Ecuador: righteous anger

Novels with messages are hard to do well. Even the best writers can become worthy bores when they set out to change people’s minds about something, turning their rounded characters into two-dimensional puppets jerking on the strings of their social and political beliefs.

No wonder then that my heart sank when I saw the phrase ‘great novel of social protest’ in the foreword to the rather ancient edition of The Villagers by Jorge Icaza, which winged its way to me from one of the independent sellers on Amazon. Clearly this was going to be a barrel of laughs.

At first glance, a summary of the plot seemed to back up my misgivings. Set in the remote Ecuadorian jungle, the novel describes landowner Don Alfonso Pereira’s project to build a new road through the swamps, documenting the hardships and mistreatment of the indigenous ‘Indian’ tribes forced to sacrifice their labour, lands and lives to the endeavour. Cheated, abused, starved and exploited by the magnates who buy and sell them with the territory, the Indians endure more and more extreme sufferings, until at last one of them, Andres, is pushed over the limit when his partner Cunshi dies, sparking a rebellion with tragic results.

What makes the book great, however, is Icaza’s ingenious approach to his subject matter. Starting the novel with insolvent Don Alfonso undergoing an uncomfortable interview with his creditor uncle, the author turns us through 180 degrees, shifting our sympathies from the harassed landowner to the people he exploits so that by the end of the book we are as impatient for Don Alfonso’s overthrow as the Native Americans are.

Much of this is achieved by the shocking descriptions of callous treatment and cruelty throughout the book. Numerous incidents stand out, from the wet-nurse forced to leave her baby to starve to death while she feeds Don Alfonso’s granddaughter, to the worker pulled to death by ropes thrown round him in an attempt to drag him out of quicksand. In addition, sadistic figures dominate the narrative, such as the one-eyed foreman who has free reign to practice his quack medicine on his charges. His remedy for malaria is particularly nasty: whipping sufferers to run until they collapse and then feeding them a mixture of brandy, herbs, urine from a pregnant woman, lemon juice and ground guinea pig excrement.

Icaza’s insight into the human psyche helps him add depth to these visions of horror, revealing the lies people tell themselves and each other in order to be able to treat fellow human beings like dirt. He shows how greed masquerades as progress and callousness dresses itself up as discipline in the minds of the oppressors. Perhaps most memorable of all is the role of the church in perpetuating the fear and poverty of the Indians, oozing hypocrisy at every pore, as in the scene where Andres goes to try to find a plot in the graveyard for Cunshi and has the pricing structure of the different areas explained to him by the priest:

‘These unpainted wooden crosses belong to the poor cholos and Indians. As you can easily understand they are a little far from the sanctuary, and the prayers sometimes reach them and sometimes don’t. God’s mercy, which is infinite” (the priest made another bow and another salute with his birreta and with his eyes) “has destined these unhappy souls to go to Purgatory. You, my dear Chiliquinga, know what the tortures of Purgatory are like. They’re worse than those of Hell.’

At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow. While Andres and Cunshi are fully realised, many of the rest of the Native Americans remain shadowy, faceless figures who don’t step off the page. This is exacerbated by Icaza’s stylistic fondness for strange streams of dialogue, in which a myriad of unidentified voices comment on an event as it happens.

But these are small quibbles. All in all, though, this is an extraordinary novel, which forces the reader to confront the chilling capacity of an ordinary person to delude him or herself into sanctioning horrific acts. It reaches beyond the specific social issues of its time to reveal truths about humankind and still resonates 80 years on from its publication. A powerful reminder of what storytelling can do.

The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza, translated from the Spanish by Bernard Dulsey (Arcturus Paperbacks, 1974)

Uruguay: losing your head

There are some titles that reach off the shelves, grab you by the throat and all but frogmarch you to the check out (or in this case the virtual cash desk with the little man hiding somewhere around the back of the computer) to make you buy the book. Horacio Quiroga’s The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories was one of these: as soon as I stumbled across the work on one of Wikipedia’s lists of writers by nationality, I knew I was going to read it. The fact several visitors to this blog subsequently recommended it only made me more excited about what I might find inside.

