Since I am the youngest, the least knowledgeable, and by far the most superficial judge in the BTBA, it’s only appropriate that I make my first blog post about something sexy. As a judge in the much-fun World Cup of Literature this summer, also hosted by Three Percent, my write up for Croatia vs. Mexico accidentally ended up referencing my sexual mischief in June. So yeah, I’m not going to bore anyone with that again. Instead, I believe it would be appropriately disgraceful of me to dedicate this post to: not the authors, not the translators, but the book designers.
That’s right. I’m judging books by their covers.
In appreciation of the NY Art Book Fair, presented by the nonprofit Printed Matter (provider of artists’ book awesomeness since 1976), I would like to acknowledge some of my favorite covers in the BTBA so far. I feel particularly compelled to do so after witnessing an inspiring talk last week about cover design and the visual enactment of literature, as a part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University. The talk was given by one of my favorite contemporary book designers, Peter Mendelsund, whose new Kafka covers you might have noticed (the series with the eyes). Mendelsund studied philosophy and literature, went on to become a classical pianist, and then suddenly decided to learn book design on his own. His appreciation for immediacy inspired me to go ahead and blog about something I have absolutely no knowledge of. Also, he claimed that developing a taste in design was super easy. Basically, you just ask yourself what looks good. So there.
First up is Quesadillas : a novel, cover illustration by Joel Holland (written by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
I immediately noticed this light paperback when it came in the mail, despite the fact that it chose to arrive with books from five different publishers. The black-on-lime green cover claimed my attention, along with the cow-on-UFO illustration. What’s not to like? I started reading Quesadillas the following day, solely due to its cover.
Another well-designed delicacy I devoured because of its cover was The Guest Cat (written by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland, published by New Directions). Erik Rieselbach is behind this intriguing design (more honorable mention for him later), although the cover art is actually an oil painting by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita from 1927.
According to Christies.com, this piece of oil on canvas, entitled “Chat Couturier”, is worth $60,000-$80,000. I’m not sure if I would ever want that thing on my wall – a cat in any kind of artwork makes me uncomfortable – but as a book cover it definitely works. That stare would make anyone open anything, be it a book, a safe, or an anchovy sandwich.
Next up is Baboon (written by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, published by Two Lines Press). Although broken flowers make me think of Bill Murray by default, Gabriele Wilson’s cover art mercifully exceeds my previous notions. There’s something haunting about the shadows on the petals, something stunning about this terrible flower on a pale background. I’m a fan.
Lastly, I have to dedicate a final paragraph to some books that have already been mentioned by my fellow judge, Madeleine LaRue. I will not waste your time with even more praise to these publications, but simply point out that their covers are among my favorites as well:
Our Lady of the Nile, cover art by Amedeo Modigliani (written by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, published by Archipelago Books).
A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, cover design by N. J. Furl (an anthology of Spanish-language fiction curated by Valerie Miles, published by Open Letter Books).
The End of Days, cover design – yet again – by Erik Rieselbach (written by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by New Directions).
That will be all.Tweet
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.
I live in Berlin, in a neighborhood with a chronically understaffed post office, so books on their way to me from the United States are usually in for an adventure.
A package from Archipelago Books, example, arrived dripping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in Berlin for a week. Luckily, the texts themselves were all intact, and a little water damage has only lent a pleasant air of world-weariness to the appearances.
Another package I received, this time from Vintage, had been opened, its contents shoved into my mailbox, and the envelope stuffed crookedly in after them. Is that even legal?, I wondered, are they even allowed to open my stuff? Turns out, yes, but only is the stuff is books. Since most of them were about hard-boiled detectives, I figured they were used to some rough handling and didn’t feel too sorry for them.
But the best (by which I mean most unusual) delivery arrived this week: an absolutely enormous blue bag bearing the seal of the Belgian post, one gaping end knotted shut with plastic cords. It was the sort of bag I imagine Santa Claus would use if he were a Belgian mailman. For a moment I hoped that there would just be one giant book inside, but instead there was another, slightly smaller blue bag, tidily wrapped and stamped by Sweden Post.
The treasure inside this strange blue matryoshka was more than worth the trouble it took to wrestle it out. Inside the blue Swedish bag, surrounded by what I assume used to be an envelope but which now resembled something closer to the insides of a sofa after they’ve been torn up by a very eager puppy, were eight books from Open Letter, dusty but otherwise unharmed. Among them were several titles I’d been looking forward to for some time: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth, Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, and of course the splendid anthology that’s been getting so much attention on this blog recently, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn.
Of course, no matter how bizarre the story of a book’s arrival at my front door might have been, its importance fades as soon as the experience of the text itself takes over. One of those half-drowned Archipelago titles, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, has proved a moving and memorable read. One of the few novels from sub-Saharan Africa to be eligible for this year’s BTBA, Our Lady of the Nile centers on an elite girls’ boarding school in 1970s Rwanda, shortly before a wave of ethnic violence breaks out. I recently reviewed the novel for Music & Literature, where I wrote of it as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide.
