3 January 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Along with about, well, everyone else in the northeast, I’m snowed into my apartment today, so instead of answering the phones at Open Letter (HA! no one ever calls us), I’m at home, working on our forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, and, as a break of sorts, I thought I’d put together our monthly list of books worth checking out. (For past versions, including one with a rant about my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind group, just click here.)

For the past few years, every December/January, we’ve been posting a series of “Best of the Year!” podcasts—on fiction, on nonfiction, on movies, on music (my personal favorite podcast)—along with resolutions about what Open Letter/Three Percent/me personally would like to accomplish in the forthcoming year. (See last year’s post in which my number 1 resolution was to “Drink more mimosas!” Speaking of, it is a snow day, I do have some left over booze . . . )

Over the next few weeks, we’ll probably maybe get right back on that. I hesitate only because I’ve read around about 10 million year end lists over the past few weeks, each of which was, by necessity, incomplete and incapable of addressing its incompleteness and the biases underpinning that. (I even read this article about Largehearted Boy’s “List of Year End Lists.”) Thanks to Facebook and the success of all those awful click-driven, shitty websites named in this article on The Year We Broke the Internet, social media exposes us every moment of every day to absurd list after absurd list.

Which isn’t just annoying, but in the opinions of some (self included), pretty much a horrible thing for the world as a whole. (For more on Morozov, I highly recommend checking out this profile. And he lost 100 lbs on a rowing machine watching European art-house films? That’s the exercise regime I need to sign up for.)

But there’s something so compelling about seeing information in this way . . . It’s like numbered, or at least ordered, compilations of information tap right into the reptilian part of our brain and spew out all the morphine feelings. Jason Diamond’s ridiculous Top 10 List of Literary Snobs? I MUST HAVE IT. And hey look! I’m number 3!! WEEE!!

At the same time, we live in a world of way too much information. As awesome as this seems to techno-utopians, it’s pretty much fucking up our brains. (Obviously, that’s the scientific conclusion.) As I sit here, at my kitchen table, I have 20 tabs open on my browser—ranging from information about car batteries to Facebook to The Guardian’s ‘definitive’ list of 1000 books to read to Pitchfork’s list of upcoming albums to ESPN’s Soccer section—Spotify is playing one of the 596 tracks I pulled out as my “favorites of 2013,” to go along with the 5,000 more from 2010 onwards, and I’m staring right into my “to read” bookshelf (not to be confused with the “already read” and “probably going to die before I get there” bookshelves) that has 103 titles on it. And, no surprise, in between sentences, I’m getting my ass kicked at Words With Friends by both Tom Roberge and Steven Rosato. There’s too much going on.

None of which is news to anyone.

And like a lot of people, one of my personal resolutions for 2014 is to fuck as much of this shit as I can and live in the real world for more than 15 minutes at a time without checking Twitter for the latest witty hashtag meme (#AddAWordRuinAMovie) or international football scores. OK, that’s going too far. Football scores are still allowed.

I don’t want to just do my “old man screaming at the goddamn trees to get off his yard” rant though. The thing is, I kind of can’t live without all this stuff. Professionally. Without blog culture, I would never have “published” anything. Without email and Facebook and the rest of it, only a handful of people would ever have heard of Open Letter’s books.

What I wonder is if there’s a better, more effective way of providing readers with useful information. I started these monthly overviews because a) I wanted to pull out and highlight books that could get lost in somewhat overwhelming Translation Database and b) I wanted to make jokes.

This time of year always makes me a bit reflective . . . Not to mention that I take all of this a little too personally (result of being almost 40, having worked in this thankless business for 12-plus years, and chronic self-doubt) and get totally bummed when not a single Open Letter book shows up on the Quarterly Conversation Favorite Reads of 2013 lists. (SPOILER ALERT: All you’ll find behind that link is The Most Experimental Dalkey Archive Books and Seiobo There Below.)

For now, I’m not sure if there’s a better way to provide readers with information on forthcoming translations. My current mix of jokes and titles is probably not smarmy enough to go viral, and not smart enough to serve as a legitimate place to check for recommendations. (Surprise! Three Percent is not the Times Literary Supplement.) I’ll keep thinking about it over the course of the year though, and hopefully along the way we’ll provide some interesting recommendations. (And starting next month maybe we’ll say something about the books themselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the listicle sites, it’s that content is totally and utterly irrelevant.)

