Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

September 27, 2014

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes


Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien (Archipelago Books, 2014)




"All of parting is power in death / And all return is a child learning to spell", wrote the Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes (b. 1933) in a selection of poems made available in English this year. These lines ended the poem "Emigrant" from his first collection of poems Pão & Fonema (Bread & Phoneme, 1974). The emigrant's homecoming and leavetaking were equated with learning her native language. The emigrant's own return perfected her learning through mastery of the language.

Go and plant
           in dead Amilcar's mouth
This fistful of watercress
And spread from goal to goal
           A fresh phonetics
And with the commas of the street
     and syllables from door to door
You will sweep away before the night
The roads that go
           as far as the night-schools
For all departure means a growing alphabet
     for all return is a nation's language

Language was the life-force that kept the emigrant moored in the world, her loyal companion and the educational standard by which she measured her adventures. The reference to Amílcar Cabral, the assassinated Guinea-Bissauan nationalist leader, made this poem a part of nationalist contemplation.

The two collaborating translators, Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien, evoked an English that must have wrestled with the poet's non-standard Portuguese. It seemed to be a methodical process: Hahn prepared a literal translation from which O'Brien crafted a final version. [For a glimpse into the delicate balancing act that the two translators follow in their rendering of Fortes's poems, see (or listen to) their version of and their illuminating notes to "Postcards from the High Seas".]

Fortes used Cape Verdean Creole in writing about African islands milieu. It was an organic language whose remnants in English was evident from powerful imagery, as in "Gate of the Sun", where African children are like the very islands they hail from.

I

From the straw hills
                     whose doors are the sun
Children descend
                      naked and thin
                                 like guitars
ribs showing under the strings
All of them
           the first-born
                      of the one belly
And daughters
           of the same volcano And of the same guitar
           Of the same rock and the same cry

...

III

The child does not
Always breathe
                     its lung was
                                 torn from the map

And thus
           like the islands themselves
At sunset
They are fed
                     on phonemes
Each child
Is a diphthong of milk
                     with blood in its vowels

[Nem sempre
A criança respira
                     um pulmão
                                 roto de mapas

E assim
           como as ilhas
Ao pôr do Sol
Se alimentam
                     de fonemas
Cada criança
É ditongo de leite
                     com sangue nas vogais]

The "diphthong of milk" denoted a dual or hybrid language or consciousness or race that marked each child's identity. Fortes was asserting his linguistic heritage using images that recognize the power to express one's cultural, dialectical spirit. The influence of geography ["its lung was / torn from the map"] in the makeup of a child was significant but did not make a complete breathing being. "The child" was once again invoked, for every citizen was a child of circumstances: the sum total of a child's life experience in an island was not only the island but her linguistic relations and transactions.

Fortes was a proponent of indigenous culture. His education abroad and occupation as diplomat probably made him an observer of cultures and a champion of his own chaotic tradition. As he declared in "Act of Culture"—a poem  from Árvore & Tambor (Tree & Drum)—culture and expression are intimately linked (by chaos, if you will). The "drum on a tree" was in fact the poetic image from which this chaos was mapped out.

Act of Culture

How the sound swells in the fruit: the drum
                                                    Is on the tree
And opposed to erosion: the politics of seduction

                            And

'If the destiny of man is ceaseless labour'

                            And

The word love has no mouth to its river

Culture! is entirely
Old chaos given dynamic expression

"Dynamic expression" was what Fortes was able to convey in his singular poems. "Old chaos" was visualized in the above poem itself where the swelling sound of the drum-like fruit, an auditory sensation, shared space with the "politics of seduction", a Sisyphus figure ["ceaseless labour"], and love that lacks a river mouth. This melange of seemingly surreal but actually organically delicate touches was a characteristic of the poet's output.

His description of the works of the artist Tchalé Figueira, in "Three Canvases for Tchalé Figueira", was not now surprising, considering the vibrant poetic strokes of the lines. Fortes painted his own canvas, as the conjuring of vowels from words, of letters or diphthongs, show:

The landscape was throwing stones at children
As ... if nature were
           A weapon to be aimed
And the children were stoning life itself
As! If the 'lh' of 'ilha'
           Were the wound left
Between the coin of the body and the price of the soul

................................................................................