As its name suggests, this collection of short stories – selected from across Quiroga’s oeuvre by translator Margaret Sayers Peden – focuses on the startling, violent moments in which lives are altered beyond recall. Death, cruelty and vicious coincidence stalk its characters, feeding off their weaknesses and rarely allowing anyone to escape scot-free. There is the Indian worker driven to plot his bloody revenge by the high-handed discipline of a captain in A Slap in the Face’ and the father who retreats into eerie hallucinations after his young son’s death in a shooting accident in ‘The Son’ – a real shiver-in-the-sunshine moment in the best of the Gothic tradition. Meanwhile, the mini-masterpiece that is the title story shows how years of disappointment, hard luck and neglect can be distilled into a single, horrific act.

Jean Franco and George D Schade make much of the disturbing events of the writer’s own life in their Foreword and Introduction (several of Quiroga’s closest relatives and friends died in violent accidents, his first wife committed suicide and he killed himself in 1937). While these traumas must have impacted heavily on Quiroga, there is a strangely panicky feeling about the critics’ repeated references to them, as though they are anxious contain, defuse and even explain away the savage power of the text. At times, their comments take on the apologetic tone of the relative outside the room of the manic-depressive, whispering that dear Quiroga is not quite well.

This is perhaps because many of the stories in the book exhibit a disturbing, almost anarchic, approach to reality and sanity that is even more troubling than the violence they portray. From weird parables such as the story of ‘Julian Darien’, in which a tiger transforms into a boy only to be tortured to death by the villagers when his mother dies, to the excellent The Pursued’ — which describes the narrator’s obsession with a mentally ill friend-of-a-friend that makes him desperate to get at ‘the madman behind the actor who was arguing with me’ — the stories never allow the reader to relax. Turn your back for a second and the landscape has shifted, the rules changed: Quiroga is a writer who must be watched at all times.

It doesn’t always work. Some of the reversals are too abrupt and, while many of the animal stories are compelling, the anthropomorphism occasionally falls flat on its face – ‘Anaconda’, for example, in which snakes set out to attack the research centre trying to find an antidote to their venom feels like a bridge too far. Similarly, Quiroga’s dipping between registers, which is often effective, can sometimes feel odd, as in the opening story ‘A Feather Pillow’, the ending of which reads more like a public health pamphlet than a denouement.

But these are minor quibbles. All in all, this is a masterful collection that lifts the lid on some of the deepest and darkest wells of human experience. It will linger with the reader long after it’s been put on the shelf. Highly recommended.

The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Suriname: the ties that bind

The maxim goes that we’re all six degrees of separation away from everyone else on the planet. From what I’ve discovered so far during this project to read a book from every sovereign state in the world, I’d say it’s less than that. Although I’m still lacking suggestions for several countries (see the list for any gaps you can help fill in, or any nations you can add more suggestions to), I’ve been amazed by the number of connections to far-flung places that have emerged in my own network of friends.

In the case of the small South American country of Suriname, the lead came through one of my boyfriend’s friends, who studied with him at film school. His family is Surinamese and so getting a recommendation for a book from there was simply a matter of a quick Facebook message across the Atlantic.

As it turned out, there was one author and one novel that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Published in 1987, Cynthia McLeod’s The Cost of Sugar is still the country’s bestselling book both at home and abroad. It sold 100,000 copies when it first came out – no mean feat in Suriname where, as McLeod explains in her introduction, any title selling more than 5,000 copies is considered a hit. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Spanning 14 years in the 18th century, the novel explores life in the former Dutch colony in the days when sugar and slavery were the nation’s driving forces. The story is told through the eyes of half-sisters Elza and Sarith, daughters of wealthy Jewish plantation owners who live through a period of extreme personal and political turbulence as tumbling markets and the growing band of escaped slaves, or ‘bush-negroes’, hiding in the jungle begin to challenge the status quo.

