Budapest – Chico Buarque


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Budapest (Grove Press)Those of you following Three Percent’s enormously silly and rather uninformative (there’s a reason book reviews aren’t written like sports announcements) “World Cup of Literature” will have noticed the high praise this novel received in the opening match, where Brazil beat Cameroon 4-0 (it then lost the next round because it was facing South America’s literary titan Roberto Bolaño). Budapest had been on my radar ever since learning that Luisa Valenzuela’s ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ took its title from a Chico Buarque lyric (in Brazil the man is known primarily as a songwriter). Having won praise on so distinguished a site, I thought I’d better bump this novel up my reading list.

On the surface, Budapest is a small book about nothing, a fluid account of one man’s love affair with the Hungarian language. It was first published in 2003 and translated in 2004 by Alison Entrekin (who does a marvelous job making total immersion in José Costa’s head somewhat easy to digest). Costa is a ghostwriter who, on a whim, abandons his wife Vanda, their son and his job in Rio de Janeiro, taking off for Budapest to learn the only tongue in the world the devil respects. Soon upon arrival he hooks up with the aloof and disciplined Kriska, who volunteers to teach him the language.

Costa’s narrative glides along in chapters alternating Brazil with Budapest, playing parallels for all they are worth. At home he is employed and even has a certain invisible prestige. In Hungary he finds himself nobody, starting from scratch to recreate his late departed career. Kriska has a son the same age as his boy, offering a replacement family. However, it’s not the story of a conflict, a “troubled man caught between two worlds” and all that. Costa is a remarkably unreflective narrator, an individual so abominably self-centered it doesn’t even occur to him to moralize about his actions. The effect is almost comical. He swears up and down vouching for his purity as a ghostwriter while it becomes more and more obvious that he burns with vanity and when a book of his becomes a hit he transforms into a ludicrous peacock, strutting about with his autographed copy, watching people read it on the beach, standing in bookshops watching it fly off the shelves and thinking words of contempt, because if it weren’t for my book, that dump would already have closed down.

Just as often, paralleling only takes place in Costa’s imagination, as when he discovers his wife’s adultery during his absence and pictures her lover doing all the things he did in their first meeting, melding linguistic fetishism, erotic obsession and identity crisis in a curious mix. It would make no sense to wish him ill for having done what I would have done if I were him… Costa never considers his wife’s feelings or confronts his own hypocrisy in the matter – never, in fact, does Costa account for the feelings of Vanda or Kriska, only stopping to envision their erotic reaction to language (written or spoken and preferably his). The solipsism beggars belief. …she would forget the German, who would also forget her, as she had been forgetting her husband who was forgetting her in Budapest, and there you go. The only thing left to say to the German now would be: How are you?

Were Budapest of any length, I might have reservations about recommending it due to the difficulty many readers have with unsympathetic protagonists. But what is most odd about Buarque’s book is how it avoids being disagreeable. Buarque has a light touch and I feel that he invites laughter toward Costa (at least I hope that was the case). Combining that with the shortness of the book, Budapest never outlasts its welcome. I should think anyone who can tolerate streams-of-conciousness could get some enjoyment out of it.

The other praiseworthy element here is how in tone and style it looks meandering and self-indulgent but as you progress through the text it becomes more imaginative. There are doppelgängers in his office, an encounter involving Russian Roulette and a ghostwriters’ society full of intrigue and backbiting to liven things up. The ghostwriting drama heats up the narrative and becomes a highlight as the business relationships between employers, craftsmen and customers quickly become fraught: He went out late every night to buy the following day’s papers, which he scrutinised right there at the news-stand, scanning the cultural sections for an article of mine, a letter of mine in the readers’ section, a paid public notice claiming authorship of The Gynographer. On autograph nights, during radio interviews or television talk shows, even during an informal chat with Vanda on the evening news, he was tense, glanced from side to side, twisted around, imagined that I might burst in at any moment to unmask him.

The ending is also commendable, delicious irony being served up for a finish. You never do get a particular sense of Hungary or its people but that’s hardly surprising given who’s telling this story. I did have to backtrack on occasion to reclaim the thread of the plot, but as I adjusted to the style confusion cleared and it ceased to be necessary. It’s really a fun little read, quick and quirky and just a touch comedic. Recommended.

Chico Buarque gesticulating







And here is one of Buarque’s music performances:

Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins – Carlos Fuentes


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ConstanciaCarlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was one of the great mystical writers of the 20th Century, in that no matter how clearly he stated his theme or outlined his moral stance it is still well-nigh impossible to explain his vision. The intriguingly elaborate title Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins is a set of five novellas he had published in 1989. A translation by Thomas Christensen followed the year after and got little attention. Hardly surprising. These stories are confusing labyrinths, metaphysical mysteries for the soul and some are far more readable than others.

The novella form only adds to the level of difficulty. It is an ungainly object – padded at length compared to the short story but not long enough for the full involvement that a novel can offer. Most writers deal with these creations by either issuing one solo or by inserting it into a collection of shorter works, where it can act as a centerpiece. Putting five together, as Fuentes has done here, runs the risk of bogging the reader down. While Constancia would make a distinctive introduction for the novice, I believe it would be better approached by those already familiar with Fuentes and aware of his idiosyncrasies.

The stories are mysteries, more or less, borne of ghosts, parallels, surreal situations and secret tests of character. People are alive who should be dead, mannequins have souls, and each narrator is challenged by the most perplexing adversities (fear not, there is nothing Kafkaesque here; Fuentes was too original for that).

The lead-off story, ‘Constancia,’ is narrated by a lethargic and uncharismatic aging intellectual. The Russians make that exciting – Fuentes makes everything around it exciting. Consequently, the ramblings of Dr. Whitby Hull about his lusty but troubled marriage to a pious, uneducated Spanish woman and his ambivalent sense of white guilt as a white man in Savannah, Georgia is not terribly compelling. Luckily, this is only the entryway to a larger story as Fuentes weaves the deep voice of history’s pain into the narrative through the collective memory of refugees. Whitby’s privileged worries give over to the mysterious ailment of Constancia, setting him in pursuit of her past. The plot only becomes more dreamlike as the layers of history’s carnage unfold. It also includes one of the most genuinely redemptive conclusions for its main character that I have come across.

