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Monday, 29 August 2016

The Rest Is Silence - Carla Guelfenbein (translated by Katherine Silver)

Truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things.

Last year I planned a full six week holiday/visit to Central America, taking in places such as Mexico and Guatemala and once my work situation changed and the bill came in, the passports were put back on mothballs and a local holiday to Kangaroo Island replaced my ambitious plans. Somehow that planning must have left a seed in my subconscious as I have been reading books from the region all year, twenty-one of the seventy-five posts I have made this year have been  from Central or south America, 28% shows a distinct leaning!!! I still have fifteen or twenty unread books on my “to be read” piles from the region so more will be forthcoming before the end of the year I am sure, there’s even a chance I’ll manage to fit one or two more in before the end of “Women In Translation Month” too.

Back to Chile for my latest read, a work nowhere near as experimental or as challenging as Diamela Eltit’s “Custody of the Eyes”  (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ), more your very readable, approachable style like the last couple of works I have read from Mexico. As with “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) which was told in ten different voices, or “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes) with five narrators, “The Rest Is Silence” is narrated in three difference voices.

The novel opens with the innocent child voice of Tommy, who has been excluded from the other children’s games and is hiding under a table at a Wedding, listening, and in fact recording, adult conversations. By doing so Tommy accidentally learns that his mother did not die from an aneurysm, but rather committed suicide:

If Mama killed herself, it’s because she didn’t love me. I hold my breath and count: Ten, nine, eight, seven…I’m sure I can go back, back to before I hid under this table…six, five…the elephant would say anything to impress her friends…four, three, two…My head is spinning and I feel a thousand stabs in my belly, as if a propeller were turning round and round inside my guts. I can’t stand it anymore. I make a dash for it. I slip and fall. I bang my knees and my hands.
I’ve come to the very end of the garden, where it plunges down into the sea. The light in the sky is white. My cousins are playing ball at the top of the hill, the highest point in the garden. I sit down on the grass. I hug my knees and bury my head in my lap. I stink. I don’t know exactly when my guts exploded. Now I’m really in trouble.
Sometimes I know what it feels like to be unhappy, to wait for night-time so I can hide under the sheets, close my eyes, and escape forever to Kájef’s barge. Is that how Mama felt?

We then immediately move to the female voice of Alma, Tommy’s step mother, slowly the history of this family comes into focus. Finally the voice of Juan, Tommy’s father and Alma’s husband, takes the stage, and the grief over his first wife’s, Solidad’s, death, his young child’s heart condition and his relationship with his current wife become the dominant themes.

This is a story of a fractured family, with one character obsessed by his child’s failing heart, another about “love” and her relationship with her mother, her husband and her own child and step child and the other character wondering why everybody is so uneasy and where is his mum?

The innocent, but honest, voice of the child Tommy not only acts as a nice counterbalance to the two adult voices, who do not communicate directly with each other, but it also raises the tension in the novel. With Tommy talking to his imaginary friend or the maid Yerfa, or reviewing his illicit tape recordings, you know that the crescendo is slowly building, an explosive conclusion is a foregone conclusion.

The day’s first light is blue. The gate is open, and the outside light is on. IT wasn’t a dream. Alma came home with another man. I want to edit out that whole scene, like she does with her movies. Erase it from my memory. But when something new and important gets into my head, there’s no way to get it out of there. No matter how hard I try to forget, there are little monsters who keep reminding me it’s still there. Not long ago, I explained it to Alma and she told me that the little monsters are called your conscience. I asked her if they ever go away and she said they don’t, but we learn to live and just pretend we don’t see them. I wanted to know why I can’t do that and Alma told me that maybe I was one of those very few people who, instead of closing their eyes, confront the monsters and fight against them until they defeat them. That’s why I’ve been thinking that if I can discover ten things about Mama, everything will become clear. Why ten? Because God gave us ten commandments to live by, because we have ten fingers, because ten billion kilometres are one light year, because Yerfa says I should count to ten before I say or do anything that I might later regret.

As each voice reveals a little more of their history, and their experiences, the layers are slowly peeled back and your pre-conceived ideas are put to the test, they are simply illusions, the truth of this family is more complex than you initially thought. As the unsaid, the “silences” referred to in the title, accumulate, you can see the rift that is slowly breaking this family apart.

There are a few events that happen, especially how Tommy discovers his roots, which, to me, are too coincidental, or contrived, however these don’t detract from the overall theme, tension, or plot of the work.

