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Spanish Lit Month: The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol

August 11, 2017 11 comments

The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol (2011) Original Spanish title: La tristeza del Samurái French title: La tristesse du Samouraï. Translated by Claude Bleton.

Peu d’êtres humains supportent leur propre regard, car les miroirs déclenchent un phénomène curieux : vous regardez ce que vous voyez, mais si vous traversez la surface, vous avez l’impression désagréable que c’est le reflet qui vous regarde avec insolence. Il vous demande qui vous êtes. Comme si l’étranger, c’était vous, pas lui.

Few human beings can stand their own reflection because something strange happens in front of the mirror: You are looking at what you see, but if you dig a little deeper, beyond the surface, you are overcome by an uncomfortable feeling that it is the reflection that is looking at you insolently. You ask yourself who you are. As if you, and not the reflection, were the stranger.

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem.

In the prologue of The Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol, we’re in 1981, in a hospital room in Barcelona where María is dying. She’s also under police protection and she’s about to write everything she knows about an investigation and crimes she was involved in.

Flash back to 1941. We’re in Mérida, Spain, not far from the Portuguese border of the Alentejo region. Isabel Mola is at the train station with her younger son Andrés. She’s fleeing Spain leaving her husband Guillermo and her nineteen years old son Fernando behind. Andrés’s tutor, Marcelo Alcalá has property in Portugal where she intends to hide until she can immigrate to England. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is finished and the aftermath is called the Blue Terror, a period of elimination of political opposition. Guillermo Mola has a high-ranking position in the Falange and has a lot of power in the Mérida region. Isabel Mola had an affair with a man from the opposition and this someone just betrayed her. He came to take her son back to his father and to make her disappear. Guillermo’s second in command, Publio, is the one who organizes Isabel’s murder and frames Marcelo Alcalá for it. Isabel’s affair and its consequences will set the future of the Molas, the Alcalás and her lover’s family.

María, the dying woman, is a lawyer and in 1976, she was the defense attorney of a client who had been tortured and beaten up by a policeman, César Alcalá, Marcelo’s son. He was investigating Publio’s shady past when his daughter Marta was kidnapped.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers.

The Sadness of the Samurai is well-constructed. We go back and forth between 1941 and 1980/1981. Isabel Mola’s death will set a lot of events into motion, especially after Marcelo Alcalá is condemned to death penalty for it. When María sends César Alcalá in prison decades later, she doesn’t realize that she’s just opened a can of worms that are forty-years old, well-alive and venomous. Isabel Mola’s betrayal and murder will resurface. In the young Spanish democracy, former Franco officials like Publio managed to find a place in the new regime. We see the same phenomenon in Balzac’s novels after the fall of Napoléon. It doesn’t mean that Publio and his crowd changed their methods: murder, violence and torture are the common tools of dictatorships. They mastered in them, why abandon them? And in 1980, when María puts her nose in this story, nothing was solved, nothing was investigated and the crimes from the past were swiftly put under the carpets of the brand-new democracy. And this young democracy will be tested during the coup d’état attempt on 23 February 1981.

The personal history of the characters is a web of connections, of betrayals and secrets. In 1980, three generations cohabit. The older generation, the one who was active during the Civil War and who is responsible for the conduct of the war and its subsequent terror. The Fascists won, a dictatorship of forty years started. The winners got the power, the losers were hunted and went in hiding. This generation is represented by Guillermo Mola, Publio, Marcelo Alcalá, Isabel Mola and her lover.

The children of this generation, the ones who were born in the 1930s is a sacrificed generation. Their childhood was tainted by war and its consequences. They suffered from hunger, they witnessed the violence and knew which side the adults were. They lived most of their lives in a dictatorship and were already middle-aged when democracy was instaured. This generation is represented by Fernando Mola (1923), Andrés Mola (1931) and César Alcalá (1933).

The third generation is the baby-boomers. They grew up under Franco but where young when he died.  María belongs to this generation and she doesn’t know anything about her parents’ past. What they did during the Civil War is not discussed.