The book I’m reading currently, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, was unusual in that it arrived at my apartment completely unscathed. It’s the first novel by Erpenbeck that I’ve had a chance to read. It begins with the death of an eight-month old baby and traces the ramifications this death later has on the child’s family. But then, in the first of the book’s many “Intermezzo”s, the baby is resurrected: time rewinds itself, the baby is saved in the nick of time. She’s given a second chance at life, allowed to grow up for a few more years. When she finds another death, she is resurrected again, and so on; the main character, whose name we learn only at the end of the novel, keeps dying and keeps not being permitted to die, until she has lived through nearly the entire twentieth century.
A serious (in my opinion, unfortunately humorless) meditation on death, The End of Days was striking to me not only for its compelling premise, but also for the quality of its translation. Susan Bernofsky has produced an exceptionally powerful English version of this very German text; the book’s prose, just like its cover when it arrived in my Berlin mailbox, showed no sign of having made a transatlantic journey.Tweet
Abilio Estévez is next up in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. Arcade brought out a couple of his books a decade ago, but the piece he chose as his “aesthetic highpoint” (excerpted below) has never appeared in English translation.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I’ve chosen this excerpt for three compelling reasons: the first, that I had a hard time writing it, much more than any other section of El navegante dormido, a novel to which I feel a particular connection. The material resisted me for some time, and that struggle, far from discouraging me, always excites me and spurs me on. There is a combative part of me that is nourished when I write. The second reason: it is a section that someone I love, my companion, finds moving. The third reason might seem like a boutade (and, of course, it is), but it has to do with me, with my own inner Mamina fleeing a great fire, not knowing whether the flight will be worth it, not knowing whether salvation exists or what that even means.
As a writer, how has your exile from Cuba affected you?
My exile from Cuba has been good for me as a writer, so far. As a person, I don’t know. The world I lived in was very small, very closed, very provincial, to put it one way. All of a sudden, I discovered that the world was a big, unfamiliar place. I discovered that no one is the center of the universe, that you’re just one passion among many, and that everyone has the same problems. This awareness is very important for a writer. There is an element of humility there that has been really useful for me. Beyond that, I’ve been able to read books that I couldn’t before; I didn’t have access to many cultures. From this perspective, my exile has suited me. From a personal perspective, it’s painful to know that you have to leave a place and won’t be able to go back. Or that if you do go back, your return implies a failure of some kind. It’s like going home not because you’ve decided to go home, but because you’ve decided to die before your time. It’s going back to the feeling of being on that island and wanting to travel and not being able to because they keep you from leaving, or make it too difficult; I have to get foreign money and visas, and then there’s the reality of coming back and having to ask permission to enter, which can be denied. The feeling that I’ve lost everything is always with me, the feeling that I couldn’t leave my home closed up and ask someone to take care of it while I’m gone, but instead that I abandoned it, and that’s a terrible feeling. It’s starting over, now, at fifty-five—I’ve been here for ten years—dealing with problems I should have faced when I was twenty, not now.
Full of danger were the roads Mamina had to travel to find refuge at the beach with no name.
It took her sixty-seven days, and the setbacks she faced were even greater in number. Two endless months and a week full of unthinkable violence. Fleeing from one end of the island to the other, from the distant soil of Oriente to arrive, without knowing why, at an unstable and Babylonian Havana.
“My own Stations of the Cross,” she would say on those rare occasions her spirits were high, or low, enough for her to talk about her journey. Accompanied by the pain of the dead left behind and under the sign of other massacres, deaths no less personal and terrible for their having been strangers, she reflected and suffered along the brutal roads of an island possessed.
Sixty-seven days amid the disasters and consequences of a race war and, to make things worse, bearing the worst possible letter of passage: her dark skin and her face—beautiful, yes, but that of a colored woman born to slaves, the pained, fugitive face of a daughter of the Mandinga and the Embuyla.
It was 1912. It had been only fourteen years since the Spanish Empire, already in terrible condition, lowered its flag, and ten since, the island having become a precarious state—a timid, intermittently democratic republic—a new flag (created by Teurbe Tolón for Narciso López) was raised from the battlements of El Morro and La Cabaña, alongside that of United States. In only fourteen years of independence, there had already been countless strikes, two wars, and two American interventions, as though the ten years of deaths, machete violence, epidemics, starvation, and internment camps between 1868 and 1878 hadn’t been enough, or as though they set the stage for the catastrophe that was, without a doubt, soon to befall the young and afflicted republic.
No one called her Mamina back then, they addressed her by her real, full name: María de Megara Calcedonia. She and her brother Juan Jacobo had been lucky enough to be born, respectively, in the relatively happy years of 1886 and 1887, when the Spanish Crown found itself obligated, after a bloody war which neither side had the distinction of winning completely, to abolish slavery on the “ever Loyal island of Cuba.”
