Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book 21, Nicaragua: "Azul" by Rubén Darío

As you can see, I finally managed to get a copy of Azul from Amazon for US$0.99! From the online edition here, the contents seem to be based on the first edition.

Fyi, Darío's known as the great Nicaraguan poet who invented modernismo in the late 19th century, the first literary movement to begin in the Americas and later spread to Europe.

But a couple of surprises:

1. Although Darío's famous as a poet, Azul(his first collection) is actually mostly made up of short stories, descriptive passages. There's a chunk of poems at the end, though.

2. Modernismo isn't actually very modernist. It's excessively flowery and effusive in praise of love and the beauty of young women and nature and jewels, bordering on Aubrey Beardsley-esque decadence. No sex, though. The poems are still pretty structured, too.

3. Hardly any of these pieces take place in Nicaragua. They're set in places with princesses (Italy?) or underground in the gnome kingdom or in Paris or Valparaíso - in fact, all the descriptive passages are about Chile, where Azul was published. The only piece set in Nicaragua is a weird autobiographical-sounding thang called Palomas Blancas y Garrzas Morenas, which is about him falling in love with his cousin while growing up with her and his grandmother, gawking at her 15 year-old body, with hair as blonde as German, no seriously, by the light of the silvered moon, "la luz de una luna argentina, dulce, una bella luna de aquellas del país de Nicaragua."

I'm honestly not that keen on the book. Sure, it's interesting as a cultural artefact, and some of the pieces are pretty cool - there's El Rey Burgués, a sad fable of the bourgeois king who cages the starving poet in his zoo, and La canción de oro, a crazy intense paean about gold and its effects on man. Also the descriptions of the tiger in his poem Estival. But given the difficulty of reading (my book had bizarre spellings: Js instead of Gs and vice versa, &c), I don't think I got a great payoff.

Didn't learn much about Nicaragua, either. There was a casual reference to the swamp crocodiles he encounters after his wedding in Palomas blancas, but this ain't a very nationalistic book. Which is okay, innit?

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Representative quote: Ya tenía quince años y medio Inés. La cabellera, dorada y luminosa al sol, era un tesoro. Blanca y levemente amapolada, su cara era una creación murillesca, si veía de frente. A veces, contemplando su perfil, pensaba en una soberbia medalla siracusana, en un rostro de princesa. El traje, corto antes, había descendido. El seno, firme y esponjado, era un ensueño oculto y supremo; la voz clara y vibrante, las pupilas azules, inefables; la boca llena de fragancia de vida y de color de púrpura. ¡Sana y virginal primavera!

Next book: Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, from Honduras.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Help! I can't download Rubén Darío from the Kindle Store!

I keep getting the following message:

We're sorry, this title is not currently available for download.

We are investigating the difficulty with this title and ask that you try again in 24 hours. If after that time you are still unable to access this title, please contact us for further assistance. We apologize for the inconvenience.
Thank you for shopping at!

This blows.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book 20, Costa Rica: "The Children of Mariplata" by Miguel Benavides

Well well well, another dark horse. On the insistence of my sister, I went for the youth literature by an actual Costa Rican dude: 55 pages of Aesop-esque fables involving princesses, talking tortoises, disobedient youths and talking sturgeons.

And it's good - "deceptively simple", as the back cover states. A whole bunch of the stories are political agitprop: the eponymous story is about decolonisation and dictatorship, via the allegory of a cultural shift among the fish of the Caribbean. A small fish protests to a big fish that he shouldn't eat him 'cos he's his nephew; the idea sticks, and the big fish nearly starves by abstaining from eating small fish, until he learns to fish for humans using sunken treasure, and everyone starts doing it, but the whole practice of storing human flesh in warehouses during the winter causes the manager to become a tyrant, and then all the fish have to lead a bloody socialist revolution against him...

Yeah, it's odd. But fascinating! The stories are short and simple, so there's no time to weary of the preaching. Even the non-political ones are cool: A Story for Esteban is all about a tortoise who breaks his legs and gets bicycle wheels instead, just 'cos the other animals prayed for him! But he abuses his newfound speed and loses respect for others, and pays the price...

The moral's sometimes a little difficult to discern, though: The Twilight Which Has Lost Its Colour is about these starving little boys who steal bread and go gleaning coffee beans, but they get caught and one of them dies and the mother goes mad, and the narrator ends off by saying:

"Now Ismael is twelve and I am thirteen. We left our wretched village and came to live in the town. If anybody wants to help us, they will find us in Culture Square, working as prostitutes."

