14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping, which is translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and is available from Archipelago Books.

Here is part of her review:

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Click here to read the entire review.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Khoury definitely sounds notes of sincere frustration, bitterness, and disenchantment in this novel. However, that doesn’t stop him from luxuriating in the depictions of the region’s poetry, dress, and cookery. He describes kibbeh arnabiyyeh, a Levantine specialty, in rich detail: “One needed serious training to appreciate [the dish] fully. Tahini was cooked with seven different citrus fruits, onions were cut to resemble wings, the chick peas all but melted in the tahini mixture with its swirling colors from pale to brown. . . “ (118). This tonal ambiguity allows readers to experience at the linguistic level the same mental dilemma that Mansour, Milia, and many Levant-dwellers experience every day. Theirs is a land steeped in sanctity, but also in violence; a region consecrated by divine power, but defiled by human madness; in short, a land both loved and feared.

Before long, this same madness invades Mansour and Milia’s once-happy marriage. (Toward the beginning, it’s clear that Khoury is a true romantic: “But look at me – I love you without knowing you. I feel you, who you are, from inside, and that’s enough,” (24) Mansour waxes, wooing Milia.) But when his brother Amin is murdered in a border skirmish, Mansour insists on returning to Jaffa to take over the family business. Milia intuitively objects, sensing her child will be born into a maelstrom of bloodshed: “Milia’s nights now filled with oranges that looked like bombs,” Khoury tells us. “- the color red everywhere, covering faces and objects” (223).

Ostensibly apolitical, Milia doesn’t have the power of rational logic on her side. “Tayyib, tayyib,” Mansour chides, dismissing dreams as fickle excuses that give her “the freedom to interpret matters however she liked” (80). True, Milia lives her life “as though she were sleeping,” but isn’t it the prerogative of the dreamer to interpret the dream? And Milia undeniably discerns the truth through her visions, correctly predicting her Aunt Salma’s death and her ex-lover Najib’s infidelity.

Throughout the book Khoury treats narratives with extreme suspicion. By sympathizing with dreamers like Milia, he cautions against dominant, rational interpretations of reality. This becomes especially clear when Khoury re-narrates sections of the Bible, provocatively throwing its authoritative status into question. At one point Khoury even goes so far as to implicate a comparison between Milia and Christ:

“[Milia] wanted to say, None of this has anything to do with me. . . Lord, how different people become mixed inside me. I don’t know who I am anymore.

He was like that, too, said Tanyous the monk. As he went to the cross he did not feel that he was himself. He felt everyone becoming a part of him. He tried to keep his memories apart but he saw everything together. He became mother and father, the Sitt and the Sayyid, Lady and Lord and lamb. Because he was everything he could say nothing. If he could have talked, what would he have said? And if he did have things to say, who would have understood him? And if he found someone who did understand, who would believe?” (305).

Though far-fetched, the comparison is moving: what if prophets really did live this way, in a perpetual state of self-doubt that Biblical authors conveniently edited out? Milia certainly has much in common with the version of Jesus that Khoury imagines: like him, she frequently feels that she “can say nothing,” struggling to translate her dreams into language. To her, words are like “wraps that hid things. . . As if the bodies of the words veiled the meanings” (111). Through Milia’s struggle, Khoury implicates an ironic, frustrating linguistic paradox. Though words possess great potential to express beauty and meaning, they can also be used equally well to lie, inhibiting the truth instead of freeing it. In Milia’s experience, language is cloying, artificial, and useless. She knows calamity is coming, but what can she do? Putting her dreams into words seems to trap them and obscure their true meaning. And if she could tell about them, who would believe her?

In a nightmare come true, the book closes with a cathartic extended dream-sequence. Milia graphically envisions a dark future ahead: “. . . the smell of blood. Blood in the streets. Mansour stands before his workshop, which lies in ruins, the machinery soaked in blood and wet with severed limbs” (366). This is just one example of the hundreds of eerie dream-spectacles crowding the novel’s pages. Clearly, something is haunting this book – whether it’s the imminent 1948 Nakba, the general tragedy of the Levant, or the death of smaller stories in the face of predominating interpretations.

