Abilio Estévez is next up in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. Arcade brought out a couple of his books a decade ago, but the piece he chose as his “aesthetic highpoint” (excerpted below) has never appeared in English translation.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I’ve chosen this excerpt for three compelling reasons: the first, that I had a hard time writing it, much more than any other section of El navegante dormido, a novel to which I feel a particular connection. The material resisted me for some time, and that struggle, far from discouraging me, always excites me and spurs me on. There is a combative part of me that is nourished when I write. The second reason: it is a section that someone I love, my companion, finds moving. The third reason might seem like a boutade (and, of course, it is), but it has to do with me, with my own inner Mamina fleeing a great fire, not knowing whether the flight will be worth it, not knowing whether salvation exists or what that even means.
As a writer, how has your exile from Cuba affected you?
My exile from Cuba has been good for me as a writer, so far. As a person, I don’t know. The world I lived in was very small, very closed, very provincial, to put it one way. All of a sudden, I discovered that the world was a big, unfamiliar place. I discovered that no one is the center of the universe, that you’re just one passion among many, and that everyone has the same problems. This awareness is very important for a writer. There is an element of humility there that has been really useful for me. Beyond that, I’ve been able to read books that I couldn’t before; I didn’t have access to many cultures. From this perspective, my exile has suited me. From a personal perspective, it’s painful to know that you have to leave a place and won’t be able to go back. Or that if you do go back, your return implies a failure of some kind. It’s like going home not because you’ve decided to go home, but because you’ve decided to die before your time. It’s going back to the feeling of being on that island and wanting to travel and not being able to because they keep you from leaving, or make it too difficult; I have to get foreign money and visas, and then there’s the reality of coming back and having to ask permission to enter, which can be denied. The feeling that I’ve lost everything is always with me, the feeling that I couldn’t leave my home closed up and ask someone to take care of it while I’m gone, but instead that I abandoned it, and that’s a terrible feeling. It’s starting over, now, at fifty-five—I’ve been here for ten years—dealing with problems I should have faced when I was twenty, not now.
Full of danger were the roads Mamina had to travel to find refuge at the beach with no name.
It took her sixty-seven days, and the setbacks she faced were even greater in number. Two endless months and a week full of unthinkable violence. Fleeing from one end of the island to the other, from the distant soil of Oriente to arrive, without knowing why, at an unstable and Babylonian Havana.
“My own Stations of the Cross,” she would say on those rare occasions her spirits were high, or low, enough for her to talk about her journey. Accompanied by the pain of the dead left behind and under the sign of other massacres, deaths no less personal and terrible for their having been strangers, she reflected and suffered along the brutal roads of an island possessed.
Sixty-seven days amid the disasters and consequences of a race war and, to make things worse, bearing the worst possible letter of passage: her dark skin and her face—beautiful, yes, but that of a colored woman born to slaves, the pained, fugitive face of a daughter of the Mandinga and the Embuyla.
It was 1912. It had been only fourteen years since the Spanish Empire, already in terrible condition, lowered its flag, and ten since, the island having become a precarious state—a timid, intermittently democratic republic—a new flag (created by Teurbe Tolón for Narciso López) was raised from the battlements of El Morro and La Cabaña, alongside that of United States. In only fourteen years of independence, there had already been countless strikes, two wars, and two American interventions, as though the ten years of deaths, machete violence, epidemics, starvation, and internment camps between 1868 and 1878 hadn’t been enough, or as though they set the stage for the catastrophe that was, without a doubt, soon to befall the young and afflicted republic.
No one called her Mamina back then, they addressed her by her real, full name: María de Megara Calcedonia. She and her brother Juan Jacobo had been lucky enough to be born, respectively, in the relatively happy years of 1886 and 1887, when the Spanish Crown found itself obligated, after a bloody war which neither side had the distinction of winning completely, to abolish slavery on the “ever Loyal island of Cuba.”
The siblings were born in the mountains near Alto Songo, out between Dos Amantes and La Maya, in the quarters of the El Calamón coffee plantation, which at that time belonged to a formerly wealthy and still legendary family of the area, the Pageries, who, as their name suggests, were French or, rather, of French extraction. From Martinique, the Pagerie family arrived first at Saint Domingue, and from Saint Domingue, fleeing in terror from the armies of Toussaint Louverture, they ended up in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. As their surname also suggests, they were close relatives of the woman who had been Empress of the French, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born, as everyone knows, Tascher de la Pagerie. As such, the owners of El Calamón had that air typical of the Bonaparte nobility, something between stately and wild, a little coarse, that same affected haughtiness accented by a surprising touch of insecurity. Not only the stateliness, but also the wildness, the haughtiness, the affectation and the insecurity were amplified by the distance from that heart shared by every French person known as Paris, and by the everyday struggle of surviving in a land where even the most mundane undertaking becomes an event, vacillating between the tragic, the apocalyptic and, ultimately, the absurd. The Bonaparte nobility felt nobler there, but also more common, more parvenu, if that were possible.
Not very large, El Calamón was by then hardly a coffee plantation at all: it was more like a country house. It still produced a few hundred pounds of coffee, but that was not enough to maintain the familiar standard of luxury, which had not been all that luxurious for some time. The war drastically reduced production. Most of the family’s colored workers had run off to join the fight, which was as long and bloody as it was disorganized and futile.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
Up next in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Alfredo Bryce Echenique, whose entry in A Thousand Forests includes a bit from his novel A World for Julius and a previously untranslated story, “Manzanas.”
One of the most intriguing things about Echenique’s life is the plagiarism case that he was involved in. Here’s a bit from Valerie’s intro that makes me think there’s a lot more to this story:
In 2007, Alfredo Bryce was embroiled in a bizarre accusation of multiple plagarisms. The episode, itself with the coloring of a spy novel, carried with it a certain enmity, but also the unconditional support of those who, like Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Vargas Llosa, have been uncompromising in defending their faith in the writer, who continues to steer his literary course between suffering and laughter.
And remember, you can only get Echenique’s previously untranslated story by purchasing this collection. And if you buy it before the end of the month, use the code FORESTS and it’ll only be $15.
Above all I like the pages I picked from Un mundo para Julius for their efficiency. Let’s not forget that they’re the first pages in the book and, in a condensed way, although not lacking in subtleties, they contain a lot of information about the novel’s central characters, with the exception of Juan Lucas—Julius’s stepfather and the novel’s antagonist—whose presence is implied in the nocturnal outings of Susan, Julius’s frivolous, widowed mother. But in addition to introducing the book’s main characters, these pages also introduce the book’s principal settings. The boy’s house is a microcosm of Peru, with borders that he crosses for the first time when he goes from the elegant part of the large mansion where he lives into the so-called “servants’ quarters,” an accurate reflection of a whole country that is profoundly and cruelly divided between the very rich and the very poor, and into distinct regions such as the coast, the world of the Andes, and the Amazon. From these immense and varied regions of Peru come the so-called servants of this wealthy family who, instead of taking interest in their own country, live with their eyes fixed principally on Europe and secondarily on the United States. And so Julius and his siblings attend British and American schools, where the few Peruvian teachers working there come off as deeply pretentious in the eyes of their students.
“Manzanas” is the long monologue of a young and beautiful nymphomaniac who competes with any good-looking girl who crosses her path, and who, at the same time, maintains a romantic relationship with an important musician who is much older, and is able to see her in a good light, even to overlook her infidelities. The tension comes from her admiration for the refined, cultured, and respectable man combined with her desire to surpass him in some way, petty as it may be. She doesn’t say any of this. She just suggests it. A murder, although only symbolic, might be the only way for the guilt-ridden girl to escape from her constant and spiteful obsessions and contradictions.
Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two-year-old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servants’ quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don’t touch! it’s covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants’ quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius, that fascination of “don’t touch, honey, don’t go around there, darling.” By then his father had already died.
Julius was a year and a half old at the time. For some months he just walked about the mansion, wandering off by himself whenever possible.
Secretly he would head for the servants’ quarters of the mansion that, as we’ve said, were like a blemish on a most beautiful face, a pity, really, but he still did not dare to go there. What is certain is that when his father was dying of cancer, everything in Versailles revolved around the dying man’s bedroom: only his children were not supposed to see him. Julius was an exception because he was too young to comprehend fear but young enough to appear just when least expected, wearing silk pajamas, turning his back to the drowsy nurse and watching his father die, that is, he watched how an elegant, rich, handsome man dies. And Julius has never forgotten that night—three o’clock in the morning, a lit candle in offering to Santa Rosa, the nurse knitting to ward off sleep—when his father opened an eye and said to him poor thing, and by the time the nurse ran out to call for his mother, who was lovely and cried every night in an adjoining bedroom—if anything, to get a bit of rest—it was all over.
Daddy died when the last of Julius’ siblings, who were always asking when he would return from his trip, stopped asking; when Mommy stopped crying and went out one night; when the visitors, who had entered quietly and walked straight to the darkest room of the mansion (the architect had thought of everything), stopped coming; when the servants recovered their normal tone of voice; and when someone turned on the radio one day, Daddy had died.
No one could keep Julius from practically living in the carriage that had belonged to his great-grandfather/president. He would spend the entire day in it, sitting on the worn blue velvet, once gold-trimmed seats, shooting at the butlers and maids who always tumbled down dead by the carriage, soiling their smocks that the Señora had ordered them to buy in pairs so that they would not appear worn when they fell dead each time Julius took to riddling them with bullets from the carriage. No one prevented him from spending all day long in the carriage, but when it would get dark at about six o’clock, a young maid would come looking for him, one that his mother, who was lovely, called the beautiful Chola, probably a descendant of some noble Indian, an Inca for all we know.
The Chola, who could well have been a descendant of an Inca, would lift Julius from the carriage, press him firmly against her probably marvelous breasts beneath her uniform, and not let go until they reached the bathroom in the mansion, the one that was reserved for the younger children and now belonged exclusively to Julius. Often the Chola stumbled over the butlers or the gardener who lay dead around the carriage so that Julius, Jesse James, or Gary Cooper, depending on the occasion, could depart happily for his bath.
And there in the bathroom, two years after his father’s death, his mother had begun to say good-bye. She always found him with his back to her, standing naked in front of the tub, pee pee exposed, but she never saw it, as he contemplated the rising tide in that enormous, porcelainlike, baby-blue tub, which was full of swans, geese, and ducks. His mother would call him darling, but he never turned around, so she would kiss him on the nape of his neck and leave very lovely, while the beautiful Chola assumed the most uncomfortable postures in order to stick her elbow in the water and test the temperature without falling in what could have been a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
And about six-thirty every afternoon, the beautiful Chola took hold of Julius by his underarms, raised him up and eased him little by little into the water. Seeming to genuflect, the swans, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down happily in the warm, clean water. He took them by the neck and gently pushed them along and away from his body, while the beautiful Chola, armed with soapy washcloths and perfumed baby soap, began to scrub gently—ever so gently and lovingly—his chest, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. Julius looked up smiling at her, always asking the same questions, such as: “And where are you from?” and he listened attentively as she would tell him about Puquio, a village of mud houses near Nasca, on the way up to the mountains. She would tell him stories about the mayor or sometimes about medicine men, but she always laughed as if she no longer believed in those things; besides, it had been a long time since she had been up there. Julius looked at her attentively and waited for her to finish talking so he could ask another question, and another, and another. And it was like that every afternoon while his two brothers and one sister finished their homework downstairs and got ready for dinner.
(Translated by Dick Gerdes)
Alberto Ruy Sánchez, the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series, has a couple books available in English: Names of the Air and The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth.
He also studied with Roland Barthes, which is why I included that bit from his interview.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
You studied with Roland Barthes, and that time in Paris affected you deeply as you explain in the prologue of your book of essays Con la Literatura en el cuerpo. Can you tell us more about that experience?
More a master craftsman in his workshop than a professor behind his lectern. The primary and principal teaching of Roland Barthes was not in the content of his courses, not even in his books, but in his approach to teaching, writing, and understanding the world.
He was not just a professor who gave a lecture on a subject that we students could understand and master, rather he was a craftsman who did his work, and we apprentices in his vicinity saw how he worked and tried to do our own best work, always and only learning the trade of a master craftsman. Not inputting or even imitating the content of his teachings, not turning ourselves into his followers, but into craftsmen of the power of the word and modes of realization. Creating instruments: like goldsmiths do using their hands, one should create instruments of thought and writing using one’s own body. Concepts and styles that were our own. With one fundamental, three-part question: What is the one thing that only I can do in terms of literary form and thought? What do things mean to me in particular? What is the corporeal footprint that I and no one else can leave behind on the things of this world? Writing, I soon deduced, is a way of being in the world. A very modest and very ambitious trade at the same time.
Roland Barthes gave his seminars in two very distinct forums: the massive class, which was so popular that the attendees arrived hours beforehand to get and hold a seat: a lecture that was transmitted simultaneously in other contiguous rooms. And the petit seminaire, where a few of us, no more than ten, formed a space of mutual readership in the presence of Roland Barthes who was another reader in the circle. When he agreed to be my thesis advisor and admitted me as a member of the small seminar he said to me: “You run the risk of getting disillusioned, I’m not a particularly good advisor.” And I already knew it. He had written an essay about his small seminar as a small utopist space, a sort of phalanstery. And that text had just seduced me, it made me want to be there. It was not his glory as a fashionable semiologist. Rather the quality of creating spaces where learning followed a unique form. But he did advise me indirectly in the sense of pushing me to accept the enormous challenge all artists and thinkers face when they start out: to be radically yourself.
