1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Julia Haav on Ena Lucia Portela’s One Hundred Bottles.

Julia Haav is a publicist for Europa Editions and is completing a master’s degree in the humanities, with a focus on contemporary Latin American literature, at NYU. I also believe she’s one of my newest GoodReads friends, and she’s the author of a very interesting piece on five Latin American books about Germans.

Ena Lucia’a Portela won the 2002 Jaen Prize for this book and is the author of several other works of fiction. I’m not usually a blurb man (jesus that sounds dirty), but the praise on this book is stunning. Esther Allen, Natasha Wimmer, and Jose Manuel Prieto all have amazing things to say about Portela and her novel. This line from Prieto might be the most laudatory: “Without doubt one of the best writers Cuba has produced in recent years.”

Anyway, here’s the opening of Julia’s review:

When Z. was a child in Havana she learned how to disassemble and reassemble the engines of classic American cars. Z., the narrator of Ena Lucía Portela’s One Hundred Bottles, describes this skill as the most useful thing she knows, and her aptitude at the art of reconstruction is made beautifully clear in this compact but panoptic portrait of modern Cuba in crisis. One Hundred Bottles is a novel about novels and novelists, and about a writer’s duty to deconstruct and rearrange prevailing systems. More specifically, it is a novel about two writers living through The Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR, and the cessation of Soviet petroleum imports, led to a devastating economic collapse.

Z., who narrates in a conversational and colloquial monologue, is an overweight twentysomething at work on an unnamed book. She lives in a single room in a decrepit mansion that has become overrun with migrants from the countryside and their unruly pets. Named after Tchaikovsky’s code letter for homosexuals, Z. is the unlikely product of a Parisian mother who died in childbirth and an openly, and flamboyantly, gay Cuban father who long ago left for San Francisco. Enmeshed in an abusive relationship with Moisés—a man so terrible he seems to be both misogyny and misanthropy incarnate—she is at once always and never alone. Her sharp but caustic best friend Linda tells Z. that her place in life is the same as her place in the alphabet.

Linda, it just so happens, is also at work on a book, about a double homicide, called 100 Bottles on the Wall.

Click here to read the full piece.

1 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [17]

When Z. was a child in Havana she learned how to disassemble and reassemble the engines of classic American cars. Z., the narrator of Ena Lucía Portela’s One Hundred Bottles, describes this skill as the most useful thing she knows, and her aptitude at the art of reconstruction is made beautifully clear in this compact but panoptic portrait of modern Cuba in crisis. One Hundred Bottles is a novel about novels and novelists, and about a writer’s duty to deconstruct and rearrange prevailing systems. More specifically, it is a novel about two writers living through The Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR, and the cessation of Soviet petroleum imports, led to a devastating economic collapse.

Z., who narrates in a conversational and colloquial monologue, is an overweight twentysomething at work on an unnamed book. She lives in a single room in a decrepit mansion that has become overrun with migrants from the countryside and their unruly pets. Named after Tchaikovsky’s code letter for homosexuals, Z. is the unlikely product of a Parisian mother who died in childbirth and an openly, and flamboyantly, gay Cuban father who long ago left for San Francisco. Enmeshed in an abusive relationship with Moisés—a man so terrible he seems to be both misogyny and misanthropy incarnate—she is at once always and never alone. Her sharp but caustic best friend Linda tells Z. that her place in life is the same as her place in the alphabet.

Linda, it just so happens, is also at work on a book, about a double homicide, called 100 Bottles on the Wall. Already an established author of feminist detective fiction, Linda lives in a spacious penthouse apartment—inherited from her parents when they emigrated to Israel—survives on royalty checks from her agent in Spain and makes frequent sojourns abroad. She holds two passports—Austrian and Cuban—speaks six languages and makes sweeping, melodramatic claims about Emily Brontë (brilliant but misunderstood) and Virginia Woolf (an Anglo Saxon lizard who “used feminism as a cover to rake Katherine Mansfield over the coals”).

The novel’s dramatic arc takes nascent form when Linda is invited to attend a conference of Hispanic Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College in New York. Traveling to the U.S. on her Austrian passport, she speaks English with a German accent to avoid scrutiny at customs. As Z. is quick to note, Linda, who is the descendent of European Holocaust survivors, “doesn’t have a drop of Hispanic in her” but because she writes in Spanish is nevertheless included in the event and supported heartily, if blindly, by her fellow writers. Scheduled to return to Havana after a week, Linda instead stays in New York for six months, living in Washington Heights with a Puerto Rican poet and coming out as a lesbian.