The siblings were born in the mountains near Alto Songo, out between Dos Amantes and La Maya, in the quarters of the El Calamón coffee plantation, which at that time belonged to a formerly wealthy and still legendary family of the area, the Pageries, who, as their name suggests, were French or, rather, of French extraction. From Martinique, the Pagerie family arrived first at Saint Domingue, and from Saint Domingue, fleeing in terror from the armies of Toussaint Louverture, they ended up in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. As their surname also suggests, they were close relatives of the woman who had been Empress of the French, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born, as everyone knows, Tascher de la Pagerie. As such, the owners of El Calamón had that air typical of the Bonaparte nobility, something between stately and wild, a little coarse, that same affected haughtiness accented by a surprising touch of insecurity. Not only the stateliness, but also the wildness, the haughtiness, the affectation and the insecurity were amplified by the distance from that heart shared by every French person known as Paris, and by the everyday struggle of surviving in a land where even the most mundane undertaking becomes an event, vacillating between the tragic, the apocalyptic and, ultimately, the absurd. The Bonaparte nobility felt nobler there, but also more common, more parvenu, if that were possible.
Not very large, El Calamón was by then hardly a coffee plantation at all: it was more like a country house. It still produced a few hundred pounds of coffee, but that was not enough to maintain the familiar standard of luxury, which had not been all that luxurious for some time. The war drastically reduced production. Most of the family’s colored workers had run off to join the fight, which was as long and bloody as it was disorganized and futile.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)Tweet
Up next in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Alfredo Bryce Echenique, whose entry in A Thousand Forests includes a bit from his novel A World for Julius and a previously untranslated story, “Manzanas.”
One of the most intriguing things about Echenique’s life is the plagiarism case that he was involved in. Here’s a bit from Valerie’s intro that makes me think there’s a lot more to this story:
In 2007, Alfredo Bryce was embroiled in a bizarre accusation of multiple plagarisms. The episode, itself with the coloring of a spy novel, carried with it a certain enmity, but also the unconditional support of those who, like Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Vargas Llosa, have been uncompromising in defending their faith in the writer, who continues to steer his literary course between suffering and laughter.
And remember, you can only get Echenique’s previously untranslated story by purchasing this collection. And if you buy it before the end of the month, use the code FORESTS and it’ll only be $15.
Above all I like the pages I picked from Un mundo para Julius for their efficiency. Let’s not forget that they’re the first pages in the book and, in a condensed way, although not lacking in subtleties, they contain a lot of information about the novel’s central characters, with the exception of Juan Lucas—Julius’s stepfather and the novel’s antagonist—whose presence is implied in the nocturnal outings of Susan, Julius’s frivolous, widowed mother. But in addition to introducing the book’s main characters, these pages also introduce the book’s principal settings. The boy’s house is a microcosm of Peru, with borders that he crosses for the first time when he goes from the elegant part of the large mansion where he lives into the so-called “servants’ quarters,” an accurate reflection of a whole country that is profoundly and cruelly divided between the very rich and the very poor, and into distinct regions such as the coast, the world of the Andes, and the Amazon. From these immense and varied regions of Peru come the so-called servants of this wealthy family who, instead of taking interest in their own country, live with their eyes fixed principally on Europe and secondarily on the United States. And so Julius and his siblings attend British and American schools, where the few Peruvian teachers working there come off as deeply pretentious in the eyes of their students.
“Manzanas” is the long monologue of a young and beautiful nymphomaniac who competes with any good-looking girl who crosses her path, and who, at the same time, maintains a romantic relationship with an important musician who is much older, and is able to see her in a good light, even to overlook her infidelities. The tension comes from her admiration for the refined, cultured, and respectable man combined with her desire to surpass him in some way, petty as it may be. She doesn’t say any of this. She just suggests it. A murder, although only symbolic, might be the only way for the guilt-ridden girl to escape from her constant and spiteful obsessions and contradictions.
Julius was born in a mansion on Salaverry Avenue, directly across from the old San Felipe Hippodrome. The mansion had carriage houses, gardens, a swimming pool, and a small orchard into which two-year-old Julius would wander and then be found later, his back turned, perhaps bending over a flower. The mansion had servants’ quarters that were like a blemish on the most beautiful face. There was even a carriage that your great-grandfather used, Julius, when he was President of the Republic, be careful, don’t touch! it’s covered with cobwebs, and turning away from his mother, who was lovely, Julius tried to reach the door handle. The carriage and the servants’ quarters always held a strange fascination for Julius, that fascination of “don’t touch, honey, don’t go around there, darling.” By then his father had already died.
Julius was a year and a half old at the time. For some months he just walked about the mansion, wandering off by himself whenever possible.
Secretly he would head for the servants’ quarters of the mansion that, as we’ve said, were like a blemish on a most beautiful face, a pity, really, but he still did not dare to go there. What is certain is that when his father was dying of cancer, everything in Versailles revolved around the dying man’s bedroom: only his children were not supposed to see him. Julius was an exception because he was too young to comprehend fear but young enough to appear just when least expected, wearing silk pajamas, turning his back to the drowsy nurse and watching his father die, that is, he watched how an elegant, rich, handsome man dies. And Julius has never forgotten that night—three o’clock in the morning, a lit candle in offering to Santa Rosa, the nurse knitting to ward off sleep—when his father opened an eye and said to him poor thing, and by the time the nurse ran out to call for his mother, who was lovely and cried every night in an adjoining bedroom—if anything, to get a bit of rest—it was all over.
