Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book 58, Antarctica: "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft

Gah! Taking a bus to Kuala Lumpur in three hours, so this post is also going to be rushed. But what a treat, in the middle of this survey of serious world literature, to be able to get at some pulpy horror fiction! (That's why I'm doing this, Mohan, so shut your trap about how Antarctica isn't really a country.)

I'm only semi-familiar with the Lovecraftian canon: I've read a collection of short stories and been initiated into his twisted universe via spin-offs like the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu and Li'l Cthulhu. This here volume is supposed to contain his first systematic summation of how all his monstrosities fit into history and geography: the Elder Things, the Shoggoths, the Mi-Go, and the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu Him/Itself.

It's a ruddy good read - it's less than a hundred pages, so you can go slow, following Lovecraft's baroquely ornamented language (he sure does love the word "eldritch"!) in the guise of the geologist William Dyer's documentation of the doomed Miskatonic expedition. Folks say this author doesn't care much about plot, but the twist really hits me, just as it did in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.


Dyer moans and groans throughout most of the narrative about the unspeakable and unbelievably ancient horror that is the city of the Elder Things. But once he starts exploring the city properly and examining its murals, he somehow gathers enough information to (improbably) piece together a cogent gazillion-year history of the race, focussed on how their artistry and knowledge declined over time, depriving them even of their means of escape from this planet on their space-traversing wings.

The real advent of their downfall, of course, is the rise of the very creatures they chemically evolved as semi-sentient labour: the blob-like, amorphous Shoggoths. They lead a revolt, gain some traction, get defeated, and then rise again by the end, even mastering some crude understanding of writing, and certainly possessing themselves of enough fury that they eviscerate any Elder Things they see in their path.

Dyer actually ends up *identifying* with the tentacle-headed aliens who slashed apart his fellow researchers, as they're by no means as barbaric and hideous as the Shoggoths (an opinion no doubt helped by the fact that one said Shoggoth is ravenously chasing him through a tunnel at the end).

Take a step back for a second and consider that Lovecraft is writing this in 1930s America. That's right: all this talk about slave uprisings and barbaric culture is precisely a reaction to the rise of black Americans and their contributions to mainstream culture: the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, Josephine Baker in the cabaret halls of Paree. There's a confirmation of this subtext in the introduction by China Miéville (which I thoroughly recommend). Creepy.


Miéville also talks about how the blank slate of the frozen continent serves as a screen on which writers can project their wildest fantasies. But evidently, the slate isn't so blank anymore - the story's had enough of an impact that paleontologist John Long's done a book titled Mountains of Madness: A Scientist's Odyssey in Antarctica . And inevitably, someday, someone's gonna get the funding to do a film version. (It almost happened!)

So when enough ice melts and Antarctica gets settled, this book is gonna be part of their heritage. Hell, they might even erect an Elder Things city theme park! Wouldn't you go there? Maybe in the summer.

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Yeah, the placemarker's thrown my whole map out of whack. I'll figure out how to fix it eventually.

Representative quote:
The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque forms of bizarrerie. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath. There were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five. All of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer giganticism.

Next book: James Hall's Sangoma, from Swaziland. I think.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book 57, Argentina: "Autobiografía de Irene" by Silvina Ocampo

I'm actually feeling kinda sick, so I'll try to do this quickly. But but but HOORAY, we're done with South America!

And what a pleasant way to go out (I'm honestly feeling guilty about crossing borders and doing Uruguay before Argentina, but it would've sucked to leave the continent with Ariel). This is a collection I actually picked up in Buenos Aires, by one of Borges's lesser-known and barely translated contemporaries.

I've blogged all about this funky lady here.

And hurrah: the funky lady does indeed write well. The pieces in this book have the same realm of paradoxical, paranoiac phantasy as the works of Borges or her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares. But they're tenderer, less strictly logic-based - and as much as women continue to appear as objects, they're also subjects.