Discrimination is a key theme and the spark that ignites many of the most explosive episodes in the plot. In addition to highlighting the extreme racial prejudices – both between masters and slaves and between gentiles and the Jewish community that originally settled the colony – McLeod reflects the rife misogyny of the period, with many of her bright female characters confined to frivolous, ineffectual lives because of their sex. Her particular talent is showing the blind spots that exist in otherwise decent characters – Rutger, Elza’s husband, for example, is progressive when it comes to racial issues but sees no problem with exacting a promise from his intended that she ‘will not be a jealous wife’ and will turn a blind eye to his infidelities.

Inevitably, the most extreme instances of injustice and discrimination concern the black slaves. Pulling no punches when it comes to descriptions of the barbaric punishments devised to keep them in check – punishments which increase in cruelty and frequency as insurrection grows – McLeod conjures a memorable picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. She brings this home through a series of personal stories, many of which are extremely gripping and moving – the death of elderly Ashana after Sarith orders her to be flogged in a fit of pique even had me blinking back the tears.

Now and then, the shifts in perspective between the wide cast of characters feel a little abrupt. In addition, McCleod’s understandable sympathy for the plight of the slaves occasionally leads to some questionable statements about the uniformly moral and good nature of the bush-negroes living in the jungle.

All in all, though, this is a powerful evocation of key moment in South America’s history. Tracing the chain of guilt that leads from the slaves on the plantation right to the luxury mansions along the canals in Amsterdam, McLeod emphasises the ties that link us across the world. We are all much closer than we think.

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod, translated from the Dutch by Gerald R Mettam (HopeRoad, 2011)

Venezuela: the best medicine

This project would be nothing without the people all over the planet who get in touch to suggest books, publishers, experts and organisations to help me read my way round the world. I’m continually delighted by how generous fellow booklovers are with their time and expertise, and the way these recommendations are opening up new vistas of reading.

Cherie Elston is one of those people. As arts editor of Palabras Errantesan ezine dedicated to promoting Latin American literature (which Laura introduced me to via a comment on The List), she knows a thing or two about books from South America. All the same, I couldn’t help being impressed by the list of 65 authors she sent in reply to my email.

I’m still researching my way through it and it will probably take me years to get hold of all the books (translations permitting). But I had to start somewhere and, as I didn’t have anything down for Venezuela before Cherie got in touch, I decided to begin with Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

Charting Dr Andrés Miranda’s response to the discovery that his father has terminal cancer, Tyszka’s Herralde Prize-winning novel The Sickness explores health, illness, life and death, and the strange, dispassionate vehicle of medicine that shuttles us between them. As Dr Miranda’s professionalism crumbles in the face of his impending loss, he is forced to confront his limitations and reassess his relationship with the vocation to which he is dedicated his life.

Tyszka’s ability to write about loss in all its guises is exceptional. From the seismic tremors it sends through an ordered existence to the absent-mindedness it interpolates into everyday moments, he captures it expertly. He also has a talent for presenting the inner workings of paranoia, which he sets forth through an email correspondence between Dr Miranda’s secretary and a strangely dependent patient.

The imagery he finds to convey the physical effects of shock and sadness is powerful too. When Andrés first sees his father’s results, we read that he feels ‘as if he bore inside him some helpless, stumbling creature, as if he were giving birth to a disaster’ and later, when his father phones to hear the news, that he ‘has a hedgehog on his tongue. His throat fills with pineapple rind’. This directness spills into Tyszka’s observation’s about his own craft as well. ‘Tears are very unliterary: they have no form’, he observes.

This insight is not always matched when it comes to observations about other areas of human existence. There are some strange generalisations about sexuality and the sexes, which ring oddly in the work of so generally empathetic and intuitive a writer.

Now and then the portrayal of hospital life stretches credulity too. Having grown up in a medical household, I found the idea that a surgeon would cancel an operation because his friend had just had some bad news hard to swallow. Now and then it seemed that Tyszka had underestimated the thick skin that most medical practitioners have to develop to survive their careers.

