Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book 16, Peru: "The Time of the Hero" by Mario Vargas Llosa

Gah! Yes, It’s been a while since I made progress on the map, but I was out of Singapore, swamped with work, and then chose a 400-pager to complete.

I’ve read Vargas Llosa before: Who Killed Palomino Molero and In Praise of the Stepmother, both of which were good, but not thrilling. Still, he’s universally regarded as Peru’s greatest novelist (and I’d already read César Vallejo's Black Angels, so I couldn’t quite switch to the greatest poet), so I figured I might as well read one of his more acclaimed works – Death In the Andes seemed popular, but in the end I decided on the book that launched his career as a vital author of the Latin American boom (and got him in shit with the military government), The Time of the Hero.

And it’s really good. I didn’t take to it straight away: after all, it’s one of the malest books I’ve read in a while, set in the Leoncio Pradio Military Academy: all the savagery of teenage boys in a monosocial environment plus the pressures of boarding school plus the pressures of the military, a dog-eat-dog-then-bugger-a-chicken-to-death environment soaked in pisco spirits and cigarette smoke and blood; barely a sympathetic character in sight. Plus the stream-of-consciousness, who’s-in-first-person-now? narrative style is a little hard to follow.

But the story draws you in – Alberto the Poet’s twisted crush on the penniless girl Teresa and his weird power relationship with Arana the Slave and Jaguar, the head honcho of the dorm, who organised their collective resistance to the Year Fives when they were being hazed. And through a bizarre chain of events (I won’t spoil it for you), you end up not knowing which of the characters is the greater hero – which one of them, for all his rottenness, has the more admirable qualities that drive them to resist the system for at least one point in their lives.

Rather nice that I’m able to recognize the cities and ethnic differences they talk about after my trip to Peru this year: Lima, Callao, Puno, Juliaca, Arequipa, and the Japanese/Chinese/African/European/Indian mestizaje that happens in the society, yielding all sorts of racist comments that really aren’t the same as North American racism because it really all comes down to class in the end. Also interesting is the realisation of Faulkner’s profound influence on Latin America, how his Modernism was reinterpreted decades later for the rejuvenation of another section of world literature.

Worth the read. Unfortunately, there’s only one copy in stock at Central Lending. I’ll return it pronto.

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Representative quote: The chicken was on the ground, gasping. That peasant Cava, can’t they see what he’s doing with his hand? He likes to play with himself, but it’s dead, the Boa’s the one who gets a hard-on even when he’s marching. We’ve drawn lots, everything’s ready, screw her or we’ll screw you like the llamas in your village. Don’t you know a story? What if we get the Poet here to tell us one of those stories that make your cock stand up? But that’s horseshit, I can get a hard-on just by thinking about it, it’s all a matter of will power. What if I get a dose? What’s the matter, loverboy, what’s got into you, peasant, don’t you know the Boa is cleaner than your mother ever since he’s been screwing Skimpy? Where did you get those crazy ideas, haven’t they told you chickens are more sanitary than dogs?

Next book: Luis Sepulveda’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, from Ecuador.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm part of the problem.

Just watched this TED video of a speech by Turkish author Elif Shafak. She argues against seeing writers in terms of identity politics, associated with their lands of origin rather than as individuals.

This blog isn't quite helping, I guess - I've got a marked preference for writers who're writing about their native countries, which means that I'm even strategising about reading only Maryse Conde's fiction about Guadeloupe rather than her most famous book, "Segu", which about Mali. Same goes for Mario Vargas Llosa - so many places rave about his "The Time of the Goat", but that won't do, because he's Peruvian and he's writing about the Dominican Republic...

Am also more convinced than ever of Wena Poon's wisdom in writing about international characters in "The Proper Care of Foxes". Me, I'm still stuck in provincial nationalist literature. That's when I do fiction, anyway. Sigh.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book 15, Chile: “Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta” by Pablo Neruda

Yessss!!! Finally in South America! (Though in the real world, I’m currently in Munich. How did that happen?)

I’m doing an obscure play by Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda in the original Spanish, not to show off my erudition, but simply because I picked up a second-hand copy in Brazil a few months ago, and I’d never finish it otherwise, despite the volume itself being so slim. Truth is, I have doubts about its validity, given that the story mostly takes place in California during the Gold Rush – Murieta himself was a hstorical bandit whose origins may not even have been Chilean, but Mexican.

And yet! Neruda’s piece is so full of patriotism that it hella qualifies. (Plus we’ve got a big opening section about the departure from the port of Valparaíso, a location the miners long for throughout the play – when they’re not talking about their own villages and districts.) And according to Neruda’s account, Murieta was a hero who retaliated to the gringo Americans’ constant lynching of Chileans and Mexicans – specifically to the murder and rape of his wife Teresa – by going on a rampage and slaughtering white guys and gals willy-nilly (that’s the “fulgor”, me hearties), before getting mowed down himself (that’s the “muerte”).

It’s a psychedelic trip – most of the play’s performed as an oratorio, with choruses of men and women in poetry, and for some reason Murieta and Teresa never appear on stage, portrayed only by their voices offstage, refusing to embody the great idols of this legend, until the final scene when Murieta’s decapitated head speaks to us from its resting place on Teresa’s tomb – and then the audience breaks out in pre-distributed song decrying the war in Vietnam (this is another 1960s piece) and how people of colour will overcome. Strange, considering that Chileans themselves are pretty white.