‘La Desdichada’ is considerably more fun. Two young men, aspiring writers in 1930s Mexico City, become captivated by a sad-eyed store mannequin and bring her into their apartment. Soon enough she creates a rift between them. It lacks the perverse horror required to rival Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Daisy Dolls’ but it’s not exactly Lars and the Real Girl either. It is, however, a great space for Fuentes to show off his skills as a decadent writer:

We took taxi after taxi, the four of us squeezed in together, breathing the intense perfume of those strange creatures. It was the last night of the city we had known. The ball at San Carlos, where they took us that night (the perfumed couple, Pierrot and Columbine) was the annual saturnalia of the university students, who cast aside the medieval prohibitions of the Royal, Holy University of Mexico amid the Neoclassicism of the eighteenth-century palace’s stone staircases and columns: disguises, drinks, abandon, the always threatening movement of the crowd carried away by the dance, the drunkenness, the sensuality on display, the lights like waves; who was going to dance with Ambar, who with Estrella: which was the man, which was the woman, what would our hands tell us when we danced first with Columbine, then with Pierrot?

It is a compelling story with a vibrant cast and a subtle, phantasmagoric ending. Of all the stories, it is perhaps the most ambiguous in its resolution – though it contains only a hint of surrealism, it is never made clear what exactly the doll La Desdichada was nor what she expected of the boys.

Story No. 3, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas,’ is the least stylistically demanding of the set. The narrator, a lawyer and general snake in the grass, makes a gregarious and straightforward storyteller. The action develops at a pleasant clip and concepts such as the value of information, the invisibility of servants and the seclusion (invisibility) of the elite are all wrapped up in a story of blackmail, murder and the mob. If you’re looking for an easy way into the book, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas’ is your best bet.

The snag comes with ‘Viva Mi Fama’ – one of the longest stories and the most surreal of the set. People who think surrealism works best in small doses (like me) will find this very distracting. The plot follows an actress, a bullfighter and Francisco Goya in a love triangle of sorts, culminating in the luckless reincarnation of the bullfighter attempting to retrieve his former glory. Ceaseless romanticizing and sexualizing of bullfighting ensues. Culture clash is expected when reading world literature, but like most decadent writers, Fuentes didn’t know when to quit and the story is pretty much the definition of overkill. Of course, if you’re a fan of the word-drunk decadence movement, you’ll probably enjoy the whole thing far more than me. It is a good example of Fuentes’ delight in language, even if it does veer into self-indulgent stylistics.

Though Goya appears as a character in ‘Viva Mi Fama’ he’s not used half as well there as he was in the beginning of ‘Constancia,’ when Whitby Hull wanted to tell his wife that it is reason that never sleeps which produces monsters. A telling inversion. “Reason” has absolutely no place in these tales, any more than it had a place in the dreamscape of Aura.

The final of the five Stories for Virgins is a return to form. There is a strong hallucinogenic element in ‘Reasonable People’ but it doesn’t overwhelm the central plot, which involves miracles, incest and some luminous architectural discussion. Like Victor Hugo, he attempts to capture the soul of a people and their history in the form and substance of their architecture, described in a rapturous and enthusiastic prose: The approach to the Lincoln had become an obstacle course, thanks to the never-ending construction on Revillagigedo, Luis Moya, Marroquí, and Artículo 123, the streets around it. The Federal Attorney’s Office, the site of the old Naval Ministry, several popular movie houses, and a real jungle of businesses, garages, hardware stores, and used-car lots made that part of the city look like a metallic mountain range: twisted, tortured, rough, rusty; several stages in the life of steel were exposed there, like the entrails of an iron-age animal – literal, emblematic – they were bursting out, exposing themselves and revealing their age, the age of the beast, the geology of the city.

‘Reasonable People’ is marred only by a bait and switch conclusion. There is some excellent imagery during the hallucinogenic portion, where one of the architects discovers a windowless house leftover from the old City. Mexican houses are all blind on the outside; the blank walls around their entrances tell us only that these houses look inward, to the patios, the gardens, the fountains, the porticoes that are their true face. There he encounters a group of mutilated nuns and a corrupted semblance of the Virgin and Child. It does feel a little padded, but is more interesting than not.

As should be apparent, the curious title of the collection is an emblem of its Catholic focus. The Virgin is mentioned and mused upon in every one of these novellas. Being knowledgeable in Catholicism would likely help a reader to appreciate the imagery, and doubtless much has escaped me. Constancia is a reading experience where the more knowledge you have, the better. This is challenging material for the brain, so you’d better be prepared for that. Don’t expect another Aura. This book is not half so accessible, though it has its own rewards – and I thoroughly recommend ‘La Desdichada.’

Carlos Fuentes

Three Brothers – Peter Ackroyd


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Three BrothersIn the fiction of Peter Ackroyd, London is always the main character. People are a formality; Albion is the glue that holds everything together. This tight focus and regular productivity could be optimistically thought of as the reason Ackroyd the novelist hasn’t been a forceful presence since the 80s. These days he’s best known for his non-fiction – Three Brothers is only a footnote next to this year’s Charlie Chaplin biography. All I can say is, it deserves it.

The story it tell centers on the Hanway brothers, struggling to rise in the world from their council house beginnings and permanently marked by their mysteriously vanished mother and weary failure of a father. Each boy’s character is clearly delineated, though they lack depth. Harry is ambitious, hardworking and cutthroat; Daniel is scholarly, snobbish and gay; and youngest brother Sam is a dreamy, unmotivated loner. Their only connection is their shared aloofness and that they were each born at the same hour of the same day exactly one year apart from each other.

That is only the first in a litany of coincidences that thread the narrative. Readers have complained about this aspect of Three Brothers but it’s right there in the opening paragraph, it’s the bread and butter of the novel, and if you can accept the first one there’s no reason not to accept the rest. Whether there’s any point in doing so is another matter. Paul Auster plays with chance and fate in a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-eyerolling way. Ackroyd, on the other hand, doesn’t engage with it. He expects you to believe in his fateful London, but if you think of London the same way you think of Paris, Chicago, Reykjavik or any other city, then you’ll probably need more than “Dickens did it first” as a reason to.

Ackroyd has an impeccable talent for painting the streets and society of 60s London but he shows very little ability at pacing. He turns out a near-constant stream of character sketches. Each one is snappily dealt with but at a certain point (rather early on, in fact) the hastily introduced cast start to swim. I got the feeling Three Brothers should be one of those fat Rohinton Mistry novels, but which had somehow been pared down to a smoothly readable but definitely rushed 244 pages. The characters are small, petty and easily dismissed, making it even harder to forge a connection before they exit stage left. Sam, who felt at ease in the company of tramps and wanderers is the only fully realised character on display, purely by dint of ambiguity (the gay thief Sparkler also has some promise). When asked if he’d seen his brothers, Sam answers:

“I don’t think so.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Sometimes I think I see their reflections. Sometimes I think I see them across the street. I see them in my dreams all the time.”

