1 July 11 | Chad W. Post |

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote about Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, which is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and forthcoming from Archipelago Books. It also happens to be this week’s Read This Next title.

Here’s the opening of the review:

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

You can read the complete piece here.

1 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s not like any of Cortazar’s books are easy. Hopscotch is a tricky book, even putting aside the jarring juxtapositions that arise from the strange way of reading it (if you follow the prescribed path, you read a bunch of chapters out of order). 62: A Model Kit, which applied the theory explicated in chapter 62 of Hopscotch, opens with a preface warning that “not a few readers will notice various transgressions of literary convention here.” Some of the ideas in his short stories are mind-blowing in a consciousness-raising, you-must-be-high sort of way.

But in my opinion, From the Observatory is the most challenging of all his books that I’ve read. In part, this is due to my own blindspot when it comes to poetry and poetic writing; in part, this is due to the elusive mingling of images and ideas present in this short, dense text.

In the interview I conducted earlier this week with Anne McLean, we talked a bit about the “Julio Cortazar” that Archipelago has been constructing through the publication of From the Observatory, The Diary of Andres Fava, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. In contrast to the Big Ideas and novelistic pyrotechnics found in the “classic” novels, these three books are quieter, and more personal. And in a way, they seem more focused on producing beautiful individual lines, than wowing the world with grand philosophical ideas.

That’s not to say that From the Observatory isn’t philosophical or removed from Cortazar’s earlier interests. Science and scientific metaphors run throughout Cortazar’s work, and are foregrounded in this piece, which intertwines information about the life cycle of eels from an article by Claude Lamotte that appeared in Le Monde with photographs and information about Jai Singh’s observatories.

The photographs of Jai Singh’s observatories are one of the most strikingly beautiful things about this book, and by themselves are worth the price of admission. Jai Singh was the ruler of Amber (later Jaipur) in the early 1700s and amid all sorts of political and social issues, he built at least five observatories. Using Hindu astronomy, these observatories were used to predict eclipses, etc. That’s interesting in and of itself, but beyond practicality, these structures are stunningly intricate and a bit mesmerizing. (Some photos from the book are available here, but you can also see a slew of color photos via this Google search.)

Cortazar took the 36 photos included in the book back in 1968, and they very much reflect the elliptical, baroque play found in the prose itself:

Everything corresponds, Jai Singh and Baudelaire thought with a century’s interval, from the lookout of the tallest tower of the observatory the sultan must have sought the system, the network in code that would give him the keys of contact: how could he not have known that the animal Earth would suffocate in a slow stillness if it had not always been in the lungs of the astral steel, the sneaky traction of the moon and the sun drawing and repelling the green breast of the waters. [. . .] Every sign of measurement on the marble ramps of Jaipur received (still receives, for no one now, for monkeys and tourists) the Morse signs, the sidereal alphabet that in another dimension of the sensitive turns into plankton, trade winds, shipwreck of the California oil tanker Norman (May 8, 1957), blossoming of cherry trees in Naga or Sivergues, lava in Osorno, eels arriving in port, leptocephali having grown to eight centimeters in three years will not know that their entry into fresher waters sets off some mechanism of the thyroid, will not know they’re now starting to be called elvers, that new calming words accompany the serpent’s storming of the reefs, its advance up the estuaries, its irrepressible invasion of the rivers; all this that has no name is called by so many names, the way Jai Singh swapped twinkles for formulae, unfathomable orbits for conceivable times.

This is pretty representative of the prose in From the Observatory: winding, digressive, soaring, playful, and looping back on itself like a Mobius Strip. As Anne McLean said in the interview, “Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.”

29 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next feature on Julio Cortazar’s From the Observatory, we just posted an interview with translator Anne McLean about this book, Cortazar in general, and the other authors she’s worked on.