Daddy died when the last of Julius’ siblings, who were always asking when he would return from his trip, stopped asking; when Mommy stopped crying and went out one night; when the visitors, who had entered quietly and walked straight to the darkest room of the mansion (the architect had thought of everything), stopped coming; when the servants recovered their normal tone of voice; and when someone turned on the radio one day, Daddy had died.
No one could keep Julius from practically living in the carriage that had belonged to his great-grandfather/president. He would spend the entire day in it, sitting on the worn blue velvet, once gold-trimmed seats, shooting at the butlers and maids who always tumbled down dead by the carriage, soiling their smocks that the Señora had ordered them to buy in pairs so that they would not appear worn when they fell dead each time Julius took to riddling them with bullets from the carriage. No one prevented him from spending all day long in the carriage, but when it would get dark at about six o’clock, a young maid would come looking for him, one that his mother, who was lovely, called the beautiful Chola, probably a descendant of some noble Indian, an Inca for all we know.
The Chola, who could well have been a descendant of an Inca, would lift Julius from the carriage, press him firmly against her probably marvelous breasts beneath her uniform, and not let go until they reached the bathroom in the mansion, the one that was reserved for the younger children and now belonged exclusively to Julius. Often the Chola stumbled over the butlers or the gardener who lay dead around the carriage so that Julius, Jesse James, or Gary Cooper, depending on the occasion, could depart happily for his bath.
And there in the bathroom, two years after his father’s death, his mother had begun to say good-bye. She always found him with his back to her, standing naked in front of the tub, pee pee exposed, but she never saw it, as he contemplated the rising tide in that enormous, porcelainlike, baby-blue tub, which was full of swans, geese, and ducks. His mother would call him darling, but he never turned around, so she would kiss him on the nape of his neck and leave very lovely, while the beautiful Chola assumed the most uncomfortable postures in order to stick her elbow in the water and test the temperature without falling in what could have been a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
And about six-thirty every afternoon, the beautiful Chola took hold of Julius by his underarms, raised him up and eased him little by little into the water. Seeming to genuflect, the swans, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down happily in the warm, clean water. He took them by the neck and gently pushed them along and away from his body, while the beautiful Chola, armed with soapy washcloths and perfumed baby soap, began to scrub gently—ever so gently and lovingly—his chest, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. Julius looked up smiling at her, always asking the same questions, such as: “And where are you from?” and he listened attentively as she would tell him about Puquio, a village of mud houses near Nasca, on the way up to the mountains. She would tell him stories about the mayor or sometimes about medicine men, but she always laughed as if she no longer believed in those things; besides, it had been a long time since she had been up there. Julius looked at her attentively and waited for her to finish talking so he could ask another question, and another, and another. And it was like that every afternoon while his two brothers and one sister finished their homework downstairs and got ready for dinner.
(Translated by Dick Gerdes)Tweet
Alberto Ruy Sánchez, the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series, has a couple books available in English: Names of the Air and The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth.
He also studied with Roland Barthes, which is why I included that bit from his interview.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
You studied with Roland Barthes, and that time in Paris affected you deeply as you explain in the prologue of your book of essays Con la Literatura en el cuerpo. Can you tell us more about that experience?
More a master craftsman in his workshop than a professor behind his lectern. The primary and principal teaching of Roland Barthes was not in the content of his courses, not even in his books, but in his approach to teaching, writing, and understanding the world.
He was not just a professor who gave a lecture on a subject that we students could understand and master, rather he was a craftsman who did his work, and we apprentices in his vicinity saw how he worked and tried to do our own best work, always and only learning the trade of a master craftsman. Not inputting or even imitating the content of his teachings, not turning ourselves into his followers, but into craftsmen of the power of the word and modes of realization. Creating instruments: like goldsmiths do using their hands, one should create instruments of thought and writing using one’s own body. Concepts and styles that were our own. With one fundamental, three-part question: What is the one thing that only I can do in terms of literary form and thought? What do things mean to me in particular? What is the corporeal footprint that I and no one else can leave behind on the things of this world? Writing, I soon deduced, is a way of being in the world. A very modest and very ambitious trade at the same time.
Roland Barthes gave his seminars in two very distinct forums: the massive class, which was so popular that the attendees arrived hours beforehand to get and hold a seat: a lecture that was transmitted simultaneously in other contiguous rooms. And the petit seminaire, where a few of us, no more than ten, formed a space of mutual readership in the presence of Roland Barthes who was another reader in the circle. When he agreed to be my thesis advisor and admitted me as a member of the small seminar he said to me: “You run the risk of getting disillusioned, I’m not a particularly good advisor.” And I already knew it. He had written an essay about his small seminar as a small utopist space, a sort of phalanstery. And that text had just seduced me, it made me want to be there. It was not his glory as a fashionable semiologist. Rather the quality of creating spaces where learning followed a unique form. But he did advise me indirectly in the sense of pushing me to accept the enormous challenge all artists and thinkers face when they start out: to be radically yourself.