The text is a combination of vaguely satirical social realism with a visionary and mystical setting. But there is no emotional loading to the novel, so when the brothers get involved in the criminal underworld it is impossible to care and when the visions surface they lack intensity. It’s an uneasy mixture and is poorly resolved. Ackroyd’s London intrigues and puzzles at the start, but his characters are a drab and irritating sand in the ointment. It’s clear Ackroyd only needs them as props: …he had found in the work of the novelists a preoccupation with the image of London as a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole. A chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, and a misheard word bring unintended good fortune. An impromptu answer to a sudden question might bring death… And props they remain.

The book needed more work if it wanted to impress. It feels much too swift in execution, like the author had a great concept and hammered it out as fast as possible to meet a deadline. The giveaway is the ending. I can’t discuss it in detail but it is, quite frankly, bafflingly bad. Suffice to say, however self-absorbed Paul Auster can be, he does create a world (something Ackroyd sadly fails at). Coincidence drives it but Auster has the energy to make it seem purposeful. Ackroyd, in the end, handwaves his entire premise. Every intriguing idea brought up in the first hundred pages is ignored – nor does the lack of resolution feel purposeful. It feels muffed. And that makes the whole experience even more meager.

The Plato Papers, which I read a few months ago, was certainly slight but oddly (and very pleasantly) stimulating to the intellect. I was impressed by the amount of care that he’d put into it. Three Brothers feels like the polar opposite. It’s easy enough to read, I’ll give it that, and I did enjoy the first hundred pages, but it gave diminishing returns from there on. I’d say you should seek his earlier works if you want an Ackroyd novel and don’t bother with this one.

Peter Ackroyd at table

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel Garcia Marquez


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Strange PilgrimsWith the recent passing of Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) I decided it would be good to pay my respects by finally reading one of his books. Being in between story collections, Strange Pilgrims felt like the obvious choice and I knew it for such when García Márquez greeted me in the introduction by recounting a dream where he attended his own funeral: walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood. We all seemed happy to be together. And I more than anyone else, because of the wonderful opportunity that death afforded me to be with my friends from Latin America, my oldest and dearest friends, the ones I had not seen for so long. At the end of the service, when they began to disperse, I attempted to leave too, but one of them made me see with decisive finality that as far as I was concerned, the party was over. “You’re the only one who can’t go,” he said.

Strange Pilgrims is a themed set of stories that García Márquez published in 1992 but had been struggling with since the 70s, a mutable and often hopeless project he could never bring himself to abandon. Upon publication, it was swiftly and brilliantly translated by Edith Grossman (1993). My Penguin edition has a lovely wraparound cover by Cathleen Toelke, which was another factor in my choosing this book over any of his classic novels.

The stories are centered around Latin Americans in Europe – old and dying, young and struggling, all displaced in a landscape both surreal and devastating. The stories cover realism, magical realism and nightmare. There is in fact a strong element of the macabre at work here and almost all of them deal in some way with (often violent) death. Yet here is the truly astonishing thing: even with its themes and motifs so strongly on display, there is no repetition to be found. This is doubtless due to the long gestation period. Because I worked on all the stories at the same time and felt free to jump back and forth from one to another, I gained a panoramic view that … helped me track down careless redundancies and fatal contradictions.

There is a great deal of strength and weight to each of the tales. I had come across his stories in compilations before but they’d one and all left me cold. Not so with Strange Pilgrims. It takes nostalgia, menace, beauty, Europe’s antiquity and incompetence – often using an author stand-in who has seemingly “collected” the stories as journalism – and never failed to draw a reaction from me. The majority of the collection only lightly touches on magical realism. A dog is trained to weep over a grave, a woman makes a living selling her dreams, but García Márquez tackles the inexplicable in all forms. ‘The Ghosts of August’ is a straightforward ghost story (and perhaps the least affective of the set due to its brevity) while others lean toward Kafkaesque situations.

‘Light is Like Water’ and ‘The Saint’ are the most conventionally magical realist, design-wise. In the former, two boys demand a boat (much to the bemusement of their parents, since they’re living in a fifth-floor Madrid apartment), having made the whimsical but ultimately dangerous discovery that “light is like water … You turn the tap and out it comes.” And in ‘The Saint’ a man struggles for years to gain a reception from the Pope. His dead daughter’s body will not decay and he longs to see her canonized. Oddly enough, no one seems interested…

‘Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen’ revisits Rome, this time with a bereaved and pious widow on a pilgrimage to see the Pope while struggling to endure so crowded and venal a city. At that early hour her only fellow diners were the waiters and waitresses and a very poor priest eating bread and onions at a back table. When she went in she felt everyone’s eyes on her brown habit, but this did not affect her, for she knew that ridicule was part of her penance. The waitress, on the other hand, roused a spark of pity in her, because she was blonde and beautiful and spoke as if she were singing, and Señora Prudencia Linero thought that things must be very bad in Italy after the war if a girl like her had to wait on tables in a restaurant.

Death is never predictable in these stories. Señora Linero encounters it everywhere while the protagonist of ‘Maria dos Prazeres’ - a merciless old lady who at first glance seemed a madwoman escaped from the Americas – makes careful preparation for her own end, only to have it poignantly upset by the one thing she could never have foreseen. And ‘Bon Voyage, Mr. President’ features a placid and charming dictator, exiled and ailing in Geneva, expected to die any day. But he possesses the will to endure and the eloquence of an old master and he’s by no means as finished as he looks…

Tallied up, only one of the twelve breaks the pattern. ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ centers on an unbearably pretentious old man gazing in adoration at his airplane partner. Unluckily for him, the most beautiful woman he’s seen in his life takes sleeping pills the moment she boards and remains a mystery. He quotes sonnets and reflects on Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties while longing for her to wake – even welcoming turbulence, such is his vain desire. Kawabata’s concept apparently so fascinated García Márquez that he expanded on it with his final work, the novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004).

Everything works as a distinct entity. There’s no filler – every story is imaginative and unpredictable. However, my favorites are easily the most sinister. Along with Carlos Fuentes and Felisberto Hernández, García Márquez is further proof that Latin America contains a rich seam of horror fiction that for some reason is not often remarked upon. “I Only Came to Use the Phone” is simply one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. A woman’s car breaks down in the desert and she hitches a ride on a bus. But the bus’ destination is a women’s insane asylum where she’s mistaken for a patient. Asylum clichés are loaded on with a trowel but there is a terrifying plausibility as circumstances collude to keep her imprisoned.