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Despite all the talk of armed revolution against the kleptocratic elites, it's a little confusing to read online that things are pretty okay in Costa Rica now. Decent human rights, democracy, economy picking up because of eco-tourism (and maybe the hot gay sex scenes being filmed there, who knows?). But then these stories were originally published in newspapers in the late eighties; things were probably rather more fucked then.

Representative quote: Also many fishes in their grief saw how their friend the sturgeon was mortally wounded by a huge swordfish, and they relate his last words:
"One life worth more than individual freedom, but collective freedom is proportionally worth more than one life. Long live freedom!"

Next book: Rubén Darío's Azul, from Nicaragua.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book 19, Panama: "The Tailor of Panama" by John le Carré

Another winner. It took a while to warm up to this 460-page story, but it’s worth it. Was worried it was a little déclassé – after all, it’s a spy thriller, isn’t it? But the truth is, le Carré writes with real style and real intelligence: I can see the magical realism and stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences of the Latin American boom braided in with the crisp wit of classic British drawing room drama, and a real moral conscience behind everything.

SPOILER ALERT: It’s a tragedy. It starts off as an amusing expatriate narrative, with Harry Pendel the formerly-of-Savile Row tailor designing top-notch suits for the Panamanian elite; then it becomes a thriller when he’s recruited as a spy on the basis of blackmail, revealing his criminal past; then it becomes a comedy of errors when he’s forced to fabricate data to keep his employers happy, and you find out everyone’s ballooning up the data, and something’s gotta break, the truth will out and Pendel’s got to come out on top because he’s so likeable despite his deceptions, he’s just trying to rise above his Jewish working-class origins by creating these constructs that bend reality in his favour to give him that middle-class respectability and income everyone deserves, dammit.

But the truth doesn’t come out. The British embassy’s just too eager to be relevant in the world, so they latch onto the faked evidence and feed it to the United States and war breaks out, with Pendel in the middle of the firebombing watching his world go up in flames and Andrew Osnard, his fat mendacious paymaster, skiing in the Alps. SPOILERS END.

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Don’t worry: the war didn’t actually happen. The book’s written in the lead-up to the American handover of the Canal to the Panamanian government in 1999, on the basis that they would love an excuse to hold on to the power of global trade. Lots of elements are based on the aftermath of the Noriega regime, though. Great characters: former student radicals Marta with her permanently smashed-in face, courtesy of the police and Mickie Abraxas, drunken and crushed from his years of being raped in prison.

But oddly enough, the character I’m most intrigued by is Louisa, Pendel’s Zonian wife (Zonian meaning American born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone), with her schizo personality borne simply of being the less attractive daughter in a religious household in a cloistered Yankee aristocrat community, desperately trying to keep together appearances until everything snaps.

Representative quote: “Naomi, I am pleased to hear you because I have been meaning to write to you and now you have saved me a stamp. Naomi, I want you out of my fucking life. No, no, listen to me Naomi. Naomi, if you happen to be passing through the Vasco de Nuñez de Balboa Park and see my husband lying on his back enjoying oral intercourse with Barnum’s baby elephant, I would be grateful if you would tell your twenty best friends and never tell me. Because I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again till the Canal freezes over. Good night, Naomi.”

Next book: Miguel Benavides’ The Children of Mariplata from Costa Rica. Or Café Tropicana by Belinda Jones. Which one? Young people’s writing by a native guy or exoticised chick lit? Can’t decide.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Les écrivains québecois!

My Québecois friend Jean François Tessier (whom I met in Reykjavik and hung out with in Paris) has recommended a few books for me for when I finally get to his homeland. (I don't think he's secessionist, but I figure that French Canadian lit is radically different from English Canadian stuff.)

Here's a top 5 list of worthwhile authors from Québec. As far as I know, their work has been translated into English.

1. Michel Tremblay. Playwright and novelist. Best known.
2. Hubert Aquin. Novelist. Try to find "Prochain Episode".
3. Dany Laferrière. Québec-based Haitian novelist. "Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer".
4. Anne Hébert. Poetess and novelist. Look for "Kamouraska".
5. Gaston Miron. Poet. Miron described our condition as a people the best. His major work is called "L'homme rapaillé".

I feel bad though because litterature is the ONE thing in this country over which it is completely unfair to get all nationalist and flag-waving. English-Canada in my opinion has a top top top quality litterature. Anything published by "The New Canadian Library" is worthwhile.

So, even though politics has no place on your blog, my advice to you is to simply treat Québec as a country on its own and read a book from each place.

:) Hope it helps. Keep it up, it's a great project and you do it really well.

I'm actually reading Laferrière for Haiti, cos I got to meet him at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. He actually gave me a book, 'cos I was the one of the few guys at the party who could speak broken French to him while he was still jetlagged. Nice.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book 18, Colombia: "Delirium" by Laura Restrepo

Lesson learned: do not read a stream-of-consciousness book about desperate insanity when you are feeling sick and headachey and depressed yourself. It can only end badly.