Upon returning to Cuba, Linda becomes an integral part of Havana’s lesbian community and starts a tumultuous affair with a very jealous younger woman, Alix Oyster. When the couple comes to blows—or whatever else you might call a sloppy knife/gun fight—Linda kicks Alix to the curb. The girl first finds herself on the streets and then on a sympathetic Z.’s bedroom floor; which is where she stays until the night of a double homicide that may, or may not be, the same double homicide Linda is writing about in 100 Bottles on the Wall.

Portela is an excellent practitioner of double entendres and semiotic slights of hand, which lends to a storyline that is often more atmospheric and anecdotal than streamlined. Much of One Hundred Bottles takes a wide angle on the culture of 1990s Havana, with Z. evoking a shaky handheld video camera. Z. seems to derive great pleasure from her bizarre, and often obscene encounters and treats these incidents with a voyeur’s enthusiasm. In a particularly poignant episode, Z. seduces a former classmate, J.J., who in the midst of some very public sex on the Malecón, calls out “linda”, which Z. at first hears as linda (pretty) but is actually Linda. If this seems awfully bleak, well, Z. finds it amusing and invites J.J. back to her room for a second, and third, round. This ability to survive any number of hardships—cramped living quarters, Moisés’ physical and verbal abuse, the severe dearth of food for years on end—seems to derive from Z.’s singular ability to disassemble reality and reconstruct it, so that what should logically be terrible becomes roughly bizarre and bemusing.

Portela is very much a writer’s writer, and she peppers One Hundred Bottles with literary references, Latin terminology, and quotes from King Lear (“thou whoreson Zed! Thou unnecessary letter!”). At times these stylistics can become cloyingly clever, as is the case with the character Poliéster, the son of a Cuban woman and a Russian engineer, who owes his name to the synthetic fabric. But at its best this fascination with semiotics reveals itself in an intelligent exploration of authorship and identity. The question of who is writing whom is never resolved, leaving the reader without evidence that Linda and her crime novel aren’t fabrications from Z.’s book. Or, for that matter, that it isn’t actually Linda who has created the character of Z.

It is worth noting that the one weak point in an otherwise seamlessly worded English rendition is the book’s title, which in its original Spanish is Cien botellas en una pared (One Hundred Bottles on a Wall) the exact title of Linda’s book. This is also, and equally significantly, the title of that highly repetitive song, sung to pass the time on long car trips. One Hundred Bottles is very much about this stretch—the bleak decade when Cuba struggled to rearrange itself after Soviet collapse—and about the role of narrative in quelling the subsequent emptiness and uncertainty. But Portela offers her readers something far more nuanced than an homage to storytelling. At its best, One Hundred Bottles makes for a brilliant lesson in the art of disassembling relics. At work in both the novel and the song are a war of attrition and a process of extraction, the taking down and passing around of one single part of a larger whole. One Hundred Bottles succeeds as a story of crisis and survival because it turns the focus from the pattern on the wall to dissenting pieces compelled to forgo such uniformity.

13 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on my earlier post about Benjamin Moser’s forthcoming Lispector biography, Why This World, I want to correct some information about her available titles.

In addition to all the New Directions ones I listed on the original post, Family Ties is also available from the University of Texas Press, and this fall, the UK based Haus Publishing will be reissuing The Apple in the Dark with a new introduction by Moser.

(Haus is one of the coolest presses I’ve come across recently. Found out about them at the London Book Fair thanks to their connection with American University of Cairo Press. And the fact that they do amazing work. More on them in a separate post . . .)

(And granted, I’m not very old, but once, one of my interns was reading Family Ties and I made a joke about Michael J. Fox and the TV show. As it turns out, my befuddled intern wasn’t born until after the show had gone off the air.)

28 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I’m sure that most fans of Latin American literature are already familiar with University of Texas Press’s long tradition of publishing great works in translation. Back in the day they did Borges, Clarice Lispector, even Juan Rulfo. But for the past few years the series has been pretty silent . . .

But yesterday I (and a few others) got an e-mail from Casey Kittrell, who is slowly but surely rebuilding the list. This is fantastic news, and the first title — And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio — sounds pretty interesting:

Professor Juan Manuel Barrientos prefers footsteps to footnotes. Fighting a hangover, he manages to keep his appointment to lead a group of students on a walking lecture among the historic buildings of downtown Mexico City. When the students fail to show up, however, he undertakes a solo tour that includes more cantinas than cathedrals. Unable to resist either alcohol itself or the introspection it inspires, Professor Barrientos muddles his personal past with his historic surroundings, setting up an inevitable conclusion in the very center of Mexico City.

The book officially comes out in March, and we’ll definitely post a long review of it as soon as possible.

....
I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

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,. . .

Read More >

The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

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. . .

Read More >