But these were minor points. The book was immensely enjoyable, as well as being touching and profound. Its exploration of the emotional spectrum and the stories we tell to inoculate ourselves against its worst effects will no doubt resonate with readers around the world, as it did with me.

Thanks Laura, Cherie and everybody else – please keep those recommendations coming.

Brazil: Goethe the ‘dirty old man’

From one Portuguese-language country with very few novels available in translation we jump to another that has a whole heap of them (by British standards, at least).

With so many exciting recommendations on the list, Brazil was a tough choice. In the end, I plumped for House of the Fortunate Buddhas because of the intriguing circumstances of its inception: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was commissioned to write one in a series of books inspired by the seven deadly sins. I was curious to see whether a novel written to order in such a way would turn out to be any good. And I wanted to see how Ribeiro handled the vice he chose to write about: lust.

As with the other Dalkey Archive book I’ve read so far this year (Francois Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage), voice is this novel’s driving force. Prompted to record her story by a terminal illness, Ribeiro’s fearless narrator, a self-confessed ‘queen of lectures’, recalls her heyday in the 1940s and 50s. She focuses on her and her friends’ many and varied sexual exploits ‘at a time when everything was more difficult for women’, attacking the social mores that straitjacket desire and force people to ‘live according to rules and patterns for which no human was made’.

This disarming frankness extends to literary conventions too. Unafraid to share her opinions on any subject, the narrator weighs into many of academia’s leading lights, calling Lacan’s work ‘con games’, Goethe ‘a real fucker who died a dirty old man’ and Freud ‘the greatest waste of genius since Plato, the son of a bitch’.

Similarly forthright about her own blindspots and limitations, she questions her own utterances and literary skill with urgency and humour. ‘This testimony isn’t a novel, it doesn’t even have a plot – although the novels of Henry James barely had one, now that I think about it,’ she says at one point.

This unflinching engagement with the world and her place in it, enables the narrator to venture confidently where others fear to tread. The narrative is filled with exceedingly graphic accounts of sex in all its forms, which succeed because they are free from the coyness amd awkwardness that send other writers fumbling for euphemisms and clichés.

Ribeiro’s ability to inhabit the female universe is impressive. The voice is powerful, believable and peppered with details that will have many women nodding wryly in recognition. Only occasionally did I find some of the claims about the power dynamics between the sexes hard to swallow and sense a slight Tiresian wistfulness in the descriptions of men as ‘poor machos chained to a bunch of strange expectations’.

In general, this is an engrossing and persuasive performance by a leading writer on the world literary stage. With its narrator’s bold depiction of her – perhaps Utopian – vision for ‘a world of sex without problems’, it brims with generosity, fellow-feeling and a desire to improve the lot  of humankind. The issue, it suggests, may not lie with the unbridled expression of sexual desire, but with the concept of sin itself.

Perhaps this is simply the passionate manifesto for free love it appears to be. Or maybe, on some ‘con game’, Lacanian or Freudian level, the artist Ribeiro is protesting that the basis of his commission is ultimately flawed.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro (translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers). Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

Chile: the power of book groups

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been to a book group. In fact they fill me with dread.

I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the workshop process on my master’s course inoculated me against any desire to sit in rooms talking about books with all but a very few close friends or maybe it’s that I prefer to organise and express my thoughts through writing rather than speaking. More likely it’s because I’m not actually very good in groups — I have a bad habit of disengaging and clamming up when a line of conversation makes me impatient or gets pulled in too many directions.

Nevertheless it’s clear from people I speak to and visitors to this blog that book groups are a valuable way for readers to share their enthusiasm for literature and to discover works that might otherwise have passed them by.

This is particularly true in a place like London, where people of all sorts of cultural and national backgrounds can meet and mingle to swap ideas. So when an old university friend told me that she had particularly enjoyed a novel by young writer Alejandro Zambra that she read for her book group recently, it seemed like the perfect suggestion for my Chilean book.