Víctor del Árbol shows the fragility of the democracy but also a country that never healed their wounds. There’s a lot of unsaid between the generations and the events of the Civil War were not clearly acknowledged. The wounds festered. Hatred is a predominant feeling in this novel. Hatred and resentment against people who murdered a mother, who managed to keep up appearances and remained in power despite being the mastermind behind a lot of crimes.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by this side of the story. I was not convinced by this violent hatred that burnt so bright for forty years. Is it possible to keep it so strong all those years? Does it not fade a bit because one must live their life and it costs too much sterile energy to keep hating those who wronged you? It doesn’t mean that people forget but to be motivated by hatred the way these characters are was not totally plausible to me. A powerful sense of justice, a need to have the criminals convicted, yes, I would have understood that but blind hatred? I

It’s a minor flaw, though and not one big enough to stay away from The Sadness of the Samurai. Víctor del Árbol does paint a convincing portray of Spain and according to his speech at Quais du Polar, showing how many issues still need to be addressed in Spain regarding Franco’s time is a significant part of his writing. He was born in Barcelona in 1968 and he said that when he was a child, people threatened unruly children by saying that the Republicans would come and take them if they weren’t quiet. Isn’t that incredible that people still said that in the early 1970s?

This is the second crime fiction novel I’ve read that mentions the coup d’état attempt of February 1981. The first time was in A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. This is a major event in Spain’s recent history and as often, reading pushed me to dig further and learn new things.

Good news, contrary to One-Way Journey by Carlos SalemThe Sadness of the Samurai by Víctor del Árbol is available in English!

This is my third contribution to Stu and Richard’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

 

 

Spanish Lit Month : No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

July 31, 2017 10 comments

No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (1990) French title : Sans nouvelles de Gurb. (Translated by François Mespero. Original Spanish title: Sin noticias de Gurb)

Lucky me, this year, Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard is extended to August and to Portuguese Literature. Since I’m on holiday in Spain and Portugal, I’m more than happy to participate. This billet is my first about Spanish literature this year. Don’t count on me to write a billet on a book by Javier Marias, I’m not a fan. But like last year with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub, I picked up two crazy books, No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza and One Way Journey by Carlos Salem. I loved Salem’s Swimming Without Getting Wet and I wanted to read another one by him. But that will be another billet.

First published by instalments in El Païs, No Word From Gurb is a novella by Eduardo Mendoza. It is the diary of an alien who landed in Barcelona from his planet. He’s accompanied in his mission to explore the planet Earth by his partner Gurb. In order to explore our world inconspicuously, they pick a physical appearance in a catalogue. Gurb went out looking like Madonna and went missing. The book was written in 1990, you can imagine the kind of attention he must have brought to himself walking around looking like Madonna.

The unnamed narrator and author of the diary decides to leave their spaceship to look for Gurb. From the 10th to the 24th of this month, we follow our narrator in his adventures in Barcelona. And it’s huge fun as he explores both the city and human condition.

As mentioned before, we’re in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Olympic Games and the city is a work in progress. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous as the Narrator soon experiences:

8h00 Je me matérialise à l’endroit dénommé carrefour Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. Je suis écrasé par l’autobus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. Je dois récupérer ma tête qui est allée rouler à la suite de la collision. Opération malaisée du fait de l’affluence des véhicules.

8h01 : Ecrasé par une Opel Corsa

8h02 : Ecrasé par une camionnette de livraison

8h03 : Ecrasé par un taxi

8h04 : Je récupère ma tête et je la lave à une fontaine publique située à quelques mètres du lieu de la collision. J’en profite pour analyser la composition de l’eau locale : hydrogène, oxygène et caca.

8:00 I materialize myself at a place named crossroads Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. I am run over by the bus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. I have to fetch my head that rolled away after the collision. Difficult action because of the flow of vehicles.

8:01: Run over by an Opel Corsa

8:02: Run over by a delivery truck

8:03 : Run over by a taxi

8:04: I fetch my head and I wash it in a nearby public fountain. I take advantage of the task to analyze the local water: hydrogen, oxygen and poo.

They are some roadworks everywhere, museums are closed for renovations and when the Narrator wants to buy an apartment, the realtor asks him if he wants to buy one in the Olympic Village. The whole city runs around the upcoming event.  Mendoza gently mocks the city council of Barcelona.

La pluie de Barcelone ressemble à l’activité de son Conseil municipal : elle est rare, mais quand elle tombe, elle est d’une brutalité stupéfiante. The Barcelona rain looks like the activity of its city council: it is rare but when it happens, it is of a stupefying brutality.