And with that, I’m ready to announce Resolution #1: No More Writing about BuzzFeed/Flavorwire and the Reasons They Annoy Me. Down with lists and resolutions! Long live lists and resolutions!

The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Quercus)

Resolution #2: Write More Reviews.

Every year I make the same promise—to do more reviewing—and then fail miserably. Out of the 112 books I read last year, I wrote reviews of what, four? Five? That’s pathetic. My goal is at least two a month, preferably three. And The Light and the Dark will be one of these.

(Although when I do review this, I’ll have to make a disclaimer that there is a LOT of bad blood between me and Quercus, over Shishkin’s work in particular. And thank god Shish got himself a new agent. Read into that all you will.)

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)

Resolution #3: Sell a Lot More Books.

So, here’s some breaking news for everyone: As of June 1st, Open Letter will be distributed by Consortium. This is fantastic news for everyone involved. This should make it easier for us to get our books into East Coast and Midwest stores (the West Coast has been doing great by us, thanks to George Carroll’s efforts), and frees up some time for us to work at promoting our books.

Aside from the practical reasons for joining up with Consortium, I’m really excited to be in with a group of great publishers like And Other Stories and BOA Editions and Copper Canyon, and Dzanc, and others. Feels like the place that we should’ve been all along . . .

Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Resolution #4: Create a Special Series for the World Cup.

George Carroll announced our forthcoming World Cup of Books at Shelf Awareness today, which means it’s definitely going to happen. I’ll be posting more specifics in the not-too-distant future, but if you’re interested in helping contribute, please let me know. (Really looking for people well-versed in the literature of the qualifying countries with fewer books available in America.)

Seeing that Croatia took out my beloved Iceland—which would’ve been the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup—this seems like an appropriate book under which to announce our little contest.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland (New Directions)

Resolution #5: Read One Book from Every World Cup Qualifying Country.

Following up on #4, this seems like a great way to combine my interests in soccer and literature . . . Not sure The Guest Cat will be the book I read from Japan, but it does feature a cat and we all know that cats sell. I know there’s no way ND would ever put together a cute cat video compilation to promote this books, but, seriously, cats sell. This poster is pretty much the only reason so many students sign up for my spring class:



Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (New Directions)

Resolution #6: Make September A Thousand Forests in One Acorn Month.

This anthology—edited by Valerie Miles—features 28 Spanish-language authors, including a lot of “Big Name” writers like Fuentes, Marias, Vargas Llosa, Vila-Matas and the like, and twelve that have never before appeared in English. What’s unique about this collection is that each piece is prefaced by an interview with the author in which s/he explains why s/he chose this particular story/excerpt as a representative of his/her “aesthetic high point” and also talks about his/her influences, etc. So, for the month of September, every day we’ll run either an excerpt from one of the interviews, or a bit from a previously untranslated story. Stay tuned—this is an incredible collection and you’re going to love the shit out of these pieces.

The Interior Landscape by A. K. Ramanujan, translated from the Tamil by the author (New York Review Books)
Resolution #7: Expand My Reading Horizons.

In a little while, I’m going to post a list of all the books I read in 2013. This is kind of pointless, but since I kept track of the titles and what languages they were originally written in, I can confirm that, out of the 111 books I read last year only 27 were by authors from courtries outside of Europe and North & South America. And that includes the 16 Korean titles I read for the LTI Korea—most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. So, to be honest, less that 10% of the books I read last year were from India, the Middle East, Africa, Asian, etc. . . . That’s kind of sad. I want to do better with that this year.

1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Resolution #8: Create Some Sort of Translator Love Month.

Way back when, Erica Mena and I interviewed a bunch of translators at ALTA Pasadena (in 2009??) and posted all of these on Three Percent. As an advocate for translators, I think we really should do this more often, like, maybe in October, to correspond with the publication of A Man Between: The Life and Teachings of Michael Henry Heim, we could have a month of short interviews highlighting the most interesting and talented translators working today. You know, people like Linda Coverdale.

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Open Letter)

Resolution #9: More Self-Promotion.

This is probably my depression talking, but it seems like for the past few years, we’ve been talking up all sorts of interesting and fantastic projects and books, but receiving very little love in return. As a result, I’m going to take extra efforts to make sure that we get a lot of info about our new books up on Three Percent and elsewhere.