But there’s also surrealism – el Caballero Tramposo, a devious trickster figure, who steals everyone’s watches for the gringo establishment, and even the Galgos (gringos) themselves, who gather in secret to recite a catechism of how they’re uniting to keep the coloured folks at bay. Not subtle, man.

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And there’s also slapstick, with the hardened miner character of Tresdedos bumping heads with the customs official Reyes, who demands loads of paperwork only to decide none of this matches up to the prospect of gold, leaves his job, and spends the rest of the play (quite sensibly) moaning about when they’re going back to Chile.

Rather fun. Haven’t seen Neruda so political before – all we read is poems by him about how gloriously beautiful women are, or panthers, or artichokes, or socks.

I’ll read Isabel Allende another time. Seriously, though, I haven’t read a single work by her. Shameful.

Representative quote:
Canción masculine

Así como hoy matan negros
antes fueron mexicanos,
así matando chilenos,
nicaragüenses, peruanos,
se desataban los gringos
con instintos inhumanos
hasta que por la vereda
pasa un caballo de seda,
hasta que por los caminos
galopa nuestro destino
y como dos amapolas
se encendieron sus pistolas.
Quién les disputa el terreno
y quién de frente los reta?
Es un bandido chileno!
Es nuestro Joaquín Murieta!

Next book: Some novel by Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru.. Screwed if I know.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book 14, French Polynesia: "Frangipani" by Célestine Hitiura Vaite

Okay, okay, okay: this is another one of those developing-nation-matronly-woman-does-good books, with a Mma Ramotswe-esque main character with lots of earthy folk wisdom to deal with the modernizing changes happening around her. It’s a feel-good, women’s book club-suited novel, written in chapters which could each function as their own separate short story: a clearly patriotic novel that aims to represent its country yet limits itself to the realm of women, an Austenesque inch-length piece of ivory.

But it’s so enjoyable. The main character, the professional cleaner Materena, keeps locking horns with her intellectual daughter Leilani, negotiating the future of Polynesian womanhood. And the culture their lives are steeped in is so seductive – convent schools, discussions about independence and the death penalty, battle feuds, dishes made of breadfruit, rice, tomatoes and onions, American tourists, French gendarmes, superstitions about frangipani trees in the backyard signifying the health of given-away children – and such a liberal attitude towards sex; sex everywhere; the beauty of men and women alike. Materena even warns her daughter not to marry a man until they’ve had at least one child, so she can test whether or not he’s a keeper.

A really fun read. Now we’re going to do the voyage of the Kon-Tiki in reverse: the great voyage from Polynesia to South America (and I’m afraid Pitcairn island will just have to sit this one out, I mean, honestly, you’ve got an adult population of less than a hundred; I’m allowed to exclude you). Thanks Oceania, it’s been swell – and I’m going to look out for a few more of your authors in the future.

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Representative quote: ‘You’re unbelievable you.’ Cackling, Materena gets up and grabs her purse. She understands that young girls are too embarrassed to buy pads at the Chinese store. Materena even nows grown women who are too embarrassed to buy pads. There are always a lot of relatives at the chnese store and when they see the pads wrapped in newspaper for privacy, the whole population knows you’ve got your period, the whole population can say, ‘Here’s one who’s not going to wash her hair for the next four days.’

Next book: Pablo Neruda’s “Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquin Murieta” from Chile.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book 13, the Cook Islands: "Return to Havaiki" by Kauraka Kauraka

Surprisingly, I liked this.

I wasn't expecting to, after the disappointment of "Hingano". This one's another grab from the NUS Library - a slim book of poems in Manihiki and English (the first such bilingual book ever, according to the inside info). Illustrations of gods and heroes on the inside, and a mix of love poetry, mystic poetry and anti-colonial poetry, exhorting us to snap out of our spells of video and New Zealand academic degrees and compete over husking coconuts, drawing power from the memory of the Polynesian ancestral land of Manuhiki/Havaiki, for crying out loud. (If this was written for any race with power out there, it'd be imperialist.)

But the spiritual grounding of Kauraka Kauraka (heehee, what a beautifully tautonymic name) makes up for it - his encomiums to gods ring true, as if he's still in touch with that fount of native culture which other authors like Albert Wendt claim their countries have lost touch with.

(There's also some very cute nursery-rhyme stuff that can only reveal its alliterative genius in Manihiki. "Slippery edible sea slug,/Do you want to eat sea slug?" originally reads as "Pahekeheke te patito,/Ka kai koe i te patito?")

But I think we have the translator to thank for a certain gracefulness of language, a certain wisdom that holds back where other translators would have been too effusive. And though a whole bunch of people are thanked for helping, it does seem as if K Kauraka himself was the principal translator. Hooray for him!

Incidentally, Manhiki words are italicised with footnotes, which is not the ideal solution but turns out to be pretty practical considering how much of such verbiage there is. Gods and goddesses and heroes and plants and animals. Untranslatable beings.

(Ooh, but it turns out that hingano/hinano is basically just pandan.)

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Representative quote:


Hey Maui-Pokiti! What are you doing?
I'm weaving me a basket.
What is your basket for?
I'm flying to Manuhiki.

To climb for some coconuts,
to t some puraka
To dive for clam shells,
To trap some titihi
And take them to the sun to be roasted
For the feast of the king of the sky

(Maui-Pokiti = a Polynesian demi-god and legendary hero
Manuhiki = the original name of Manihiki Island, the ideal Manihiki society
puraka = an edible tuber
titihi = the "Moorish idol" or butterfly fish, which is most abundant in August)

Next book: Celestine Hitiura Vaite's "Frangipani" from French Polynesia