The power of that instruction in craft, of that necessarily very personal education, multiplied its effect on me because it radiated its exemplary influence into other courses that were key for me during that time period. The next important seminar I took, studying philosophy, was that of Gilles Deleuze. And no less impassioned and formative, that of Jacques Ranciére in the field of the history of ideas and social utopias and that of André Chastel in the field of art history. Each one had a very personal way of living their trade with extreme passion. And between these four masters, more than professors, I had the foundation to construct a personal point of view regarding political life and its masks, social thought, the place of art and the creation of forms, utopias and communitarian practices and hyperindividual creation, the life of ideas, writing, poetry, reading, symbols and their ghosts. Now these are some of my themes, my obsessions. A node of interests and intensities that, I think, is key to what I am as a writer.
Cristina Fernaández Cubas is today’s first entry in the ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. Below you’ll find a bit from one of her novels, her explanation for why she included it, and a bit about what Julio Cortázar called “stories against the clock.”
Through the end of the month you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
With respect to the novel El año de Gracia, I’d like to recall its origin. The starting point was a story in the newspaper El País. It was about an environmental group, “Operation Dark Harvest,” and their failed expedition to the island of Gruinard, one of the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island had been contaminated with anthrax in 1941, as a precaution against a possible biological war with Germany, and the goal of the environmentalists was to make off with soil samples and denounce the dangers posed by its mere existence. But what I really found interesting was the geographical location, its characteristics, the setting. An island closed to public curiosity, less than two kilometers from civilization, with the only people granted access being a team of scientists who, with the necessary precautions, visited the island every two years. And above all, this fact: the former inhabitants of the island, mostly shepherds, had been forced to evacuate. On the island, then, there only remained a number of sheep, abandoned to chance . . . And from there my imagination took over. I wondered about the effects of the anthrax on those flocks of sheep; I wondered if it were possible the sheep had become feral and developed murderous tendencies; I thought that perhaps, one shepherd—just one—hiding among the fog and craggy rocks, had refused to follow the order and stayed on the island . . . And so El año de Gracia was born. The story of a young man, well versed in theology and dead languages—though completely unaware of the ways of the world—whose sister Grace gives him “the gift of a year” and fate ends up taking him to the island . . . I still remember the writing process with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Gruinard gave me the opportunity to go on an anachronistic adventure in the middle of the twentieth century. And I took it as far as it would go. [. . .]
In an interview with El País you mentioned the stories that don’t let you go until you’ve finished them, that leave you exhausted, and you cite Cortázar, who calls them “stories against the clock.”
You could also call them “hijacking stories.” You can’t break free from them until you finish them. And then yes, then you can breathe easy, as if you’d just taken off an enormous backpack, a burden . . . They’re usually not very long (it would be hard to stand so much tension) and very frequently they turn rather mysterious even for the author. For a time, at least. Afterward, you start tying up loose ends, understanding where they came from and why they grabbed you like that . . . But all of this belongs to the secret life of stories.
The first word the ancient shepherd mumbled over my sickbed—or the first one I seem to remember—was Grock. At the time, confused by what appeared to be a strange being that was half sheep and half man, it didn’t occur to me that my timely visitor was capable of naming himself, and I assumed it was bleating. But the long recovery, and that strange lucidity that sometimes comes with fever, led me to babble different phrases in various languages until I understood that Grock was speaking a rudimentary English peppered with an abundance of expressions in Gaelic—a language that, unfortunately, I knew nothing about other than its mere existence—and that if I dispensed with any sort of flourish and instead resorted to the purest simplification, my rescuer’s eyes lit up, he nodded or shook his head, and he tried, in turn, to reduce his language as much as possible and limit himself to naming things.
Learning Grock’s language wasn’t terribly burdensome. What helped wasn’t so much my knowledge of English as the evidence that the old man’s peculiar syntax was extremely similar to that of primitive languages, and even to that of many of our children when, provided with a certain vocabulary, they start to express their needs. Grock’s sentences frequently began directly with the material object of interest, then moved on to the accessory information, to the how and why, to the circumstances, and only later, much later, to the real answers to my questions. I asked him repeatedly about the name of the island we were on, and his answer was: “Grock.” I tried to be much more explicit, and adding gestures and faces, I said: “Island . . . This island . . . What is it called?” The answer was invariable: “Grock.” It was obvious that he didn’t distinguish between his name and what was an object of his property. Grock had spent too many years among sheep.
But I couldn’t curse my luck. Thanks to the shepherd’s care and the bits of information I managed to drag out of him with a great deal of patience, I was able to form an approximate idea of where we were located. In an earlier time the Island of Grock had been inhabited by several families of shepherds. Later, “many, many years ago . . . ,” for reasons the old man wasn’t aware of or didn’t know how to explain, the families gathered their belongings, left their flocks behind, and abandoned the land. Only Grock remained on the island, in charge of hundreds of sheep, the mothers of the mothers of the mothers of those quadrupeds that had made such an impression on me and that, as I seemed to understand, either because they were too many to be controlled by one man, or because the shepherd avoided them, didn’t take long to go from tame flocks to feral, bloodthirsty packs. “They did very bad things to Grock,” he said. “Very bad things.” I soon discovered that the shepherd utterly despised them. When he talked about sheep, his face took on a terrifying appearance, his eyes shone with wild fury, and he reveled in reciting the long list of punishments he’d made them suffer to show them that he was Grock, the master of the island, and that they had done “very bad things.” When I finally asked him what constituted the wicked actions of those beasts (secretly afraid he’d tell me), the ferocious gleam again dilated his pupils for a moment, then was replaced, almost immediately, by an unexpected expression of tenderness. “They killed Grock,” he said.
For the first few days, I often had to resort to imagination, sometimes pure invention, to interpret the shepherd’s perplexing statements. He insisted that I was from Glasgow—though, maybe, he was using that name to mean anywhere off the island—and he seemed very surprised by the story of the shipwreck, of my rescue, and of the subsequent disappearance of the remains of the Providence. I don’t think Grock knew how to pretend, but the absurd possibility that the old man—almost like a child—might be unaware of the ship’s mysterious destination left me baffled. Again I faced the large number of enigmas yet to be solved, and I had a feeling that the limited narrative faculties of my rescuer weren’t going to be of much help to me for the time being.
I had surrendered myself to dark conjectures when Grock, who had just polished off my last bottle of gin, broke into wild laughter. I didn’t have time to be startled. As if he’d suddenly remembered the reason for his boundless joy, the old man grabbed a case that was hanging from his neck, pulled out a wrinkled card and, still laughing, handed it to me. Here I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. What I had in my hands was a color photograph, a portrait of the shepherd himself, taken by an instant camera. So the island wasn’t as deserted as I’d been led to believe. I didn’t stop to think about what sort of disturbed mind would come up with the macabre idea of photographing Grock, nor did it seem appropriate to submit the shepherd to a new interrogation. All I knew how to do was join in his laughter as a simple proof of my good intentions. Between bursts of laughter, he told me about a little box with a button you could push, and little by little, shadows would appear, then colors, and finally, the image of a man. “A man,” he said. The apparent magic of the camera was what truly amused the shepherd. I looked back at the snapshot with a shudder. I held in my hands the cold, raw embodiment of horror. In front of me, convulsing with laughter, was little more than an old, mad child who had absolutely no idea he was laughing at himself.
(Translated by Emily Davis)
Ramiro Pinilla is the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. I really like his explanation of why he chose this chapter from The Blind Ants. (And the story is pretty fantastic as well.)
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
If there’s anything good in Las ciegas hormigas, it’s this chapter. I wrote it more than fifty years ago, but I still remember what I thought when I finished it: why isn’t the whole novel like this, and why won’t most of what I write in the future be like this? It’s the felicitous fusion of narrative language with what I hoped for and still hope for, that synthesis of rhythm, continual forward movement, ideas and more ideas, humor, expressive transparency, something like the inescapable music of a deceitfully playful Mozart that we get hopelessly hooked on. A passion for my creations? Maybe. But here the protagonists are sketched out for the entire novel, their courtship, as recounted by Josefa, establishes the roots of Sabas, whose epic downfall you can already imagine, along with Josefa’s own unconditional surrender to Sabas’s impossible stubbornness. Which buttons do you have to press to yield something like this? I have no idea.
I still remember it well. The priest said, “Sabas, do you take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife?” And then, without even turning to me: “Josefa, do you want this man to take you as his lawfully wedded wife?”
That’s what I heard, kneeling next to him, my hands and feet tied up without a rope, subjugated, defeated, and (why not?) devoted—perhaps not out of love, but controlled by some kind of irrational vertigo—furiously subdued, captured, and kidnapped while everyone watched impassively. No longer daring to rebel, even though I’d tried before, despite the fact that I’d known from the beginning it would all be useless, I contemplated what the priest had done, with his benevolent, distant face, loading the ship with cargo he wouldn’t travel with, muttering the words, unrelenting, without looking into my eyes, which were desperately asking him, “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you ask me, like all the other women, ‘Josefa, do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband?’”
He appeared one day in Berango, chewing on a piece of straw. Serious, skinny, calm, his hands in his pockets. All put together with his corduroy pants, white cotton socks, rubber-soled sandals, and checkered shirt. And an umbrella hanging on his arm.
It was a workday, a Monday, around twilight. I watched him from the garden plot my family had near the road. He was coming from Algorta, and his steps weren’t quick, but they were steady, insistent, active, each one promising another. By the time I noticed him, he was already looking at me. The distance between us wasn’t short, so he was able to stare at me for four or five minutes without appearing to, without even turning his head, chewing his piece of straw the whole time. When he reached a point where he had to turn his head, he stopped looking at me, walked past me, and continued down the road, and nobody would have said that he’d noticed me.
When I went back to hoeing, I realized who he was: Sabas Jáuregui, from the farm on the beach in Algorta, who’d lived alone ever since he found himself without a family. We all knew the story: a family of father, mother, and two sons, they were all very hardworking and had enough land to show it. Sabas’s brother died, and father, mother, and Sabas took on the work; not long afterward, the mother died, and the two men kept going as well as they could, preparing the meals themselves. When his father died, Sabas was already prepared for it, and he took onto his shoulders the work that used to leave four people exhausted. And he lived there, abandoned near the edge of the beach, completing all the chores every day before going to bed, when he’d no longer hear the undertow scraping the rocks, like before, when all his family members were still alive and he was able to rest a while before sleep would take him. Now he fell asleep before he even had time to lift his second foot off the floor.
I saw him on rare occasions, when I went to that beach with my family to gather coked coal and I’d find him with a scythe cutting grass for the cows, or carrying manure from the stable to the garden, or I’d simply see smoke coming from the chimney and figure he was frying something for dinner.
The following Sunday, six days after I saw him on the road, I discovered him among the couples who were dancing on the pelota court to the shrill music playing on the loudspeakers. He was wearing twill pants, a wrinkled brown jacket, and a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned (no tie, of course). He searched for me specifically, among the dancing couples, and finally spotted me and came over to my group of friends, rigid and deliberate, looking up, walking and moving naturally, pretending he wasn’t bothered by his shirt collar, which was stiff even though it wasn’t buttoned: he’d probably put too much starch on it when he ironed it.
He stopped in front of me and, without moving his lips, without appearing to speak, even though his words didn’t come out timid at all, but whole, determined, firm, said, “Would you like to dance with me?”
(Translated by Emily Davis)
First up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Mario Vargas Llosa, who you might know from such books as Conversation in the Cathedral or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, neither of which he chose to include as his “best piece of writing.” Instead he turned to a couple of his more recent books: The Way to Paradise and The Feast of the Goat.
Rather than excerpt his works, I’m just going to post his whole interview below—it’s really interesting.
I selected these fragments according to two criteria. First, that each one of them had dramatic significance within the story, and that each alludes to crucial elements of the plot. And second, that these fragments might be read and understood on their own, by someone unfamiliar with the context within which they appear in my books. Two criteria that are difficult to reconcile but that I think I’ve managed to sustain with some success.
The list of unforgettable dead to whom I return time and again, in my memory or by rereading, is long and would fill several pages. Picking a small number of names from among them I have to cite the great novelists of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac; from the classics like Cervantes, Quevado, and Góngora, to Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch, to the Homeric poems I discovered in my old age, to many writers who revealed to me miracles of technique and prose in the telling of a story: Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner. The writer I have probably reread most is Faulkner. I discovered him in my first year of university, in 1953, in Lima, and since then I have never ceased to be amazed by the complexity and subtlety that his stories attain thanks to the way he organizes the points of view, the movement of the narrator, the creation of his own literary time, and also, of course, thanks to that enveloping style of extraordinary sensoriality that makes the changes in atmosphere and landscape in which the stories illuminate, or blur, or vanish, creating expectation, uncertainty, and always keeping readers in a kind of trance. Faulkner is perhaps the writer who taught me most about the type of novelist I wanted to be and the type of novels I wanted to write.
From your position with respect to Cuba and Hugo Chávez, and later as a candidate for president of Peru, you have always defended individual freedoms. What’s your perspective on the political and social panorama since 1993, when you wrote El pez en la agua? Has there been an erosion of freedoms or have they been lost?
I think all the opinions I expressed in El pez en la agua I still maintain. I might clarify some details and add others regarding phenomena like Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia that did not exist when I wrote down those memories. When I began writing, the idea was widespread that a writer had, in addition to an artistic and intellectual responsibility, a civic responsibility and should participate in the political debate regarding the problems of the time. I learned this reading Sartre, about whom my opinion has greatly changed, but I have always shared his idea that writers should engage in expressing their opinions about politics and social problems. I don’t believe writers should exempt themselves from such participation, just like I don’t believe any other citizen should either. If we want things to improve in our society, we must be involved in political life and writers can contribute to this activity without renouncing their own vocation. In the dominion of the word, for example, political language tends to be clichéd, full of the commonplace, a disseminator of slogans and mottos more than ideas. A writer can give back to politics language that is clean, fresh, that expresses concepts, ideas and not just sensations and clichés. On the other hand, a writer can add imagination and inventiveness to a world that, owing to the advance of specialization, is becoming increasingly routine and predictable, deprived of idealism and creativity. If we want democracy to survive and not to drown in dictators or in total mediocrity, it’s indispensable for us to inject imagination and novelty into democratic life. In this way writers can provide a service to the political life of nations.