Spanning a single night, The Private Lives of Trees follows aspiring-novelist-turned-literature professor Julian as he waits for his wife Veronica to come home from her drawing class. His stepdaughter Daniela is in bed and he is telling her a bedtime story, but, as the hours pass and the idea of Veronica’s return becomes an increasingly forlorn hope, the comfortable domestic scene snags and unravels, sending Julian groping through a gallery of memories and paranoid projections in an effort to stave off the horrid realisation that his life is changed for good.

Zambra’s skill lies in making a non-event — Veronica’s failure to appear — the central action of the novel. Normally books in which very little happens suffer from a lack of tension for which their rich arrays of literary insights struggle to compensate. Here, however, the drama builds, tautening the sinews of the narrative in line with Julian’s nerves as he strains to hear the familiar sound of his wife coming through the door.

For all its tension, the book also manages some flashes of comedy that vary the register nicely. This is helped by the arch narrative voice, which hovers half in and half out of Julian’s head and tantalises the reader with startling statements delivered in a cavalier, off the cuff way — ‘For now suffice it to say that during those years Julian pretended not to have a family’ it informs us at one point before sweeping on to other matters.

One or two of the devices are a little stale. The section where Julian tells himself what would happen ‘if this were a novel’, for example, has been done too many times by other writers for it to retain the dramatic irony it needs.

For the most part, though, this is an engrossing story told by an inventive and subtle writer in a sharp and skilful translation. I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps it’s time I thought about giving book groups a go…

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). Open letter (2010)

Peru: dizzy heights

The bloodthirsty practices of remote mountain peoples seems to be the theme for this week, with Mario Vargas Llosa’s  disturbing unravelling of a series of mysterious deaths around a lonely hill station following hard on the heels of Ismail Kadare’s portrait of blood feuds on Albania’s high plateau.

Menace is threaded into the very fibres of this book, which follows Corporal Lituma, a civil guard who features in several of Vargas Llosa’s novels, as he and his junior officer investigate three disappearances in the mining community around their post.

Yet, despite what its title may suggest, Death in the Andes  is no mere whodunnit. Instead, as he conjures up the boredom and terror of the two men cooped up in their shack as terrorist bands and stories of vengeful mountain spirits run riot through the hills, Llosa lays bare the strings that link modern violence and ancient barbarism, and run through the heart of humankind.

This is a novel where long stretches of apprehension are punctuated with bursts of vicious action. Like Kadare, Vargas Llosa delights in testing outsiders against the world he has created, smashing their value systems, assumptions and even their bodies against the hard rock of experience that awaits them among the peaks. We watch tourists’ faith in their papers shrivel in the face of revolutionary zeal and an academic’s confidence in the immunity of her ecology project from the squalls of violence that pelt the region battered to smithereens.

Occasionally Vargas Llosa packs a little too much foreboding into the run up to these naive forays into the savage mountain world. By the middle of the book you can be pretty much certain that anyone who says they’ll be back soon is gone for good. Nevertheless Vargas Llosa’s masterful grasp of the minute-by-minute shifting motivations that govern our actions and the wild beauty of the imagery with which he bodies forth the hill country usually sublimates this weakness into a strength.

Kadare isn’t the only writer to echo in the novel. There is Hemingway in the story of the townsfolk driven to massacre their peers in a heady parody of justice (which recalls Pilar’s story about Avila in For Whom the Bell Tolls), while Martin Kohan’s technique of overlaying one story with another finds its answer in the way Vargas Llosa’s characters switch between memory and the present moment, often from one sentence to another. And, in the suspiciously named Dionisio, who, with his wife Dona Adriana, goads the miners into gross excesses and revels that strip them of their humanity, Euripides’ The Bacchae glimmers through.

The compelling throughline of the story and the humour that flares up to catch you at unexpected points along the way, however, are all Vargas Llosa’s own. An engrossing and memorable — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman). Publisher (this edition): Faber & Faber (1996)

Guyana: sex and how to do it


I wrote in my last post about the difficulties many authors have describing sex. However it’s by no means true of all. And you’d be hard pushed to find an example of how to (erhem) do it well than Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo.