As the opening quote, I chose here, says…”truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things”…here we have three truths conveyed by three different voices, their individual truths different to the truths of the others. Confusing? It is not so when you read the book.

A pleasant read, not a challenging work by any means, and one that addresses the themes of family bonds, love, generational influence, addressing the truth and grief. Another fine addition to Women In Translation Month, one for people who are yet to dabble in such books to possibly try as a starter.

By the way Kangaroo Island is stunning, if you want remote, pristine, forests, walks along beaches, then this is a place to visit. It wasn’t my dream Central American trip, that can wait, I’ve been there through my reading choices for months now. 

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Sunday, 21 August 2016

Ten Women - Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler)

Throughout my literary journey, which has lasted publicly for five years here on my blog, I have explored a number of literary styles. And my journey for the last two months has been solely based on literature originally published in Spanish and from Central or South America. I’m still in the region, this time returning to the written word from Chile, and Marcela Serrano’s “Ten Women”.

In a nutshell this book is made up of monologues of nine women who have been brought to a venue in a mini-bus specifically to address the audience of the other women present. They are all patients of Natasha, their therapist has arranged the meeting for them to talk about their lives in an open forum.

If you are after a well-crafted novel that follows a plot, then straight off the bat here, you are not going to like this one iota. And although it is probably a decent criticism of this work, that there is no plot, it does not mean that it is unreadable, poorly crafted, or even unworthy of your reading pleasure. In fact this book is highly addictive, has many layers, is moving in so many ways, and addresses numerous political, social and environmental issues specific to Chile as well as being a strong feminist mouthpiece.

From the opening, the introduction of sorts, as the women gather, aged between nineteen and seventy-five, we know that this is going to become a raw expose;

Beneath the black vest or pink blouse, wasn’t each woman endowing herself with resolve, gathering courage for the day ahead?? Their appearances today are certainly honest, there’s no interference from jobs, offices, or formalities that might pigeonhole them; the way they have come today is the way they truly are.

A few of the voices to give you a feel for what is in store here…opening is Francisca, fortysomething, successful in real estate, less so in her life in general and even less so in her relationship with her mother. Or the assured voice of Simona, well read, who comes from a privileged background, who meditates, and based on Buddhist teachings, lives in the present moment. Or Mané;

My name is Mané and I’m just as you see me. I was always the prettiest. I’m five foot eight and a half, which is tall for this country, and I weigh a hundred and thirty pounds. Even today, in spite of my age, I still keep an eye on my weight, although I’m the only one to see my body. I turned seventy-five a couple of months ago. There was barely a celebration.
I used to be gorgeous. It’s a shame I have to say it in the past tense. No one says “I am gorgeous” and even less “I will be gorgeous.” Well, that’s all I’ve got: the past. Sunset Boulevard, a movie from the fifties, reminds me of my life. That must be why I find it so moving. Starring, Gloria Swanson, it’s based on the life of Norma Desmond, a great Hollywood silent-movie actress who starred in dozens of movies, a true diva who had the world at her feet. By the time she’d aged, she wanted to return to acting and seduction but everyone had abandoned her. All the directors and producers who once sang her praises turned their backs on her. She was no use to them anymore, but this was something she refused to accept. They didn’t even answer her phone calls. She was rotting, alone and abandoned. Like me.

The personal shame of ageing, such a moving and honest voice, brilliantly captured by a writer who herself could only have been in her late fifties (at most) when she wrote this. Each of the characters have such assured voices, even if their tales are, in many cases, horrific, the characters are happy in their own skin. Throughout the pervading feeling is that Natasha, as a therapist, must be extremely successful in her work.

Natasha said that only by telling her could I take control of this story. That’s what I am doing today. In order to recover, every survivor needs to be able to take charge of her memories. We need others for that. Today I’m burdening you as witnesses. The load is heavy.
I’m worn out.