Starting with this year’s first release, the short story collection, “This Is the Garden”: by Giulio Mozzi and translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. It’s a great collection, and one that includes angel dong. Seriously. Come for the angel dong, and stay for the beautiful prose!

All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Griasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon (Other Press)

Resolution #10: Post at Least Once a Day.

When things get busy, it’s really easy to just skip posting for a day, which then becomes two . . . three . . . a week. Thankfully, Kaija has been keeping the site going with lots of book reviews (thanks to all of you!), but I’m going to make a dedicated effort to install a Five Day Plan mixing book posts, with industry posts, with links to other interesting articles.

The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze, translated from the Georgian by Maya Kiasashvili (Dalkey Archive)

Resolution #11: Launch Open Letter After Dark.

I’m keeping most of this under wraps for now, but sometime soon, I hope we’ll have some exciting news . . .

Have a great 2014!

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Carlos Gamerro’s An Open Secret, which is translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett and available from Pushkin Press.

Aleksandra Fazlipour is the student I introduced last week who just completed a semester long independent study on writing reviews. After this, I think we only have 4 more reviews of hers to run . . .

I actually met Carlos Gamerro when I was in Buenos Aires on an (AWESOME) editorial trip a few years back. He’s an incredibly interesting guy and writer, and actually contributed to Three Percent. His novel The Islands is coming out from And Other Stories this month.

Here’s the opening of Aleksandra’s review:

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

Click here to read the full review.

18 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.

Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.

[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.

The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.

The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.

And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another.

18 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Argentina Independent, Joey Rubin has an article about five “exciting new Argentine novels” that have recently been translated into English.

As a huge fan of Southern Cone literature, the fact that there’s quality contemporary works coming out of that area isn’t that surprising, but it is almost shocking to realize just how many great Argentine books are being published in the States . . . Here are the five titles that Joey focused on, with short clips from his descriptions:

Friends of Mine by Ángela Pradelli: Called ‘Friends of Mine’, and also translated by [Andrea] Labinger, the novel tells the story of a group of women living in the Buenos Aires province, who meet once a year on 30th December to eat dinner, celebrate the New Year, and reflect on the strange, difficult and wonderful passage of time. Structured in short, lucid fragments, the novel reads like a coming-of-age tale for a group of friends, a neighborhood, and an era of life in middle-class Argentina that has as much resonance today (and outside of Spanish) as it did when it was first published in 2002 and was awarded the Premio Emecé. [. . .]

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro: Like the spiralling narrator of ‘Bad Burgers,’ the protagonist of ‘The Islands’ chases his own trauma down a rabbit hole when he discovers that, despite the passage of ten years, the Falklands/Malvinas War is still raging — a reality he’s not quite ready to confront. [. . .]

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman: Neuman, who has written poetry (‘No sé por qué’), short story (‘Alumbramiento’) and travelogue (‘Cómo viajar sin ver’), created in ‘Traveller of the Century’ a novel that is at once contemporary and historical: set in Restoration-era Germany, it discusses sexual mores and intellectual disputes in a distinctly modern way. Praise from writers like Roberto Bolaño long ago boosted his reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, but more than acclaim or ambition, it’s the clarity and grace of Neuman’s prose that has earned him high standing among fans. [. . .]

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec: First published in Spanish in 1999, ‘The Planets’ was written during the fifteen-year period when Chejfec lived in Venezuela, a temporal and cultural dislocation important to the text. As ‘My Two Worlds’ used ambulatory reflection, ‘The Planets’ uses the act of remembering to elevate a simple story into an elegant register. It’s a mode of literature difficult to master, but worthy of celebration when done right. [. . .]

Varamo by César Aira: A novel kind of about a Peruvian man who takes up the homemade art of fish embalming, and also kind of about a very slow city-wide car race, and also kind of about the makings of a classic Central American poem, and yet somehow also not about these things at all. ‘Varamo’ is as strange, and as compelling, as Aira’s best work. In fact, it may be Aira’s best work. Or his worst. You’ll have to read all his books to know for certain.