Fascinating, chimerical, and complex, Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping is a hymn to the Levant and its war-ravaged people. By re-envisioning Biblical events and testifying to the truth of dreams, Khoury questions the power of authoritative, ‘rational’ versions of events. His is an ode not just to Mansour and Milia, but to all people whose lives have been forgotten, and to all the small stories obliterated from history by larger, ruling narratives.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, which is translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin and is available from New Directions.

Here is part of her review:

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Click here to read the entire review.

13 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.

Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:

Just as the space surrounded by four walls has a specific value, provoked not so much because it is a space but because it is surrounded by walls. Otávio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both. . . Besides: how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and soul?

This startling metaphor is remarkably precise: haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, “enclosed” by a loved one, albeit protected? Don’t the structural walls of relationships also compromise our identity, defining us with a substance that is not ourselves? Add to these astute insights Lispector’s radical writing style, which mirrors the process of thinking – much like in Woolf’s The Waves. Though nominal events do take place in the text – Joana’s father dies; Joana goes to live with her aunt; Joana attends boarding school, gets married, and leaves her husband – inner mental life constitutes the book’s central concern. Fraught with dense introspection, many pages are devoted solely to Joana’s philosophical quandaries:

. . .She asked herself many questions, but she could never answer herself: she’d stop in order to feel. How was a triangle born? As an idea first? Or did it come after the shape had been executed? Would a triangle be born fatally? Things were rich. – She would want to spend time on the question. But love invaded her. Triangle, circle, straight lines. . . As harmonious and mysterious as an arpeggio. Where does music go when it’s not playing? -She asked herself. And disarmed she would answer: may they make a harp out of my nerves when I die.

Indeed, Joana is a beautiful thinker, but the wilderness of her imagination also isolates her from others. Other characters perceive her with confusion, sometimes labeling her “evil” or “unfeeling”: “She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her,” her aunt says. On the other hand, her husband, Otávio, is baffled by the fatal mix of attraction and repulsion Joana arouses in him. Nonetheless, he can’t deny the way she profoundly impacts his life: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.” A sort of irony emerges in the push-pull attitude Joana exhibits toward relationships, alternately embracing others for the comfort they promise and rejecting them when they burden her.

I question whether the actions and emotions Joana unleashes are really “evil” – they’re intense, for sure, but I think Joana is better described as amoral. And it’s precisely this lack of conventional mores that allows her to imagine and discover so much: because she moves through life without needing to label anything ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ Joana can think unrestrained. No thought or feeling is taboo for her, even if it proves her animal nature. If a man devouring meat allures her, or if contrived human “goodness” disgusts her, she’s not embarrassed or afraid to report it with gritty impartiality:

. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.

. . . she had seen a greedy man eating. She had secretly watched his bulging eyes, gleaming and stupid, trying not to miss the slightest trace of flavor. And his hands, his hands. One holding a fork with a piece of bloody meat (not warm and quiet, but very much alive, ironic, immoral) skewered on it, the other twitching on the tablecloth, pawing it nervously in his urgency to eat another mouthful already. . .The ferocity, the richness of his color. . . A shiver had run down Joana’s spine, with the sorry cup of coffee in front of her. But she wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards if it had been out of repugnance or fascination and lust. Both no doubt. . . As if she were watching someone drink water only to discover her own thirst, profound and ancient.

As difficult of a heroine as Joana is, and as difficult as Lispector’s prose may be – sometimes verging on abstraction – there’s something deeply relatable about both: a deep yearning to understand and to be understood permeates the text of this book. Beneath the surface of her words, Joana is deeply self-conscious, frustrated with her ability to say what she actually means. Wearily, she repeats:

‘Yes, I know. . . The distance that separates emotions from words. I’ve already thought about that. And the most curious thing is that the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say. Or at least what makes me act is not, most certainly, what I feel but what I say.’

This is the challenge, which Moser points to in his introduction, that forms the crux of the book: to capture “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself;” to successfully unite words with meaning and emotions. This linguistic struggle parallels Joana’s own psychological struggle to make herself understood in relation to others, while simultaneously preserving her individuality. Should she exist alone, full-fledged – like a solitary word – symbolizing only that which she contains in her own form? Or should she attach herself to other layers of meaning – people, beliefs, or God – which will necessarily plaster themselves over her own essential meaning?