We have the brutal story of a Palestinian, Layla, exiled in Chile and her return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, her subsequent memories, or Luisa from the country who only loved one man, a man who was taken away, at three-thirty in the morning, still in his pyjamas, a few months after the 11 September 1973 Military coup. Or the tale of a young teenage lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality, and a popular television presenter who cannot sleep without medication or face who she really is.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a gripping work, the honest, true voices of the women who are undergoing therapy, for numerous reasons, haunt you from the first page until the last. A realistic picture of life under the paternalistic rule of Pinochet, a view from so many angles. The presentation of nine monologues adds to the non-fiction meta-fiction style, even if the stories are in fact fiction, they appear almost interview like and therefore the realism of the situation rings true. The final “woman” character being Natasha, the therapist herself, her tale told by her lifelong assistant, and to me this section almost seems tacked on, a nice tidy way of rounding out the stories, how can we have the therapist calling all these women here without an explanation? Nine monologues, one third person story to round it out. A really flat way to end what would otherwise be a fine work.

There are also a few typos and the Americanisation of simple things (like Mané’s height and weight in the example above) is quite frustrating given Chile has been on the metric system since 1848 (in fact it is compulsory!). But these are just small idiosyncrasies that every 40 or fifty pages or so detract from the overall work.

All in all, this is another decent inclusion on the “Women In Translation Month” listings, another interesting work from Chile, and I still have a number of works from there on my “to be read” piles, don’t worry I will be back!!

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Saturday, 20 August 2016

Umami - Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Three in a row of Mexican women’s writing, with today’s review being the recently released “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (some places have this slated for release next month, however I purchased my copy a few months ago and it has been with me since June!!) I came across the work ‘umami’ a few years ago when my eldest child came home from primary school and explained that there are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (discovered by the Japanese), the novel also gives a description;

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

But this is not a novel about food. The “umami” here is the name of one house in a collection of five, all named by the landlord Alfonso, an expert in flavour (or more precisely pre-Hispanic diets). These five homes are in an urban environment and from the opening page you know that you are in for a desolate tale:

The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminium travel case. Not anymore. It’s probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard, If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.

The future holds no picnics, it is bare, it is urban. But one of our voices, the young Ana wants to start a garden, she is breaking out of the desolation that has befallen these people and she is planning a future.

The book is broken into three sections each containing five chapters, five different voices, the chapters move backwards through the years. 2004 is the voice of a young girl, the older sister of Luz who drowned a number of years ago, 2003 the story of Marina, an unstable adult girl who suffers an eating disorder, 2002 the voice of Alfonso, the anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic diets, and husband of the recently deceased Noelia, 2001 the immature voice of Luz who drowns in that year and the year 2000 another young girl, Pina.

The five voices live in five different houses named after the five basic flavours,

Bitter House: Marina
Sour House: Pina and her dad, Beto.
Salty House: Linda Walker and Víctor Pérez.
Sweet House: The Pérez-Walker Academy of Music.
Umami House: Alfonso Semitiel…and The Girls.

With wonderfully rich characters and distinctive voices, the culture exploration is also prominent, for example the study of amaranth, the Aztec rituals and how the Spanish wiped out the main grain source, amaranth, creating the now held misbelief that corn was the primary source of grain in Mexico is raised.

Again, although it may appear so with eating disorders, professors of diets, houses names after flavours, this is not merely a novel about food. This is a book that works on many other levels, exploring loss, motherhood, maternal love, and innocence. As well as the allegory of tending a garden, the meticulous work and the slow involvement of others in the “community”, showing the voices who are coming to terms with loss and moving towards a brighter future.

Just like umami, reading this book became a craving, you need a satisfying fill of this group of ordinary humans all coming to terms with ordinariness, death, loneliness, admiration, self-awareness, innocence. With characters that are believable, and small revelations that are peppered throughout the five distinct voices all become similar in their needs. Whilst Marina with her eating disorder believes that she is isolated and alone, Ana looks up to her for her individuality, her determination and her unique fashion style. Whilst Alfonso is living in the past, and the memories of his life with the recently deceased Noelina, Marina lives in the now, the immediate, no past, no future.

Whilst personally I found the voice of Alfonso the most enjoyable to read, that may be because he is the only male voice in the novel, all five voices are distinct, uniquely different and address, from a range of angles, maternal love and loss.

A book that must have been challenging to translate, given the different tone, nuances, styles and ages of all the voices, and as per her wonderful work with Ivan Repila’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, Sophie Hughes has brought to life a seamless work in English. I am looking forward to reading her recently translated “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbun.

A sparkling work that I am sure would reveal even more secrets on a second reading, one that combines all the flavours of the palate, which rounds out nicely and leaves you with a feeling of loss, something “to remember, not to keep”.