29 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Argentina Independent has a great feature on Carlos Gamerro, a very interesting Argentine writer who once contributed to Three Percent and has a couple books coming out in translation. Here’s Joey Rubin’s intro:

The time has come for Carlos Gamerro to speak English. Born into a bilingual family in Buenos Aires in 1962, he’s been using the language since childhood. Since the 1990s, he’s been translating from it (books by Auden, Shakespeare and Graham Green) and lecturing in it (at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the US; at Cambridge University in the UK). But now, readers can welcome the author into a different kind of English conversation: over the next year, two of his novels will be released in first-ever English editions. Those books—‘El secreto y las voces’ and ‘Las islas’—will be released in the UK as ‘An Open Secret’ (Pushkin Press, 2011) and ‘The Islands’ (& Other Stories, 2012).

They are part of a diverse and cultivated body of writing that includes other novels (‘El sueño del señor juez’ and ‘La aventura de los bustos de Eva’), literary essays (‘Harold Bloom y el canon literario’ and ‘El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos’), and short fiction (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

Bad Burgers, available here in an original English translation, has been published thrice before in Spanish—in the magazine ‘Pisar el césped’, the newspaper Página 12, and in the story collection ‘El libro de afectos raros’. It distills much of what makes Gamerro’s writing distinctive; what Federico Falco, writing in the newspaper Perfíl, has called “the three fundamental pillars” on which Gamerro’s writing stands: “brilliantly hatched plots, characters who, without surrendering the profound, rub up against pop culture, and a view of the national reality somewhere between critical and humorous.” Reason enough for English-speakers to listen to what he has to say; now, at long last, in our native tongue. tion (‘El libro de afectos raros’), works that have helped make Gamerro, according to fellow writer Federico Falco, “one of the inescapable narrators of his generation.” In the last year alone, he’s released two new books: the novel, ‘Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara’, and the literary study, ‘Ficciones Barrocas’—both to significant acclaim.

And here’s the opening of the interview:

Joey Rubin: You have two books coming out soon in English translations — ‘An Open Secret’ and ‘The Islands’. Can you tell us a bit about the process of bringing them into English? Are they your first full-length works to be published in English?

Carlos Gamerro: Yes, these are my first full-length works to be brought into English. After a few near misses — all of them in the UK, I suppose it’s a side effect of my upbringing. Or maybe it’s one of the mysterious effects of a general trend of Argentine culture where practically all the ‘English’ schools are precisely that, English (even though mine advertised itself as Scottish).

So, after years of waiting, I suddenly found myself with two publishers vying for my work! Pushkin is a prestigious publisher of classics and choice new fiction, and & Other Stories is an exciting new venture you should do a piece about! I was lucky in that both accepted my choice of translator, Buenos Aires-based, England-born Ian Barnett, who’s been living in Argentina for ages now, is an avid reader of Argentine fiction and has been wanting to do my stuff since he first read ‘Las islas’ back in 1998. His translations of me are ‘in collaboration with the author’ although my role is actually less to collaborate than to drive him crazy. With ‘An Open Secret’ we were using the ‘comments’ option and towards the end I thought of looking at the numbers and we had reached comment 1,500! But it’s a dream situation: to have the same translator for all my books, one who is open (or resigned) to all suggestions, who is obsessive, devoted and, to top it all, a good friend.

The whole interview is worth checking out, as is Joey Rubin’s translation of Bad Burgers.

I’m personally very excited to get my hands on both of Carlos’s forthcoming books, which we’ll definitely review here. (And maybe include in Read This Next?)

29 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here.

See the bottom of the article for a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

There were no prominent Argentine women writers in the 19th Century, for approximately the same reasons Virginia Woolf gives, in A Room of One’s Own, for their absence in the English 18th. The first generation of Argentine women writers are more or less contemporaries of Borges and belong to the same aristocratic milieu: Victoria Ocampo, the great lady of Argentine letters, was the founder of Sur magazine and an ardent advocate for the constant updating of invigorating foreign influences: as a publishing house Sur was responsible for the first translations of Faulkner’s Light in August, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, and Nabokov’s Lolita. Her sister Silvina, lifelong wife of Bioy Casares, is one of our best short story writers and specially apt in the difficult art of portraying the world view of children—Cortázar’s predecessor and only rival in this respect. In the words of her elder sister, her work is remarkable for “an atmosphere of its own, where the most incongruous and unlikely things are close to each other and walk hand in hand, as in dreams”. Women novelists include the remarkable Sara Gallardo; Beatriz Guido, whose claims to fame lie more in the scripts she wrote for her husband Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, the greatest of Argentine film directors so far (his are the film versions of such classics as Martín Fierro, Los siete locos, Boquitas pintadas and Borges’ “Emma Zunz”) than for her schmaltzy novels; and the angry and opinionated Silvina Bullrich, who unselfishly devoted her life to the heroic task of creating the Argentine best seller. If in the mainstream narrative genres the position of women is somewhat subsidiary, they occupy a very prominent position in poetry—with names such as Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik—in drama—Griselda Gambaro—and in generic narrative such as Science Fiction—Angélica Gorodischer. Argentine women writers have, as a whole, had to deal with a particular monster of their own—the as yet not fully challenged predominance of male writers and a masculine oriented tradition in Argentine mainstream narrative, of which this lecture might be, unfortunately, another example.

