I can’t do half the job summing up this mammoth book that Paul Doyle did for Quarterly Conversation. So rather than even try, I’m going to give all props to Paul and use his review to profile this particular BTBA title:
If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.
Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.
This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.” [. . .]
History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.
Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.
This is a much different novel from Palinuro of Mexico, the other del Paso book that’s made its way into English. (And is also published by Dalkey Archive.) Both are incredibly ambitious, with Palinuro being more manically hilarious and drunk on lists.
That’s not to say News from the Empire isn’t remarkable—it’s an amazing achievement, and the writing is beautiful, even when the central focus is historical positioning and events. It’s a tough book to quote from, but here’s the opening bit of the first “historical section” (in contrast to the “Carlota sections,” which are all set in 1927 at the end of her life).
In the year of our Lord 1861, a sallow Indian named Benito Juarez governed Mexico. He had been orphaned at three, and at eleven had become a shepherd who climbed the trees by the Enchanted Lagoon to play his reed flute and talk to the birds and beasts in Zapotec, the only language he knew.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Napoleon III reigned in France. Some had given him the nickname “Mustachoo” because of his long, full, black, and pointed mustache, which he treated with Hungarian ointments; others called him the Little Napoleon to distinguish him from his famous uncle, Napoleon the Great—that is, Napoleon Bonaparte.
One day, Benito Pablo left the relatives who had taken him in. He abandoned his sheep, and the town of his birth, Guelatao—a word meaning “deep dark night” in his language—and walked twenty-six leagues to the city of Oaxaca, where he could find work as a servant in a wealthy home like his older sister had done; and most of all where he could get an education. Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, was a city that could be described as “ultra-montane,” not only because it was located beyond the mountains, but also because of its sanctimoniousness and its submissiveness to Rome. There, Juarez learned Spanish, arithmetic and algebra, Latin, theology, and law. In time, not only in Oaxaca, but also in other cities, undergoing other exiles—whether he was stubbornly pursuing a goal or fulfilling a destiny sent by Heaven—he also learned to be a representative, then governor of his State, Minister of Justice, Secretary of the Interior, and, finally, President of the Republic.
Little Napoleon didn’t manage to become Emperor of France until his third attempt. Nothing seemed to help: not Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding ring, which people say, he had used as a talisman during his first attempt; not the strip of bacon some say he fastened to his hat during his second attempt—so that an eaglet, a bird he had bought for a pound sterling at Gravesend soon after embarking down the Thames on the Edinburgh Castle—would always follow him and hover around him. No, none of these ploys helped Little Napoleon gain the power he sought on his arrival in France.
This is a dense book that takes some time to read, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.
For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.
Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.
This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)
Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.“
Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”
A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)
I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
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. . .
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,. . .
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. . .
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?),. . .