The power of that instruction in craft, of that necessarily very personal education, multiplied its effect on me because it radiated its exemplary influence into other courses that were key for me during that time period. The next important seminar I took, studying philosophy, was that of Gilles Deleuze. And no less impassioned and formative, that of Jacques Ranciére in the field of the history of ideas and social utopias and that of André Chastel in the field of art history. Each one had a very personal way of living their trade with extreme passion. And between these four masters, more than professors, I had the foundation to construct a personal point of view regarding political life and its masks, social thought, the place of art and the creation of forms, utopias and communitarian practices and hyperindividual creation, the life of ideas, writing, poetry, reading, symbols and their ghosts. Now these are some of my themes, my obsessions. A node of interests and intensities that, I think, is key to what I am as a writer.Tweet
Cristina Fernaández Cubas is today’s first entry in the ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. Below you’ll find a bit from one of her novels, her explanation for why she included it, and a bit about what Julio Cortázar called “stories against the clock.”
Through the end of the month you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
With respect to the novel El año de Gracia, I’d like to recall its origin. The starting point was a story in the newspaper El País. It was about an environmental group, “Operation Dark Harvest,” and their failed expedition to the island of Gruinard, one of the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island had been contaminated with anthrax in 1941, as a precaution against a possible biological war with Germany, and the goal of the environmentalists was to make off with soil samples and denounce the dangers posed by its mere existence. But what I really found interesting was the geographical location, its characteristics, the setting. An island closed to public curiosity, less than two kilometers from civilization, with the only people granted access being a team of scientists who, with the necessary precautions, visited the island every two years. And above all, this fact: the former inhabitants of the island, mostly shepherds, had been forced to evacuate. On the island, then, there only remained a number of sheep, abandoned to chance . . . And from there my imagination took over. I wondered about the effects of the anthrax on those flocks of sheep; I wondered if it were possible the sheep had become feral and developed murderous tendencies; I thought that perhaps, one shepherd—just one—hiding among the fog and craggy rocks, had refused to follow the order and stayed on the island . . . And so El año de Gracia was born. The story of a young man, well versed in theology and dead languages—though completely unaware of the ways of the world—whose sister Grace gives him “the gift of a year” and fate ends up taking him to the island . . . I still remember the writing process with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Gruinard gave me the opportunity to go on an anachronistic adventure in the middle of the twentieth century. And I took it as far as it would go. [. . .]
In an interview with El País you mentioned the stories that don’t let you go until you’ve finished them, that leave you exhausted, and you cite Cortázar, who calls them “stories against the clock.”
You could also call them “hijacking stories.” You can’t break free from them until you finish them. And then yes, then you can breathe easy, as if you’d just taken off an enormous backpack, a burden . . . They’re usually not very long (it would be hard to stand so much tension) and very frequently they turn rather mysterious even for the author. For a time, at least. Afterward, you start tying up loose ends, understanding where they came from and why they grabbed you like that . . . But all of this belongs to the secret life of stories.
The first word the ancient shepherd mumbled over my sickbed—or the first one I seem to remember—was Grock. At the time, confused by what appeared to be a strange being that was half sheep and half man, it didn’t occur to me that my timely visitor was capable of naming himself, and I assumed it was bleating. But the long recovery, and that strange lucidity that sometimes comes with fever, led me to babble different phrases in various languages until I understood that Grock was speaking a rudimentary English peppered with an abundance of expressions in Gaelic—a language that, unfortunately, I knew nothing about other than its mere existence—and that if I dispensed with any sort of flourish and instead resorted to the purest simplification, my rescuer’s eyes lit up, he nodded or shook his head, and he tried, in turn, to reduce his language as much as possible and limit himself to naming things.
Learning Grock’s language wasn’t terribly burdensome. What helped wasn’t so much my knowledge of English as the evidence that the old man’s peculiar syntax was extremely similar to that of primitive languages, and even to that of many of our children when, provided with a certain vocabulary, they start to express their needs. Grock’s sentences frequently began directly with the material object of interest, then moved on to the accessory information, to the how and why, to the circumstances, and only later, much later, to the real answers to my questions. I asked him repeatedly about the name of the island we were on, and his answer was: “Grock.” I tried to be much more explicit, and adding gestures and faces, I said: “Island . . . This island . . . What is it called?” The answer was invariable: “Grock.” It was obvious that he didn’t distinguish between his name and what was an object of his property. Grock had spent too many years among sheep.
But I couldn’t curse my luck. Thanks to the shepherd’s care and the bits of information I managed to drag out of him with a great deal of patience, I was able to form an approximate idea of where we were located. In an earlier time the Island of Grock had been inhabited by several families of shepherds. Later, “many, many years ago . . . ,” for reasons the old man wasn’t aware of or didn’t know how to explain, the families gathered their belongings, left their flocks behind, and abandoned the land. Only Grock remained on the island, in charge of hundreds of sheep, the mothers of the mothers of the mothers of those quadrupeds that had made such an impression on me and that, as I seemed to understand, either because they were too many to be controlled by one man, or because the shepherd avoided them, didn’t take long to go from tame flocks to feral, bloodthirsty packs. “They did very bad things to Grock,” he said. “Very bad things.” I soon discovered that the shepherd utterly despised them. When he talked about sheep, his face took on a terrifying appearance, his eyes shone with wild fury, and he reveled in reciting the long list of punishments he’d made them suffer to show them that he was Grock, the master of the island, and that they had done “very bad things.” When I finally asked him what constituted the wicked actions of those beasts (secretly afraid he’d tell me), the ferocious gleam again dilated his pupils for a moment, then was replaced, almost immediately, by an unexpected expression of tenderness. “They killed Grock,” he said.