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Monday, 15 August 2016

Natural Histories - Guadalupe Nettel (translated by J.T. Lichenstein)

I have been involved in Women In Translation Month since its inception three years ago and each year I plan ahead my potential reading titles for the month, this year electing to stay with the Spanish language translations and primarily from Central or South American nations. After Diamela Eltit’s difficult experimental work from Chile and the feminist short stories of Inés Arredondo from Mexico I thought a further stay in Mexico would be beneficial and over the course of this week I will look at the short stories from Guadalupe Nettel and a recent novel by Laia Jufresa, both Mexican writers receiving a lot of current press, before finally ending the week by heading back to Chile and the approachable novel “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano. All of these works a lot more “commercial” than the books I generally read and review here.

“Natural Histories” is a collection of five short stories, described on the back cover as unfolding “in fragile worlds, where animal behaviours parallel the ways in which human beings interact”. Or in other words each of the stories feature a protagonist and an animal theme, fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, fungi and snakes are the five themes that exist and interact alongside the narrative.

The collection opens with “The Marriage of the Red Fish” where the actions of a couple, expecting the birth of their first child, mirror the activity of the fighting fish they have recently been given and have moved into a large tank, the action drifts along like the fish themselves;

We first placed the fish on a small corner table in the living room where the afternoon sun fell. We thought they cheered up the room, which faced the patio behind our building, with the quick movements of their fins and tails. I don’t know how many hours I must have spent watching them. A month earlier I had requested maternity leave from the law office where I worked to prepare for the birth of my daughter. It wouldn’t be forever, and it wasn’t uncommon, but still it troubled me. I didn’t know what to do at home. The too-many empty hours filled me with questions about my future.

Meanwhile the couple’s behaviour starts to become territorial, they start antagonising each other;

I always kept an eye on them whenever I was home, as if with that look, severe and exact, an imminent confrontation could be averted. I of course felt solidarity with her. I could feel her fear and her anxiety at being cornered, feel her need to hide. Fish are perhaps the only domestic animals that don’t make noise. But they taught me that screams can be silent. Vincent adopted an ostensibly more neutral position, betrayed nonetheless by the humorous comments he dropped now and again: “What’s wrong with the female? Is she against reproduction?” or “Keep calm, brother, even if you’re getting impatient. Remember that laws today are made by and for women.”

Although the longest story in the collection, this is a simple story of family antagonism and breakdown, an ordinary tale that you know is not going to end well, if it is to follow the lives of fighting fish put into the same tank!!! A story that is unsettling, because as a reader you understand the fate of the narrator before the inevitable happens.

“War in the Trash Cans” is a tale of an unwelcomed niece living a façade of the suburban “American” style dream, set to the backdrop of invading cockroaches.

“Felina”, follows the more traditional domestic animal and the cycle of a cat’s pregnancy;

The ties between animals and human beings can be as complex as those that bind us people. There are some who maintain bonds of reluctant cordiality with their pets. They feed them, they take them for walks if need be, but rarely do they speak to them other than to scold or “educate” them. In contrast, there are others who make of their turtles their closest confidants. Every night they lean in towards their tanks and tell them about what happened to them at work, the confrontation they put off with their boss, their doubts, and their hopes for love. Among domestic animals dogs get particularly good press. It is even said that they are man’s best friend because of their loyalty and nobility, words that often signify nothing more than a tolerance for abuse and abandonment.

“Fungus”, as the title implies, is a story of parasites, bodily growths and love, “my fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.” there is attraction but also rejection, “eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship.”

The collection ends with “The Snake from Beijing”, where a married man, a famous playwright, who although French was adopted when he was two years old. After returning to China for a theatre production of one of his works, he returns home a changed man.  He secludes himself in a pagoda and buys a pet venomous snake.

This collection is very straight forward in the metaphoric and allegorical telling of the stories and very approachable and is written in a readable candid style, unlike some works I have recently read, there is no complex layer upon layer of deciphering to be done – for example, if a snake is shedding its skin, the human character is also being reborn. It was refreshing to read a short collection of stories that didn’t require an in-depth knowledge of the political landscape, so a decent work for readers wanting to dip their toes into the world of translated literature without becoming overawed.

Does it make me want to leap on the “to be read pile” and grab her latest novel “The Body Where I Was Born”? Not really, although I will probably get to it before the end of the month, a longlist candidate for this year’s “Best Translated Book Award” means it was on the pile for a number of reasons (not just Women In Translation Month).