Joana’s conundrum, though complex, is common. Haven’t we all been bound in the archetypal struggle of communication at some point? “Try to understand my heroine, Aunty, listen,” Joana says. “She is vague and audacious. She doesn’t love, she isn’t loved. . . However what Joana has inside her is something stronger than the love that people give and what she has inside her demands more than the love people receive. Do you understand, Aunty? I wouldn’t call her a hero, as I promised Daddy myself.” Yet Joana is a heroine of sorts: as much as she might defy our expectations, she’s brave enough to tell the truth. By maintaining her selfhood to the last, Joana gives us something deeply real. Though the truth may not be convenient or comfortable, those who have the courage to tell it are the real heroes.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is joint review by Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah on Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus, which is translated from the Italian by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from McSweeney’s.

Here is an excerpt from their review:

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such.

Click here to read their entire review.

6 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Alessandro Baricco’s latest novel, Emmaus, centers on the friendship of four working-class Catholic adolescents and their shared love for a tragic, sexual young woman named Andre. The plot of the novel follows the trajectory of a classic loss of innocence story, but Baricco immediately complicates this definition. What distinguishes Emmaus from other narratives of this archetype is its ambiguous stance in respect to Catholicism and sin. It would be a grievous oversimplification to say that the boys live in a world of repression and then find truth, or that they are innocent, pure souls in childhood and are subsequently corrupted in adolescence. To the contrary, Baricco distinctly avoids this simplistic dichotomy of good and evil: the narrator and his friends possess constant awareness of promiscuity and violence, but they don’t label it as such. In the words of the narrator:

. . . we are ignorant of what scandal is, because we instinctively accept every possible deviation betrayed by those around us simply as an unexpected supplement to the protocol of normality. So, for example, when, in the darkness of the parish cinema, we felt the priest’s hand resting on the inside of our thigh, we weren’t angry but quickly deduced that evidently things were like that, priests put their hands there – it wasn’t something you needed to mention at home.

There’s a disturbingly dismissive tone in the narrator’s voice as he describes these deviant acts – these acts of molestation aren’t sinful or bad; rather, things are “like that,” and the boys simply accept it.

When the narrator’s best friend Luca first experiences a break with his childhood vision of the world, it is compared to traversing outside their homeland: “For the first time one of us pushed beyond the inherited borders, in the suspicion that there are no borders, in reality, no mother house untouched. . . From that land he looks at us, waiting for us to follow”. These “inherited borders,” once so immutable, quickly break down as the novel progresses. One by one, the four young men slip into the realm of tragedy – a world where priests molest children but also give the Eucharist, where mothers sleep with Confessors but also fiercely protect their young, where girlfriends will be virgins until they marry, yet submit to sexual touching under a blanket. But readers will struggle to link this shadowy world to the conventional notion of “sin.” The author presents us with a cast of morally mixed characters, whose deviant actions fail to receive the kind of denunciation you’d expect from an insular Catholic community.

Take, for example, “the Saint,” the most ostensibly pious of the four friends. He aims to join the priesthood, displaying a faith that’s beyond passionate in its dimensions: “That mother made us tell her that we prayed, while the Saint burned in prayer; and his legs had a way of kneeling that was like crashing, when we simply changed position—he fell to his knees”. The fervor with which the Saint prays is almost erotic – a quality that makes his faith appear close to his vice, like two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the narrator suggests that the Saint’s sinister tendencies are what propel his piety: “None of us have that sensitivity to evil, a kind of morbid, terrifying attraction – increasingly morbid, inevitably, because it is terrifying – as none of us have the same vocation as the Saint for goodness, sacrifice, meekness, which are the consequence of that terror”. Perversely, a disturbingly intimate familiarity with evil fuels the sanctity of characters like the Saint.

One of the more poignant elements of the novel was its meditation on faith. The Catholicism posited by this book, however, is hard to define – the priests try to teach the boys “that faith is a gift, which comes from on high and belongs to the world of mystery”. In other words, it is a holy and untouchable boon from God. Yet despite their respect for the Bible and their clergymen, the boys see their faith as derived from a different source: “From somewhere, and in an invisible way, our unhappy families passed on to us an immutable instinct to believe that life is an immense experience”. Conventional teachers of faith, such as priests, parents, or scriptures, lack the authority that you’d expect them to wield in this book; that power instead belongs to human instinct, which molds their particular religion and guides their actions. This frequently-iterated sense of humanism would seem to throw traditional Catholicism into question, an idea which is later echoed in the statement, “long before God, we believe in man – and this alone, in the beginning, is faith”. Faith isn’t a dry scripture or a fixed doctrine for the boys; it is something fluid, malleable, and organic, constantly remodeled to match the changing structure of their lives.