For the first few days, I often had to resort to imagination, sometimes pure invention, to interpret the shepherd’s perplexing statements. He insisted that I was from Glasgow—though, maybe, he was using that name to mean anywhere off the island—and he seemed very surprised by the story of the shipwreck, of my rescue, and of the subsequent disappearance of the remains of the Providence. I don’t think Grock knew how to pretend, but the absurd possibility that the old man—almost like a child—might be unaware of the ship’s mysterious destination left me baffled. Again I faced the large number of enigmas yet to be solved, and I had a feeling that the limited narrative faculties of my rescuer weren’t going to be of much help to me for the time being.
I had surrendered myself to dark conjectures when Grock, who had just polished off my last bottle of gin, broke into wild laughter. I didn’t have time to be startled. As if he’d suddenly remembered the reason for his boundless joy, the old man grabbed a case that was hanging from his neck, pulled out a wrinkled card and, still laughing, handed it to me. Here I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. What I had in my hands was a color photograph, a portrait of the shepherd himself, taken by an instant camera. So the island wasn’t as deserted as I’d been led to believe. I didn’t stop to think about what sort of disturbed mind would come up with the macabre idea of photographing Grock, nor did it seem appropriate to submit the shepherd to a new interrogation. All I knew how to do was join in his laughter as a simple proof of my good intentions. Between bursts of laughter, he told me about a little box with a button you could push, and little by little, shadows would appear, then colors, and finally, the image of a man. “A man,” he said. The apparent magic of the camera was what truly amused the shepherd. I looked back at the snapshot with a shudder. I held in my hands the cold, raw embodiment of horror. In front of me, convulsing with laughter, was little more than an old, mad child who had absolutely no idea he was laughing at himself.
(Translated by Emily Davis)Tweet
Ramiro Pinilla is the next entry in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. I really like his explanation of why he chose this chapter from The Blind Ants. (And the story is pretty fantastic as well.)
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
If there’s anything good in Las ciegas hormigas, it’s this chapter. I wrote it more than fifty years ago, but I still remember what I thought when I finished it: why isn’t the whole novel like this, and why won’t most of what I write in the future be like this? It’s the felicitous fusion of narrative language with what I hoped for and still hope for, that synthesis of rhythm, continual forward movement, ideas and more ideas, humor, expressive transparency, something like the inescapable music of a deceitfully playful Mozart that we get hopelessly hooked on. A passion for my creations? Maybe. But here the protagonists are sketched out for the entire novel, their courtship, as recounted by Josefa, establishes the roots of Sabas, whose epic downfall you can already imagine, along with Josefa’s own unconditional surrender to Sabas’s impossible stubbornness. Which buttons do you have to press to yield something like this? I have no idea.
I still remember it well. The priest said, “Sabas, do you take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife?” And then, without even turning to me: “Josefa, do you want this man to take you as his lawfully wedded wife?”
That’s what I heard, kneeling next to him, my hands and feet tied up without a rope, subjugated, defeated, and (why not?) devoted—perhaps not out of love, but controlled by some kind of irrational vertigo—furiously subdued, captured, and kidnapped while everyone watched impassively. No longer daring to rebel, even though I’d tried before, despite the fact that I’d known from the beginning it would all be useless, I contemplated what the priest had done, with his benevolent, distant face, loading the ship with cargo he wouldn’t travel with, muttering the words, unrelenting, without looking into my eyes, which were desperately asking him, “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you ask me, like all the other women, ‘Josefa, do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband?’”
He appeared one day in Berango, chewing on a piece of straw. Serious, skinny, calm, his hands in his pockets. All put together with his corduroy pants, white cotton socks, rubber-soled sandals, and checkered shirt. And an umbrella hanging on his arm.
It was a workday, a Monday, around twilight. I watched him from the garden plot my family had near the road. He was coming from Algorta, and his steps weren’t quick, but they were steady, insistent, active, each one promising another. By the time I noticed him, he was already looking at me. The distance between us wasn’t short, so he was able to stare at me for four or five minutes without appearing to, without even turning his head, chewing his piece of straw the whole time. When he reached a point where he had to turn his head, he stopped looking at me, walked past me, and continued down the road, and nobody would have said that he’d noticed me.