A moray eel nailed to a door frame kicks off ‘Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness.’ Two young brothers are put under the care of an iron-fisted German governess, bringing an end to their paradisiacal Sicilian vacation and as her behaviour grows more and more appalling so does the resentment of the boys. We soon realized that Miss Forbes was not as strict with herself as she was with us, and this was the first chink in her authority…

‘Tramontana’ deals with a more inhuman menace, a harsh, tenacious land wind that carries in it the seeds of madness… Susceptibility increases with exposure so that the old pros have the most to fear. However, it is ‘The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow’ that best captures the pure disorientation of these pilgrims to the Old World. On their honeymoon in France, Billy Sánchez’s wife pricks her finger on a rose and begins, inexorably, to bleed to death. He rushes her to a Parisian hospital but then finds himself lost, unable to speak the language or regain admittance, doomed and isolated by bureaucracy and his own characters flaws.

Strange Pilgrims is a powerful concoction. Colourful imagery both enhances the terror and regret of displacement and conveys the beauty and mystery that lead a person to endure such homesickness. García Márquez appears not only to have been satisfied with Strange Pilgrims but to have made it the conclusion of his work with the form – in the twelve years to Memories of My Melancholy Whores he published journalism, a memoir and the novel Of Love and Other Demons but no more story collections, making this his crowning achievement in the field. It is exceptional. Simply put, it belongs in your Latin American literary collection. If you don’t have a copy, I demand that you get one.

Gabriel  Garcia Marquez

The Plato Papers – Peter Ackroyd


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The Plato PapersMy preferred method of bookbuying is the secondhand source. Everything is on shuffle and you’re left at the mercy of local bookbuyers. It has obvious problems, among them the chronic discovery of a major writer’s secondary works. I spring for those anyway because such an introduction can re-create authors in different guises. Dreamers introduced me to Knut Hamsun, The Moon is Down to Steinbeck. It can also damage them unfairly. Mark Twain is forever slapdash and annoying to me thanks to Pudd’nhead Wilson. It’s a gamble, but (especially with major writers who I’m bound to read more of anyway) it’s one I like to take.

So I found Peter Ackroyd’s The Plato Papers, his mostly forgotten 1999 offering, in the basement of a Bemidji bookstore. Bought it, put it on a shelf for a couple of years, and having lately finished a re-read of some Plato, thought it a good time to polish this diminutive book off. Well, it’s actually 173 pages but that’s Nan A. Talese’s formatting trick. A small hardcover with giant margins and maximum use of white space at the start (and usually finish) of all 55 chapters. Naturally enough, much of the text is in dialogue. And what does it all have to do with Plato? Next to nothing, actually.

The Plato Papers uses the future as a conceit to talk about the past. In 2299 a collapsophe plunges London into a new sci-fi dark age but the city endures and by 3705 the orator Plato is entertaining crowds with his interpretations of “ancient texts.” When he’s not delivering orations, he’s conversing with his soul. When he’s not on the page, friends with improbable names are discussing him and his ideas.

That’s it. My hopes were not high, as it sounds like a glib work of postmodernism with no greater purpose than to showcase Ackroyd’s cleverness. Some of it does fall into that trap. The Plato Papers can be split roughly in half – while the second half delves into metaphysics, the first is all about the blithely overeducated joke as when Plato offers definitions of ancient idioms.

dead end: a place where corpses were taken … Those who chose to inhabit these areas apparently suffered from a ‘death wish.’
literature: a word of unknown provenance, generally attributed to ‘litter’ or waste.

I mean, come on! These are glorified puns, funny literalisms it can’t have taken Ackroyd more than a second to compile. Occasionally, one hits the mark:

pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot. Used as a term of abuse, as in ‘this is a very pedestrian plot.’ It is possible, therefore, that in ancient days walking was considered to be an ignoble or unnatural activity; this would explain the endless varieties of transport used to convey people for very short distances.

This is amusing yet reflective. The conclusion is wrong but it feels plausible and the verdict is pleasantly illuminating. It’s also very lightly treated, which sums up my experience with the whole work. Some call it a satire, but it’s not mean enough by half. And as a novel of ideas, it puts all the right ingredients together…in the smallest possible amounts. Throughout, Ackroyd is making a point about the treatment of history, the interpretations we make about “the wrong ages” (essentially how we always feel about the past). Each new generation unaware that history has them in its gunsights as well.

Madrigal: … But why are the beliefs of our ancestors so ridiculous? I am sure that they were sincerely held.
Ornatus: No doubt.
Madrigal: Perhaps, in the future someone might laugh at – well – you and me.
Ornatus: There is nothing funny about us.
Madrigal: As far as we know.

Of course, The Plato Papers is too diffuse to really impress with its intellect. It flits from scene to scene and all the critical praise adorning the dust jacket can’t obscure the fact that this is foremost a light read. It wants to amuse. Plato’s orations are postmodern routines and they form the bulk of the text. Dickens and Darwin are confuted in the best sequence, offering The Origin of Species as a novel with an unreliable narrator at the helm. Freud (pronounced Fraud, ha ha) is assumed a comedian. Poe’s Tales and Histories is taken at face value as a factual account of the American people. Its inhabitants dwelled in very large and very old houses which, perhaps because of climactic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy. In many respects the architecture of these ancient mansions conformed to the same pattern; they contained libraries and galleries, chambers of antique painting and long corridors leading in serpentine fashion to great bolted doors. … they were a highly nervous people, who suffered from a morbid acuteness of their faculties. They experienced continually ‘a vague feeling of terror and despair’. They were prone to the most extreme sensations of wonder or hilarity and there seems to have been an unusual amount of lunacy among the young.