Emmaus is a painful and lyrical chronicle of adolescence, but the narrative voice is too cognizant, too reflective to belong to a young boy. The pensive tone implies a back-looking narrator, who possesses the objectivity and emotional detachment to explain to us, calmly and logically, the shock two boys experience when they find out that a parent is severely depressed:

. . . this gives an idea of how we’re made. We have a blind faith in our parents; what we see at home is the just, well-balanced way of things, the protocol of what we consider mental health. We adore our parents for that reason—they keep us sheltered from any anomaly. So the hypothesis doesn’t exist that they, first of all, can be an anomaly—an illness.

Yet what are we supposed to glean from the fact that the ostensibly adult narrator chooses to speak in the present tense whenever he comments on the general state of his adolescent life? Does he still have a blind faith in his parents, or is he merely inhabiting his youth linguistically as well as emotionally? This is another way in which Baricco complicates the simple architecture of a loss of innocence narrative; the voice of the boy, the adolescent, and the man are indistinguishable.

The narrator spends so much time grappling with philosophical and religious conundrums that we come to expect a reconciliation of these tensions, but this is in no way fulfilled. The book’s final pages are filled with just as much uncertainty as the middle. Finishing it feels like waking up from a dream, one full of would-be-contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense according to the logic of the dream. Upon waking, all that’s left is the disarming question of whether or not this logic can apply successfully in the real world.

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Winstein-Hibbs on Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, which is translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and is available from Biblioasis.

As Sarah states in her introduction, this is her first book review for threepercent!

Here is part of her review:

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Click here to read the entire review.

29 June 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.

Leonora was the childhood friend and teenage compatriot that writer Diana Glass always looked to for inspiration, zeal, and leadership. The book contains many passages in which Diana waxes nostalgic, attempting to immortalize the heyday of their Communist cause, with Leonora at the vanguard:

“She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a flower.” (14)

After witnessing Leonora’s sudden and horrific abduction at the hands of the government, Diana resolves to document her life in a grand, impassioned subversive tragedy. However, the facts that eventually surface interfere with her pre-planned storyline of glorious heroism and martyrdom: Leonora has been brutally tortured and given information to the government; Leonora has defected and joined the other side; Leonora is in love with her torturer, who is also her husband’s murderer. Upon learning the truth about Leonora’s fate, Diana experiences a type of literary paralysis, willfully self-editing her text because the truth is so abominable to her.

Heker’s book is largely about disillusionment and betrayal, and this applies not just to Diana, but also to readers. Only when we’re three pages from the end do we know for sure who the narrator has been all along: it’s the wily Hertha Bechofen, who voyeuristically watches Diana writing in cafes, eavesdrops on her conversations, and writes about life through the eyes of torturers, victims, mothers, fathers, children, and survivors. Indeed, the book wouldn’t be possible without her impartiality, since Bechofen’s past experiences in WWII Vienna allow her to perceive the Dirty War with emotional distance and calm level-headedness. Where Diana is indignant and myopic, Bechofen is skeptical and detached, making her the better narrator for the story:

“…this isn’t a story about heroes, my dear,” Bechofen chides, “it’s a story about murder and murderers. And it’s also a story about survivors…So, forget your heroine and tell what you have to tell.” “It isn’t what I wanted,” Diana protests. “History is never what one wants, my dear. But it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t feel right for you to write the story, I’ll write it myself. For a while now I’ve been looking for an interesting character; now I have two.” “Go on and try, Hertha, but you won‘t be able to. Now I know the story well. I know it will end for you in the first chapter. The character already shows her true colors there…she tore my own story to shreds, you see, my own sacred springtime. She ruined it forever.” (175)

What Diana wants to write conflicts with what actually happened: her intense emotional investment in history prevents her from documenting the truth. Throughout the novel, Diana grieves the breakdown of her ideology and the loss of her heroine. Because Diana can’t work through her own disappointment and obstinacy, Bechofen is the writer that ultimately takes over the story.