There's the beautiful Flavia, whose three alternative reactions to the ministrations of her psycho husband Claudio Emilio is the key to Epitafio Romano. There's Kêng-Su, who goes utterly mad when pursued by a vengeful, literate butterfly in La Red. Even El Impostor, which is mostly focussed on its dual male protagonists Heredia and Maidana, involves the agency of the love interest María in its film summary version (why that's in there, I have no clue). And of course, there's the titular story, about a precognitive woman, serenely relieved on her deathbed of the mind-bending contradictions of her gift.

And come to think of it, even Fragmentos del Libro Invisible begins and returns to the womb of the prophet's mother. Yeah, you're getting an idea of how beautifully mad this book is, aren't you? Don't think it's translated yet, but the Spanish is pretty lucid (especially if you have a smartphone translation dictionary at your side).

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Enough of South America then! You realise that this is only the second continent, after Oceania, that I've actually completed? Lots more to come.

Representative quote:
Pasé por muchas puertas transparentes, como de hielo, en cuyas transparencias se veían ciertos colores que los mortales no alcanzan a ver; por muchas puertas altísimas, silenciosas, cubiertas de follajes, de frutos y de pájaros cuyas alas trémulas irradiaban luz en las maderas labradas. Pasé por muchas puertas horribles - algunas eran diminutas, algunas tenían una mano de jierro o de bronce, a un lado, o la cabeza de un león mordiendo un aro en el centro - antes de hallar el otro mundo en un paisaje complicado, entre edificios y objetos heterogéneos, entre camas, cuadros, armarios, arcos, estatuas, columnas, glorietas, miniaturas, látigos, sistros, tabernáculos, aureolas, espadas, baldaquines, linternas mágicas, barajas, astrolabios, cariátides, mapamundis.

Next book: H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, from Antarctica.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book 56, Uruguay: "Ariel" by José Enrique Rodó

This here's one of the iconic texts of Latin America, composed in the age of Modernismo as a manifesto for the emergent 20th century. There's an English translation in print out there but the Amazon Kindle download turns out to be in Spanish, which is why I'm this tardy in finishing my read of a mere 100ish-page essay.

And good lord, this is another of those weird texts - my Spanish is shaky, so I may be mistaken in many of my impressions - but first of all Rodó is characterising Latin America as Ariel, the blithe spirit of Shakespeare's Tempest, while the United States is Caliban - an idea that runs completely counter to postcolonial readings of Ariel as the neocolonial native whom Prospero uses to rule by proxy, with Caliban as the indigenous figure whose fate under either government is to be oppressed. We'd normally associate the rich, white and comparatively sophisticated USA with Ariel, surely?

But Rodó's all about the idea of Ariel as the spirit of youth and culture and moral philosophy, emblematic of the greatest achievements of Athens (yes, the guy is the ultimate Hellenomaniac). This is the path that he insists that turn-of-the-last-century Latin America has the choice to pursue.

North America, meanwhile, is corporate, corrupt, debased by that foulest of systems... DEMOCRACY. Yes, true enough, Rodó shows utter disdain for democracy, claiming that rule by the masses will lead to a decline in artistic and cultural standards, yadda yadda. He seeks instead a rule by the elite - not a hereditary elite, but a chosen elite, an aristocracy in the original sense of the word.

Democracy, he says, is only conscionable if it's democracy geared towards a spiritual uplifting of the population - awakening the populace to the higher things in life.

The net effect is that the text seems simultaneously stuck in the 5th century BCE and the late 20th/21st century: there's all this poetic invocation of the Golden Age of the Greeks with a similar disregard for their slave-owning atrocities, but the direct attacks on American politics and pop culture seem drawn directly from Theodor Adorno and Chomsky (although Rodó, the poor sap, thinks that the USA is foolish to believe it can really become a hegemonic political power without going through centuries of development as the nations of Europe have).