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28 April 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Below is the text of the speech that Carlos Gamerro gave earlier in the week on the history of Argentine literature. I found this really interesting, and am very glad that Carlos is allowing us to publish it here. Tomorrow we’ll publish part 2, which includes a list of all the authors and books mentioned in the speech.

The quality of Argentine literature has always depended on the quality of its monsters. This might help explain why Argentine literature was off to a good start and a bad start almost simultaneously, and both at the hands of the same writer: Esteban Echeverría.

In La cautiva, a long narrative poem published in 1837, the enemies are the native inhabitants, “the indian” as they were invariably called, and the heroine, a white woman abducted by them – a topic later to recur in William Henry Hudson’s “Marta Riquelme” and in Borges’ “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva”. Echeverría’s poem is wordy, bathetic, unsufferably Romantic, and one would be tempted to set it forth as an example that a justification – however oblique – of genocide can never aspire to aesthetic greatness, if the second part of Martín Fierro, as we will see, would later offer much of the same fare but this time in powerful and authentic verse.

El matadero, on the other hand, is perhaps – even by today’s standards – one of the best pieces Argentine short prose has to show. The setting is as Argentinian as can be: a slaughterhosue for cattle in our first period of bloody tyranny, that of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who ruled the country from 1829 to 1852. The slaughter of the animals metaphorically stands (as later in Eisenstein’s Strike) for that of political dissenters, one of which, a young unitario, is eventually dragged to the slaughterhouse and publicly tortured, and is only spared from further humiliation (rape, if not mentioned, is implied) by what seems to be a timely heart attack.

Why is La cautiva so bad and El matadero, written more or less at the same time, so good? In part because “the indian”, seen as a terrible menace by the white men of the time, was really a victim, and a doomed victim at that. Rosas and his gangs of killers, known as the Mazorca, were on the other hand a formidable and terrifying enemy – and for twenty years writing was the only effective weapon to be mobilized against them. For his opposers, Rosas’ dictatorship represented the triumph of the primitive, barbaric and rural America of the past over the modern and cosmopolitan civilization they heralded. For this reason, artists and intellectuals were, as a block, united against him. One could say that Rosas scared the Argentine intelligentsia into art, thus inaugurating two lasting traditions: that of turning to literature when politics offers no outlet, and that of the artist-or-intellectual-in-exile. Rosas also supplied our cultural unconscious with one of its first icons of horror: that of the severed heads of the opposers lined upon the cart of a melon vendor – throat-cutting and beheading were emblematic of Rosas’ reign of terror just as ‘the disappeared’ have been emblematic of that of the recent military juntas. The anti-Rosas sentiment fuelled the birth of the Argentine novel (Amalia, by José Mármol) and, more significantly (since Amalia, as a novel, is rather bad), of a mixed genre we could term the narrative essay, noticeably in the writings of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

His Facundo: civilización y barbarie is a biographical interpretation of the figure of the rural caudillo (a semi-Feudal type of warlord) Facundo Quiroga. In Sarmiento’s view there were two Argentinas: one represented by cities and written culture, which was modern, civilized, cosmopolitan; the other represented by the rural hinterland: backward, savage, cruel. All the enemies of civilization – Rosas, the gaucho and the indian – are conflated by Sarmiento into one (notwithstanding the fact that Rosas conducted the first large-scale campaign against the natives, and the gauchos were its executors). In Sarmiento’s view the two Argentinas cannot be united or reconciled: one must triumph over the other and absorb it. This helps to understand why the civil war that raged before, during and after Rosas’ rule was basically a war between Buenos Aires and the provinces.

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The Madmen of Benghazi
The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

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The Four Corners of Palermo
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

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Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .

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My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

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Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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