Unlike Diana’s lyrical reminisces, there’s a strangely flattened, matter-of-fact quality to the narration in the descriptions of violence and imprisonment in this book, as though Heker were trying to dissect a tragedy:

“Interrogations aren’t the only activities that take place in the basement, but the woman lying on a cot, chained, has no way of knowing this. She can only distinguish what can be heard in the distance—music on the radio, cries, fragments of interrogations—or at times, whatever happens to cross her field of vision, since her blindfolded condition—if the recumbent woman is lucky—might not be permanent. In the strictest sense, almost nothing is permanent in this section since, according to what the recumbent woman can distinguish, subjects are taken away once the session is over or in the event of death. The electrical equipment can be observed on a small table near the cot. Anyone lying there, chained, would be perfectly able to deduce, if observant enough, that all the compartments must have similar equipment and that other instruments—clubs, pliers, scalpels for pulling off skin—must be brought in especially for certain sessions. The lighting—logically, since it’s a basement—is always artificial.” (82-83)

This cold-blooded tone of voice actually makes the torture even more disturbing; the text is stripped of detail and emotion, which makes readers suspect—chillingly—this unbelievable series of events hasn’t been romanticized or fictionally embellished at all.

As in many effective war novels, Heker spares us from nothing—with unflinching candor she takes us right into the torture room, with all of its animal sights, sounds and smells.

But what stuns about Heker’s book is the way that she fearlessly mines the psychic states of torturers, and—arguably—even creates sympathy with them simply by giving them a voice in the novel. Because of the monstrosity of state-sponsored violence unleashed during the Dirty War, many would consider the articulation of such viewpoints to be pure evil, or at least propagandistic—“She’s playing right into the military’s hands,” in the words of one incensed writer. But in my opinion, these are the moments that make the book so strong: Heker is not afraid to voice any perspective of the war in her novel, as dangerous as it may be. Though she herself is a former Argentinean left-wing journalist and self-proclaimed socialist, through many of her characters Heker voices a deeply bitter disenchantment that other former revolutionaries might be too timid—or too proud—to articulate. And by telling about the love affair that occurs between Leonora and her torturer, she shows how even in times of war, the human instinct is stronger than abstract systems of honor and dogma that supposedly govern human life.

Many readers have criticized Heker’s book for its lack of closure and resolution, but this is precisely what gives the novel its realism. In life and war, no absolute truth or simple answer exists; Heker’s story achieves this reality by exploring the motives and perspectives on both sides of the conflict. This spectrum of emotion and thought furnishes the book with a literary richness and depth that would be impossible if Heker were openly rooting for one team. Which side is right; who’s culpable for the war; whose philosophy is more sound? – Heker refuses to answer these questions for us. What she does offer us instead is the infinitely more valuable opportunity to think critically about the evidence presented, instead of blindly accepting the ideology of one authority (philosophy, government, author, party, faction). Heker’s book shows that there is never simply one way to tell about a war, or one way to end the story—there are many.

18 June 12 | Sarah Winstein-Hibbs | Comments

I’m Sarah Winstein-Hibbs – nicknamed “quantum Sarah” by Chad, who thinks my weird hyphenated last name sounds like some kind of subatomic particle – and I’m an English Literature major at University of Rochester. I’m interning at Open Letter this summer, so I’ll be posting on threepercent throughout June, July, and August. I had the great opportunity to write an upcoming review Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, a shocking novel on the atrocity of the Argentinian Dirty War. Also watch for a joint review I’m writing with with super awesome co-star Sarah Young, on Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco’s haunting and lyrical new work, Emmaus.

A little bit about me: I love the arts, I love learning about different cultures, I love reading and writing and playing flute. I got interested in Open Letter when I took International Fiction last semester and read Kafka, Borges, Marquez, Nabokov, and Calvino. I’ve also studied Spanish literature and language, so Open Letter speaks to my interests in that regard, as well. Speaking of which, my big summer project will be reading and reviewing a forthcoming anthology of Spanish literature, featuring both renowned and newly-acclaimed authors. In the music realm, I’m a performer and avid fan of classical music. I also serve as co-artistic director for an exciting new project called Sound ExChange Orchestra, an innovative ensemble dedicated to the proliferation of classical music in contemporary American society (click here to read more!) I’m super excited to be involved in Open Letter this summer and am looking forward to sharing lots of good reads and good conversation with you all!

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