Set in the fictional coastal village of Tamarind Grove in 1970’s Guyana, the novel charts the sexual, social and political awakening of a young girl, Lula. As she observes the complex, painful and mysterious relationships of the people around her — and begins to have experiences of her own — Lula tests the boundaries of her identity and growing awareness of the hidden mechanisms of the world.

Sex is graphically and variously present in the narrative, with teen fumblings, lesbian encounters, rape and voyeurism all playing a part. What makes it compelling is the freshness and vitality of Kempadoo’s language — utterly devoid of the clumsy clichés and euphemisms that make most sex scenes so excruciating — and the way she uses the physical acts to map the shifting power dynamics between her characters.

Less successful is the overall narrative structure, which rambles between fragments of experience, roping in an unnecessarily large cast of characters. Kempadoo pulls this together to some extent at the end, but the softness of focus niggles. At times, reading the book feels a bit like watching a Polaroid develop only to find that the picture was blurred all along.

In the finish, though, Kempadoo’s poetic vision and her fizzing Creole keep the pages turning. She uses these to deliver a portrait of lost childhood that is at once universal and steeped in a very particular time and place. And if you’ve ever wondered what uses two teenage girls can come up with for a battery, the answers are right here…

Incidentally, my decision to categorise Oonya Kempadoo as a Guyanese novelist is slightly controversial. Although Kempadoo was born of Guyanese parents, raised in Guyana and still holds citizenship (alongside citizenship for several other countries), she identifies as Grenadian.

I changed the book to my Grenada entry for a while because of this, but on reading Buxton Spice I felt that it was so rooted in Guyana and drew so strongly on Kempadoo’s childhood there that it would be wrong to classify it as anything other than Guyanese literature.

I’m ready to be persuaded otherwise though, so if you have different thoughts on what constitutes a book’s national identity please let me know.

Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo (original language: English/Creole). Publisher: Phoenix (1998)

Argentina: the big fight

In the red corner we have book blogger Ann Morgan, fresh from a year of reading women and apprehensive about taking on a beefy, testosterone-drenched book about boxing.

In the blue corner, weighing in at 256 pages, it’s Martín Kohan’s Seconds Out, a novel built around the controversial 1923 world title fight between American champion Jack Dempsey and Argentine challenger Luis Angel Firpo, and backed by world literature heavyweight Richard Lea (he of the Guardian‘s World literature tour).

A hush falls as the first round begins. The combatants close in. Morgan attempts a jab at the book’s narrow focus only for Out to parry the blow with a series of dialogues about Mahler and Richard Strauss’s careers and friendship, meditations on the role of the media and the passage of time, a suspicious death, considerations of photography, popular culture and the role of the critic, and a remarkably detailed description of a game of dice.

Morgan is clearly shaken, but she stands her ground and eyes her opponent, looking for a chink in the armour. She thinks she sees it and goes in for the kill, blasting the book for its simplicity of style, its spare prose, which surely makes it devoid of subtlety?

Out ducks, feints and counters with a rich, complex structure, drawing in the thoughts of the fighters, the referee, the photographer, the judge, a rookie journalist more than 50 years later, two critics, and an elderly cellist. These it places with vigorous clarity, such that even through all the shifts in time and perspective, we never lose track of who’s in the driving seat.

Out continues its onslaught, powering its points home. If it gets a little carried away with the rhythm of its own rhetoric at times and spins out its combinations longer than strictly necessary, who can blame it? It’s clear Out is no slugger: we are watching a master at work.

The referee steps in. Morgan is down but not out. She retires to her corner to pull herself together for the last round. She comes out fighting, but before she has a chance to land a blow, Out serves up a sucker punch, packing its constituent parts into one muscular denouement that fuses its disparate worlds and blows Morgan clean out of the ring.

It’s a knockout.

Seconds Out by Martín Kohan (translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor). Publisher (Kindle edition): Serpent’s Tail (2010)