When I went back to hoeing, I realized who he was: Sabas Jáuregui, from the farm on the beach in Algorta, who’d lived alone ever since he found himself without a family. We all knew the story: a family of father, mother, and two sons, they were all very hardworking and had enough land to show it. Sabas’s brother died, and father, mother, and Sabas took on the work; not long afterward, the mother died, and the two men kept going as well as they could, preparing the meals themselves. When his father died, Sabas was already prepared for it, and he took onto his shoulders the work that used to leave four people exhausted. And he lived there, abandoned near the edge of the beach, completing all the chores every day before going to bed, when he’d no longer hear the undertow scraping the rocks, like before, when all his family members were still alive and he was able to rest a while before sleep would take him. Now he fell asleep before he even had time to lift his second foot off the floor.
I saw him on rare occasions, when I went to that beach with my family to gather coked coal and I’d find him with a scythe cutting grass for the cows, or carrying manure from the stable to the garden, or I’d simply see smoke coming from the chimney and figure he was frying something for dinner.
The following Sunday, six days after I saw him on the road, I discovered him among the couples who were dancing on the pelota court to the shrill music playing on the loudspeakers. He was wearing twill pants, a wrinkled brown jacket, and a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned (no tie, of course). He searched for me specifically, among the dancing couples, and finally spotted me and came over to my group of friends, rigid and deliberate, looking up, walking and moving naturally, pretending he wasn’t bothered by his shirt collar, which was stiff even though it wasn’t buttoned: he’d probably put too much starch on it when he ironed it.
He stopped in front of me and, without moving his lips, without appearing to speak, even though his words didn’t come out timid at all, but whole, determined, firm, said, “Would you like to dance with me?”
(Translated by Emily Davis)Tweet
First up today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Mario Vargas Llosa, who you might know from such books as Conversation in the Cathedral or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, neither of which he chose to include as his “best piece of writing.” Instead he turned to a couple of his more recent books: The Way to Paradise and The Feast of the Goat.
Rather than excerpt his works, I’m just going to post his whole interview below—it’s really interesting.
I selected these fragments according to two criteria. First, that each one of them had dramatic significance within the story, and that each alludes to crucial elements of the plot. And second, that these fragments might be read and understood on their own, by someone unfamiliar with the context within which they appear in my books. Two criteria that are difficult to reconcile but that I think I’ve managed to sustain with some success.
The list of unforgettable dead to whom I return time and again, in my memory or by rereading, is long and would fill several pages. Picking a small number of names from among them I have to cite the great novelists of the nineteenth century like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac; from the classics like Cervantes, Quevado, and Góngora, to Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanch, to the Homeric poems I discovered in my old age, to many writers who revealed to me miracles of technique and prose in the telling of a story: Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner. The writer I have probably reread most is Faulkner. I discovered him in my first year of university, in 1953, in Lima, and since then I have never ceased to be amazed by the complexity and subtlety that his stories attain thanks to the way he organizes the points of view, the movement of the narrator, the creation of his own literary time, and also, of course, thanks to that enveloping style of extraordinary sensoriality that makes the changes in atmosphere and landscape in which the stories illuminate, or blur, or vanish, creating expectation, uncertainty, and always keeping readers in a kind of trance. Faulkner is perhaps the writer who taught me most about the type of novelist I wanted to be and the type of novels I wanted to write.
From your position with respect to Cuba and Hugo Chávez, and later as a candidate for president of Peru, you have always defended individual freedoms. What’s your perspective on the political and social panorama since 1993, when you wrote El pez en la agua? Has there been an erosion of freedoms or have they been lost?
I think all the opinions I expressed in El pez en la agua I still maintain. I might clarify some details and add others regarding phenomena like Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia that did not exist when I wrote down those memories. When I began writing, the idea was widespread that a writer had, in addition to an artistic and intellectual responsibility, a civic responsibility and should participate in the political debate regarding the problems of the time. I learned this reading Sartre, about whom my opinion has greatly changed, but I have always shared his idea that writers should engage in expressing their opinions about politics and social problems. I don’t believe writers should exempt themselves from such participation, just like I don’t believe any other citizen should either. If we want things to improve in our society, we must be involved in political life and writers can contribute to this activity without renouncing their own vocation. In the dominion of the word, for example, political language tends to be clichéd, full of the commonplace, a disseminator of slogans and mottos more than ideas. A writer can give back to politics language that is clean, fresh, that expresses concepts, ideas and not just sensations and clichés. On the other hand, a writer can add imagination and inventiveness to a world that, owing to the advance of specialization, is becoming increasingly routine and predictable, deprived of idealism and creativity. If we want democracy to survive and not to drown in dictators or in total mediocrity, it’s indispensable for us to inject imagination and novelty into democratic life. In this way writers can provide a service to the political life of nations.Tweet
The second author featured today in the Month of a Thousand Forests series is Evelio Rosero, the youngest author to be included in the anthology. Rosero has a couple novels available in English translation from New Directions.