The second author featured today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Evelio Rosero, the youngest author to be included in the anthology. Rosero has a couple novels available in English translation from New Directions.
What he chose to include isn’t from either of those novels though. It’s from one of his children’s books, as he explains in the interview below.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
A little while ago I had the chance to speak before a group of schoolchildren in Cali. One of the youngest, probably to keep me from talking too much, or because I already had, came up to the stage and handed me one of my books. “Read us a story,” he said. Of course, I had no choice but to do just that. It was one of my first children’s books, published in ’92: El aprendiz de mago y otros cuentos de miedo. And the story that presented itself to me when I opened the book at random was, precisely, “Lucía, or, The Pigeons,” the piece I’ve decided to submit as a sample of my best work: a children’s story. The reasons behind this choice might seem non-literary, and they are, but not entirely. This is a story written just over twenty years ago, and the whole thing anticipates what I have tried to sketch out in my novels “for adults,” especially the two most recent ones, En el lejero and Los ejércitos. Anyone who knows either of these books will agree. What surprised me the most that afternoon was the realization that a children’s story managed to fully capture something that had surrounded and terrified me my whole life: the disappeared, the forced disappearances that have taken place in my country.
One morning we woke up to find that the pigeons had disappeared. The last to have seen them say they flew frantically, violently tracing out strange hieroglyphs in the sky, letters and words and then entire lines, like an infinite poem no one could understand because it was conceived in an unknown alphabet. It had been a chaos of feathers, an icy white drizzle.
And from that moment on we never saw another pigeon in the sky, not a single one.
Lucía and I wondered what could have happened to the pigeons, where they had gone, or who had taken them. The world is different without pigeons, without their little winged bodies crossing its towns like shards of light. We will never forget them.
Watching a pigeon fly was like flying, ourselves, like when you send a kite up in the air and it is carried far, far away and it feels as though you were the kite, up there in the clouds.
Lucía and I thought often about the pigeons, so we wouldn’t forget.
“What did pigeons sound like?”
I imagine a pigeon with Lucía’s face, her long hair like wings, flying like a smile through the sky. But I don’t tell Lucía. I only know that I have thought of Lucía as though she were a pigeon. The last one.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
I very much fell off pace with the Month of a Thousand Forests series, but by covering two authors a day, we’ll have highlighted everyone by the 30th.
The first author for today is Edgardo Cozarinsky, who was first recommended to me by Horacio Castellanos Moya when he came to Rochester. FSG and Vintage did a couple Cozarinsky books a while back, but someone needs to snap up this novel.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I looked through my most recent work, and although I am not the best judge of what I write (I don’t think anyone is) I chose “December 2008,” the fifth section of Lejos de dónde. Excerpted in this way it doesn’t have the impact that it acquires as the conclusion of the novel, but I think that it can be read almost like a short story and that the mystery of the bond that unites the characters, although unspoken, is vaguely perceptible and impregnates the situation with mystery. It contains a tone, a hidden pathos, a crushing sense of the disaster of History and of individual lives, recurrent motifs in my fiction.
When you get to a certain age, inevitably you have more dead friends than living ones. My list is long yet that doesn’t make me sad. My dead live with me and share my new feelings and my work. First of all, I want to mention Alberto Tabbia, who was my best friend and who left me his exquisite collection of books in English. He was an example of the “writer who doesn’t write” and I planned, and I still plan, to edit his notebooks. In them I found the couplet that I used as an epigraph for my novel El rufián moldavo: “To speak with the living I need / words that the dead taught me.” Also José Bianco, Silvina Ocampo, Héctor Murena, among the writers. And thinking about the crossroads that Paris was for me: Raúl Ruiz and Severo Sarduy among those of my own language, and the great Danilo Kiš among those from Eastern Europe. With my parents, the paying of debts never ends, but I am nourished by what I write.
He refilled the glasses, downing his again in a single swallow.
They were silent for a moment that seemed to stretch out, not because they were searching for words, but as if the evocation of the past, fleeting as it was, had awoken ghosts that demanded respect, imposed silence, maybe the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the East who had camped in Dresden in 1945, running from the Soviet advance, only to die, burnt to ashes by twenty-four hours of British-American bombing that served no strategic purpose, corpses carbonized among the ruins, destined for putrefaction and stench, remains that some loved-one, facing the impossibility of burial, placed inside a suitcase and carried with them on their flight to the south, in search of some corner untouched by bombs, where they could find a place in the ground; but the graves had not been consecrated, and now the specters had arisen amid the concrete and glass architecture of the twenty-first century, evading the ubiquitous neon of advertising, and had begun to slip through the shadows toward the ancient center of the city, perhaps to see how fidelity to the past, or the irrational force of patriotism, had rebuilt palaces, theaters, and churches according to their original design, rescuing from among the ruins a few stones that might have come from the Frauenkirche in order to place them among the new ones, until the baroque cathedral was returned to the city meticulously reproduced: in the same way the ancient Egyptians, when building a new temple, inserted rubble from their ruined temples into the foundations, to ensure the continuity of the divine presence, in the same way that a leftover crumb of yesterday’s bread is added to the starter for today’s loaf.
Because the dead always come back, and ghosts of victims are the most tenacious.
In that moment of silence, those ghosts were more real than the Polish woman—sixty-five-years old, poorly dyed hair, broken fingernails—and the tired Argentine at the end of a long journey: foreigners, displaced people, survivors of forgotten wars. When they spoke again, it was as if that silence had been a long night of shared secrets. They had been moved by something imperceptible they would not know how to name anyway—an invisible presence,
a gust of wind, a breath. Now they struck up a conversation that minutes before they would not have imagined.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)
First up today is Aurora Venturini, who kicks off the whole anthology, and who published her first book in 1942 and her most recent book in 2013. That’s longevity!
I think of the Golden Age playwrights and the surprising formal hybridity they managed. Lope de Vega, for example (along with many others), used the tragicomedy to convey his characters’ development. I had those authors as a point of reference for this first chapter of my novel, Las primas. I explain what the family of the protagonist, Yuna, was like: what her mother did, what her cousins were like, her sister, her aunt Nené, and the art professor, whose role in the development of the story is crucial. Yuna’s mother feels a profound detachment from her family in particular because her husband abandoned her with two very strange daughters. One is a handicapped girl, Betina, who’s in a wheelchair. The other is Yuna, the narrator, who loves to paint. In this first part I tried to describe not only this girl’s talent when she attends a fine arts school in La Plata, where she wins prizes at exhibitions, but also the astuteness of the professor. Yuna has trouble speaking, and since she can hardly read or write, she expresses herself through painting. She meets a professor who values her very highly and who tells her they’re going to show her work first in Buenos Aires and then in Europe. He tells her they’re going to travel and she jumps on the professor to kiss him and they fall over together. “No, Yuna, that’s not done. Because men are fire and women straw and the devil comes along and blows.”
Before leaving for Paris, you received a prize from Borges’s own hands, and later, when you were eighty-five, you won another award from young Argentine writers who considered you one of their own. Narratively, Paris was like an intermezzo between Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires.
I began writing here but I love Paris very much. It was the happiest time of my life, amazing to be in Paris at the height of existentialism. I entered university in 1942 and ended up with a doctorate in Philosophy and Education. Afterward, with the Revolución Libertadora in ’55, I had to leave, and in Paris I specialized in psychology. The French authorities were good enough to give me citizenship and I was able to work. Nothing like what happened to me in Argentina after the fall of Perón, where I was attacked over and over. But no one remembers that and no one talks about it. Because people who went to war don’t talk, the ones who talk are inventing, because if someone told what actually happened no one would think it was possible. But I went to Paris and that influenced me because I was with the greatest writers. I was with poets like Quasimodo, I took courses with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I was very close friends with Violette Leduc. We had such beautiful experiences, the nights we’d get together in the Latin Quarter. And now, here, the “youth” prize for Las primas opened the door to many opportunities, the novel has been adapted for the theater several times and has been translated into many languages.
My mom carried a pointer when she taught and wore a white dustcoat and she was very strict but she was a good teacher in a suburban school for not the brightest kids from middle class families on downward. The best one was the grocer’s son Ruben Fiorlandi. My mom rapped the ones that acted up on their heads and sent them to the corner wearing the colored cardboard donkey ears. The misbehavior was rarely repeated. In my mom’s opinion a little blood makes any lesson stick. The third graders called her the third grade miss but she was married to my father who left her and never performed the obligations of a pater familiae. She worked as a teacher in the mornings and came home at two in the afternoon where dinner would be waiting because our small dark housemaid Rufina did the cooking. I was sick of stew every day. A chicken coop clucked behind the house and in the yard squash sprouted miraculously and unruly golden sunflowers stretched from the earth to the heavens next to violets and stunted roses that gave that miserable heap its perfume and that’s how we ate.
I never admitted that I learned to read time when I was twenty. That confession embarrasses and surprises me. It embarrasses and surprises me for reasons that you’ll find out later and lots of questions come to mind. One I remember especially: What time is it? Honest truth I couldn’t tell time and clocks frightened me just like the sound of my sister’s wheelchair.
She was even more of an idiot than me but she could read the face of a clock even though she couldn’t read a book. We weren’t typical, never mind normal.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom . . . murmured Betina my sister wheeling her misfortune around the garden and the stone courtyards. The vroom was usually wet with the idiot’s drool. Poor Betina. Freak of nature. Poor me, another freak, and my mom weighed down by abandonment and by monsters even more so.
But everything in this awful world passes. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to dwell too much on anything or anyone.
Sometimes I think we’re a dream or a nightmare relived day after day that at any second will stop that won’t appear on the screen of the soul to torture us any more.
That was the psychologist’s diagnosis. I don’t know if that’s all it was. My sister had a crooked spine, from behind in her chair she looked like a tiny hunchback with puny legs and massive arms. The old lady who came to darn the socks said that someone had done something to my mom during her pregnancies, the worst during the one with Betina.
I asked the unibrowed mustachioed lady psychologist what a mental disorder was.
She said it was related to the soul but that I wouldn’t understand till I was older. But I supposed that the soul was something like a white sheet inside the body and that when it got stained people became idiots, Betina a lot and me a little.
I started noticing when Betina wheeled around the table with her vroom that she was dragging a little tail that stuck out through the back of the wheelchair seat and I told myself it had to be her soul coming untucked.
When I asked the psychologist this time if the soul had anything to do with being alive she said it did and even added that when it was missing people died and the soul went to heaven if it had been good and to hell if it had been bad.
Vroom . . . vroom . . . vroom her soul dragged more and had more gray stains every day and I decided that it wouldn’t be long before it fell out and Betina would be dead which didn’t matter to me because she made me sick.
When it was time to eat, I had to feed my sister and on purpose I’d mistake the orifice and I’d put the spoon in her eye, in her ear, in her nose, before finally her cakehole. Ah . . . ah . . . ah . . . moaned the filthy creature.
I would grab her hair and put her face in her food and then she’d be quiet. Why did I have to pay for my parents’ mistakes? I thought about stepping on the tail of her soul. The thing about hell stopped me.
Reading the catechism had burned the “thou shalt not kill” into me. But with every little bump today and again tomorrow, the tail grew and no one else saw. Only I did and I rejoiced.
(Translated by Steve Dolph)
As a weekend send-off, I thought I’d round off this week’s entries in the Month of a Thousand Forests with a bit from one of my favorite books of recent times — Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya.
You hopefully know this by now, but if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site before the end of September, use the code FORESTS and you’ll get it for only $15.
It seems to me that these pages reflect the absurdity and ridiculousness of desire, and also the complexity of the human psyche, never really content with what it has. I like the correspondence between the earthquake and the anxiety of the character. I also chose this chapter because I greatly enjoyed writing it.
My dead are present in the majority of my books, sometimes quite veiled, sometimes less so. My father died when I was thirteen and since then, every now and then, death rings its bells again: friends and cousins murdered in the flower of life, the beloved elderly who die old. It seems that I write not so much to conjure death but to settle scores with her, to pay her for my dead, and also to settle scores with the murderers. The influence of Faulkner is permanent, but for me it is easy to speak literarily with Onetti, for reasons of language, and because he is the Latin American writer I most admire, although he himself said once, with a wink of modesty, that one should not read his work but rather that of Faulkner. Still, recently I have not conversed much with dead writers; instead I have returned to thinkers addicted to the aphorism, like Cioran, Nietzsche, Canetti, Schopenhauer. Perhaps as I get older and I begin to descend the opposite slope I am looking for another type of conversation, more concise and profound. In practical terms, I turn to Sophocles when I am blocked: only he is able to unblock me.