Monday, 8 August 2016

Olga Tokarczuk - Women In Translation

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I have supported and been involved in “Women In Translation Month”, since its establishment three years ago. An absolutely brilliant initiative started  by Meytal Radzinski (or @Biblibio or Twitter) and you can read a whole lot more about it at her blog, this year’s details at the 2016 Women In Translation Month page here.

Last year I had a look at a number of women writers who are celebrated in their home Nations but their works are yet to make their way into English, I ran a number of occasional posts titled “Women (Not) In Translation”. This year I may highlight a few of these again, however my occasional posts, whilst I am finishing up a novel written by a woman, or putting the finishing touches on a new review, are going to lean towards highlighting a few works that are available on the internet.

When spreading your wings and trying new books by writers you have not read before can sometimes be a disaster waiting to happen, while your searches of favourite blogs or reviewers may point you towards something that appears interesting, there is always the risk that the style of writing is just not your thing. Something that may assist is reading a short story or two by the writer in question before investing your money and effort in a full blown novel.

One writer I have really enjoyed reading about as well as reading her works Olga Tokarczuk from Poland. Her novel “Primeval and Other Times” (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) I reviewed in December last year soon after she won the Polish Nike Prize for her latest book “The Books of Jakub”.

Tokarczuk was born in Sulechów Poland in 1962, a recipient of all of Poland’s top literary awards, she “is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of her generation”. Holding a psychology degree from the University of Warsaw, she initially practiced as a therapist and “often cites C.G. Jung as an inspiration for her work, in which mythmaking has become a hallmark.” (Quotes from Twisted Spoon Press website, publisher of “Primeval and Other Times”).

Whilst generally a literary award from Poland wouldn’t generate headlines, the 2015 Nike Prize did as Tokarczuk soon afterwards began receiving death threats and was subjected to abuse, after she questioned Poland’s “record on tolerance”. (See The Scotsman)

“The Books of Jakub” runs to over 900 pages, is “a great journey through seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the small ones”, and is currently being translated into English, however my current understanding is that there is still no English language publisher. I am eagerly awaiting news of a publisher as I will probably be one of the first readers in the queue to purchase a copy once it is released.

If you are interested in an excerpt from the novel, translated as “The Books of Jacob” by Jennifer Croft, eight pages were published by the Massachusetts Review and are available here 

Bomb Magazine has published an excerpt from Olga Tokarczuk’s 2008 Nike Award winning book  “Runners”(again translated by Jennifer Croft) here 

In June this year Bomb Magazine also published another Jennifer Croft translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s, the short story “Late Saturday to Early Sunday” 

Interviews, translated into English, with Tokarczuk can be found here:

A few tastes of her work for you to check out in case you’re interested in exploring her work further. Two of her novels are available in English, both translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, “Primeval and Other Times” (published by Twisted Spoon Press) and “House of Day, House of Night” (published by Northwestern University Press as part of their “Writings from an Unbound Europe” collection).

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Underground River and Other Stories - Inés Arredondo (translated by Cynthia Steele)

I’ve been in central and South American (not physically but with my reading choices) for about six weeks now and I am going to continue the theme for quite a bit longer, with a wonderful pile of originally written in Spanish titles, all by women writers, sitting awaiting my attention.

When I read the collection of Mexican short stories, “Sun, Stone, and Shadows” (edited by Jorge F. Hernández)  I mentioned the Inés Arredondo short story “The Shunammite” (translated by Alberto Manguel) and given the impact her story had in eleven pages, I wanted to hunt down more of her work. Inés Arredondo (1928-1989) published only three line volumes of stories and at present the availability of her work in English is minimal. The University of Nebraska Press edition of “Underground River and Other Stories” that I managed to source was published in 1996.

The collection opens with an “Introduction” by the translator, Cynthia Steele, and if you don’t want to have the themes revealed, some of the plotlines revealed, I would suggest you skip this and revisit it after you have enjoyed the stories. Here Steele tells us;

Arredondo resisted being called a woman writer, since she believed that this label relegated women artists to a ghetto, to a second-class status with critics and readers. “I don’t want to be the best woman writer in Mexico,” she said in an interview, “I want to be one of the best Mexican writers.” At the same time, her short stories focus obsessively on female subjectivity (along with other marginal beings, adolescents of both genders and gay men) within the context of a perverse Gothic “family romance” set in provincial Sinaloa at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Revolution has not yet happened, or else it has passed through without disturbing centuries-old power relations.

