Over the past few days, a few great reviews for Open Letter authors popped up online, all of which are worth sharing and reading.
As a book of drinking, endless binges of drinking, and of constant comedy, The Last Days of My Mother is a perfect book to drink to, reminding you of the shame that follows the pleasure, but comfortably letting you know that you aren’t drowning like the protagonists. In the opening pages, Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s two protagonists, Mother/Eva and son/Trooper, do not have the same self-censorship that most of us have, and their adventure is all the better for it. Neither seems to manage happiness, but with Eva dying, Trooper sets himself the goal “to make Mother happy during the last days of her life.” [. . .]
Their efforts only resemble plans because for the vast majority of the novel, they are in varying stages of drinking, drunk, very drunk, stoned, and planning their next drink. Throughout it all, there is dark, brutal comedy, hysterically playful comedy, and immediate switches to the serious, the poignant, without pain from whiplash. The emotional, the ongoing sadness of loss, of dead hopes, isn’t a contradiction to humor; instead they exist together, and the closer they come, the less Eve and Trooper struggle. Comedy, with all its nuances, is sometimes impossible to communicate between two people who speak the same language, so translator Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir keeping it so alive proves great skill. Last Days is a book funny enough that my housemates laughed at my laughter while otherwise quietly reading, without reading a word.
Drinking novels are familiar, death of a family member novels are familiar, dark comedies, familiar, but Last Days brings something new: a mother and son with absolutely zero boundaries between each other.
The Last Lover is not an easy read. But it is incandescent and engrossing if you are okay with losing your sense of self for a few hours. Here is how I experienced it.
Hour one: I sit in a coffee shop with a paperback copy and a cup of ginger tea. The prose is dense, peculiar. The characters are given to sudden declarations.
Hour two: I am astonished to realize that I have only read less than fifty pages.
Hour three: My head hurts. I feel like I have been translating. I have stopped tweeting.
Hour four: I succumb to the book. I let it carry me. My cup is empty. I do not question anything that happens in the novel: wolfish faces; floating couples; inexplicable transformations; the motif of heads separating from bodies and hovering there, as if still connected. Nor do I question the characters’ reactions, who take all of these surreal developments gamely, as they must, as we accept the eerie faces we sometimes see in the periphery of our vision.
Hour five: I sit up and feel as though I have emerged from dreaming. I look around myself surreptitiously, suspicious that the world has flipped over while I was reading. It seems impossible that I could crawl so deep within this novel and have everything remain the same. I feel betrayed. There is a scene in The Last Lover in which the characters enter a gambling city, which is both under- and aboveground. The tunnels underground are full of smoke, which all the residents of the gambling city are used to breathing. Where is my smoke? Where are my slot machines?
And over at “Numero Cinq,“http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2014/08/04/the-decomposition-of-continuous-movement-review-of-juan-jose-saers-la-grande-richard-farrell/ Richard Farell writes up Juan José Saer’s La Grande, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph:
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Parana River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel. [. . .]
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
Juan José Saer was one of the greatest
Spanish-language writers of the past hundred years. When he passed away in 2005, he was working on La Grande, a novel that brings together a number of characters from his earlier works in an exploration and ends with one of the greatest final lines in literature: “With the rain came the fall, and with the fall, the time of the wine.” (You can read a longer excerpt of Steve Dolph’s translation by clicking here.)
If you’ve read Saer before, you’re undoubtedly dying to get your hands on this; if you’ve never read him, this, despite being his last book, is a fantastic place to start.
To help everyone out, we’re giving away 15 copies through GoodReads. All the info on entering is below—just make sure you do it before March 24th.
And if you’d rather just forgo the whole “entering a drawing” aspect, you can just preorder the book via your favorite bookselling outlet, or via our website.
Steve Dolph’s translation of Juan Jose Saer’s massive La Grande won’t be available until next spring, but for those of you who can’t wait to sample what may well be his magnum opus, you can check out Two Lines for a long sample:
Tomatis continues: Mario Brando considered himself an experimentalist, but he was a barefaced bourgeoisie. According to Tomatis, he lived and thought like a bourgeoisie. He married the daughter of an ultra-Catholic conservative general, as opportunistic as himself, who changed his political position with every changing government or circumstance. Brando claimed he had combined poetry and science, but his values and his lifestyle were as traditional bourgeois as they come: he raised his daughters Catholic, and when they grew up he married them to navy officers. According to Tomatis, he never went to mass more than his social obligations demanded, but his wife and daughter attended the chic eleven o’clock mass every Sunday. His brother-in-law, according to Tomatis, was also in the military, and, like his father, gained the rank of general. Starting in the sixties, he’d often visited North American instructors in Panama, in Washington, at the School of the Americas. Because his entire career transpired in the shadow of General Negri, the celebrated torturer, he’d been given the nickname, even in certain military circles, of secondary anticommunist, in reference likewise to his subdued personality, a possible side effect of his alcoholism. And, Tomatis says, precisely because of all of this, he’d once been forced to ask Brando for a favor. Tomatis is quiet for a few seconds, remembering, reflecting maybe. Soldi’s, Violeta’s, and the others’ expressions have also turned solemn. Gabriela lowers her head, possibly so as not to have to look anyone in the eyes, or possibly in order to listen better to what she’s actually heard many times already, from Tomatis, from her parents, or old friends that Tomatis and her parents had in common: the story of the disappearance of El Gato Garay—Tomatis’s friend and Pichón’s twin brother—and Elisa, his lover for several years. She was more or less separated from her husband, who knew about the affair. And though she didn’t live with Gato all the time, she would spend her weekends with him, and sometimes, when she wasn’t busy with the children, whole weeks. El Gato spent practically all his time at the beach house in Rincón that had once been the Garay family’s weekend retreat. El Gato lived on almost nothing, odd jobs from friends mostly, enough for food, for drinks, and for tobacco. He left the town less and less frequently; it was extremely strange to see him in the city. When Elisa visited him, her black car would be parked for days without moving, gathering sandy dust. Every so often they’d walk through the town on their way to the grocery or to the butcher shop, otherwise they were always in the white house, which was starting to fall apart, or in the rear courtyard, which could have been cleaned more regularly. They were an unusual couple, polite but not very demonstrative, and at that time being even slightly different from the people around you who put you in danger for your life. (Someone once joked that they were kidnapped because they didn’t have a television.)
Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .
The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .
One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the. . .
In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those. . .
One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that. . .
The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some. . .
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .