English-language readers (do tell me if you know differently). Luckily, I was able to get hold of a faded 1988 edition listed by an independent bookseller on Abe Books (there are a few others on there at the moment, but they may disappear at any time).

The 1974 novel, which saw Bastos permanently exiled from his homeland, is a fictional rendering of the recollections, pronouncements and paranoid fantasies of the early 19th century Paraguayan dictator Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (who dubbed himself El Supremo). Constructed by an anonymous compiler from a mountain of charred dossiers, pamphlets, correspondence and other documents salvaged from a fire at the time of the ruler’s death, the narrative presents a mind turning in on itself as the tyrant confronts his own mortality.

From the first page – which displays a lampoon in the voice of El Supremo found nailed to the cathedral doors in the capital – the text babbles with questions about identity, authority and authorship. The novel is shot through with footnotes and extracts from other works that contradict the primary account, as well as revisions from the tyrant as he creates his own account of the founding of the Perpetual Dictatorship. As El Supremo’s shadowy scribe puts it, in this world of reconfigurations, suppressed voices and fabrications, ‘even the truth appears to be a lie’.

For all the slipperiness of the narrative, however, the character of El Supremo looms large, riddled with the conflicts, eccentricities and the lack of empathy that comes from years of being cut off from normal human interaction. Bastos’s portrait of the ruler’s paranoia, who sees himself surrounded by people with ‘a bad case of the itch to be kings’, is brilliant and points up the psychology behind the grotesque and brutal punishments he metes out as casually as he orders his food – the cells blocked up to admit no light, the traitors left sitting in the sun, the man forced to row until he dies. These are offset by El Supremo’s delusions about his own benevolence, reflected in outbursts of irrational generosity – as in the case of the meticulous list of toys he orders to be distributed to children at Epiphany.

Bastos’s greatest achievement, however, is that, while revealing the monstrous actions and self-deception of the tyrant, he brings out his humanity too. This comes through in the lonely, sober tone of many of the entries in El Supremo’s private notebook, as well as through glimpses of the ruler as a frail old man playing dice in his slippers and contemplating the impending loss of his faculties. It also lives in his flashes of insight into his situation and his wistful daydreams about how if he had met a woman and had a family he might have enjoyed a peaceful, quiet old age, rather than sitting in fear and isolation, thinking about crowds burning his effigy and listening to ‘the sounds of a sick mind clattering along’.

For all its brilliance, however, the novel does come with a health warning: its dense, heavy style will be too rich for some appetites. The concentration wanders in its maze of associations and you sometimes have to retrace your steps to pick up the thread again. Although Bernard Levin might have read it twice in a weekend – as he writes breezily on the back cover – the book will take most people much longer to get through (I had to allow four days).

If you stick with it, however, the rewards are great. The I the Supreme is many things: a portrayal of the nightmare of being able to trust no-one but yourself; a portrait of a mind hemmed in; and a reminder of how easily we might be other than we are. Extraordinary.

I the Supreme (Yo el Supremo) by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated from the Spanish by Helen R Lane (Faber & Faber, 1988)

Bolivia: fresh blood

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

Colombia: the crazy truth

When it comes to South American literature, Colombia is definitely one of the hot spots. Birthplace and stomping ground of the great Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez to you and me), the country boasts a talented crop of writers, despite a tradition of rigorous government censorship – according to the File Room100 Years of Solitude was itself banned by the Colombian authorities in the 1970s.

Among this group of authors, Laura Restrepo caught my eye. An outspoken political journalist, Restrepo spent six years in exile in Mexico after receiving death threats because of her work. Her novels, which have won numerous awards, are known for mixing the insights she gained into Colombia’s criminal underworld as a reporter with elements of the fantastic or uncanny. It sounded like a compelling combination.

Restrepo’s 2004 novel Delirium starts with a bang. Middle-aged lecturer-turned-dog-food-delivery man Aguilar arrives home from a short trip to see his children to find that his young wife Agustina has gone mad. The rest of the novel – which weaves together four narratives and draws the reader through a involving in Bogota’s drug-trafficking network, clairvoyance, sadism, murder, and a tortuous family history stretching back two generations – pieces together the reasons why.

If you want an example of lean, powerful storytelling, then Restrepo is the writer for you. Working dramatic irony, time shifts, character voice and objective correlatives the way a gymnast moves through positions on the parallel bars, she delivers a mesmerising performance that will have you gripped right from the realisation that ‘something irreparable had happened’ in the first sentence to the breathtaking dismount of the final chapters.

Restrepo couples this narratological agility with a dexterous empathy that enables her to present both the inner workings of mental breakdown and the toll such events take on those closest to the sufferers. Whether she is leading us through the dark lair of Agustina’s childhood demons or Aguilar’s uneasiness about her sudden unpredictability and sense of ‘not knowing what bubbles are bursting inside her, what poisonous fish are swimming the channels of her brain’, the writer is committed to finding new routes by which to bring us close to the experiences she portrays. Her description of Aguilar’s fears about how Agustina’s illness has affected her feelings for him is particularly vivid and inventive:

‘I was afraid that if I could enter into her head, like a doll’s house, and walk through the compressed space of the various rooms, the first thing I’d see, in the main room, would be candles the size of matches lit around a little coffin holding my own corpse, me dead, forgotten, faded, stiff, a Ken-size doll in Barbie’s all-pink house, a ridiculous Ken abandoned in his tiny moss-green living room, I myself moss-green, too, because I’ve been dead for a while.’

The author’s talent for presenting thoughts and emotions in striking ways pays dividends when it comes to tracing the twisted strands of family history that have led to the tangle of the present. What might be an unwieldy and dry chronicle in the hands of another writer is immediate, troubling and strange in Restrepo’s work, with each character, no matter how peripheral, picked out in arresting detail. There is the obsessive musician grandfather who goes out walking wearing two hats and the mother who speaks to Aguilar on the phone as if he is a care assistant rather than her daughter’s partner.

The result is a compelling novel about consequence; about the way what we think of as our private quirks and imperfections can bounce and ricochet off others sending them careening down a giddy slope to their ruin. It is a gripping and haunting piece of work. Oh, and it’s a jolly good yarn too…

Delirium (Delirio) by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Vintage, 2008)