The thought occurs to me that Rodó would love Singapore, since our government does very much believe in a system of philosopher-king autocracy and elitism more than democracy by numbers. But then how would he look at the strained relationship between the state and the arts? Ah, he'd probably be okay with it. Moldy old bastard probably wouldn't give two hoots about freedom of speech and gay sex.

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Representative quote:
¿No la veréis vosotros la América que nosotros soñamos; hospitalaria para las cosas del espíritu, y no tan sólo para las muchedumbres que se amparen a ella; pensadora, sin menoscabo de su aptitud para la acción; serena y firme a pesar de sus entusiasmos generosos; resplandeciente con el encanto de una seriedad temprana y suave, como la que realza la expresión de un rostro infantil cuando en él se revela, al través de la gracia intacta que fulgura, el pensamiento inquieto que despierta?...—Pensad en ella a lo menos; el honor de vuestra historia futura depende de que tengáis constantemente ante los ojos del alma la visión de esa América regenerada, cerniéndose de lo alto sobre las realidades del presente, como en la nave gótica el vasto rosetón que arde en luz sobre lo austero de los muros sombríos.

Next book: Silvina Ocampo's La autobiografía de Irene, from Argentina.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book 55, Paraguay: "Saved by a Poem" by Nestor Amarilla

I was bugged by the fact that I wasn't reading enough plays in this project - after all, I'm a playwright, and I oughta be developing that.

So imagine my delight when I read about Nestor Amarilla, a young Paraguayan playwright (my age!), nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of course he didn't get it, but damn, I wanted to find out what made this kid so good.

Naturally the library didn't have his book (but they've accepted my suggestion to purchase it), so I ordered a copy via Book Depository, which delivers dirt-cheap books to pretty much any country in the world with zero shipping charges. Only problem is, you go a little crazy waiting for the damn package to arrive...

But truth is, the play's nothing phenomenal. It's a three-hander, set in the boondocks during the Stroessner dictatorship, when a woman named Mariana decides to write a poem in praise of the tyrant in order to win her activist son clemency. It has rather good character dynamics, and you could use it as a great vehicle to talk to kids about power and the business of not speaking truth to it because it already knows the truth and will get you if it realises you know it to. But it's not a shade on Lorca. Sappy dénouement, too. Maybe you have to see it on stage.

It's a short piece, too - the book's a bilingual edition, but I couldn't read the original because it's a mix of Spanish and Guaraní, Paraguay being one of the few countries in South America that's really held on to an indigenous linguistic tradition by virtue of its ethnic composition. Guaraní's an amazing language to try and decipher, though - "The sun is not waiting for me" translates into "Umi ñanáko nachera'ãrõihína".

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Representative quote:
MARIANA: If you don't close your mouth on your own, they will. Why do you wish death so much? Next time you disappear, I am not going to wait with a glass of salt and water anymore. I will just sweep. I will sweep the living room, the kitchen, the front of the house, I will sweep the whole house, and do you know for what? I'll make it ready for your funeral. That's what I'll do.

Next book: José Enrique Rodó's Ariel, from Uruguay.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book 54, Bolivia: "The Matter of Desire" by Edmundo Paz Soldán

This is a freaking good read. It covers all your bases: literary, political, and semi-historical with a nice dose of mystery. (Did I mention the sex?)

One of the coolest things about the novel is that it's contemporary - it takes place in an age of Internet stock trading and iBooks, where the imaginary Bolivian city of Río Fugitivo is shown to have intimate links with all the other Latin American countries plus the USA.

Even the novel that the characters are obsessed with is named Berkeley, after the branch of UCLA, written by the protagonist Pedro Zabalaga's father, gunned down as a revolutionary hero, leaving a text full of cryptic clues which the scholars and rock groups alike continue to decode and encode through their papers and crosswords and music videos.

Paz Soldán is clearly writing in the shadow of the Latin American Boom (he makes reference to Cortázar and Borges a-plenty), and he's established himself as the leading spokesperson for the McOndo movement (cf. García Márquez's imaginary hick town of Macondo, cf McDonald's) which disregards the magical realist movement in favour of solid descriptions of cosmopolitan city life.