You can read the whole piece here, and here’s a short excerpt:

CWP: As a long time fan of Corátzar (especially the “big” books—Hopscotch, Blow Up, 62: A Model Kit), I’ve been pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the Corátzar books Archipelago has “unearthed.” In my opinion, these really add to the Corátzar mythos . . . From the Observatory isn’t Hopscotch, Part II. It’s still obviously Corátzar, but a more poetic, almost reflective Corátzar. What’s is it like for you to be responsible for bringing this “other Corátzar” into English?

AM: It’s thrilling for me, and also very daunting (as with any seriously good writing, really, when you’re translating it you spend half the time thinking: oh, I can’t wait for people to be able to read this in English, and the other half wondering how on earth you can ever possibly recreate the wonderfulness of the original). But there are many, many “other Cortázars”; there were lots and lots of different Julios inside that one giant of a writer. Many of them were at play and in action in Hopscotch, for example. But you’re right, of course, From the Observatory does come from Cortázar’s reflective, poetic, philosophical side.

CWP: The lyrical nature of this book mixed with the striking images of Jai Singh’s observatories creates a really stunning work, but one that’s hard (for me) to get a handle on. How would you describe From the Observatory to a casual reader?

AM: If forced to describe From the Observatory, I would probably describe it as indescribable, but I guess that wouldn’t help much.

It’s a prose poem about the life cycle of Atlantic eels and about an early eighteenth-century Indian astronomer-prince and his (imagined) observations of the night sky and about science and its fascinations and limitations and poetry and its possibilities and about opening up to life and love and about challenging ourselves and changing the world.

Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.

Click here for the whole conversation.

27 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next book is From the Observatory by Julio Cortazar. Wonderfully translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, this will be available from Archipelago Books in early August.

In the words of Complete Review’s Michael Orthofer, this book is “striking, odd,” which is just about right. (You can read his full review here.) It’s a very poetic piece built around the life-cycle of eels and the Jaipur observatory.

Speaking of Jaipur, a cool feature of this gorgeous little book are all of the photographs of the observatories built by Jai Singh II. From Wikipedia:

In 1719, he was witness to a noisy discussion in the court of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. The heated debate regarded how to make astronomical calculations to determine an auspicious date when the emperor could start a journey. This discussion led Jai Singh to think that the nation needed to be educated on the subject of astronomy. It is surprising that in the midst of local wars, foreign invasions, and consequent turmoil, Sawai Jai Singh found time and energy to build astronomical observatories.

No less than five massive structures were built at Delhi, Mathura (in his Agra province), Benares, Ujjain (capital of his Malwa province), and his own capital of Jaipur. In all of these only the one at Jaipur is working. Relying primarily on Hindu astronomy, these buildings were used to accurately predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The observational techniques and instruments used in his observatories were also superior to those used by the European Jesuit astronomers he invited to his observatories. Termed as the Jantar Mantar they consisted of the Ram Yantra (a cylindrical building with an open top and a pillar in its center), the Jai Prakash (a concave hemisphere), the Samrat Yantra (a huge equinoctial dial), the Digamsha Yantra (a pillar surrounded by two circular walls), and the Narivalaya Yantra (a cylindrical dial).

Jai Singh’s greatest achievement was the construction of Jaipur city (known originally as Jainagara (in Sanskrit, as the ‘city of victory’ and later as the ‘pink city’ by the British by the early 20th century), the planned city, later became the capital as the Indian state of Rajasthan. Construction of the new capital began as early as 1725 although it was in 1727 that the foundation stone was ceremonially laid, and by 1733 Jaipur officially replaced Amber as capital of the Kachawahas. Built on the ancient Hindu grid pattern, found in the archaeological ruins of 3000 BCE, it was designed by the Brahmin Vidyadhar who was educated in the ancient Sanskrit manuals (silpa-sutras) on city-planning and architecture. Merchants from all over India settled down in the relative safety of this rich city, protected by thick walls, and a garrison of 17,000 supported by adequate artillery.

For a full-color look at the Jaipur Observatory, you can click here, otherwise, I highly recommend checking out the preview, both for the pictures and Cortazar’s prose.

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