As Plato talks to his soul, the cheap jokes go by the wayside and Ackroyd gets down to business. History is bent and run through Plato’s Cave. Willful illusion, rather than simple ignorance, becomes a main tenet of human behaviour. The stubborn Ornatus says “Ignorance is better than doubt” and the citizens of London reject Plato’s new and more accurate findings on ancient ways because to countenance them would introduce uncertainty – and require humility. To class your ancestors as ignorant makes you enlightened; to call them barbarians is to make yourself civilized. Plato tests the limits of his world, not by journeying to another, but by admitting his own errors. This makes him a pariah and he is soon put on trial…

In a final prank, Ackroyd chose not to finish his fable with an ending everyone already knows. Perhaps he thought that would be predictable, or would clash with his established tone. Or perhaps he was making the point that, even while unconscious of the past, history does not always repeat and there is hope for the human race. Deeper meaning aside, Ackroyd’s finale is diffuse, anti-climactic and very appropriately the final word in the book is dream.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of artistry on display in The Plato Papers. However, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers with its combination of highly metaphorical sci-fi and postmodern jokery. Sure, it stimulates the intellect, but it bounces around too much to feel really substantial and based on this sample it makes sense that he’s more known for his non-fiction these days. I enjoyed it but I would never claim it qualifies as a necessary addition to the library of any non-Ackroyd fan. The characters are flat, the prose is average, the imagery does not dazzle…and yet the whole concoction is so odd I can’t help but like it. In its favour, it absolutely does have the ability to spark thought. It’s one of those cases where the reviews are a necessary addendum to the book. There’s an excellent essay on it at London Fictions that I direct you to as a case in point. Ackroyd’s erudite. In the end I’m glad I picked it up.

Peter Ackroyd

Karate Chop – Dorthe Nors


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Karate Chop (Graywolf Press)Fifteen stories in eighty-eight pages and it’s called Karate Chop? Pictures spring to mind of sharp-edged minimalism, the jolt of the unexpected. I had high hopes for this collection, the first English publication of Danish author Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken for Graywolf Press). It garnered widespread critical acclaim and I, expecting something quite unique, was unprepared for what I got: all too often rote slice-of-life stories.

I’ve never cared for slice-of-life, mainly because it’s so hard to do well. Especially in shortened form, it makes too often for quotidian extracts from life packed together without breathing room. A writer has to be either an excellent stylist (Mavis Gallant, Edna O’Brien) or supremely perceptive (Anton Chekhov, god of the life unlived) for it to work. Nors has these qualities but not in a reliable amount. What she excels at is atmosphere and her stories only pop when she allows slice-of-life to have a freak accident. In that way, she reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates, only with greater discipline (well, it’s hard to have less) and an air of mystery. Nors doesn’t believe in spelling things out for the audience. It’s unfortunate then, that so much left unsaid feels so ordinary.

The best stories in Karate Chop have a menacing and autumnal air of decay. With the exceptions of ‘The Buddhist’ and the title story, very little tends to happen. Nors prefers to suggest and when she uses that technique and goes beyond slice-of-life into a different type of gloom, the result is delicately unnerving, as in the conclusion of ‘Mutual Destruction’:

A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something inside Morten that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what to say about it, other than that it smelled like offal, and that the smell was spreading.

This ominous trait is so good that reviewers tend to emphasise it, but in truth fewer than half of the stories hit that mark. The rest, though moody, do not carve out a distinct identity for themselves. It doesn’t help that, without the atmospheric displays, Nors’ writing is thoroughly nondescript. I particularly remembered the front door when I turned to go back inside. The light from the lamp shining on the wall cladding and door handle. That sort of thing. Apart from the Danish setting and stylistic brevity, there is very little here to differentiate Karate Chop‘s divorces and family traumas from the rest of the pack.

Because of the brevity, Nors has been compared to Lydia Davis, but to qualify she’d have to break her stories down even further. ‘Nat Newsom’ fills four pages, but the wham moment, when Nat allows himself to be conned by an especially inexpert hustler, requires only one to set up and execute. Several of the less interesting stories could have hit a nerve with this treatment. ‘Hair Salon’ splits its attention between an old lady in a laundromat and the dog she dopes up so she can keep it in her apartment. The old woman pretends a solidarity with the narrator to salve her own isolation in the modern world but the detail about the dog is a far more powerful way of transmitting that.

The strongest stories in Karate Chop actually fulfill the promise of its title. The twisted premise of ‘The Buddhist’ is treated with a sense of humour that in no way impinges on its horrifying punchline. ‘The Heron’ is narrated by a morose and death-haunted man, musing on the sickly herons and occasional dismembered bodies you can find in the park (it was featured in the New Yorker and fully deserved it). ‘Female Killers’ also features a morbid man at its center, obsessed with women who kill and the survival of the fittest. ‘Karate Chop’ succeeds with a familiar tale, as an abused woman questions her relationship choices with an especially opaque and subtly chilling conclusion. These and ‘Mutual Destruction’ show what she’s capable of. Memorable and finely tuned sketches of life on the regular side of macabre. And all her talent is given full rein in the final and best story, ‘The Wadden Sea’.

It is hard to convey the enchanting quality of ‘The Wadden Sea’. The story is simple and told through the eyes of a child. A mother suffering “fear of life” moves to Sønderho, using the Wadden Sea mudflats for “healing power.” It is a fully formed piece of work, conveying a family’s tension, the struggles of a depressed mind, the layers of a local community and an impeccable sense of place, all in six pages. There were many artists and musicians living in that little community. There were rich people too, though I didn’t know any of them, and then there were the locals and the town alcoholics. Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town were clusters of people with indistinct pronunciations and chinking shopping bags. Her tone is perfect for conveying the overcast stillness of the mudflats and my only reaction on finishing it was “damn, that was good.”

If only she could sustain such a voice… In spite of the disappointing nature of this collection, Karate Chop has some truly excellent stories that are well worth a read. I can’t recommend it overall unless you really enjoy slice-of-life. But I’m nevertheless anticipating the translations of some of her novels (she’s written five). Is she average with flashes of brilliance or is she in the process of cultivating a unique voice for herself? It could go either way but I await the answer with interest.

Dorthe Nors on the road

Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews: Second Anniversary



Today I celebrate two years of my blog’s existence. Big changes have come to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews since I began, most of them since the new year and the latest, tragically, just yesterday. In February I was hired to the website Media Snobs. burning paperThat line of work is no more. The site has been taken down by an outside force and everyone involved is now out of a job. The staff are showing great solidarity through this reviewer’s apocalypse and the possibility of a new site rising from the ashes is very real.

The five reviews I contributed are safe (I had backed them up on Wordpad previously) and last night I added their complete texts to Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews, since they now have no other place to reside on the web.

Victorian MourningI am now at loose ends, as before, only somewhat sadder. However, even though I was only able to work there for a few short months, the experience has changed me deeply. For a moment I was able to call myself a professional and my writing was vetted by a talented and helpful editor. The work I did there has fired up all of my hitherto dormant ambitions.

I was previously content as a hobbyist, drifting through life and maybe reviewing a book every few weeks. I paid no attention to the literary world and would stumble upon new books by accident – usually by reading the blog of someone more in-the-know, like John Self over on Asylum. Now everything has changed. I’ve shed my apathy and am keeping up on the new and forthcoming. The bi-weekly posting that was required of me has done a lot to help me learn the rhythm of reviewing, how to pick up the pace, strategize and organize.