Lying in the bed, the recently possessed body snoring beside me, I was taken by surprise by an idea, an idea that suddenly blinded me, the idea that hell is the mind not the flesh, I became aware of this at that moment, the idea that hell resided in my agitated mind—distraught—and not in the sweating flesh, for in no other way could I explain the fact that there I was in my bed in my apartment in the Engels Building, unable to enjoy the splendor of Fátima’s milky-white skin, a skin that in other circumstances would have delighted all my senses, but whose proximity had now plunged me into a state of such dire agitation that I would have given anything for her not to be there, for nothing to have happened between us, for everything to have been just one more of my fantasies. But no, I told myself as I tossed and turned in bed without being able to fall asleep, with anguish gnawing away at the mouth of my stomach, no, that body I had so strongly desired had only made me understand the vulnerability of pleasure, its fragile and crumbling nature, I reproached myself, unable to find a comfortable position that would allow me to fall asleep or even relax, my gaze fixed on the windows whose curtains I had not closed completely and through which midnight and its suspicious sounds entered; that body so desired by everybody had suddenly lost its charm when just one hour before she had asked me point blank if I’d rather she suck it or masturbate me, a question that didn’t make any sense considering the fact that we had been kissing and touching each other passionately for only three minutes—a few seconds more, a few seconds less—on the couch in my apartment, and what should have followed, after she already had my member in her hand and I had my middle finger inside her pussy, was to get totally undressed and lick each other all over until we consummated the act of love, instead of her posing that indecent and inappropriate question as to whether I preferred a blow job or a hand job, as if that whole preamble of confessions, caresses, and kisses that had begun in that beer joint Tustepito as evening was falling had been only a ruse to bring on the moment when she could ask me what I preferred, a hand job or a blow job, something I’d expect from a shrewd prostitute showing her price list to a horny client rather than this Spanish beauty whom, according to me, I had seduced with my charm. Who knows what expression she saw on my face, but she immediately explained in no uncertain terms that she didn’t plan on fucking me—damn it!—that she had a boyfriend whom she loved very much and who would arrive in the country the next morning, a boyfriend she would never be unfaithful to, even though at that very moment she held my member in her hand and was offering to let me choose if she would jerk me off or suck it, she repeated, instead of getting naked and giving herself to me as logic would dictate. I told her to suck it, because it wouldn’t have been a good idea to remain aroused and with my balls bursting, such a strain causes pain and makes walking difficult, even though the magical moment had already passed, that instant when the magic of possession rises resplendent had gone to the dogs the moment she asked that indecent question, more typical of a professional than a girl who’s been seduced, I thought as I contemplated her with my member in her mouth, sucking, with agitated and slightly arrhythmic movements, which made me worried I would sustain an injury, perhaps the scratch of a canine, so I suggested she calm down, take it more gently, resting my hands on her head, not concentrating too much on the pleasure she was supposedly giving me but rather attempting to figure out what difference it would make as she was reaffirming her fidelity to her boyfriend, who would arrive the following morning and whom I had just found out about, if she had given me a blow job or been penetrated, a difference that was frankly difficult for me to discern, much more so when she tried to talk without taking my member out of her mouth, saying something like “ca-cu-ca-ci,” and looking at me worriedly and without diminishing the flurry of her movements she mumbled over and over again in a guttural way “ca-cu-ca-ci,” with such concern in her eyes, until I told her that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, that she should take my member out of her mouth before talking, which she did immediately and then she clearly repeated what before I had heard only as “ca-cu-ca-ci,” which in fact was the question, “Are you happy?”
(Translated by Katherine Silver)
The first author in today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entry is Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, who has a couple books available already in English, both translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa.
What’s most interesting about his work—at least to me—is his obsession with words, grammar, precise writing. Valerie explains this a bit in his bio, then touches on it in the interview. He seems like the sort of author that a lot of professors could use in an advanced Spanish class . . .
And remember, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Of course, after his incursion into the world of fiction writing, [Ferlosio] rejected “the grotesque imposture of the literati,” and dedicated the years that followed to the study of grammar. Seized by this passion, Sánchez Ferlosio would spend those years in a “graphomaniacal furor” in absolute silence in terms of publishing. As he once said, “I don’t write with the immediate need to publish. I always say that I know how to knit, but I don’t know how to make a sweater.”
For reasons of mental health (grammar is tremendously obsessive), he returned to the publishing world (that doesn’t publish) in 1974 with Las semanas del jardín (a title inspired by the novel that Cervantes never managed to write). The years that followed, he dedicated to his work as an essayist and in 1986 he returned to writing fiction with El testimonio de Yarfoz.
The largest part of his most recent work has centered around essays with titles like Vendrán más años malos y nos harán más ciegos, a collection of reflections and aphorisms that won him Premio Nacional de Ensayo and Premio Ciudad de Barcelona. Like a dyed-in-the-wool bellicose intellectual, he has freely proclaimed a total lack of influence from contemporary literature, similarly his complete repudiation of television, sports, and publicity. His darts have struck such figures as Ortega y Gasset, Julián Marías, Karl Popper, and García Lorca.
His agent, Carmen Balcells, once said of him that he has written two or three hundred times as many pages as he has published. Though the number is, perhaps, exaggerated, there is no doubt that Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio is an author as irrepressible as he is indispensable. With your permission . . .
Critics have said that you are “the twentieth century author with the greatest lexical richness and that you use the language with the greatest precision and meticulousness. That the breadth of your narrative register does not cease to amaze, from fantasy to the objectivity of El Jarama.” All told, this precision has an impressionistic poetic and a symbolic strength. The fantastical world of prince Nébride comes to seem even more real than reality itself. In the beginning was the word. Could Yarfoz and prince Nébride be a sort of fantastical Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Prince Nébride seems to be a character of uncertain destiny.
The greatest lexical richness is false because what I have are prohibitions—self-prohibitions—and not a very broad vocabulary. For example, I can’t say “efectuar.” I never use the verb efectuar or the verb realizar. I always say “hacer” and I was greatly annoyed when I discovered that the verb efectuar was already in use in the sixteenth century. I am precise and meticulous in terms of description, but it’s not richness of vocabulary. Sometimes I have a predilection for antiquated words—some—very few, but that’s another story.
I don’t now how to apply personality and fate to these characters, but they aren’t characters of personality. They are characters of fate because they are part of a plot; here, for example, they are going into exile. They have personalities like everyone, but the manifestation of their personalities is not part of the plot. They have almost no personality, but they do have fate; things happen to them, they do things. So the previous comparison of Yarfoz and prince Nébride, because they are on horseback, is absolutely ridiculous, in the first place because Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are definitely characters of personality and all of Quixote is the manifestation of their personalities. Besides, mounts—the donkey and the horse—are subject to sumptuary norms of the time in which Quixote was written, perhaps they were in decline, but up until then the mount you rode was symbolic of your social status. It was prohibited for a peasant like Sancho Panza to ride a horse. Maybe already in the seventeenth century some peasants did because there were so many bandits who rode horses around the end of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth, but before then horses were status symbols, and the “nobleman” Alonso Quijano the Good had to ride a horse, as the word caballero (horseman) indicates. This is emphasized by, although I do not know until when, the fact that the mule was the mount of the clergy. The clerics rode mules, the caballeros rode horses, and peasants rode donkeys.
Apart from the escorts provided by the king, our expedition was made up of ten horses: Nébride rode one, his wife Táiz another, on another rode Sorfos, and on a horse he had just been given by Mirigalla, rode Sebsidio; Fosco, the carpenter, and Anarino, his wife, rode their own horses, each carrying one of their children; on another rode Chano, Táiz’s lady-in-waiting, on another Quiarces, the Atánida of Ebna, who had come along as the head of the household; on another was Nerigreo, the agronomist, and, finally, on the last horse, rode Vandren and myself; then came eight cargo mules and a mule driver, lent us by Mirigalla, who would return with the mule train. Only Fosco’s children and Vandren were without their own mount, and the horse the king had gifted Sebsidio was far and away the best.
XXIX. The “Path of the Iscobascos” is described in the Grágidos as a passageway carved out of living rock, but we would never have been able to imagine the monumental construction we would encounter that morning. We had only traveled a distance of eight hundred horses—not along the path leading to the cliffs, but on a path running perpendicular to that one, heading west, through the lush coolness of cedars and yews—when turning to the south we saw the path start gradually to drop underground, as if burrowing into the rock. We descended to a point where the walls of rock flanking the path closed in a vault over our heads, forming an underground tunnel. My sense of direction led me to believe that the mouth of the tunnel was perpendicular to the line of cliffs such that, if it continued in a straight line, inevitably there would be a light at the other end. But this was not the case; instead it continued to drop, maintaining the same angle, through the heart of the living rock, banking slowly to the right. It got so dark that our guide lit a torch, by which light I saw the great craftsmanship of the stone carvers, no hollows or protuberances, and I could see a channel, about a foot wide and a foot deep along the right hand wall, coursing with clear, fast-moving water. Soon, however, a light appeared and the tunnel opened into a room with a circumference of at least two-hundred-and-fifty horses, positioned parallel to the vertical face of the precipice that we had encountered days before. The tunnel was the entryway to a ramp cut into the stone wall of the Meseged, forming a sort of lateral groove, so that not only the floor was stone, but the right-hand wall and the ceiling were stone as well; on the left, it was open to the air, but a thick stone parapet came up to a safe height. It was a kind of overlook cut into the wall but always descending, almost rectilinear, with only a few protrusions and recessions in the hard stone wall. The channel of water still coursed rapidly to our right. Soon we saw that at a distance of approximately one-hundred-and-fifty horses the ramp seemed to dead-end against a wall, on a landing that was either wider than the path, or cut deeper into the rock; but when we came up to the wall, we saw that at the landing another tunnel opened into the rock; this second tunnel also curved, but not as sharply as the first one, delving into the rock, and always descending, inscribing first three quarters of a helicoid to a point where, turning back on itself, it rotated a final quarter of a circle, arriving parallel to the cliff face once again, giving way to another ramp, identical to the first, but the inverse of it because now the stone was on our left and the emptiness on our right. Seeing this, we understood, in essential terms, what the so-called “Path of Iscobascos” was: if we had been able to look down at it from the plain, we would have seen a succession of zigzagging ramps cut into the stone, mysteriously connected at the ends by tunnels that penetrated the heart of the rock, always descending, inverting and dropping to the next ramp, emerging parallel to the cliff face thanks to the doubling back or inverse curvature of the last quarter of a circle. In the end, the totality was not structurally different from a great spiral staircase, but one that had been pressed flat, except at its extremes, against a single plane. The guide told us that the landings at the ends of the ramps, along with the square recesses that appeared here and there, greater in number all the time approaching the center, were pullouts for carts that crossed paths while descending and ascending, for resting mules, fixing malfunctions, or any other eventuality. Before long we saw water tanks, troughs, and even small gardens, jutting out over the luminous abyss. In places where the rock seemed unstable, the parapet extended in columns to the bridge that formed the ceiling, all of it carved out of living rock, not a single fabricated feature. Our admiration for that prodigious construction increased at each new ramp: I even thought I saw the melancholy dissipate in Nébride’s eyes, replaced by a glow of joy for the past and excitement for great public works.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)
Up next in our ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. is Esther Tusquets, author of Stranded, The Same Sea as Every Summer, and Love Is a Solitary Game, to name a few of her titles that are available in English translation.
Below you’ll find an excerpt from the interview with her, and a bit from her story, “Summer Orchestra.”
It’s also worth noting that Esther Tusquets’s brother and sister-in-law founded Tusquets Editores, and she used to run the publishing house Lumen. These are some of the most important Spanish publishing houses of the past century, and being a publishing nerd, I think it’s really cool that we were able to include her here.
As with all the other posts in this series, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Social criticism lies behind many of the plot lines in your stories and novels. But you also often shift between registers and styles, and your texts range from the most experimental to autobiographical stories that display a great sense of humor. What comes first the style or the plot?
I think social criticism does lie behind my novels. It is the fundamental theme in “Summer Orchestra.” I have never considered myself a leftwing radical, but I remember always feeling uncomfortable living in such an obviously unjust system.
As far as changes in style and theme with my writing, I don’t think they are very obvious. I feel, on the contrary, like I am always writing the same novel.
I don’t think I change much between register, style, thematic. For good or ill, I consider myself a monothematic and reiterative writer. Someone once said that, yes there are writers that always write the same novel, Esther Tusquets was always writing the same page. The only notable change is the tendency to greater simplicity.
The ludic element—an important element that has nothing to do with jest or making jokes—is a personal choice in life and in literature. To me it seems indispensable.
Summer was already well advanced—more than halfway through August—when it was decided to begin renovating the smaller dining room of the hotel and move the children, together with their governesses and their nursemaids and their mademoiselles, into the grown-ups’ dining room. Throughout the whole of July and the first two weeks of August the children had formed a wild, unruly and increasingly uncontrollable gang that invaded the beaches, raced through the village on bikes with their bells ringing madly, prowled with restless curiosity around the stalls at the fair, or slipped—suddenly surreptitious, silent, almost invisible—into secret places amongst the reeds. Year after year they built the huts that housed their rarest treasures and where they initiated each other into marvelous, secret, and endlessly renewed transgressions (smoking their first cigarettes, often communal, crumpled and slightly damp; getting enmeshed in poker games played with a ruthlessness that would have astonished the grown-ups—games so intense and hard-fought that the participants often preferred to play on rather than go down to the beach—and venturing into other stranger and more ambiguous games, which Sara associated obscurely with the world of grown-ups and the forbidden, and to which, during that summer, she had reacted with both fascination and shame, eager to be a spectator but very reluctant to take part. She—possibly alone amongst all the girls—had been astute or cautious enough when playing forfeits and lucky enough at cards to get through those days without once having to let anyone kiss her on the mouth or touch her breasts or take her knickers down), transgressions which were doubly intoxicating because they were the culmination of that parenthesis of temporary freedom provided by the summer and would be unthinkable once they were all back in the winter environment of schools and city apartments.
But within a matter of two or three days the summer community had broken up and with it the band of children, some being transported inland to spend what was left of their holidays in the mountains or in the country, most of them going home to prepare for the September resits. And Sara had stayed on as the one female straggler amongst the decimated gang of boys (Mama and Mademoiselle had promised consolingly that, at the end of August, her four or five best friends would be allowed to come up for her birthday) but the atmosphere had changed, it had grown suddenly tense and unpleasant, the general mood of irritability and discontent aggravated perhaps by the frequent rain and the shared feeling that all that remained now of summer were a few unseasonable, grubby remnants. One thing was certain, the boys’ pastimes has grown rougher and Sara had simply had enough of them, of their fights, their games, their practical jokes, their rude words and their crude humour, had had enough of them spying on her through the window when she was changing her clothes, of them upending her boat, of having three or four of them corner her amongst the reeds. That was why she was so pleased about the change of dining room: there, at least during mealtimes, the boys would be forced to behave like civilized beings. And they must have had the same idea, for they protested and grumbled long and loud, complaining that, now there were so few of them and the rain deprived them not only of many morning at the beach but also of almost every afternoon previously spent among the reeds, it really was the end to be expected now to sit up straight at table without fidgeting, barely saying a word, eating everything that was put in front of them, being required to peel oranges with a knife and fork and, to crown it all, wear a jacket and tie to go into supper.