What he chose to include isn’t from either of those novels though. It’s from one of his children’s books, as he explains in the interview below.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
A little while ago I had the chance to speak before a group of schoolchildren in Cali. One of the youngest, probably to keep me from talking too much, or because I already had, came up to the stage and handed me one of my books. “Read us a story,” he said. Of course, I had no choice but to do just that. It was one of my first children’s books, published in ’92: El aprendiz de mago y otros cuentos de miedo. And the story that presented itself to me when I opened the book at random was, precisely, “Lucía, or, The Pigeons,” the piece I’ve decided to submit as a sample of my best work: a children’s story. The reasons behind this choice might seem non-literary, and they are, but not entirely. This is a story written just over twenty years ago, and the whole thing anticipates what I have tried to sketch out in my novels “for adults,” especially the two most recent ones, En el lejero and Los ejércitos. Anyone who knows either of these books will agree. What surprised me the most that afternoon was the realization that a children’s story managed to fully capture something that had surrounded and terrified me my whole life: the disappeared, the forced disappearances that have taken place in my country.
One morning we woke up to find that the pigeons had disappeared. The last to have seen them say they flew frantically, violently tracing out strange hieroglyphs in the sky, letters and words and then entire lines, like an infinite poem no one could understand because it was conceived in an unknown alphabet. It had been a chaos of feathers, an icy white drizzle.
And from that moment on we never saw another pigeon in the sky, not a single one.
Lucía and I wondered what could have happened to the pigeons, where they had gone, or who had taken them. The world is different without pigeons, without their little winged bodies crossing its towns like shards of light. We will never forget them.
Watching a pigeon fly was like flying, ourselves, like when you send a kite up in the air and it is carried far, far away and it feels as though you were the kite, up there in the clouds.
Lucía and I thought often about the pigeons, so we wouldn’t forget.
“What did pigeons sound like?”
I imagine a pigeon with Lucía’s face, her long hair like wings, flying like a smile through the sky. But I don’t tell Lucía. I only know that I have thought of Lucía as though she were a pigeon. The last one.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)Tweet
I very much fell off pace with the Month of a Thousand Forests series, but by covering two authors a day, we’ll have highlighted everyone by the 30th.
The first author for today is Edgardo Cozarinsky, who was first recommended to me by Horacio Castellanos Moya when he came to Rochester. FSG and Vintage did a couple Cozarinsky books a while back, but someone needs to snap up this novel.
Just a reminder, you can buy the collection for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I looked through my most recent work, and although I am not the best judge of what I write (I don’t think anyone is) I chose “December 2008,” the fifth section of Lejos de dónde. Excerpted in this way it doesn’t have the impact that it acquires as the conclusion of the novel, but I think that it can be read almost like a short story and that the mystery of the bond that unites the characters, although unspoken, is vaguely perceptible and impregnates the situation with mystery. It contains a tone, a hidden pathos, a crushing sense of the disaster of History and of individual lives, recurrent motifs in my fiction.
When you get to a certain age, inevitably you have more dead friends than living ones. My list is long yet that doesn’t make me sad. My dead live with me and share my new feelings and my work. First of all, I want to mention Alberto Tabbia, who was my best friend and who left me his exquisite collection of books in English. He was an example of the “writer who doesn’t write” and I planned, and I still plan, to edit his notebooks. In them I found the couplet that I used as an epigraph for my novel El rufián moldavo: “To speak with the living I need / words that the dead taught me.” Also José Bianco, Silvina Ocampo, Héctor Murena, among the writers. And thinking about the crossroads that Paris was for me: Raúl Ruiz and Severo Sarduy among those of my own language, and the great Danilo Kiš among those from Eastern Europe. With my parents, the paying of debts never ends, but I am nourished by what I write.
He refilled the glasses, downing his again in a single swallow.
They were silent for a moment that seemed to stretch out, not because they were searching for words, but as if the evocation of the past, fleeting as it was, had awoken ghosts that demanded respect, imposed silence, maybe the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the East who had camped in Dresden in 1945, running from the Soviet advance, only to die, burnt to ashes by twenty-four hours of British-American bombing that served no strategic purpose, corpses carbonized among the ruins, destined for putrefaction and stench, remains that some loved-one, facing the impossibility of burial, placed inside a suitcase and carried with them on their flight to the south, in search of some corner untouched by bombs, where they could find a place in the ground; but the graves had not been consecrated, and now the specters had arisen amid the concrete and glass architecture of the twenty-first century, evading the ubiquitous neon of advertising, and had begun to slip through the shadows toward the ancient center of the city, perhaps to see how fidelity to the past, or the irrational force of patriotism, had rebuilt palaces, theaters, and churches according to their original design, rescuing from among the ruins a few stones that might have come from the Frauenkirche in order to place them among the new ones, until the baroque cathedral was returned to the city meticulously reproduced: in the same way the ancient Egyptians, when building a new temple, inserted rubble from their ruined temples into the foundations, to ensure the continuity of the divine presence, in the same way that a leftover crumb of yesterday’s bread is added to the starter for today’s loaf.
Because the dead always come back, and ghosts of victims are the most tenacious.
In that moment of silence, those ghosts were more real than the Polish woman—sixty-five-years old, poorly dyed hair, broken fingernails—and the tired Argentine at the end of a long journey: foreigners, displaced people, survivors of forgotten wars. When they spoke again, it was as if that silence had been a long night of shared secrets. They had been moved by something imperceptible they would not know how to name anyway—an invisible presence,
a gust of wind, a breath. Now they struck up a conversation that minutes before they would not have imagined.
(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)Tweet
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .