Three Wogs, by Alexander Theroux
February 1st, 2008

Well, let’s face it, if you’re one of those who believes style shouldn’t preside over substance, then this book’s not for you. – If, on the other hand, like me, you’d say it depends on the individual case and we shouldn’t be making such sweeping statements, perhaps this is just the thing you’ve been looking for. Here’s the first line, as a taste:

Picric, antagonized, scuffing forward with a leer, Fu Manchu readily confirmed a common fear: a distorted mind proves that there is something on it.

Of course, there’s a lot to that line, if you want to analyse it (though I’m guessing you probably don’t). We are watching a film, of course, and there is an irony here: what we are calling a “common fear” is only a tropos of the cinema – a stereotype indeed, lodged now in the mind of the innocent audience member, to whom we will shortly be introduced, which we ourselves might yet keep in mind for the rest of the narrative, as it procedes to discuss the racism which has been formed by such stereotyping and directed towards those whose faces do not so readily convey their inherent evil (sc. foreigners).

“Whatever,” you say – and quite right too! – All I might try to suggest in my defence is that maybe there is some substance after all in amongst all the style. But who cares? – when the style is, as we must confess, so glorious.
Write about what you know, they say: so in Three Wogs Alexander Theroux, Ivy league educated American that he is, writes about the lives of the working class in London in the late 1960s, with a fascination for that particular vernacular. This is three stories, by far the best being the longest middle one entitled Childe Roland.

I’ll just throw in one further quotation: a description of Speakers’ Corner:

“Typically, he did not speak, he announced. No microphones were allowed into the park, but it did not seem to matter. The noise threshhold seemed infinite. Metaphors flew about like loose tiles. Eack speaker seemed only interested in firing off squibs, like bananas, to disconcert the gravity of the orthodox, implicitly asking, as all did, that profound, if essentially poetic, question: into the nosebag of unbiased recapitulation can we accuse what historian of putting his snout? Speakers everywhere shot up high on their stands, amid the crowd, like foghorns blasting war news – an eristic jawing of bottomless fart-gas, messianic rant, bilk, and boozy guffaws, wherein guesses became prophecies; whim, dogma; and candour, far more frightful than caricature.”

Well, as I say, if that’s your thing (and I admit, I’m partial myself) – but if not, then read something else. I just thought you might like a change, something a bit “over-written” as you’d probably call it, in this age of literary underwriting.
(I should mention, for form’s sake, that Alexander is the brother of Paul, and I believe is in some way connected to Louis).

Our Lady of the Assassins, by Fernando Vallejo
February 1st, 2008

Fernando Vallejo is a very well-respected writer in the Spanish-speaking world. If you look on the list of Best Spanish Books (last 25 years) somewhere to the right, you’ll see he comes in 10th and 11th (though, to be fair, the poll was commissioned by a Colombian newspaper). Our Lady of the Assassins was the one that came 11th. The one that came 10th, along with all the other works of Vallejo, has never been translated into English – which seems a bit of tragedy for those fond of literature, though an unsurprising tragedy for all that. – Bearing in mind too that a film was made of Our Lady of the Assassins in 2000 (by Barbet Schroeder, of The Pink Floyd-soundtracked heroin-fest More fame) and the only English-language version is a film tie-in edition – the non-translation of Vallejo and motivation of the publishing industry in general becomes even more depressing.

This is a fascinating work: I read it in one adrenaline-rushed burst. It has about it a mesmeric drive (and, let’s face it, is pretty short). – Now here’s a writer who really seems to feel contempt for his fellow countryman (think Thomas Bernhard), and yet one wonders throughout whether Vallejo is being entirely serious – if he isn’t perhaps just exaggerating it all a little. Set in Medellin, its concern is the violence in Colombian society – a violence which the writer feels is now endemic within the culture, to the extent that civilisation itself has long since departed. The work follows an aging man (it is his vision of Colombian society – that of an old man who remembers what civilisation once was, even in this country) and his homosexual lovers, who are all young gun-crazy gangsters, killing people at his slightest whim. It is here that the work is at its most paradoxical: the very man who laments the absence of civilisation, who derides the trigger-happy inhumanity of his countryman, nonetheless finds the only solution to his country’s predicament in yet more killing – the casual killing of anyone, indeed, who looks at him the wrong way or commits the tiniest error of etiquette (taxi-drivers who refuse to turn down their radios etc). In this respect, it reminded me of our wonderful Hollywood blockbusters and their own careless disregard for human life, their joy in the taking of revenge on people who are seen as breaking some nebulous moral code (think Hannibal). Here it is taken to its extreme, as is befitting the society it describes. – One almost feels, this is where it ends, this is the apocalypse we will achieve if we continue on in the way we are; if we continue glorifying the attitudes we glorify.

(Another thing it reminded me of was Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine – the imbalance I felt in that film, which was happy to contrast the rate of homicide between the US and European countries, but – strangely for a documentary seeking an answer to the question of what caused all this casual violence; why did Americans jump to their guns at the slightest provocation – didn’t seek to draw the opposite contrast, with those societies which have far higher rates of homicide than the US. Colombia, which has the worse homicide rate in the world, is more than 7 times that of the US).
Juan Goytisolo, among the blurb, contrasts Vallejo, of course, with that other well-known Colombian writer, Garcia Marquez, seeing in it (if I understand him aright) a welcome antidote to such magic realism. Vallejo (like most South Americans) is of course far from magic realist – reality is perhaps here merely exaggerated (though South Americans’ visions of the real tend to differ considerably from ours). Yet, as it happens, the only other book I’ve read about Medellin is Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping – a work (not much liked by the critics, perhaps) of rigorous (and naturally, non-magical) journalism. All I would say is that in that work Marquez is softer on Colombian society (particular, I felt, the Colombian government) than Vallejo is in this acerbic work.

Here’s a quick quote, typical of the black humour:

“On the left going up, on an old property, a steep bit of hillside with a withered, abandoned banana grove on it, you could read the following notice in crooked and half erased capital letters, like on a Dracula poster: THE DUMPING OF BODIES IS FORBIDDEN. Forbidden? What about those turkey buzzards over there? What was all that toing and froing then of big black birds, hopping about, flapping their wings, pecking, bracing themselves in order to hoick out the dead man’s guts more easily?… They did for him and they tossed him there in violation of the notice, from which one deduces that the more one forbids, the less one achieves.”

The Blind Rider, by Juan Goytisolo

February 1st, 2008

Here’s another novel I feel I’ve done an injustice by not reading correctly. At 115 pages, I feel I’d have been better reading it in one go. That I split it over two sessions (as I’ve been finding all too often recently) has given me two different interpretations of the book.For the first 70 pages, I found myself reading it slowly, carefully, savouring the writing, constantly pausing in my reading to give thought to it, going back over passages and reading them again – things I very seldom do with novels. I want to make sense of each sentence, because for once I felt the passages would make sense. Goytisolo is often hard-going in this sense, I find: you have to pay attention. But I was engrossed in the story, engrossed in his ideas.

Then, in my second session, perhaps I wasn’t in the same mood at all. I hadn’t time for the sort of idle philosophical speculation into God, into good and evil, that was being put forward. I was annoyed that Goytisolo seemed to have largely forgotten about the dramatic situation he had spent the first part of the novel building up. As a consequence, I was lost; I struggled to finish off those last 40 pages, thoroughly uninterested and only doing so for the sake of the act.
Oddly, I felt almost exactly the same about another book I finished over the weekend, John Barth’s Chimera. After some truly masterful storytelling, Barth gets lost in a long disquistion on the structure of the story he has been telling and the nature of myth in general. This goes on for about 50 pages, and perhaps Barth gets away with it, since he is such a consummate juggler of these things; – but I come away from these two books wondering to myself why it is novelists have to think of themselves of themselves too as philosphers and academicians when they don’t in general have the rigour of the one or the dryness of the other to make it worth anyone’s while. There is nothing in the Goytisolo that I would regard as revolutionary thought on the subject, or even anything more than what we’ve all thought before ourselves; – what had interested me was the story.

Dreams of My Russian Summers, by Andrei Makine
February 1st, 2008

OK, so there’s every chance you’ve read this one, since it’s not so very obscure, but I’m going to mention it because I enjoyed it and feel it’s worthy of something.Ah yes, firstly: that title. In the original French, it’s Le Testament Francais, but for us they’ve changed it to Dreams of My Russian Summers. Now both these titles have a lot to do with the story – I can’t fault them on that. I suppose if you were intending to win the Prix Goncourt, you’d want emphasise the French elements of the book. (In fact, if you were thinking of winning the Prix Goncourt, you couldn’t do much better than write a book which is just one long homage to the sophisication of the French, their culture and way of life). On the other hand, if you were trying to sell the same books to a bunch of Anglo-Saxons, best to play down any mention of France, eh? – go for a more Russian feel.

Still, if like me you’re both a Francophile and a Russophile, and imbued in the literatures of both, you can’t go far wrong with this book. It’s a work of autobiography and nostalgia. A man recalls his childhood in communist Russia which was punctuated by his French grandmother’s tales of the Paris of her youth – tales which results in the man’s split-personality and a general distrust of Soviet propaganda. – If I had any pretensions to being a famous literary critic I’d be comparing it to Nabakov and Proust (favourably so, no doubt, since I enjoyed it); tragically, Makine has done this nodding for us already in the text.

Again, as so often, I read this book badly. I was so taken with the first 100 pages, so immensely impressed, thinking to myself this was the best thing I’d read in a long time, that after I’d put it down, I became afraid to pick it up again, afraid of its greatness. With the result, of course, that when I did pick it up again, it didn’t seem quite as good as I’d first thought. So that I’ve come away with the belief that the first half of the book is far better than the second: and in fact, that the second is more disjunctive, which was precisely how I read it (in little bursts).

For a lot of the book, I took it that it was autobiography – but as I got towards the end, elements all too neat and literary started creeping in, and I became suspicious. – Oh, I know, I know – it’s a blend, an amalgam of autobiography and fiction, such as we think is fashionable nowadays but which, as it happens, has always been the basis of fiction (even the knowing intermingling thereof). – But I did, as I say, enjoy the first half more, while I was under the belief that it was autobiography; so perhaps I was annoyed to have my illusions cracked.

Oh yes, and the twist at the end? – Entirely pointless and trivial, I felt. It reminded a bit of some of Isak Dinesen’s short stories where the story itself is so engrossing that you aren’t even awaiting or wanting a twist for its fulfillment. Yet somehow, whereas with Dinesen you feel the twist adds immesurably to what you’ve already read, in this book I found myself shaking my head and thinking it unnecessary – perhaps because ultimately the twist in this book seems to change nothing, whereas so often in Dinesen it changes the meaning of everything.

The Late Mattia Pascal, by Luigi Pirandello
February 1st, 2008

I started reading this book at the same time as Machado de Assis’ Epitaph for a Small Winner (or Memoirs of Bras Cubas, or whatever other titles it goes by) – both happening to be novels recounted by narrators who are deceased. (It is a strange thing, I think, how often such coincidences come up in my reading. Recently I also found myself reading three books which were all set in Sicily.)If you asked me which of the two I preferred, I guess I’d go with the Machado de Assis. I read Bras Cubas quickly from cover to cover; this Pirandello novel took me about nine months. Perhaps it was my fault: I had too much else to read and somehow I never really got into it. There were long pauses in which I wasn’t inclined to take it up again.