But Sara was radiant and so excited on the first night that she changed her dress three times before going down—opting in the end for a high-necked, full-skirted organdie dress that left her arms bare and which her mother did not much approve of, saying that it made her look older than her years and was inappropriate for a girl who had not yet turned twelve—and then caught up her long, straight, fair hair with a silk ribbon. What most excited Sara that first night was the prospect of getting a good look at the adult world, until then only glimpsed or guessed at, since during the long winters the children’s lives were confined to school, walks with Mademoiselle, and the playroom. There was hardly any contact between children and parents during the summer either—not this year nor in any previous year. (Sara had overheard Mademoiselle making a comment to one of the chambermaids about the delights and charms of the family holiday, at which they had both laughed, only to fall silent the moment they realized she was listening, and the whole episode had filled Sara with a terrible rage.) For the fact was that while the grown-ups slept on, the children would get up, have breakfast, do their homework or play table tennis and be coming back from the beach just as their parents would be finishing breakfast and lazily preparing themselves for a swim; and when the grow-ups were going into the big dining room for lunch, the children would already be off somewhere, pedaling down the road on their bikes or queuing at the rifle range at the fair. It was only occasionally, when Sara—quite deliberately—walked past the door of one of the lounges or the library, that she would catch sight of her mother sitting, blonde and evanescent, amongst the curling cigarette smoke. She would feel touched and proud to see her here, so delicate and fragile, so elegant and beautiful, like a fairy or a princess hovering ethereally above the real world (the most magical of fairies, the most regal of princesses, Sara had thought as a child, and in a way still thought), and for a moment her mother would stop playing cards or chatting to her friends to wave a greeting, call her over to give her a kiss, or pick out a liqueur chocolate from the box someone had just given her. At other times her father would come over to the children’s table and ask Mademoiselle if they were behaving themselves, if they did their homework every day, if they were enjoying the summer. And, of course, they did coincide at church on Sundays because there was only one mass held in the village and the grown-ups had to get up early—relatively speaking—but even then they would arrive late and sit in the pews at the back, near the door. Although they did wait for the children on the way out to give them a kiss and some money to spend on an ice-cream or at the rifle range.
(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
I’m going to start off today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entries with Carlos Fuentes—one of the greatest writers of all time.
When I was at Dalkey Archive, we reprinted a few of his novels, including Where the Air Is Clear and Terra Nostra, which is excerpted below. I don’t love all of Fuentes’s books, but those two are damn near perfect. And complicated as shit. Terra Nostra is the opposite of a “beach book.” And it is all-consuming and amazing.
I’m using these bits from his ATFIOA interview mostly because I like what he says about writing about your home country (or not) and all the stuff he did for the younger generation of writers.
Again, order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn now from the Open Letter site with the code FORESTS, and you’ll get it for only $15.
Your life has brought you to live in many different countries and have to communicate in many different languages. How has that affected you as a writer?
I was very privileged in having that kind of childhood, living in Mexico and then in Chile and Argentina—so it was very broad. But I was also anchored in a very nationalist period of Mexican writing, when literature was considered national, and writers had to be national. I remember when Alfonso Reyes, our great polygraphist, was attacked by these nationalistic minions saying “you talk about Greece, why don’t you talk about Mexico?” And it demonstrated that he also talked about Mexico, but that they hadn’t read him. Now that has evaporated, it is no longer consequential. The younger generation of Mexican writers can write about Germany or Russia or whatever they feel with no obligation to the Mexican nation. But let’s go beyond that, I think what you have are writers, you have Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, you have Juan Goytisolo or Philip Roth, who happen to write in this or that language or have this or that nationality but who are no longer simply a part of a nationalistic canon. Thankfully, because it was very limiting and noxious I think. So I take pride in myself that, because of my upbringing, I was outside of that kind of nationalistic feeling. I got battered for it when I began writing, they said “Oh, he doesn’t write about Mexico, he writes about witches and silly things” and then I wrote a very Mexican novel, the La región más transparente, and they said “Oh he only writes about Mexico because he doesn’t know about anything else.” What you learn with life is that you don’t bother about what people say, you write for yourself and for your grandmothers wherever they are and don’t worry a bit about the public’s criticism. I feel extremely independent in that sense and very linked to friends of mine who are also writers and who are writers beyond their nationality and often their politics sometimes. I still admire Borges as a writer, for example.
You have been very generous to the younger generations, often providing means and refuge from when you were living in Paris through today.
Literature doesn’t belong to anyone. We belong to a tradition. I think there’s a very straight relationship between creation and tradition. You create in order to prolong the tradition and the tradition gives you the tools for the new creation. So that always puts you in a line with previous authors and coming authors. I think it may be egotistical in helping so many young authors because without them where would I be? I know so many figures who, because of their isolation, have disappeared and I really have a great admiration for many young writers and give them a hand if I can. In Paris in 1960 there were only four Mexican authors published, Mariano Azuela, Los de abajo, Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la solidad, Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo and myself. I went to the Paris bookfair two years ago, where Mexico was the guest of honor, and there were 42 Mexican authors published in France, and that doesn’t include authors from the rest of Latin America. There are some 500 interesting writers in Latin America now, which is extraordinary. So what happened? First, we won independence from Spain so we had to cut everything that seemed Spanish. We had to imitate Europe and the United States, so we had a lot of realism, a lot of naturalism, a lot of Mexican nanas floating around. Then many events happened; there was Borges, I think Borges was very, very important in saying you could write whatever you want. Anything that comes into your head, literature is open. Many people don’t realize that he is a descendent of Machado de Assis. And then there was Carpentier and Lezama Lima and Onetti, who was very important, and then the younger writers Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and myself. So the whole spectrum opened and each generation provided ten or twelve new writers. Besides, we felt we had the obligation to say what had not been said. Novels were prohibited by the Spanish crown during the time of the colonies, no novels were written. Then we had this imitative literature during the nineteenth century. So we had a lot of things to say that had not been said. We said it, so now the younger generation doesn’t have that obligation and they write about what is happening today. You cannot classify them, you cannot say this is the subject matter, this is what they are representing. They are representing the variety of contemporary Latin American culture. Pablo Neruda told me that we all have an obligation to our peoples, we go around with the Mexican or the Chilean people on our backs and we must write for them because they have no other voice. Today that isn’t true anymore. There is press, there is congress, there are political parties, there are unions, so now if you speak publicly it is because you want to, and not because you are obliged to do it. And you respect those people who don’t speak in public. So it is a much more modern and creative setup where you are not constrained by dogma or by allegiances that are alien to literature.
They left Spalato before the anticipated time. Three times Ludovico had returned alone to the beach; each time he found there, unerased, the gypsy’s footprints. They traveled to Venice, a city where stone and water retain no trace of footsteps. In that place of mirages there is room for no phantom but time, and its traces are imperceptible; the lagoon would disappear without stone to reflect it and the stone without water in which to be reflected. Against this enchantment there is little the transitory bodies of men—solid or spectral, it is the same—can do. All Venice is a phantom: it issues no entry permits to other phantoms. There no one would recognize them as such, and so they would cease to be. No phantom exposes itself to such risk.
They found lodging in the ample solitudes of the island of La Giudecca; Ludovico felt reassured, being near the Hebraic traditions he had studied so thoroughly in Toledo, even though not sharing all their beliefs. The coins Celestina had sent by hand of the monk Simón had been exhausted in the last voyage; Ludovico inquired in the neighborhoods of the ancient Jewry where many refugees from Spain and Portugal had found asylum, as he now did, whether anyone had need of a translator; laughing, everyone recommended he cross the broad Vigano canal, disembark at San Basilio, walk along the estuaries of the shipwrights and sugar merchants, continue past the workshops of the waxworkers, cross the Ponte Foscarini, and ask for the house of a certain Maestro Valerio Camillo, between the River of San Barnaba and the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, for it was widely known that no one in Venice had accumulated a greater number of ancient manuscripts than the said Dominie, whose windows even were blocked with parchments; at times papers fell into the street, where children made little boats of them and floated them in the canals, and great was the uproar when the meager, stuttering Maestro ran out to rescue the priceless documents, shouting at the top of his voice whether it were the destiny of Quintilian and Pliny the Elder to be soaked in canals and serve as a diversion for brainless little brats.
Ludovico found the described house without difficulty, but its doors and windows prevented the passage of either light or human; the residence of Donno Valerio Camillo was a paper fortress, mountains, walls, pillars and piles of exposed documents, folio piled upon folio, yellowed, teetering, held upright thanks only to the counterpressure of other stacks of paper.
Ludovico circled the building, looking for the house’s garden. And, in fact, beside a small sotto portico facing the vast Campo Santa Margherita, extended a narrow iron railing worked in a series of three recurring heads: wolf, lion, and dog; fragrant vines trailed from the walls, and in the dark little garden stood an extremely thin man, the meagerness of his body disguised by the ample folds of a long, draped tunic, but the angularity of his face emphasized by a black hood—similar to those worn by executioners—that hid his head and ears, revealing only an eagle-like profile; he was occupied in training several ferocious mastiffs; he held a long stick on which were impaled pieces of raw meat; he teased the dogs, dangling it above their heads; the barking dogs leaped to snatch the prize, but at every leap the man placed his arm between the raw meat and the beasts’ fangs, miraculously barely escaping being wounded; each time, with amazing swiftness, the frail, hooded Donno pulled back the arm grazed by the dogs, and stuttered: “Very well, very well, Biondino, Preziosa, very well, Pocogarbato, my flesh is the more savory, you know how I trust you, do not fail me, for at the hour of my death I shall be in no condition to discipline you.”
Then he threw another piece of meat to the mastiffs and watched with delight as they devoured it, fighting among themselves to seize the best portions. When he saw Ludovico standing in the entrance to the garden, he rudely demanded whether he had so little interest in his life that he had to pry into the lives of others. Ludovico asked his pardon and explained that the motive for his visit was not gratuitous curiosity but the need for employment. He showed him a letter signed by the ancient of the Synagogue of the Passing, and after reading it Donno Valerio Camillo said: “Very well, very well, Monsignore Ludovicus. Although it would take many lifetimes to classify and translate the papers I have accumulated throughout my lifetime, we can do some small part, we can begin. Consider yourself employed—with two conditions. The first is that you never laugh at my stuttering. I shall explain the reason this once: my capacity for reading is infinitely superior to my capacity for speaking; I employ so much time reading that at times I completely forget how to speak; in any case, I read so rapidly that in compensation I trip and stumble as I speak. My thoughts are swifter than my words.”
“And the second condition?”
The Maestro threw another scrap of meat to the mastiffs. “That if I die during the period of your service, you must be responsible to see that they not bury my body in holy ground, or throw it into the waters of this pestilent city, but instead lay my naked body here in my garden and loose the dogs to devour me. I have trained them to do this. They will be my tomb. There is none better or more honorable: matter to matter. I but follow the wise counsel of Cicero. If in spite of everything I am someday resurrected in my former body, it will not have been without first giving every digestive opportunity to the divine matter of the world.”
(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
The second author up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Eduardo Mendoza. Rather than quote from his interview, I’m just running part of the bio that Valerie Miles wrote for him along with a bit from The Truth about the Savolta Case.
As with all the other posts in this series, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Mendoza has acknowledged that the cult of literature within his family influenced him in his vocation as a writer. He was going to call his first novel Los soldados de Cataluña, a title that would have had trouble eluding the Francoist censor, so he decided to call it La verdad sobre el caso Savolta, a title that was more in keeping with the central storyline, the mysterious atmosphere where the plot unfolds, and better, in any case, at concealing the novel’s political undertone.
Published in 1975, a short time before Franco’s death, La verdad sobre el caso de Savolta, was a breath of fresh air in the dubious Spanish fiction of the time; in it, Mendoza presents an innovative structure, open to various narrative discourses, functioning like parts of a puzzle that, all together, end up resembling Barcelona at the beginning of the twentieth century, a city that found itself in the middle of tension and the struggles of unions and revolutionaries.
In his next novel, El misterio de la cripta embrujada (1979), he started down another literary path, the detective saga, through which he sought, via an exceedingly peculiar character (a nameless detective locked in an insane asylum), to parody the noir novel and the gothic genre and, at the same time, to offer his vision of Barcelona at that moment. In 1982, this first title was followed by El laberinto de las aceitunas; and the trilogy culminated in 2001, with La aventura del tocador de señoras. [. . .]
Humor, one of the secret weapons of Mendoza’s oeuvre, almost a genre all its own, also characterized other essential titles of his like La isla inaudita (1989), which tells of a Catalan executive’s trip to Venice in search of love; Sin noticias de Gurb (1990), which presents the delirious and personal diary of an extraterrestrial who arrives in a city that is preparing to receive the Olympic torch; or El año del diluvio, in 1992. In 2006 he published Mauricio o las elecciones primarias, a novel whose plot unfolds in the years leading up to the Transition, also set in Barcelona, and in 2008 El asombroso viaje de Pomponio Flato, a satire that explores the confines of the Roman Empire. The writer’s most recent novel, El enredo de la bolsa y la vida (2012), where he revives his famous nameless detective, has already garnered enormous popular success.
“Inspector Vázquez, you must hear me out. Just listen to what I have to tell you and you won’t be sorry. A crime is always a crime.”
Inspector Vázquez threw the papers he was reading down on the desk and focused a fulminating stare on his ragged confidant, who was rubbing his hands together and balancing first on one foot, then on the other in a desperate attempt to be noticed.
“Who the hell let this bird into my office?” bellowed the inspector, addressing the peeling paint on his ceiling.