The “Introduction” is followed by a “Foreword” by Elena Poniatowska;

She was troubled by the problems of purity, pride, mercy, and love. Her central themes are reflected in her characters’ solitude, in the importance that she confers on the couple, and in her dissection of the human souls; these are what make her works unique.

This collection opens with the same story that appears in “Sun, Stone, and Shadows”, “The Shunammite” (this translated by Cynthia Steele, although I must admit I thought I was re-reading the story I had already read a few months ago, so the versions must be very similar indeed). A check of the opening lines shows:

"The summer had been a fiery furnace. The last summer of my youth." (Alberto Manguel translation).
"The was a blistering summer. The last of my youth." (Cynthia Steele translation).

Having said that, on a second reading the themes are much more poignant, the lechery and the biting tale of patriarchal society and the role of single women in such is captured perfectly, no wonder Poniatowska says “The Shunammite” is one of the most celebrated short stories in Mexican literature. I think this is the second reading, not the different translation, however I did seem to enjoy the story more the second time around. 

What keeps him going is lust…

The story “Marianna” tells the tale of a young girl in school who, during class, draws clumsily as though a pre-schooler. As she gets older she comes to school with make-up, and of course is punished, becomes sexually active and is the centre of all of the fellow school girl’s rumours. Becoming defiant to her family, her teachers and their superiors, this only leads to ruin. There are no happy endings for these fallen women in Arredondo’s stories.

The more stories we read the more we learn of humbled people, those who do not understand their dire situations, there are no tidy, neat endings, awkwardness prevails. In “The Sign” we have a person who is drawn to visit a church and is then asked by the Sexton if he can kiss his feet, or the two paragraph story “New Year’s Eve” where rawness, loneliness and compassion are profoundly portrayed, depth you can sometimes not find in works that run to 100’s of pages.

In Cynthia Steele’s “Introduction” she says “her opening are so memorable” and every single story sucks you in within a mere few sentences, a few examples:

I have led a solitary life for many years, a woman alone in this immense house, a cruel and exquisite life. That’s the story I want to tell: about the cruelty and exquisiteness of a rural life.

When I saw him brush her cheek with the whip, I knew what I had to do.

Great lovers don’t have children.

“Nocturnal Butterflies” is a story of procuring virgins for the master of the house to sleep with, “five hundred pesos in gold for your virginity. One night for two hours.” Or the story “The Mirrors” where we have a mother relaying the tale of her son’s exploits with sisters, one of whom is mentally impaired, she justifies her behaviour.

A collection full of predators, sexually and morally, these stories are a wonderful representation of Central American female writing. Dark, disturbing, but at the same time revelatory the sense of time, country, mores and the plight of the defenceless or innocent, in their pursuit of happiness is served up to you raw. As one of Arrendondo’s protagonists says;

I have a destiny, but it isn’t mine. I have to live my life according to other people’s destinies.

And to finish the collection we have “Shadow in the Shadows”; our protagonist opens up to us “When I turned fifteen Ermilo Parades was forty-seven.” A rich man Ermilo Parades tells us of the ppower of money “It can buy other people’s humiliation”. An outstanding story to conclude a wonderful collection.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Custody of the Eyes - Diamela Eltit (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ)

There is a scholarly body of work that explores Daimela Eltit’s work, and I feel humbled, and a little under pressure, when attempting to add anything to revelations about her writing.

I have seen her work classified as “experimental fiction” in a number of places, “risk taking”, even “highly experimental”, so how do you review such writing? Let’s start with an excerpt from “Custody of the Eyes” (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ);

Mama and I are always together in the house. We love each other sometimes in tremendous harmony. Harmony. I look at Mama to relieve my hunger. Mama’s tom-tom heart wants to write some crappy pages (a piece of arm, breast, a tooth, my shoulder/ I can’t stop myself now, I can’t hold back/ fingernail, shoulder, it’s really consistent/ my hand, my finger/ it doesn’t hurt me/it hasn’t hurt me for years/ it’s not true that it hurts/ a throb in the eyelid). She only thinks it, doesn’t write it. Mama and I are together in the house in every sense. I exist only in a pile of papers.

