A Few Good Reviews
Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.
As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]
Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.
Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.