“There was no one here, so I took the liberty . . . ,” explained his confidant, advancing toward the desk covered with newspapers and photographs.
“I swear by Christ’s blood, by the eternal salvation of my . . . !” Vázquez started to say, but he stopped when he realized he was using the same religious terminology as his annoying visitor. “Why can’t you leave me in peace? Get out!”
“Inspector, I’ve been trying to speak with you for five days now.”
There were only two days left of the seven the conspirators allotted Nemesio, and he hadn’t found a single clue related to Pajarito de Soto’s death. The Savolta murder had cut him off, and the police were concentrating on solving that crime to the exclusion of all others. Also, his efforts to find the conspirators and warn them of the fact that Inspector Vázquez was looking for them in connection with the Savolta affair had been met by an absolute rejection from every one of the sources he’d approached during those five unlucky days.
“Five days?” said the inspector. “They’ve seemed like five years to me! Let me give you some advice, buddy. Get out and stay out. The next time I see you snooping around here, I’ll have you locked up. You’ve been warned. Now get out of my sight!”
Nemesio walked out of the office and down to the ground floor filled with dire foreboding. But he was soon distracted by an unexpected incident. As he reached the bottom stair, Nemesio detected unusual movement: there were shouts, and policemen were running in every direction. Something’s going on. I’d better get out of here now. He was trying to do just that, when a uniformed policeman grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the far corner of the room.
“Out of the way.”
“What’s going on?”
“They’re bringing in some dangerous prisoners.”
Nemesio waited, holding his breath. From his corner, he could see the entrance, and, parked in front of it, a paddy wagon. A double file of armed police formed a path from the wagon to the building. They brought the prisoners out of the wagon. Nemesio tried to run, but the policeman still held him by the arm. The silence was only broken by the clinking of chains. The four prisoners entered. The youngest was weeping; Julián had lost his beret,
had a black eye and bloodstains on his sheepskin jacket, held a manacled hand against his ribs, and his legs gave way as he walked; the man with the scar looked serene, although he had deep circles under his eyes. Nemesio thought he’d die.
“What did they do?” he whispered in the ear of the policeman guarding him.
“It looks like they’re the ones who killed Savolta.”
“But Savolta died at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
He didn’t dare say that he’d been with the prisoners at that precise moment in the photographer’s studio, that Julián had brought him there by force. He was afraid of being implicated in the matter, so he obeyed and kept silent. Uselessly, however, because the man with the scar had seen him. He nudged Julián with his elbow, and when Julián caught sight of Nemesio, he shrieked, in a voice that seemed to boil out of his guts, “You finally sold us out, you son of a bitch!”
One of the guards hit him with the butt of his rifle, and Julián fell to the floor.
“Take them away!” ordered an individual dressed like a poor man.
The sad procession passed by Nemesio. Two agents were dragging Julián by his armpits, blood pouring out of him. The man with the scar stopped opposite Nemesio and gave him a freezing scornful smile.
“We should have killed you, Nemesio. But I never thought you’d do this.”
He was pushed forward. It took Nemesio a few seconds to regain his composure. He tore himself violently away from the policeman holding his arm and ran back up the stairs. In the hall, he ran into Inspector Vázquez.
“Inspector, it wasn’t those men! I swear. They didn’t kill Savolta.”
The inspector looked at him as if he were seeing a cockroach walking over his bed.
“But . . . you’re still here?” he said, turning bright red.
“Inspector, this time you’ll have to listen to me whether you want to or not. Those men didn’t do it, those men . . .”
“Get him out of here!” shouted the inspector, pushing Nemesio aside and striding forward.
“Inspector!” implored Nemesio, while two powerful agents dragged him bodily toward the door. “Inspector! I was with them, I was with them when Savolta was killed. Inspector!!”
(Translated by Alfred Mac Adam)
I’m going to have to double up on these for a while in order to catch up and make sure we cover everyone before the end of September, so expect a lot of “Forests” over the next week or so.
Rafael Chirbes is up first today. I’ve been interested in his works for a while, and just today gave his newest book En la orilla to a student to do a reader’s report for me. In looking back through my email though to see if I had a PDF of Crematorio anywhere, I found an email about the “Big ABC Survey” of the best Spanish novels of the twenty-first century, which might really interest all of you. Here’s the bulk of the email:
The “Big ABC survey” that was carried out among a hundred writers, editors, literary agents and cultural figures has chosen The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa as the best Spanish language novel of the twenty first century.
In second place appears Crematorium by Rafael Chirbes. In ABC’s words, “In a true tête-à-tête with the winner, the work of Rafael Chirbes stands out enormously. Using a realist point of view it has understood how to depict the profound (economic, moral, almost total) crisis of Spanish society in a painful and accurate way”.
In third place appears Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías followed by Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Infatuations by Javier Marías, The Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol, Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas, Lizard Tails by Juan Marsé and The Day Tomorrow by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón.
Of the nine authors listed there (Marías appearing twice), five of them are included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. In fact, this collection contains excerpts from both of the top two books: Feast of the Goat and Crematorium.
More reasons that you should get a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. And through the end of the month, if you use FORESTS when you check out, you’ll get it for $15.
There are a lot of deceased authors I love crowding my bookshelves at home. I talk to them; I listen to them. From Aub and Galdós, to Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius and Virgil, Faulkner, Döblin, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz, and on and on. I don’t leave the house much, so I reread them either at random or impelled by some intuition that tells me that this one and no other is the dead author I should hear at a particular time. For the most part, I’m not mistaken. I also dream about the dead people I knew when they were alive; I’ve touched them, even, and now they’re nowhere, and knowing that they’re not here and that I can’t talk to them or hear their voices distresses me when I go to bed. Some nights they take control of the room: their absence leaves me breathless and I have to turn on the light so I don’t suffocate. With the light on, it’s easier to send them back to the peaceful nothingness they’re struggling to escape from.
You said once that literature is like a lover. Either you go all the way or they leave you. You have to know the value of hitting bottom.
I think texts betray any sort of imposture on the part of their authors; they’re an extremely sensitive detector. They contain what the author wants to say, but also—and almost more importantly—what’s up his sleeve. And yes, I have the impression that writing saves me—I know, I know it’s sort of a romantic idea—don’t ask me from what, even if it’s from myself, it helps me stay afloat. It puts my doubts, my anxieties, at a certain distance and, more importantly, in the service of something.
Do you think there’s an ethical place for literature or is it merely an aesthetic exercise?
I don’t believe in an aesthetic without ethics, there’s no such thing: all aesthetics suggest a particular outlook on the world, and no outlook is innocent.
You have to go up, even if it’s no more than a few feet, a few yards; after all the sky starts a few feet above your head, but you must experience height, look at things from above, even if it’s only a few yards, and then you will be able to chart a course; but the high and mighty Gothic tower refused to help me take that flight. Hermetic, closed, completely sealed off. Deaf, mute, blind stone. Unfeeling stone hewn from God knows what quarry. Showing off the fact that, in its dense structure, there wasn’t a single weakness, not a single hole to let the water of feeling seep through. Unmentionable was the god who said let there be, fiat, and there was light, who said, open, and the earth broke in two, and a hole opened up to be filled with the blue waters of the swimming pools, the multi-story abyss rose straight up and the air-conditioning units started humming on its walls; everything in the cells of the rising honeycomb switched on, the ovens in the kitchens, and the ceramic stovetops, and every cell was filled with life, those cavities were filled with the shouts of children running down the stairs of their houses with inner tubes and plastic flippers and scuba goggles: the joy of a seaside vacation. All the blue of the Mediterranean, all the calm of the Mediterranean. My God, what would the bus drivers in the big European cities do if there were no Mediterranean, the clerks, the secretaries, the welders, the butchers, what would all those poor people do if on the horizon of their sad working lives there were no Mediterranean. And what about the millionaires who like to float around on rafts, and swim without getting their clothes wet. At this point I know all of this so well it bores me. Now everything can turn stupidly transparent (despite what Guillén thinks). Through the aquarium glass the children watch how whales mate and how sharks sharpen their teeth before going for their morning swim, the world squeezed into a fish tank where everything is visible, like in the houses on those TV shows, Big Brother, The Island of who knows what, you can see everything, the enormous fish tank of the world, the sharks swimming over the heads of the aquarium visitors, showing their teeth to the kids who aren’t afraid of anything anymore. There’s something childish about that zeal for transparency, as if societies, like homes—public life is, after all, a simulacrum of private life—didn’t need to have their dark zones, the places where potential energy accumulates. We, ourselves, our own bodies, have glass walls. All it takes is the push of a button to show our insides functioning on a screen.
(Translated by Emily Davis)
Today’s entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Juan Marsé, who has a few book available in English translation: Golden Girl, Lizard Tails, and Shanghai Nights.
In this excerpt he talks a bit about this background and his time in Paris, which led to Últimas tardes con Teresa.
__All this month, if you order_ A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
Like the character of the Pijoaparte, you came from outside the powerful and influential bourgeoisie and literary groups and you made it on your own. Was that hard?
It was sudden and almost improvised in the sense that, though I liked reading a lot, I never studied at a university and barely even in secondary school. When I was thirteen years old my mother told me that I had to drop out of school and start working. This wasn’t a problem and didn’t upset me at all—I wanted to get out of that school. They made us recite the rosary every day; it was a terrifying thing. It was an awful, old-fashioned school, and I was excited to do something that would get me out of there. So, when I decided to submit my first draft to an editor, I knew no one in the literary world, I had no idea what a literary life could be like. And then I met this group of people who were very refined, but who, on the other hand, with respect to social and political ideas of the nation, were openly leftist. I realized right away that these people were “señoritos” from the country’s upper class—Goytisolo, Carlos Barral, Castellet—and for them, I was probably the first working-class person they knew. They advised me right away to get out of the country, and I’d been wanting to travel, so I published my first novel and I went to Paris. I lived with abandon. They thought while I was in Paris I would write, but I wrote absolutely nothing. I bought books—or sometimes stole them because I had no money at first—and went to the cinema to see movies that weren’t shown here, and listened to music and went to the theatre . . . in other words, I devoted myself to living. A love affair now and then . . . in the end—freedom. And I joined the Party and became close friends with Jorge Semprún, who taught us classes on international politics. And it was there I conceived of Últimas tardes con Teresa. I gave a few talks in Spanish to some young French students, they were upper class, very refined, and one of them was named Teresa. Nothing at all to do with the character, but that’s where the name came from. Then I quit my job at the Pasteur Institute with Jacques Monod, a famous researcher who won the Nobel Prize. My first novel was translated and published by Gallimard, the famous publisher who translated Faulkner and Dos Passos, Maurice-Edgar Coindreau. I worked in film; I started translating screenplays from French into Spanish for co-productions in France and Spain. But Últimas tardes was already in my head and I needed to come back. And taking advantage of a film that was being shot here and in Paris, I came with the crew and I stayed.
To finish the story, when I got back to Barcelona everyone asked: “So, how was your experience in Paris?” I told Carlos Barral, “I didn’t bring anything.” That is to say, yes, I brought an idea that I’m going to start working on right away, but it doesn’t take place in Paris, it takes place here. More than anything I remember a conversation with old man Lara, who said to me in his Andalusian accent: “How is it possible that you came back from Paris without a novel? Those French women will do anything. Not one story about a French woman? Those things sell like pastries.” Everyone was a little frustrated with me about that. And I started to work on Últimas tardes con Teresa.
Years later, looking back on that passionate summer, both of them would recall not only the suggestive light that fell on every event, its variety of golden reflections and false promises, its illusions of a free future, but also the fact that, in the middle of their mutual attraction, even in the heat of their summer kisses, there were shadows where the cold of winter was already nesting, the fog that would eclipse the mirage.
—Are you honest with me, Manolo? Sometimes I’m scared . . .
—Scared of what?
—I don’t know. Is this real, what’s happening to us?
The internal erosion of the myth took place without weakening Teresa’s growing love for the boy from the south. His true character was revealed to her precisely (and it took only three nights) when she realized she hadn’t been seduced by an idea, but by a man. First came a feeling of disorientation, a need to reevaluate certain notions about the strange world in which we live, when she made some unexpected connections, the scandalous way illusion wrapped itself around reality.