One of the local councilors encourages the Barcelona inhabitants to trade their car for a bike to improve traffic in the city center. Our Narrator comments:

Peut-être les gens se serviraient-ils davantage de bicyclettes si la ville était plus plate, mais c’est un problème insoluble car elle est déjà entièrement construite comme cela. Une autre solution serait que la municipalité mettre des bicyclettes à disposition des passants dans la partie haute de la ville, ce qui leur permettrait de se laisser glisser très rapidement jusqu’au centre, presque sans pédaler. Une fois au centre, la même municipalité (ou, en son lieu et place, une entreprise concessionnaire) se chargerait de mettre les bicyclettes sur des camions et de les renvoyer dans la partie haute. Ce système serait relativement peu coûteux. Maybe people would use their bikes more often if the city were flat but it’s an intractable problem because it’s already built that way. Another solution would be that the city put bikes at the disposal of people living in the highest part of the city. They could glide quickly to the city center, almost without pedaling. Once in the city center, the municipality (or a private company) would load the bikes on trucks and bring them back to the upper neighborhoods. This would be a cheap system.

We’re in 1990. I don’t know if this existed somewhere. However, I know that in 2005 the city of Lyon, which is about as flat as Barcelona, signed a contract with JC Decaux to provide free bikes around the city. It is well-known to Lyon inhabitants that people ride bikes down from the Croix-Rousse neighborhood but never up and that trucks need to bring the bikes up there. Visionary Narrator, it seems.

The Narrator also interacts with different people in Barcelona, a café owner and his wife, a concierge, his neighbors and various salespeople in shops. Once he gets acquainted with a corporate executive and Mendoza makes fun of the business frenzy in Catalonia.

Besides exploring Barcelona’s way-of-life, the Narrator also experiences human condition. He takes colloquial expressions at face value and it gives hilarious deadpan entries in his journal, like this one:

8h05 : J’essaye de rentrer chez moi en traînant des pieds. Ou l’expression (courante) ne correspond pas à la réalité, ou alors il existe une méthode que je ne connais pas pour traîner des deux pieds en même temps. J’essaye de laisser traîner un pied et de faire un saut en avant avec l’autre (pied). Je me retrouve à plat ventre. 8:05: I try to go home, dragging my feet. Either the common expression doesn’t correspond to reality or there is an unknown-to-me method to drag both feet at the same time. I try to drag one foot and to leap with the other at the same time. I end up sprawled on my stomach.

The whole novella is peppered with funny moments like this, the contrast between the action and the serious tone creates a fantastic comical effect. I loved his attempts at hitting on his pretty neighbor or his ideas to get acquainted with his neighbors or his obvious love for human food.

This is a book that we’ll make you laugh and unwind. There’s no artistic purpose to this novella, it’s fun for fun’s sake. In other words, it’s a perfect Beach & Public Transport Book.

 

Spanish Lit Month: Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría

July 24, 2016 20 comments

Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría (2002) French title: Le rouge sur la plume du perroquet. Translated by Jacques-François Bonaldi. Original Spanish title: El rojo en la pluma del loro.

Chavarria_frenchTango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría is my second read for Spanish Lit Month. I wonder why the English title isn’t the exact translation of the original one, like in French. It is actually The red on a parrot’s feather. It is a cryptic title but it is explained by the end of the book. I’ve had this one on the shelf for a while and Spanish Lit Month was a perfect opportunity to read it and contribute to Richard’s and Stu’s event and add to my #TBR20 project. A way to kill two parrots with one stone.

Aldo Bianchi is an Argentinean from the Italian diaspora in Argentina. He emigrated to Italy during the Argentinean dictatorship and now owns a profitable construction business in Italy. His business brings him to Cuba where he falls in lust with a voluptuous prostitute, Bini. She has a child’s mind in a woman’s body and Aldo appears to be infatuated. His friends Gonzalo and Aurelia are worried about him. They are also Argentinean and live near Aldo in Italy. They knew his ex-wife and his breakup and they are afraid to see Aldo in the claws of a gold digger who could never adjust to Aldo’s life and circle in Italy.

Aurelia organizes Gonzalo’s sixtieth birthday party in Cuba. Aldo attends the party with Bini who eventually meets his friends. But more importantly, he gets the confirmation that Alberto Ríos and Triple-O are one person. And Aldo has a score to settle with Triple-O. He wants justice for the past.

Indeed, Triple-O is from Uruguay and he was a sadistic torturer during the Uruguayan dictatorship and then moved his activities to Argentina. He was trained by the CIA and ran a sinister secret prison in Buenos Aires. He was a brutal torturer, taking pleasure in torturing and killing people. He’s now hiding in Cuba under a fake identity.

But Aldo recognizes him and will plan his revenge thoroughly to be sure he won’t miss him.

chavarria_englishTango for a Torturer unfolds Aldo’s plan to frame and catch Triple-O. It is a fantastic crime fiction novel with the reality of the Condor Operation and the Dirty Wars as a background. I only know the basics about the history of Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s. There were useful footnotes in my paperback and I went to Wikipedia afterwards. Triple-O’s activities are true to life. The details are based upon what really happened even if the names are slightly changed. Chavarría is a former Tupamaro, he knows what he’s writing about.

The book is focused of Aldo’s plan but there are also a lot of descriptions of Triple-O’s life under his Alberto Ríos identity. When you know exactly the extent of Triple-O’s horrific actions, it is unsettling to see him live a normal life. He’s not remorseful at all and he lives a comfortable life out of the money he stole from his victims. All he cares about is being safe and healthy. He knows hitmen are after him for his past but he feels safe in Cuba and enjoys himself. On the contrary, Aldo stills suffers from the aftermath of the torture. He’s successful and rich but never recovered from his past. And honestly, how could he? And this difference in their peace of mind points out the injustice of it all or maybe just shows who’s the better human.

I read that Tango for a Torturer has the same frame as Le Comte de Monte Cristo, a book that Chavarría admires. I didn’t notice it, probably because Cuba is so far away from France that it never occurred to me to look for a French reference. But the two books do have similar storylines.

It could have been a bleak book but it’s not, probably because it is set in Cuba and the setting breathes life into the story. It prevents the book from becoming only a man hunt and a cold revenge. Bini’s character and her family bring Cuba into the plot. Bini is a bit of a scatterbrain. She loves to drive even if she doesn’t have a license and she has her way to make men lend her the wheel. She’s full of life, with no education or manners. She’s dirty poor, her parents didn’t give a damn about her and she had to fend for herself from a very young age. She enjoys sex, goes after men, after what she wants. She’s also very religious and Chavarría gives details about religious beliefs in Cuba. He also describes the landscape, the climate and Havana. All this contributes to turn the book into something more than a classic crime fiction novel.

This is a tremendous read. The plot is well-constructed, it’s educational, lively and it has a purpose. It made me want to read about the Dirty Wars and know more about what happened. It also means that here, in the pages of this crime novel, lies a memorial to all the innocent people who died and disappeared under these brutal dictatorships.

I owe this one to Guy (again!) and his review is here.

PS: This is the second time this year that I read a book linked to Argentina’s history. The other one was Three Horses by Erri de Luca.

 

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

July 18, 2015 12 comments

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. (1976) French title: Jours de combat. Translated by Marianne Millon.

This is my second contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II was present at the book festival Quais du Polar. I have a signed copy of Jours de Combat and now I wished I had read one of his books before meeting him. I have tons of questions for him. Days of Combat is the first volume of the series featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I’m afraid it’s OOP in English but other volumes of the series are available.

Taibo_combatWe’re in Mexico and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has just left his wife and his job to get a PI license and start his own investigation business. He shares offices with a plumber, Gilberto Gómez Letras. He’s still questioning the financial viability of this adventure but he was tired of his old life. He worked as a foreman in a factory before he left his tidy life behind. The catalyst of the change is the series of murders committed by a serial killer who leaves messages as the Cervo. (At least, that’s how it’s translated into French, “brain” with a spelling mistake. I supposed it could become “brayne” in English)

In a city where the police are corrupt and useless, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to chase this strangler. Three threads are fascinating to follow in this first opus of the series. First, we get acquainted with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his life, his thoughts and his family. Then of course, we follow the investigation and the unusual PI methods that belong to Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. And last, he takes us all over Mexico, to the point that the city becomes something fundamental in the novel.