So it's quite different from the other Latin American novels we've read so far: no crazy narrative tricks here: it's a first-person past-tense narrative all the way through - though there are two plot strands in alternating chapters, one describing the Latin American Studies department at Madison University, where Pedro teaches (and sleeps with) well-meaning academically-inclined gringos; the other centred in Río Fugitivo itself where he tries to worm out information about his deceased father from his uncle David and the soon-to-be-extradited drug lord Jaime Villa.

But of course, the crossword clues and Rashomon-esque games of intrigue do monkey their way into the story, so cosmopolitanism schmosmopolitanism; we've got a tale that fits into the Latino tradition anyhow.

Thoroughly recommended! But be warned: there's enough Spanglish in here to frustrate you if you're a non-Hispanophone.

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Representative quote:
I walked home to Uncle David's. I felt as if I were walking down the streets of Berkeley, just as Dad had described them, and got lost on Telegraph only to find myself on Unzueta, while geese - six? seven of them? - flew all around me and then all of a sudden there were shots and a salamander was following me and someone was shouting "All dead" and blood was flowing on the floor and a glass eye exploded. Anguish, agony. There was also a desperate sense of unreality. The barely lit streets and I both become ghost-like, suffered from a lack of substance.

Next book: Nestor Amarilla's Saved by a Poem, from Paraguay.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book 53, Brazil: "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands" by João Guimarães Rosa

Yes! I’m finally done with this juggernaut of a novel!

And let me tell you, my friends, it is strange. It’s entirely written without chapters or section breaks, and is entirely narrated in first person by an aged jagunço, a turn-of-the-last-century outlaw soldier, describing his troop’s peregrinations across the state of Minas Gerais (which appears tiny on the map, but in the book appears to have the surface area of, say, the Moon): the eponymous backlands, the sertão, that appear in the Portuguese title, Grande Sertão: Veredas.

We go from stream-of-consciousness babblings about the nature of the devil to memories of guerrilla warfare with rival armed bands, finally coaelescing into a linear narrative which makes up the bulk of the book about fighting alongside his beloved companion-in-arms, Diadorim, and just in case you think there’s an implicitly homoerotic character arc going on I’ll have you know it is explicit, with moony longing for each other carnally (Diadorim is utterly fearless, with a slender body and gorgeous green eyes) while they’re waiting in deserted mansions for the armies to come, only they never actually jump into each other’s tents Brokeback-style: instead, constant craving has always been.

And then four fifths of the way into the book Riobaldo goes to the crossroads, promises his soul to the devil, and is thoroughly put out when the devil doesn’t arrive, but somehow gets into circumstances shortly thereafter which make him the leader of this pack of men’s men, with the confidence and charisma to back him up, with a sack of random homicidal (and equicidal, and canicidal) tendencies to boot.

[SPOILER ALERT!!!!!] And then ninety-nine hundredths of the way into the book, Riobaldo wins the war against Hermogenes, but Diadorim gets killed and guess what? He’s actually a woman. A gorgeous one too.

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Shades of Doña Bárbara: an androgynous female incarnation of the wild Brazilian landscape, not to be fucked with. WTFFFFF???? [SPOILERS END]

So yeah, this is one of those crazy precursors to magical realism, in the same experimental tradition that emerged with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas through Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma and Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Brazilians be trippin’, man.

Gawd, I miss doing capoeira.

Representative quote: We could hear loud shouts and firing: it was Fafafa and his followers destroying the enemy's vanguard. This had begun in the same instant, but even so I had had time in which to feel ashamed of myself, and to realize that Diadorim was not indispensable to me. And that by his mere presence he was not obeying me. I know: one who loves is always a slave, but he never truly obeys.

Next book: Edmundo Paz Soldán's "The Matter of Desire", from Bolivia.