On a Sunday afternoon of sun and sudden showers, it was the end of August, Teresa insisted they go into a popular dance club in Guinardó. They had taken refuge from the rain in a bar across the street from Salón Ritmo, where a crowd of boys and girls, who arrived running through the rain, were waiting to go in. Manolo mentioned that years ago that place had been his favorite dance club. “Why don’t we go in?” she said, her eyes lighting up. “You won’t like it, that place is full of degenerates,” Manolo said. But she insisted (“Rain and no car, what else can we do?”) and he had no choice but to indulge her whim. Right then the rain was coming down in torrents. Manolo took off his jacket and used it to protect the girl as they crossed the street. Teresa leaned against him and smiled. At the ticket window a fat, pink man was smoking Ideales and Teresa tried to bum one. “Don’t be rude,” joked Manolo. “Oh be quiet, hombre. This will be fun, you’ll see.” Boys: 25 pesatas, Girls: 15. “Discrimination,” said the happy university girl. One drink included in the cover. Performing: Orquesta Satélites Verdes, their singer Cabot Kim (Joaquín Cabot), Maymó Brothers (Afro-Cuban rhythms), Lucieta Kañá (young Catalan cuplé performer) and some other big names from that era. “This is going to be great,” said Teresa. From the beginning she showed an odd excitement. Exclusive, special appearance by Trio Moreneta Boys (the lovely sounds of sardana fused with modern rock). “Spectacular,” said Teresa as they went in, “I can’t wait.” The place was packed and loud, no room to move on the dance floor. Men dressed to the nines, with sardonic eyes and impertinent expressions roved around in tight packs, harassing girls, leaning over them, scrutinizing their necklines and whispering come-ons. Almost all of them were Andalusians. The fiery looks Teresa received were more than suggestive. Manolo’s constant presence at her side saved her from an advance that, if she were alone, would have moved beyond simple admiration. Fortunately, on that day she was dressed plain enough for church (white pleated skirt, blue blouse with a high neck, and a wide black belt), which, in that milieu, might have made her the subject of mockery if it hadn’t been for her long, blonde hair and lustrous, sun-flattered skin, two charms that betrayed her, that is of course if she wanted to pass unnoticed. There were stationary groups of girls in the galleries and in chairs lined up around the dance floor, whispering among themselves every now and then. At the far end, on a small stage were the Satélites Verdes dressed in sequin shirts, their singer (unusually melodic, according to popular opinion) with a thin, black mustache and a nasal, Gregorian voice. Previously, the place had belonged to an old cultural and recreational workers society (Home of the Weavers Guild), which, along with their Choir, their Library, and their Theater—now converted into Salón Ritmo—had disappeared along with the Republic. Outdated and solemn decoration: four walls with plaster crown molding embossed with bouquets of flowers, bunches of grapes, and coats of arms—a face within, an illustrious name below (Prat de la Riba, Pompeu Fabra, Clavé). Glorious Catalans, leaders of orfeó i caramelles, the long lost labor movement, whose severe profiles seemed to express scorn for the Sunday invasion of illiterate Andalusians. In the first floor gallery, through the rancid odor of the wooden box seats, wandered the ghost of a familiar, artisan spirit that reigned in the past and that today occupied one remaining refuge: the stockroom for beverages and artifacts. It had been a library and billiard room, now it housed the mutilated and still quivering remains of Catalan translations of Dostoevsky and Proust alongside Salgari, Dickens, the Patufet, and Maragall, and rusted trophies and old Home of the Weavers standards sleeping alongside the dream of oblivion.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)
Next up in our Month of a Thousand Forests series is Ana María Matute who has one book already available in English—School of the Sun, which was translated by Elaine Kerrigan and published by Columbia University Press.
The piece that’s excerpted below is from Olvidado Rey Gudú which is “the book I wanted to write ever since I was a girl, all of my obsessions are in it.” According to Valerie Miles, this is “one of her most celebrated novels that, along with La torre vigía and Aranmanoth, make up a trilogy about a medieval court.
Unfortunately, Matute passed away in June, but left behind a huge catalog of works, including novels, short stories, books for children, and a few collections of articles. Given how many prizes she won over her lifetime, hopefully someone will bring out a few of these.
__And just as a reminder, all this month, if you order_ A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.
You refer to your generation as the “shadow children” and you explain how important fairy tales were for them, and the phrase “once upon a time.” You started out writing social realism but over time you’ve shifted to the fantasy novel. Why?
Some women began to make significant inroads in literature in the postwar era. Carmen Laforet was the first, and although I’m often included in the same generation as her and Cela, she was older—I’m from the generation of the fifties. But it’s not entirely true to say that I’ve switched from realism to fantasy. It is, but not entirely. My intended style of writing forms part of the magic, you understand, of the magic of literature, of literature as invention. So that has always existed in my books and stories. But you have to take into account the time in which I had to live and develop as a writer. It was the Francoist era. First, when I was eleven years old the civil war broke out right in front of me and after I was fourteen, in my adolescence, I lived through a very long postwar period. And that left a mark on all of us, marked us decisively. This explains why I had to find a lung to breathe and to fight this man and his system. Pequeño tentro or Primaria memoria are realist, but not entirely. There is always a more poetic part. I think that social realism really killed Spanish literature for a while and I wanted to get away from it. I didn’t renounce my rebelliousness or my strong social criticism by writing literature instead of social reporting. I haven’t limited myself to telling, to narrating. I imagine. I invent. In any case, I have traveled a lot and I’ve seen how women are treated in the world and I’ve come to the realization that it’s not solely the heritage of Spain. But in a country like ours and at that time there were strong inherited prejudices.
_Did this generation of “shadow children” lose their innocence because of what they
saw so young?_
I’ve known many people for whom it’s not that they’ve lost it, it’s that they never had it. But childhood is something that’s never lost. Childhood leaves a mark. I’ve often stressed that childhood, the boy or girl that we were, is something we have inside forever and it’s a very rich place for imagination and invention.
Ondina of the Depths of the Lake had lived in the loveliest spot in the Lake of Disappearances for four-hundred-and-thirty years. Ondina was extraordinarily beautiful: smooth floating hair the color of seaweed coming down to her waist, large eyes ranging from the softest gold to dark green, as changeable as the light, and bluish-white skin. Her arms waved slowly between the deep roots of the plants, and her legs moved like the fins of a carp. A steady and shining smile, which transitioned from the pearlescent white of a shell to the liquid pink of a sunrise, floated across her lips. Any human would have felt a captivating desire to study her in all of her details—with the exception of her ears, which, like all of her kind, were long and pointed at the tips, although of a soft color between rose and gold.
Despite being the granddaughter of the Great Lady of the Lake, she did not possess a shred of her wisdom, not even a speck of the slightest intelligence—as often happens with water nymphs. On the contrary, she was so sweet and gentle, and exuded such innocence, that her profound stupidity could very well be mistaken for more poignant charm and enchantment. Like all water nymphs, she was exceedingly capricious, and her great whimsy was her Collection at the Bottom, where she had cultivated her garden of Intricate Greens with care. Ondina’s collection consisted of an already considerable display of men, young and handsome, between fourteen and twenty years of age. She liked them so much that she would often drag them to the bottom, and there she preserved them, rosy and unharmed, thanks to the sap of the maraubina plant that grows once every three thousand years among the wellsprings. But soon she grew tired of them, and however much she adorned them with flowers from the lake and crowned their heads with all sorts of glittering stones, and caressed their hair, and kissed their cold lips, they said and did nothing; and so she always needed more and more young men to distract her with variety.
Every so often, cautiously approaching the shores of the Lake, she had seen how young peasant couples caressed and kissed one another, and it filled her with envy. She had confessed as much on more than one occasion to the goblins, who, out of pity, sometimes pushed men to the bottom. Among them was the Goblin of the South, to whom she had confided her wayward obsession. “This is foolishness,” the goblins told her. “Choose a dolphin from those that roam the Southern coasts to take as your husband and stop this. Considering your youth, you can be forgiven, but tread carefully so your grandmother doesn’t find out: she doesn’t tolerate human contamination, and you can only play safely with the drowned.” “That’s what I’ll do,” she said then, contritely. “I promise not to forget.” But since she was stupid to the most remote depths of her being, she not only forgot, but persisted in her foolish desire to receive caresses and kisses from a living man. “But what for?” the Goblin of the South asked her, who, after his libations had given him his post in the Castle, the Northern region of which grazed the waters of the rising Lake, had long conversations with her. “I see no reason.” “Nor do I,” responded Ondina. “I see no reason, but so it is.”
This was the state of things when the Goblin opportunely remembered about her, her naïve nature and her foolish whimsy. This is how water nymphs were, it was said. He had met another, in the South, who had taken a fancy to donkeys, and also another, farther East, who had a penchant for red-bearded soldiers. Anything could be expected from a water nymph, except common sense.
(Translated by Lisa Boscov-Ellen)
The second author to be featured in our overview of the new collection A Thousand Forests in One Acorn is Jose María Merino, a Spanish master of microfictions. Merino is one of the authors in this volume whose work is appearing in English for the first time.
You can read other excerpts from Thousand Forests by clicking here. And this feature will continue all month—until all 28 authors have been highlighted.
All this month, if you order the book from the Open Letter site and use the code “FORESTS,” you’ll get it for only $15.
I chose the opening of my novel La orilla oscura because it is the work in which I think my literary obsessions really start to take shape: the tension between sleep and waking, the question of the double—in this case, with Spanish America mixed in—metamorphosis, the tricks that memory plays, my taste for metafiction and for texts that are nested like Russian dolls . . . Then I include three microfictions, a form I discovered after writing several novels and about a hundred short stories, because they represent not only the flexibility of the genre, but also show different aspects of my bewilderment at reality, which is the main inspiration for my writing. Finally, I chose the first story from my latest work, El libro de las horas contadas, in which I play with the idea of composing a novel as a short story writer would, and a collection of short stories and microfictions as a novelist.
The dead whose voices I hear with my eyes? My favorite books come to mind in schools, in flocks, and I find it hard to choose just a few. I will settle for a painfully incomplete historical overview of the books that have shaped me. After my first, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I read when I was seven, there were the ones I read in my childhood and adolescence, over which hung the shadow of Don Quixote—_Tom Sawyer, Kim, Around the World in 80 Days, William Brown_ . . . and a few dictionaries and encyclopedias, among which Salvat’s Universitas, where I discovered Hoffman and things like the solar system and mythology, stands out.
The fly circles listlessly around the bathroom. I look at it with disgust. What’s a bug doing in my luxury hotel room—in February, no less? I hit it with a towel and it falls, lifeless, onto to the marble sink. It’s a strange, reddish fly, not very big. It occurs to me that it is the last of a species that will disappear with its death. It occurs to me that the bathroom is its refuge from the winter. That in the garden under my window there is a plant, also very rare, which can only be pollinated by this fly. And that, within a few millennia, the presence of enough oxygen to ensure the survival of our own species will depend on the pollination and proliferation of that plant. What have I done? By killing this fly I have sealed your fate, humans of the future. But a slight twitch moves its legs. Maybe it isn’t dead! Now it is moving them with more force, now it has managed to stand, now it’s rubbing them together, stretching out its wings, getting ready to take flight; now it’s circling around the bathroom. Live! Breathe, humans of the future! But its clumsy movements bring that first, repellant image back to mind. I am snapped out of my trance. What is this disgusting bug doing here? I grab the towel, follow it, hit it, kill it. I finish it off.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
Following on yesterday’s interview with Valerie Miles I thought we’d feature the Javier Marías section from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, mainly because I like the bit about translation and find his reasoning for choosing this bit of Dark Back of Time incredibly interesting.
This is going to follow the format I’m planning on using for all the rest of the authors in this collection: a snippet from their interview followed by a bit of the piece they chose as “their best work.”
And once again, if you order the book now, from the Open Letter site, and use the code “FORESTS,” you can get it for only $15. That’s like $.02 a page. Not even shitting around.
The reason for choosing this last fragment, which is from Negra espalda del tiempo, is because out of all my work, it is the passage that has made me feel the most moral doubts. I have asked myself “should I write this, should I put this into somebody else’s mind? I have the bad luck that it has come into my mind, but should I put this into somebody else’s mind and make him or her feel as bad as I am feeling now?” It’s not that I thought of suppressing it, of course not, not so much as that, but I thought that this is a “putada” to make somebody who might not ever think this at all in his lifetime, to make him think about it, about the idea that nothing ever passes, nothing ever goes away totally. When children get hurt or are frightened or have a nightmare, one of the things a mother says to her child is “ya pasó, ya pasó,” it’s over, it’s finished. You’ve had a really bad time, but now, in the present, you aren’t having that bad time any more. And those words, “it’s over” are very consoling, very healing, as if the present were the thing that counts; it is a consolation to think that that the bad thing or the worst possible thing is over. In this paragraph the idea is that no, it isn’t like that, things aren’t always over. Things that happened are always happening, they are still happening and they shall always happen. There is an echo of Macbeth here: “it seems as if our yesterdays were all under the earth, trying to surface.” I think the fragment is not bad and it has some force, and it is convincing in a way because generally the idea would be no, it’s true that when things are over, things are better. Or you can bear what has happened because it is already past, and the past is always more bearable than the present. So to put in somebody else’s mind the idea that no, watch out, because it’s not like that, is not a very nice thing to do to potential readers.
In my case the writer I have most in mind is undeniably obvious and explicit in many of my books: Shakespeare. I have taken many titles from him for my works: Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí, Corazón tan blanco, Cuando fui mortal, and La negra espalda del tiempo, which is not exactly a quote, but it comes from what he says in The Tempest about the abysm, and of course some fragments of works by him are also mentioned openly in my books, fragments from Richard III and Macbeth, and of course The Tempest and from Henry IV and Henry V.
And of course Cervantes, although in the case of Cervantes he comes to me directly in the Spanish language, but also indirectly in the English language because I did translate Tristram Shandy about 30 years ago, and it was a hard task and a long one, and Sterne was so influenced by Cervantes in that novel that in a way I would say that perhaps it is much more Cervantine than any Spanish novel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. And of course by translating that book when I was young I learned so much about writing and about the use of time in the novel, that I also have a rather permanent dialogue as it were with Sterne himself and with Cervantes as well. Of course there are many others, the authors I have translated into Spanish, because translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write. If I had a creative writing school, which I would not, but if I did, I would only have students who speak at least two languages and make them translate. Because you happen to be not only a privileged reader, but a privileged writer if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt someone else’s—someone who is much better than you, always if you are translating classics at least—and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments and your writing will improve tremendously. I translated poetry by Nabokov and Faulkner, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Stevenson, Auden, Thomas Browne, Isak Dinesen, Yeats.
Of course translating well is not enough, you must have some ability for invention and some talent and a few other things, but as far as the instrument goes, that is the best possible school. Therefore, those writers I just mentioned influenced me because I did translate them, they are always very much on my mind, and I have adopted in my own writing sometimes solutions that I have found for them in Spanish. Sometimes in translation you cannot always have an absolute equivalent, but you can add something with which you compensate for what you miss. And sometimes I have even used small things; I remember having used something from Nabokov, in one of his poems he talks about the “mellow moon”; which I translated as “la luna pulposa.” Whenever I have used that expression in Spanish, I realize that I am in conversation with my Nabokov. So I have many authors in mind. Funnily enough, there are more poets who I have more conversations with when writing, and that is something that has not been pointed out very often. When critics talk about evident influences, sometimes I think, “but I have never read that author,” but they always link you with other novelists, they never think of poets and I think that one of my strongest influences can be found in the poets, which is why in Tu rostro mañana there are quotations from Eliot, Rilke, Machado, and Ashbery.