Our main character, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne comes from mixed origins. His father is Basque and his mother is Irish. He was born around 1944 and is freshly divorced from Claudia. The divorce is was difficult. He has a sister, Elisa who’s coming home after spending several years in Canada and a brother, Carlos, who’s an active unionist. The siblings are reunited in this novel and start to get each other again. Belascoarán Shayne also meets the girl with the ponytail who will obviously become a recurring character in the series.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is a detective who relies on psychology and understanding of the killer’s motivations. If I had to compare him to another famous investigator, I’d choose Commissaire Adamsberg, the policeman in crime fiction books by Fred Vargas. In Days of Combat, instead of looking for material clues, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to bait the killer by participating to a TV show on famous stranglers in crime history. It’s a game like Jeopardy. If he answers the questions correctly, he keeps playing and wins a prize. He’s not there for the prize, though. He’s there to tease the strangler, to tempt him to get out of the woods and above all, let him know he’s on his trail.

I won’t tell more about the murders and the investigation. I said earlier that Mexico plays an important part in the novel. Following Belascoarán Shayne all around Mexico gives us an idea of the city. The novel is atmospheric and the strong impression is enforced by the author’s gift for descriptions.

Le soleil tapait là-haut et l’idée romantique que le soleil l’accompagnerait toute la journée l’abandonna peu à peu, peut-être malgré lui. La ville était une flaque d’asphalte dans laquelle nous transpirions tous. The sun was hitting hard over there and the romantic idea that the sun would accompany him his all day long left him progressively, perhaps in spite of himself. The city was a pool of asphalt in which we were all sweating.

But Mexico is a hard city to live in. The police are inefficient and violence is part of everyday life.

La ville se nourrit de charogne. Comme un vautour, comme une hyène, comme l’urubu si mexicain qui se repaît des morts pour la patrie. Et la ville avait faim. Aussi les faits divers dégoulinèrent-ils une nouvelle fois de sang, ce jeudi-là : un accident entre un autocar de ligne et le train de Cuernavaca qui avait fait seize morts, un homme criblé de balles par sa femme « pour qu’il n’emmène plus jamais son copain voir les putes », une vieille femme poignardée pour trois cents pesos à la sortie du métro, la répression d’une grève dans la colonia Escandón, dont le bilan se soldait par deux ouvriers blessés par balle et une femme d’un quartier proche intoxiquée par les gaz. The city feeds itself on corpses. Like a vulture, like a hyena, like the so-Mexican urubu that feeds on people who died for their country. And the city was hungry. Therefore the news trickled down with blood that Thursday. An accident between a coach and the train to Cuernavaca with a death toll of sixteen people. A man riddled with bullets by his wife “so that he will never again bring his friend to the whores”. An old woman stabbed for three hundred pesos at the metro exit. The repression of a strike in the colonia Escandón, whose casualties were two workers hit by bullets and a woman in the neighbourhood, intoxicated by fumes.

Mexico sounds like a bloodthirsty ogre intent on devouring its children. At the same time, Paco Ignacio Taibo II shows its liveliness, the streets, the restaurants, the people.

Days of Combat is a novel with a strong sense of place people with unusual characters. After reading it, I want to know more about Belascoarán Shayne, what will happen to him and his family. But I also want to know more about the Mexico he pictures. Political criticism seeps through the lines, which always interests me. It’s crime fiction that aims to be more than a quick read about an investigation. And it succeeds. Highly recommended.

PS: Guy has reviewed several books of the series:

Transcontinental love

July 4, 2015 9 comments

Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique. 1999. French title: L’amygdalite de Tarzan.

Preamble: I have read it in French, translated by Jean-Marie Saint Lu. I translated the quotes into English and as often, it’s not easy to translate a Latin language into English.

A tous les deux, comme en tant d’autres occasions, la seule chose qui nous a manqué, qui nous a manqué d’emblée, certes, c’est notre Estimated Time of Arrival. Ce qui n’avait jamais dépendu de nous mais de divinités contraires et, par conséquent, notre histoire devait forcément déboucher sur un avenir souriant et meilleur, sur un optimisme effronté qui nous permettait d’affirmer, avec plus d’enthousiasme chaque fois, que le vrai miracle de l’amour, c’est que, en plus du reste, il existe. For us, like on many occasions, the only thing we never had from the start is our Estimated Time of Arrival. It didn’t depend on us but on opposite gods and as a consequence, our story HAD to lead to a smiling and better future, to a cheeky optimism that made us believe with even more enthusiasm each time that the true miracle of love is that, on top of everything, it exists.

Bryce_Echenique_tarzanPerhaps I should manage the upcoming billets list with a FIFO method. It would be rational. Only I can’t because sometimes the book I’ve just read is so vivid that I want to write about it right away, before I lose the feeling, before I’m out of its zone of influence, before I lose its melody. Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique is one of those books. I bought it by chance because the title and the cover appealed to me. My instincts proved right –only because I based my decision upon the French cover, though. So what’s it about?