I feel now the last third of the novel is the best, but again this may just have been a consequence of how I read it. The ideas behind the novel seemed to take on a greater significance in this latter part; and looking back to my distant memory of the beginning, there now seemed a certain picaresque quality to all I’d read up to then – as if it had been a mere series of events without particular structure or unity.In this novel, Pirandello steals one of my own ideas for a story: a man is declared dead, and the hilarious consequences which then ensue. I guess my own idea was more Kafkaesque and that seems a good enough reason never to write it. Mattia Pascal, however, at first believes being dead will aid him in his life; but later on he discovers how it must necessarily redound to his misery – and, being a melancholy soul, it was these bits I preferred.

Sacred Families, by Jose Donoso
February 1st, 2008

The original Spanish title is Tres Novelitas Burguesas and as so often with translations you’re left wondering why they changed it to Sacred Families, since the stories don’t deal with families – at least not in any sense of the word I might be inclined to use (indeed, the last story is about an adolescent who wishes only to rid himself of his family, along with his entire identity); – but present us with couples in, say, their thirties who have shed their familial bonds; and you could examine the texts for years without finding any trace of sacredness – whereas the original Spanish gives a pretty good indication of what to expect (they are novellas; there are three of them; and they’re about the bourgeoisie).I wouldn’t go so far as to say these stories are magic realist (and I wouldn’t be sure what I’d meant by the term if I did since I’ve never understood why people have accused writers like Garcia Marquez that way; but, let’s say, by the standards of oh, Miguel Angel Asturias, there’s nothing obscure or strange or difficult in these stories); – I’d go perhaps more with the notion that they’re just surrealist tales, that there is within these stories an upsetting of the natural order of things so as to present a certain (and amusing) vision of our complacent middle-class existence.The first story, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, reminded me of Felisberto Hernandez’s The Daisy Dolls (a story with which you’re no doubt also not familiar: – but go ahead, there’s nothing stopping you: it’s only about 40 pages long and is described in my copy as “one of the most astonishingly original short stories written anywhere in the twentieth century … Nothing short of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is an apt parallel… and only the accident of his birth in remote Montevideo has kept this literary masterpiece from finding a wider audience”, though to be fair to Felisberto he isn’t anything like as dull as Kafka – and did you know Lautremont was actually Uruguayan too!). Unmistakeably from the 70s (cf. the flared trousers in the picture above) it’s a simple tale of wife-swapping – and, well, I better leave it at that – wouldn’t want to give too much away, save to say that it’s hardly a simple tale of wife-swapping. – The second story concerns a couple’s flat, which is slowly divested of its accoutrements when each perosn who enters the flat steals one of their fashionable objects; and as I say, the third story is about an adolescent wishing to give up his identity and become someone else.These stories have a familiar pattern to them: they start off as comfortable bourgeois tales and for a time you find yourself wondering whether they’re going anywhere, but then slowly they become stranger and more engrossing. They remind me of the films of Luis Bunuel (The Exterminating Angel, in particular, which I happened to watch between reading stories one and two and which has that same descent from complacent normality into preternatural, inexplicable horror – civilised man slipping back into his bestial heritage); so that, by the time you get to the third story, you’re alert and find yourself trying to second-guess how the strangeness will arise: – and yet perhaps it is the last tale which is the least strange of all.

Jose Donoso (1924 – 1996) was born in Santiago, Chile. As a boy he attended the English school “The Grange”, as later did Ariel Dorfman; but he eventually dropped out of school to go travelling. Later he attended the University of Chile and Princeton University. He worked in Chile as a teacher, before publishing his first work in 1955. His novel Coronacion (1957) brought him fame as a writer. In 1961 he married; and from 1965-1967 taught creative writing at the infamous University of Iowa. He lived in Spain from 1967 to 1980, and after the Pinochet coup in 1973 considered himself exiled there. In 1990 he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Chile. His most famous novel is The Obscene Bird of Night, which was published in 1970.


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