I don’t feel in a celebratory mood, frankly, but I have to be. My blog is still here and my stuff still has a home on the web. Compared to others, I’ve lost very little and have much to be grateful for. However, this is also one hell of a spur to BACK UP ALL MY REVIEWS in about five separate locations.

Gibson Girl does some writing

So, what does this really entail for me? The wind is thoroughly out of my sails but I can’t allow that to last. I must rally and continue to forge ahead toward an ideal upgrade in my blog’s content. The casual approach is to take each month as it comes, reviewing whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The professional approach is to step away from the month and focus on the quarter (right now is the middle of the spring quarter), planning for an ideal spread of reviews to appear over the course of that time.

The subtitle of this blog has always said “Essays and Reviews.” I’m going to step up to the plate and actually deliver the former, as well as the latter. One essay per quarter will allow me to get through my Harvard Project at a slightly faster pace and spur me on to the launch of some shorter projects that have long been on my radar.

My main focus at this time will mostly be to plan ahead and build up a backlog of reviews. With such a store, I would be able to stop worrying about a dearth of content and occasionally read long books again (right now, Ada deserves my complete attention and how will I ever read Ulysses or Mason & Dixon if I’m always stressing over my next review?). I’m only one person, of course, but I will do the best I can.

Other things you can expect:

I am now on GoodReads, though mostly to use its to-be-read feature. You can socialize with me if you want. I doubt I’ll post my reviews there, unless specially requested. On that note, I recently got my first ever request for a review, by a self-published translator of Russian poets. I am now brushing up on my Anna Akhmatova in preparation.

The majority of reviews here will always be of fiction but I enjoy reading poetry and will aim to review at least one volume of it in each quarterly period. I’d like to do the same with literary criticism. These things add a little diversity to my obsession with literature.

Upcoming reviews:
Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, a story collection that only occasionally impressed me.
The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd, which turns out to be rather better than I expected.
Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.
Journey to Karabakh by Aka Morchiladze. I hope to acquire and review the other three books in Dalkey Archive’s Georgian Literature Series as well, provided I can scrape the cash together.
The Lime Twig by John Hawkes. I read it just before starting this blog and remember being staggered. I would like to revisit it and put it on the site.
The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes. The most popular post on Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews? Aura. One of my least favorite reviews, incidentally. I think its popularity has something to do with flummoxed students and reading assignments…
Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins by Carlos Fuentes.
The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun. One of the perils of secondhand bookshopping is getting introduced to great writers by their minor works. I already read the incredibly slight and cheerful (???) Dreamers and this is the only other Hamsun I have at hand…

Things are up in the air at this dour point in time. What the future brings I do not know. I will forge ahead to the extent possible and see where things go. It’s most important not to lose momentum. Thank you to all my readers on this second anniversary.

Love Sonnets and Elegies – Louise Labé


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NYRB Poets - Louise Labe

(Posted here in its entirety from an innocent website, summarily executed by the proverbial Nazi Punks)

Genre: Classics
Author: Louise Labé
Publisher: NYRB Poets
Type: Poetry
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 5 / 5 – Incredible

“Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me.” Nick Cave fans should know that one. It’s a line from the song ‘Green Eyes’ on The Boatman’s Call, extracted from one of Louise Labé’s sonnets and, for many people, probably the only place they’ve even heard of Louise Labé. Praise the man for having taste.

Louise Labé (c. 1520-1566) is one of the premier poets of the French Renaissance and one of the very few notable women poets France has produced. She was rumoured as both “La Belle Cordiere,” an educated courtesan, daughter of a ropemaker, and as “Capitaine Loys,” a teenage jouster and war re-enactor skilled in horsemanship. It could be legend or hyperbole or a form of slander, but the image of a courtesan crossdresser poet certainly captures the imagination.

There is now plentiful debate as to whether Louise Labé actually wrote the poems attributed to her. According to French academic Mireille Huchon, while Labé was living, the works attributed to her were written by a committee of contemporary male poets under the leadership of Maurice Scève. Scève was a known literary hoaxer who, in 1533, had claimed to discover the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura in Avignon as a stunt for French nationalism. He was also friends with Jean de Tournes, who brought out the first edition of the Works of Louise Labé in 1555.

Being in close proximity to such a man is the biggest red flag in the Labé case. However, many people still vouch for her existence and her importance, and so New York Review Books have ushered in a new bilingual edition of her poems, translated by Richard Sieburth. It’s a splendid volume, replete with footnotes, chronology, preface, her own dedicatory epistle and a very informative afterword. Sieburth had already translated some of Scève’s work and it is his opinion that the sonnets are Labé’s own best defense. He argues that committee writing could never show the consistency and the singularity of vision on display here and “as for Scève, his poetry was always in a class by itself–dense, hermetic, and radically silent in the manner of Mallarmé: the voice of Nobody, the voice of Language. This is definitely not the tongue of Labé.”

French was considered a vulgar tongue in that era; highbrows preferred Italian and neo-Latin. King Henri II’s decree that legal documents be written in the common French tongue was less than 20 years old at the time of Labé’s publication and her comfort with the vernacular was beyond any of her old-school contemporaries. Her vitality stems in part from that refreshing lack of elitism. Her sonnets are neither weighed down with dense classical allusion nor mannered to an extreme of irrelevance. They are expertly balanced. On the one hand, their subject is the decorous heartbreak brought on by an absent or indifferent lover, (pining, the number one theme of courtly poems). And yet her manner is never limp-wristed but instead is playful, suggestive and sexy. “I can’t bear living on my best behavior,” she writes.

Her voice is at once learned and ironic, combining feminine poise and grace with an emotive honesty and independence of will. In one sonnet she turns the tables on the popular praises of the day: “What good is it now, that you so perfectly/Once praised the golden tresses of my hair,” listing all the sentimental blandishments poets offer their muse only to abandon formalities and use the sestet to her own advantage:

Or was it all a cruel ruse on your part
To pretend to serve me, enslaving my heart?
Forgive me, Love, if I speak so free,

For I’m beside myself with rage & grief:
But I’d like to think, wherever you might be,
You’re every bit as miserable as me.