But even though this book made me feel like dung, I'll have to acknowledge it's a masterpiece - three or four different parallel tales describing the psychosis of the aristocratic Agustina Londoño and her extended family and in turn the whole rotten oligarchy/kleptocracy that's poisoned Colombian society in total. Even though the blurb talks about how delirium becomes a metaphor for love itself, I think it's far more powerful as a description of the social illogic of the decadent upper classes and the entrepreneurial middle classes who try to exploit them and occasionally go nuts and blow them up with bombs in the most chi-chi of restaurants, and the good-natured helpless Marxism of our intellectual protagonist, Aguilar, who tries to control his wife's delusions to no avail.

You're going to ask why I'm not reading Gabriel García Márquez, of course. Here are my reasons:

1) I've read everything he's written except maybe Leaf Storm, which doesn't sound super-thrilling to me. (My fave is Autumn of the Patriarch, which you'll understand if you know something about Singapore.)

2) I haven't read a single other Colombian writer other than him.

3) I want to move out of the period of the Latin American boom (1960s to '80s), which didn't involve any women writers, thank you very much, although you can make a case for Clarice Lispector and Jean Rhys.

4) Restrepo's won crazy awards. What's not to like?

She even has the rational Aguilar cast disdain on magical realism and Gabo's novels, which the crazy Agustina adores together with feng shui and batik and palmistry and annoying the hell out of her dead father.

There's no clear break between Restrepo's writing and magical realism, however - she's still using the same Faulknerian techniques, still incorporating magic ritual and hyperbole and epic family sagas and madness, madness, madness. But this, unlike Gabo's writing, is urban and contemporary, making reference to student riots of the late 20th century and actually being specific about which city this is taking place in - not the steamy semi-rural Macondo, but the gloomy city with the twelve steeples that Fernanda del Carpio came from in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Bogotá itself.

I'm also rather happy that there's a queer character in here: Bicho, Agustina's beautiful but abused little brother who sets off the psychological bomb that breaks up the Londoño family and leaves triumphantly for Mexico with his Aunt Sofia, where he gets a boyfriend, and never comes back home till a few pages after the end.

Come to think of it, Gabo and Restrepo both live in Mexico City too. One of the world's intellectual and cultural capitals, I guess. When will Singapore get there?

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Representative quote: My father tries to explain that my mother didn’t want my little brother and me to be upset, and that’s why she wouldn’t let me see the students running between the cars, bleeding, with their heads smashed. But I know it isn’t true, I know that the lepers have come at last. Thousands of lepers have left Agua de Dios and invaded Bogotá; Sacred Hand of my Father, protect me from the invasion of the lepers.

Next book: John LeCarré’s The Tailor of Panama from (well actually, set in) Panama.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Book 17, Ecuador: "The Old Man Who Read Love Stories" by Luis Sepúlveda

Couldn't find an Ecuadorian writer at the National Library. Who've we got instead? A Chilean living in Germany. He'll do!

This book is a real treat to read - 131 pages of easily swallowable, widely spaced print: a novella really. And such a beautiful tale - a man who loses his wife in the attempt to settle the Amazon jungle, and ends up going native with the Shuar tribe instead, learning all the secrets of the animals, and then betrayed by old age, the creeping advance of civilisation and a spate of mysterious ocelot attacks...

To tell the truth, I'm not sure if the love stories take centrestage enough in the novel - yet the fact that the man finds solace in reading purple romances set in exotic European cities is the one thing that problematises the anti-urbanisation idyll of co-existence with nature. There's surprisingly little revealed about the novel he's reading - something involving gondoliers kissing maidens in Venice, when he's unfamiliar with gondoliers, Venice and the act of kissing itself.

But then there's journey of self-discovery as he realises he can read, the way these substitute fantasies of love make up for his widowerhood, the way that love is paralleled in the figure of the man-eating female ocelot he hunts (barely any other female figures appear in the book: there's reference to the black prostitute who recommends the romances via the dentist and a schoolmistress with a library and the dead wife and a temporary Shuar wife and a Jibaro lady who vomits at being kissed by a white prospector... but no direct speech from any of these).

Rather sudden ending, too. But I shouldn't give too much away. Shades of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", quite obviously.

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Representative quote: Sometimes the snake was quicker than Antonio José Bolívar, but that didn't worry him. He knew he would swell up like a toad and be delirious with fever for a few days, but then his moment of revenge would come. He was immune, and liked to swagger about in front of the settlers showing off his scar-covered arms.

Next book: Laura Restrepo's Delirium from Colombia.