The woman watches the streetlamps while trying to protect her hair from the wind with a kerchief, an old-fashioned image not often seen any more, maybe that’s why she’s not very skilled at it and, not managing to tie the kerchief in place, she gives up, her hair flying in the wind like a banner. She has left the night behind, and her bed, and she thinks with some uneasiness about the young man still asleep there, he’s spent too many mornings there since he stayed on without ever saying he was staying, coming and going while she’s at work, leaving and returning whenever he feels like it with no explanations, as if he’d rented out a room and didn’t live with anyone, neither asking nor telling; but at night when he comes to bed in the darkness, far too late, he wakes her up like a hungry animal—like a child who can’t bear to wait—and tears off her nightgown and gets her sheets sweaty, taking up her time for rest, robbing her of her sleep to keep it for himself. The woman stays awake almost all night, thinking about what’s happened in the darkness and wondering if this was the last time, she leaves in the morning weary of her thoughts, fearful that when she comes back after all the hours in the world outside he’ll still be there, and fearful, too, that he’ll be gone; she fears both things equally and hasn’t even tried to tell him to stay or go because it also frightens her to think that he might listen to her, or that he might not, if she were to say one thing or the other, one thing and the other, if she dared. And she doesn’t know what to do so she doesn’t do anything, she just waits for the bus, chilled, watching the streetlamps hold out against the rising light of the sun as if it had nothing to do with them, during this time when their two territories coexist and do not exclude each other though they do not intermingle either, just as the real does not mix with the fictitious, and in fiction it can never be said, “It’s over now, there, there, it’s all over,” not even as consolation or subterfuge, because nothing has really happened, silly, and in the territory that is not truth’s everything goes on happening forever and ever and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out.
(Excerpt translated by Esther Allen)
As promised at various points in the past, all this month we’re going to be running excerpts from our latest book, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn by Valerie Miles. This anthology—which is so much more than an anthology—features twenty-eight great writers from the past century, each of whom picked out the handful of pages representing the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career.
Not only do you get the best of the best in here, but each author’s section is prefaced by an illuminating bio and an interview in which they address questions of influence, what they were trying to accomplish in their selected pieces, etc. This context is incredibly useful and fascinating, allowing the reader to build a sort of network . . .
Over the next month, we’ll be posting short excerpts from the collection—both from the interviews and the works themselves—starting with the interview below in which Valerie explains the project.
Also, for the month of September, you can receive a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for $15 by purchasing it through out website and using the code “FORESTS.”
Here’s the interview, which was conducted by University of Rochester MALTS graduate Katherine Rucker.
Katherine Rucker: Which authors chose works that surprised you? Were there instances when you didn’t agree with what they chose as their “best work?
Valerie Miles: I was surprised by more than a few of the choices the writers made, which charged the whole process with a far more interesting result, and sort of verified the idea that what a critic says objectively isn’t always in sync with how a writer feels about his or her own work. Yes, of course we know that, but I wanted to go farther and find a way to prove it. Not that a writer is correct and a critic mistaken, which is obviously not the case either. Just that there is a private space in which a critic, for however expertly versed he or she is in a writer’s work, cannot enter, it belongs to a writer’s private sphere. So I wanted to appeal to the writer’s complicity to enter this more intimate creative space, ask that they open the door to their studios and hand over the secrets about what they feel is their own best work; the obsessions that have finally sparked something significant, where the space between intent and result is at its minimum. I wanted to hear about the struggles they’ve had with form, or on the contrary, the felicities of a certain character, a passage, a technical accomplishment or a particular high stakes bet that aesthetically paid off.
This is what I set out to explore, that secret and intimate distance between a writer and his work. In that sense, perhaps two of the selections that I found some of the most surprising are those of Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. During my initial discussion with Mr. Vargas Llosa, which was done by email since he was in Peru at the time and I was in Madrid and later Barcelona (some of these conversations, though edited down into short introductions in some cases, were often held over a long period of time), I had mentioned novels like Conversation in the Cathedral, since it represents a truly incredible technical and structural feat, and is widely considered one of his most accomplished novels. I also thought he might choose something from The Time of the Hero, which was such an important novel in the history of twentieth-century Latin American literature, initiating the whole movement known as the “boom”, when writers emerged of the stature of Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Fuentes. It was the launch of a generation of bold new writing from Latin America that quickly took center stage. The writers of that movement have made a mark, they brought a swing into audacious technical innovations, together with a newfound linguistic élan which lasted through the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s (the pages of Granta magazine during the 80s give testament to how important translation from the Spanish was then. It was a time of great ebullience, and there was a sense that literature could help bring about social change, that it was imbued with significance beyond mere entertainment, an art form that was vital and challenging and pushing political discussions. Writing in the Americas was full of genius, and the new Latin American novel held a pole position on the map of world literature.
Instead, Vargas Llosa chose a piece from The Feast of the Goat, which touches on a theme that cuts across much of his writing, the abuse of political power in Latin America by merciless dictators and how their brutal behavior wreaked havoc over generations. He chose a fragment in which a young girl finally tells the secret of how she was brought to the dictator’s bed as a young girl and raped. He also chose another fragment, a scene from a book that is less widely known as some of his others, The Way to Paradise. Here, he brings Paul Gauguin to life and his grandmother, Flora Tristan, both of whom have left lives of a certain consequence to follow their individual ideals. Gauguin went to Tahiti to paint, and Flora Tristan to Paris to fight for women’s rights. It’s interesting that he would choose this fragment, which expresses a sort of Nabokovian flash of illumination with the strike of a match. The circumstances behind what brought Gauguin to paint his masterpiece, Spirit of the Dead Watching, which depicts his Tahitian mistress lying naked on her belly, terrified by the light of the match he struck when he entered his cabin late at night. She confused him with an ancestral ghost. Interestingly, they are both scenes of young girls in different sexual relationships with older men.
Carlos Fuentes, on the other hand, tells us cryptically that his choice, the fourth chapter of Terra Nostra, largely considered one of his more obscure novels, is his greatest accomplishment because it “has the unfortunate habit of summarizing my approach to storytelling.” I would have thought he might choose Where the Air is Clear, Aura, or The Death of Artemio Cruz, largely for the same reason as I mentioned earlier with Vargas Llosa. They are the novels that made him into a huge literary sensation at a time when the Latin American novel was experiencing its zenith. This was the last interview he gave before he died, and since then, in fact, the critics have begun revisiting Terra Nostra, it’s being studied more in universities, and there are serious deliberations regarding the nature and importance of the novel that may have been the most widely misunderstood in his lifetime.
One of the reasons I wanted to organize this project in this way, also, was to learn from the writers themselves and let them give me a good reading list!
KR: This anthology tells us where Spanish-language literature has come from. Can it also tell us where it’s going? Or, if there were to be “A Thousand Forests: Volume 2” in thirty years’ time, what are some young voices that you might expect to see there?
VM: That’s a very interesting question. I do think it gives a sense of the literary back and forth, the traffic, between Europe and the US during the latter part of the twentieth century. Europe as paradise, Europe as center, Paris particularly is itself almost a protagonist. Also Faulkner, interestingly, looms large as one of the most important influences on these generations. However the U.S. was at the time more of an enemy than a friend. It seems, though, that the North and the South have grown closer in many ways, and I would venture to say that the literary traffic is now more north and south than transatlantic, which one would think should always have been natural, but it wasn’t back in the day. The Cold War, Pinochet, it was “complicated”. But New York seems to be taking the relay from Paris as the center, where the conversation is, which I find particularly exciting.
Also, if you notice, there aren’t as many female voices as I would have liked. I finally decided I had to get this book done, it had been on my mind for many years, when Cabrera Infante died and I hadn’t had the chance to ask him the question of what he considered his best pages. And García Márquez was already too ill to respond. The Mexican Daniel Sada had passed. I think the feminine voice has been growing and hopefully when it would come time to do another volume, we could be sure to have a strong crop of women writing. But not because they are token, but because they are that good . . . a new generation of Lispecters, of Silvina Ocampos, of Carmen Martin Gaites.
KR: Of the excerpts and stories included in the anthology, which ones would you most like to see translated in their entirety in the future?
VM: I would love to see someone take Hebe Uhart on, which would be a monumental challenge for a translator, a sort of Argentine version of the linguistic panache that is the trademark of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio’s writing. She’s got such a sharp ear for language and yet she’s so terribly funny. Sánchez Ferlosio demonstrates in his choice for this anthology how the fantastic can be much more claustrophobic than any unrelenting realism! But Hebe is just one of those big old secrets just waiting to be discovered, and Andrés Neuman quoted her in the epigraph of his novel Talking to Ourselves. I think Horacio Castellanos Moya is another truly hilarious writer, but his humor is of the neurotic type, so psychologically penetrating it makes you blush, he’s an absolute master of the charming rogue. You just can’t believe he’s doing this, but there he is, just doing it! And there is nobody, and I mean nobody, as deliciously perverse as the ninety-something Aurora Venturini who had the audacity to send one of her novels in anonymously for a young writer’s award, taking it unanimously after not publishing for as many years as the age of some of the other contestants. Borges discovered her and awarded her with her first literary distinction, before she was forced into Parisian exile for having been so close to Evita Perón. Also, the Cuban writer Abilio Estévez, who is also a very talented playwright and hence so incredibly spot on with his characterization. Or the great artisan of the sensuous, the Mexican Alberto Ruy Sánchez, whose series of erotic novels are about the most arousing examples of what can be done with the form when its in the hands of such a careful, affectionate wordsmith.
Say Ramiro Pinilla three times in a row in front of the mirror. I dare you . . . A Fig Tree will appear.
KR: You spoke a little bit about the experience of working with the authors in your preface. Was there a common theme or thread that you saw in their experience as writers?
VM: I asked two questions that were the same to each one of the writers and by that measure, I was able to survey whether or not there were differences. And yes, as anyone who reads their answers can see, there was a very wide range of different and even contradictory answers, which I find one of the happiest results of all. There’s no rote! And then the third and fourth or fifth questions, the “coda” section, was to continue the path of the conversation set out by them.
So what does that mean? It means that there are as many doorways to the craft as people who have the keys. Each one, as an individual, has had to confront the blank page, and each one of them feels differently about just about everything involved. For example, I call the section where I ask them to talk about their selection of their best pages as “Dr. Johnson’s torture” because I could see how some writers just really had a hard time talking about their own creative process—as was the case of Eduardo Mendoza, for example, or the great Basque writer, Ramiro Pinilla, for whom Faulkner was a liberation and Algorta his own private Yoknapatawpha. Others, like Marías, took up the challenge and our conversation lasted an entire summer! His section really shows someone dedicated to the devices of literature and very consciously applying new techniques and innovations in point of view, in poetical associations between forms. Each writer inhabits their own personal labyrinth and that’s what makes the chance to compare and contrast these different approaches a rich experience.
After all, we needed Paris to tell us how important Faulkner was, and in a Telerama poll taken in France in 2009, Faulkner beat out Flaubert, Stendhal, Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Camus and Celine, coming in second only to Proust. Early on, in the US, he was considered a mere chronicler of the Southern condition. The Boom—Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa—are the children of Faulkner. That’s why translation is so important, it brings the periphery into the center and renews our own traditions. Sometimes we don’t see our own forest for the trees and we need a readership to appreciate what we aren’t able to see for ourselves. What would Baudelaire be without our Poe, whom Emerson used to call “the jingle man”? And what would Bolaño be without Baudelaire?
In a few weeks, we’ll be releasing A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, one of the most impressive—and beautiful—books that we’ve ever published. It’s a 715-page beast that was put together by Valerie Miles (one of the people behind Granta’s “Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists” special issue) featuring twenty-eight Spanish-language authors, from Aurora Venturini (born 1922) to Evelio Rosero (born 1958). Of these authors, about half have been translated into English (Javier Marias, Carlos Fuentes, Enrique Vila-Matas, etc.), and the other half are making their way into English for the first time ever—like Elvio Gandolfo.
But before getting into Gandolfo, there are a couple more things to say about this book, which isn’t your typical anthology. For this collection, each author selected the piece to be included on the basis that it’s the “aesthetic high point” of their writing career. Then, they answered a number of questions about this piece and their writing life, explaining their influences, what they were trying to do in the included excerpt, etc. All of this is prefaced by insightful short biographies (written by Valerie Miles) and capped off by a bibliography of the author’s works in Spanish and in English . . . In other words: This is a damn amazing, useful, impressive book.1
Ninth Letter, a “collaborative arts and literary project produced by the Graduate Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,” and one of the most beautiful lit mags out there, decided to run one of the pieces from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, “The Moment of Impact” by Elvio Gandolfo, a story about a whale falling on a city.
You can read the entire story here, but to entice you, here’s a bit of what Gandolfo had to say about it:
I tried to make something impossible, at least in terms of the physical laws and limits we are bound by at this moment in science and history, plausible. In that sense, the story satisfies me fully. Besides, it seems to be written for nobody . . . At another time, I might have come up with a single short sentence (“a whale falls on a city”) and I wouldn’t have even written it down. When I did, however, I filled in all the details composing that precise moment and “the space of the impact.” The businesses, the streets, names of the residents of 1043 on Peatonal Córdoba (taken from the name plates on the building’s intercom) are (or were) real. When you use actual landmarks you discover the limits of what is really real for the people living in that place.
This is one of the outstanding voices that I discovered in working on this book, and I’m willing to bet that almost all Three Percent readers will love this piece. So go to Ninth Letter now and read it. And then preorder the book—it’s worth the $19.95 just for the production quality.
1 Over the month of September, we’ll be doing a special Three Percent promotion for this, running an excerpt from an interview or a piece of fiction every day. More on that in the near future.
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