Sonnets are always split in half, an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. Labé knew how to accentuate the difference and make the most of the constraint. Love Sonnets & Elegies is also a boon to anyone planning to learn French. And as old as the poems are, the language has actually shifted from under them. Nick Cave’s quoted line, in French, reads “Baise m’encor, rebaise moy & baise:” Over the centuries this word has transformed from the Latin basium (a kiss) into something much more explicit (exemplified by Virginie Despentes’ novel Baise-Moi, translated as Rape Me). The sonnet is charged with sexuality and passion; reading it, one wonders at the word’s evolution. In Sieburth’s translation:

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.
And as kiss with kiss so happily mixes,
Let’s ease back into our shared joy again.

What’s interesting about Labé is how her suggestive tone manages to work within the romantic rather than the raunchy tradition, never playing it for low comedy or simple lust, (as was rather common). Yet her sonnets also hold an edge of cynicism which comes to fruition in her three elegies. Love is personified not as the expected Cupid or a capricious Venus but, as Sieburth says, as “a frightening god of war who defeats everybody on the field of battle…”

… I’ve subdued the gods
In Hell below, in the Seas & the Skies.
This is the same power I exercise
Over mortals. I force them to understand
There is nothing that can escape my hand.
The stronger they stand, the sooner I strike.

Thus does Love take his pleasure:
No two desires are of equal measure.
This man loves not, whom a Lady loves,
While that man loves, never to be loved:
Thus does Love extend his reign,
Holding out hopes he knows are vain.

As well as envisioning Love as a vengeful spirit, the elegies are perhaps all that gave rise to the alluring “Capitaine Loys” myth. “You should have seen me in the lists,/Jousting away, with my lance held high,/Dutifully unhorsing all who rode by,/Spurring on & wheeling my glorious steed.” Labé thus fits into a series of powerful, androgynous women from history and myth–from Sappho and Semiramis through Joan of Arc, even to Tilda Swinton’s Orlando.

It may never be confirmed whether Labé was the author of her works or not. If she was behind it, she was a genius. If her poems and image were the concoction of another, the same holds true. This is a classic case of Barthes’ death of the author. Who wrote it is less relevant than the clear craft and skill of the result. Your collection of French poetry is not complete without Love Sonnets & Elegies. Moreover she is wonderfully accessible and the non-scholar will find nothing intimidating here. This excellent edition is due out on April 8th.

Louise Labé

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 1, Apology, Crito & Phaedo


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The intimidation factor here is terrible. It is one thing to offer appreciation and critique of semi-forgotten Quakers. It is quite another to give opinion on Plato, founder of Western thought.

"Sod off."

“Sod off.”

Volume 2 of The Harvard Classics focuses on the Stoic school, which, put very simply, argued against emotion. It’s the classic “old man’s philosophy.” A survivor’s stratagem: you’re sick of paying for the world’s screw-ups with your own private distress, so you stop buying into it. Everyone then calls you heartless while they run around with their hair on fire, trying to tend every garden but their own. I have some sympathy for this mindset. Why get upset over what the rest of the world is doing? It’s how I’ve managed to keep politics out of this blog since its inception.

Socrates (469-399 BC) left nothing to posterity in writing, leaving us completely at the mercy of his more ambitious disciples, the most famous among them being Plato (roughly 428-348 BC). Plato liked to use his teacher’s voice in dialogue and it’s never clear how much of the theory Socrates talks of is his own, and how much Plato’s, especially in later works. The Apology is meant to memorialize the death of Socrates and is thus more likely to be faithful to the philosophy he espoused than any other writing. If he’s what you’re looking for, this is it. Luckily, the Apology happens to be a masterpiece, such that if you’ve never read any philosophy and are intimidated (I’ve been there), start here, with the movement’s founder. It’s less than thirty pages long and the Benjamin Jowett translation is both elegant in style and in the public domain.

Socrates laid the cornerstone of philosophical thought: I neither know nor think that I know. As a sweeping statement I prefer it to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” A person could spend all their life practicing this humble epiphany. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?

As well as being an important document of intellectual honesty, the Apology is a fine work of dramatic narrative. After all, it deals with matters of life and death, fate and state, righteousness, cowardice and self-interest. Even if you’re not keen to debate ethics or ponder the pursuit of knowledge, it remains impactful as the story of a curmudgeon goading the judicial court to kill him. Put it all together and it makes a Classic of the first order. The Apology is short, dramatic and colourful and it contains Socrates’ most famous saying: The life which is unexamined is not worth living. However, if you want ethical food for thought, you’ll actually get more out of Crito.

Crito closes Socrates' eyes.

Crito closes Socrates’ eyes.

Crito is only a little over ten pages. Socrates’ long-time friend of that name stops by his jail cell and pleads with the old man to escape and flee Athens while there is time. Socrates harangues him on the reasons this would not be a good idea and Crito has no words to argue the point. This is psychologically perceptive – how many of us have been on the receiving end of an impassioned rant, helplessly silent, only finding words of refutation long after the moment is gone? Poor Crito…doomed to think back on that day imagining how it might have gone if he’d thought of another tactic…hence the practice of stoicism.

Socrates, having argued that we must do no wrong for wrong is evil and even doing wrong for wrong is evil, proceeds in a lecture on state obligations that is based on iffy principles. Here is the state speaking: …did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begot you … Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? – you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies?

Culture clash is really hurting here. This is propaganda of the worst sort; “slave of the state” authoritarian bullshit that severely damages the Crito‘s intellectual merit. I don’t usually mind culture clash but philosophy is a very different medium to fiction. It tells people how to think, offering what each philosopher deems to be the truth. What an author of fiction believes is just another point of view, as valid as any other in the art of storytelling. Thinkers should be responsible; writers should just write well. This is why misogynistic statements from Rousseau and Nietzsche piss me off while equally misogynistic quotes from Miller and Bukowski don’t get more than a raised eyebrow.

This in turn leads to another criticism – the Platonic dialogue was named after him but at this early point in his career, Plato wasn’t actually very good at it. The form is an Ciceroelegant one, allowing the author a chance to prove that A: he understands the opposition to his argument and B: that he can defend himself, employing a steady logic to refute the opposition and convince his readership that his conclusion is the correct one. For his dialogues on the death of Socrates, Plato does not do that.

The Apology is a brilliantly conceived and executed courtroom harangue. Crito and Phaedo are traditional dialogues and neither of them work because Socrates is preaching to the choir. His disciples apologise for their rare disagreements with him and so most of the “opposition” reads like this:

That is very true.
Very true.
Of course.
Very true.