This is taken from the opening section of the book, “BAAAM”, narrated by a child who is holed up in a tiny room with his mother. The second section, “Dusk to Dawn”, is a collection of letters, written by the child’s mother to the father of the unnamed child, this makes up the substantial part of the book. The final section, “BRRRR”, is again narrated by the child,

As a reader you only see one side of the letter writing, although you get a sense of response and time movement as the “issues” being addressed or defended cumulate. The child’s school expulsion, wild horselaugh, and play are early subjects along with the bitter cold and the search for food. As the isolation deepens, the homeless who freeze on the doorstep, the constant surveillance (from the father letter writer, the neighbours, the mother-in-law) becomes clearer;

The real conflict we face rests with the neighbors and their conglomeration of intolerances. Now, thanks to them, the city I travel through, in a few hours and out of necessity, seems to me an unreal space, a place open onto the operatic, the theatrical. A Remnant of such proportions that I can predict its imminent liberation into anarchy. This upheaval is wholly attributable to the neighbors. They try to establish laws whose origin nobody knows for sure, though it’s obvious they contrive this attack solely to increase the goods accumulating in their houses. But I caution you with express clarity that these laws are debated in the midst of indescribable conformity and allude to such abuses that I can’t tell whether or not they occur only in their minds. I feel that the neighbors want to perform a theater piece in which the role of enemy is awarded to those citizens who don’t submit to the extreme rigidity of their statutes.

A highly political work, full of metaphor and symbolism, referring to the political situation under the dictatorship of Pinochet. Sheltering the homeless is considered a crime, collusion with the proletariat a sin, the homeless [are] a threat to civil order, [they] “destroy the order respectable people have taken to build up.” The eyes, surveillance (not only featured in the title) are constantly reappearing;

Ah, listen: in the streets they’ve set up the government for the section forbidden to the people. My neighbor goes through the forbidden section of the streets and, at this very moment, I observe him from my window. He approaches, limping in the midst of this relative darkness. The darkness that envelopes him seems only to outline the marked shape of his deformity. My neighbor observes the movement on the streets stealthily, hidden, as if he had seen more than his eyes can resist. Then he withdraws and closes his eyes for a long time.

As pointed out in numerous other reviews and studies, Diamela Eltit’s works are not only political but also feminist, exploring the role of the mother in a patriarchal society, the Chilean military patriarchy and the mother being the core of social advancement, development.

But your intention has been to deprive me of all that’s mine, leaving your orders deposited in my blind brain.

There is nothing secret about my passing through the city. I go and come according to material necessities essential to caring for your son.

You tell me that I’ve placed myself outside the law and what you don’t tell me is that you’ve placed me within reach of your law. You say, as well, that after the unacceptable incidents I have been involved in, your son and I are already talking the filthy language of the streets and the neighbors have reached the conclusion that we waste the whole day and night.

The placement of the child’s narration at the end of the novel shows his advancement, taking the role of “carer”, the passing of the baton from the mother to the child, and with no spoilers, you’ll have to read this yourself to see if they defeat the bitter cold.

The work touches on so many subjects, experimental of course commenting on the art of writing, or maybe the futility of such;

Only writing can endure, since voices and their sounds, inevitably, empty into silence and can be easily stilled, misinterpreted, omitted, forgotten. I write you now solely to forestall the shame that some day could lead me into shielding myself with silence.

In an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2001 Diamela Eltit spoke of “space” in her works, this novel exploring restricted space, a small room, and the freedom of the streets, even if just searching for food,

I find it aesthetically and politically stimulating to work, think, and exist mentally in spaces that are, in a manner of speaking, not “officialized” by the dominant culture. Of course I am thinking of movable places that shift, mutate, and revert back to themselves. In general, official culture softens artistic production and creates a domesticated subject, a sensible literature, and a well-mannered intellectual who functions successfully and comfortably—but whose success is necessarily anodyne—within the dominant system of the moment. In my case, there is a kind of “un-positioning” that is not really part of a deliberate program but which comes about little by little; it is a torsion or distortion that impedes the literature that I frequent from becoming normalized or centralized.

A very interesting and enlightening interview that will give you a feel for Diamela Eltit’s work. More here

A challenging work, one where the language slowly seeps into you, the repetitive prose poetry style that is bursting with metaphor and imagery, you slowly become “in custody” yourself, locked into the world where the matriarchy is responsible for your survival. Difficult? Yes. But another revelation from Chile, and a book that works on so many levels, one that will surely haunt me for a while to come.

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