Juan Manuel Carpio is Peruvian and from Indian origins. He went to university in Lima. Fernanda María de la Trinidad del Monte Montes is Salvadorian and from a bourgeois family. She went to school in California and in Switzerland in private schools. They meet in Paris where Juan Manuel Carpio plays the guitar and sings in the metro while Fernanda María works for the UNESCO. At the time, Juan Manuel Carpio is married to Luisa who left him and went back to Lima because he wouldn’t give up his dreams about becoming a musician. He’s still healing from this pain.

Chacun se débat comme il peut sur son terrain. Les séparations ne sont pas faciles, comme tu le sais. Et les amours ne s’enlèvent pas avec de l’eau et du savon. Each of us fights on their grounds. Breakups aren’t easy, as you know. And love doesn’t go away with water and soap.

Juan Manuel and Fernanda María fall in love but Luisa is still in the picture, legally and in Juan Manuel’s mind. Fernanda María goes back to El Savador, leaving Juan Manuel behind in Paris with a pile of regrets. She comes back for a while, only now she’s married to Chilean would-be photographer Enrique. They will have two children, Rodrigo and Mariana.

Juan Manuel will pursue his career as a songwriter and a singer and will stay in Europe, living between Paris and Majorca. Fernanda María will be in El Salvador, California, Santiago, London…pushed by the wind of dictatorships, guerillas and family troubles.

It’s a semi-epistolary novel. Juan Manuel tells us their story. His point of view is a classic narrative and Fernanda María’s voice is heard through her letters. Juan Manuel’s letters were stolen when Fernanda María was assaulted once.

Juan Manuel doesn’t complain about his life or his career but we can guess that he was lonely sometimes and that his path to fame and success wasn’t paved with flowers and soft and green lawns. He spent a lot of time on tours and the rest writing songs. His unconventional relationship with Fernanda María nourishes his art.

Fernanda María doesn’t complain either but her life was difficult and made of exile, a drinking husband who doesn’t know what to do with his gift as a photographer and odd jobs to survive and take care of the children. And the pain to come from a little country destroyed by civil war.

Nous marchons tous sur des sables mouvants ces temps-ci. Pour les raisons les plus diverses, le monde est inhabitable. We all walk on quicksand, these days. For the most diverse reasons, the world is uninhabitable.

Friends who disappear. Threats on their lives. Family split in different foreign countries to escape destruction and poverty. Fear for the future. That’s part of Fernanda María’s quotidian in El Salvador.

They will write to each other during thirty years and more. They will meet sometimes. They will nurture their love for each other. They will support each other from afar. They will have other people in their lives but these persons will have to accept they are second best.

Mais comme tu le dis si bien, c’est Dame réalité qui est la vraie triomphatrice de toutes nos batailles.Et peut-être qu’elle se venge de nous parce que nous ne lui avons pas rendu le culte qu’elle exige des personnes réalistes. Comme si nous lui avions tiré la langue, et elle est tellement, tellement orgueilleuse, cette Dame réalité. But as you say it so well, Lady reality is the real victor of all our battles.And maybe she takes revenge because we haven’t worshipped her the way she expects it from realistic people. As if we had stuck our tongue at her and she’s so, so conceited, this Lady reality.

Neither Fernanda María nor Juan Manuel is Argentinean but their story sounds like a tango. They move towards each other, then move away without losing touch and always with amazing grace. Everything in this novel is graceful, from the rhythm of the prose to the acceptance of the characters to move with the music score of their lives. It’s never corny and they embark you on the journey of their lives. The novel is also a reminder of how difficult it was to stay in touch with a loved one from a non-Western country before the internet age. Letters had difficulties to reach Juan Manuel because of war, poor post office service. Phone calls were awfully expensive. And there wasn’t anything else.

“So why Tarzan’s tonsillitis?” you may wonder. Fernanda María is like Tarzan, fearless and jumping in the jungle of her life. Confident in her walk into the jungle except when her throat is clogged with worries and angst. Her mental tonsillitis leaves her unable to yell and jump into the unknown. And Juan Manuel is a distant but concerned witness of her struggles.