That’s lifted straight from a random page of Phaedo. It’s not all that bad, but a lot of it is. I think it’s meant to show that Socrates’ logical method was so watertight it could brook no argument. So why make it a dialogue when only one half has anything to say? In Crito there is no opposition to Socrates’ claims, no counterattack to be successfully blocked and the reader is left unsatisfied. Possibly Plato was aware that he was making his master look like a tool, because he didn’t end it on that note but on a much more persuasive one regarding honour. Honour is each man’s inarguable choice, to which each must ascribe their own value. Socrates believed it would be dishonourable to cheat death in his old age, so remained in prison.

Phaedo is a later work, a surprisingly sophisticated argument for life after death that reminded me of Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and enlightenment. However, it is longer than the first two combined and too often dull. Plato loved the absolute and when he gets his cast started in on defining absolute equality (in pursuit of the idea that idealization must be recollection of a prior state), he makes his case in the most repetitive prose imaginable, methodical to an extreme of boredom. It also makes it really hard to pull quotes from, since Plato fancied the slow build argument. If I tried an extract, I’d be here all day with stuff like this: I mean to say that a harmony admits of degrees, and is more of a harmony, and more completely a harmony, when more completely harmonized, if that be possible; and less of a harmony, and less completely a harmony, when less harmonized.

One of Socrates’ more enjoyable traits was his whimsicality, which went hand in hand with his staunch belief in the gods and his peaceful, reasonable demeanour. When this side of him is on display, the writing shifts from sluggish advances in logic to the enlivened colour of folk tales and myths:

O Simmias, how strange that is; I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I am unable to persuade you, and you will keep fancying that I am at all more troubled now than at any other time. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are. But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to lay a tune of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo and have the gift of prophecy and anticipate the good things of another world, therefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than they ever did before. And I, too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans.

The hoopoe, a sacred bird of the ancient world.

The hoopoe, a sacred bird of the ancient world.

Other excellent moments crop up in parenthetical arguments, as when Socrates talks of misology, the misanthropy of ideas. And the text ends with a flourish straight out of C.S. Lewis (remember Professor Kirke’s “it’s all in Plato?”). Socrates’ description of heaven tallies with the Narnian one remarkably well and is a fun bonus if you grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia.

Socrates, according to his pupil, actually thought he knew quite a lot. Therefore, I would only recommend the Apology to the casual reader. It gives you the Socratic legend at its purest. But the nice thing about Plato is that it’s easy to forget the boring bits. He’s an oddly addictive philosopher. I’ll never regret reading him and have the Republic and the Symposium waiting in the wings.

Up next: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus.

Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra


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Ways of Going Home (paperback)

(Media Snobs is no more and my reviews will now be shown in their entirety here, as there is no longer another site to direct traffic to)

Genre: Drama
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Publisher: FSG
Type: Novel
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 4 / 5 – Exceptional

It may look like a beginner’s guide to Male and Female Brain Chemistry but in fact it is the latest novel from Chilean author Alejandro Zambra. At 139 pages, Ways of Going Home (2011; translated by Megan McDowell in 2013 and now out in paperback) is Zambra’s longest work. His previous novellas, Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, never even hit the hundred page mark. He’s mastered the art of brevity and paces his prose perfectly so that there is spaciousness to every scene and nothing feels rushed.

Most people who’ve read any Chilean literature will be familiar with either Isabel Allende or Roberto Bolaño. Zambra’s work takes the middle ground between Bolaño’s complexity and the straightforward narratives of Allende. He’s delicately somber, has a simple but lovely writing style and is a perfect go-to for those ready to explore further in Latin American fiction.

Ways of Going Home begins as the story of a child growing up in Pinochet’s Chile. His innocence protects him. To him, an earthquake is scary but it’s also an adventure and “as for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched…” His troubles are minor; he’s a regular kid with an ordinary life, even in the midst of dictatorship. Some of it is quite funny while also painting a microcosm of human weaknesses.

Suddenly, that heavy atmosphere prevailed in which the only possible topic of conversation is the lateness of the food. Our order took so long that finally Dad decided we would leave as soon as the food came. I protested, or I wanted to protest, or now I think I should have protested. “If we’re going to leave, let’s go now,” said Mom resignedly, but Dad explained that this way the restaurant owners would lose the food, that it was an act of justice, of revenge.

The first segment of the novel is tellingly called “Secondary Characters”. It refers to children, whose lives are always shaped in the shadows of their parents’ own lives; yet it also refers to those parents, the faceless bystanders of history.

In the most important part of the story, the boy meets an older girl called Claudia, who asks him to spy on her uncle for her. The boy doesn’t understand what’s going on, but his glimpses of Claudia and her strange family will haunt him for many years.

The next segment switches gears and is told by the author of “Secondary Characters”. Zambra embroils his novel in three layers of metafiction. He’s based the author on himself and the author has based the boy on himself. Yes, it’s an old and tired postmodern ploy, and not one I find very interesting, but Zambra uses it to good effect. Scenes from one life cross over to the next, weaving together into a cohesive tale of memory and fantasy as the narratives switch back and forth.

Guilt is the paramount theme. In adulthood, it can no longer be avoided and the author looks back on his real boyhood feeling shame. The kid in “Secondary Characters” who believed, with calming certainty, that “my father isn’t anything” is rewritten as the author decides that “to be neither good nor bad … seemed to me, in the end, the same as being bad.” But not only is there the inherited guilt of non-partisan parents; there is also the guilt of a boy who never suffered during the regime, for whom no one disappeared and the dictatorship was only inconvenient.

The heart and soul of the novel thus becomes Claudia, the person missing from his life that the author feels compelled to invent – someone who did suffer and in doing so, affected him. Claudia as a child seems as innocent as the boy who aids her. Only in their adulthood is it revealed how serious her motives were. It is only as an adult that she can endure what happened. “Learning to tell her story as if it didn’t hurt”, trying to reclaim her past and yet leave the damage behind is what drives the second half of the book.

“My story isn’t terrible. That’s what Ximena doesn’t understand: our story isn’t terrible. There was pain, and we’ll never forget that pain, but we also can’t forget the pain of others. Because we were protected, in the end; because there were others who suffered more, who suffer more.”

If I have a complaint about this excellent novel, it is only that the metafictional plot is less interesting than the Claudia plot. Author inserts always seem to talk about the writing life in the most ponderous fashion imaginable. After a few Paul Austers it just gets really old and the pages devoted to the author’s trouble with his writing and his ex-wife struck me as distracting and unnecessary. On the other hand, in a book this size, at least it doesn’t last long.

Ways of Going Home is really the gentlest book imaginable and yet it brings to light the scars a regime like Pinochet’s can leave, even on the people who went under the radar. And Megan McDowell translates with a deft touch, ensuring that it’s a pleasure to read all the way through.


Alejandro Zambra


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