I had a lovely reading time and I’ll leave the last word to Juan Manuel and Fernanda María:

– On se revoit dans notre prochaine lettre, Juan Manuel.- Sûr, mon amour. La lettre doit être comme un portrait de l’âme ou quelque chose comme ça, parce que toi et moi nous sommes tout ce qu’il y a de plus photogénique, épistolairement parlant. – We’ll see each other in our next letter, Juan Manuel.– Sure, my love. Letters must be like a portrait of our souls, or something like this because you and me are the most photogenic people ever, from an epistolary point of view.

PS: This is my contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog

 

Spanish Literature Month: Guillermo Cabrera Infante

July 13, 2014 8 comments

Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. 1995. French title : Coupable d’avoir dansé le cha-cha-cha.

Cabrera_chachacha_FrenchI’ll be reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias with my book club in August and that’s too late for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month. So I decided to pick Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha by Guillermo Cabrera Infante instead. I bought it when I was browsing through the Folio 2€ collection in a book store. I like this collection, it’s a good way to discover new writers or forgotten texts. I’d never heard of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I expected three short stories but it’s something totally different and hard to define. (Help, if you know in which literary category this one goes. I put it in Literary UFO)

Regular readers of this blog know that I haven’t studied literature beyond high school, that I’m not particularly curious about literary criticism and that I read mostly for enjoyment. I’m not much interested in the techniques leading to the books I’m reading. So, Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha and me started on the wrong footing since the first page is about repetitive literature and something I don’t even know how to translate into English but I’m trying anyway.

La littérature répétitive tâche de résoudre la contradiction entre progression et régression en répétant la narration plusieurs fois. Il s’agit d’un jeu de narrations qui veut dépasser la contradiction entre réalité et fiction. Les fragments sont autonomes et d’égale valeur, mais l’auteur se réserve le droit d’exercer un certain déterminisme narratif. Les choses ne sont pas, elles arrivent, mais en littérature autorité devient auteur. Repetitive literature endeavours to solve the contradiction between progression and regression by repeating the narration several times. It is a set of narratives that wants to overcome the contradiction between reality and fiction. The fragments are stand-alone and of equal worth but the writer has the right to impose a certain narrative determinism. Things aren’t, they happen but in literature authority becomes author.

Cabrera_chachacha_SpanishThis is a totally literal translation as I don’t even understand what that means in French. This introduction is by Guillermo Cabrera Infante himself and to say I started the first story with a feeling of dread is an understatement. The book is some sort of literary exercice, like Exercice de style by Queneau where the same story is told three times but each time with a different style. The basic outline of the story is: a man and a woman have lunch in a restaurant in La Havana in the 1950s and it’s raining. The first version entitled The Great Ecbó is a third person narrative and the style reminded me very much of Marguerite Duras. It’s told in that clipped and neutral tone you can find in The Lover. I liked it. The second version –A Drowing Woman—is also a third person narrative and the style is warmer. The third one –Guilty of Dancing the ChaChaCha—is a first person narrative and it’s in a messy stream-of-consciousness style. Oh my, what a labyrinth of words. I lost track of where digressions started and I almost wished that like in a Excel formula I could browse the closing parenthesis to found out where the opening one was. What’s more terrible than having literature make you crave for Excel spreadsheets? In the end, I’m not sure I would have understood anything without reading the two other versions.

Cabrera_chachacha_GermanThat aside, each story represents a side of Cuba and of its culture and history. The first story brings the characters to an ecbó, a ritual ceremony of African origin, like voodoo. The second one shows the luxury hotels and the last one pictures communism and its political persecutions.

In the conclusion –that I didn’t fully understood, I’m afraid—Guillermo Infante Cabrera compares his three stories to music and to the three steps of ChaChaCha. Hmmm…It’s a hundred pages long, it’s good to read it in one sitting and if someone out here has read it or will read it, please come back and explain it to me. It left me puzzled. I also don’t understand why three translators were involved in translating this short book into French. When I see three translators like this, I expect a collection of short stories published at different times and put together afterwards. Here we have a fully constructed literary exercice wanted by the writer himself and I really don’t know why one translator didn’t do the whole job. After all, it’s only 100 pages long.

Cabrera_chachacha_EnglishPS: I’m adding four covers of the book, the English, the French, the Spanish and the German one.  The French and Spanish ones are great for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but for this? The English one is a mystery although there’s a car involved in story one and two. I think the German one is the best and represents the book better than the others. You see the two men, the woman and the communist.

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