If Tchale is caught
                     Between jazz and painting
The children flow away
           over the 'L' of Landscape and the 'A' of the plain
And onwards
           Down the luminous highway of the salt-beds
To offer the faces that come to their doorways
                                the calm that comes after the storm

In Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, the reader was given a well distilled, well calibrated version of an African/Cape Verdean/Portuguese poetic sensibility. "Between jazz and painting", the poems had this transporting sense of language and of place.




Book copy received from NetGalley. 



September 17, 2014

What Passes for Answers


What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013)






What passes for answers is a book of poetry, conceived in the mind of a poet, held in the mind of a reader. It is a quiet type of book, and the answers are withheld by careful writing. So careful it is that it never trips even if abstract concepts are animated into being.

The young poet, Mikael de Lara Co (b. 1983), has already arrived. His first collection is an instant collectible. The lines register a vision of kindness and humble reflection and yet the feelings evoked are palpable, heartfelt. The main thread of his discourse centers on silence and its variations. The title poem – or poems, there are four of them – already hints at plural approaches to understanding the mystery of existence. A question is asked in each of the title poems' first line: "What is true?"; "Where will this path lead?"; "Whom should we believe?"; "What disturbs the trees?" The answers are more hesitant questions. Nature is revealed as the bearer of answers; the seeker only needs to commune with her. The last lines of each of these title poems may provide an answer. The declarative nudges at the interrogative mood:

To dig for roots and breathe along
to the crackle of wood
as the water lies waiting.

*

What passes for radiance
in this shadowbound space
is the sound of a river
singing not far from here.

*

I would like to speak to you now
in rustles and twig-snaps.
Please hum with me.
Let us forget the way
out of this forest.

*

The berries keep me full,
and I have taken nothing from the forest.
My clothes dampen from sweat and dew.
Two birds flit past, answering
each other's caws.
My heart quickens. I am warm.

What passes for answers is the warmth and generosity of people. The selfless offering, the gift giving. A poet's recognition of the saving power of listening.

... If only [the walls] had fists
they would know how a hand
is defined by its unclenching.
By opening. Some day listening
will save the world.
What music is is five fingers
pointing outward. A palm
facing skyward. Asking
for nothing. Receiving.

["Choir"]

Listening (to a choir singing, to someone) saves the world, if only because in the serenity of listening we can recognize another generous point of view. This poem reminds me of Edith L. Tiempo's dual image of open hands offering and receiving.


True that life is given,
And received. But truer still:
The single-act of giving
Makes the offerer the beggar, too –

For when down on the knees
The man (or god) stretches the arms
In giving,
It is no accident the hands
Are curled like bowls or cups,
For he offers self, yet
Begs it back again,

[from "Guru Puja: The Offering" by Edith L. Tiempo]

"Now I desire no more from poetry than silence," the poet declares in a prose poem, humbly requesting its (future) reader not to consider his book as a work of poetry: "These are just lines. This is just a gift, not even wrapped, its silence the only thing of value to anyone."

What passes for answers is silence. Perhaps the silence of a night, so deep one can hear the soft stirrings of sleeping living things. It is a type of silence that allows sufficient space for rumination of pregnant meanings.

Metapoetry is another manifest element in this collection. The self-questioning metapoet is already building an aesthetic position that will inevitably measure his future outputs. In "The Doomed", the poet acknowledges the difficulty of writing beautiful lines when the subject of the poem is terrorism.

One word for lily is enough;
there is enough beauty in flowers.
I want to find beauty in suffering.
I want to fail.

Even if, as the poet writes, "The task of poetry / is to never run out of words", in the face of terrorist attacks the poet asserts that it is his ethical obligation not to find appropriate synonyms and for his poetry not to be beautiful. It is a reflexive contradiction and yet a compassionate position. The poet's success lies in his failure to be poetic.

A kind of poetry
that does not need poetry
to speak it ...

["Pith"]

What passes for answers is a grasping for words. In "Pith", the open fruit with its pith of seeds is the essence of poetry itself. The poem is so short and yet the main idea is already compressed in it. The last lines read:

What other truth is there
than this broken fruit?
Its seeds peek from inside
a fist of pulp. Once
I had a word for this.
It is not lost. Look.

One need only look. One looks back at the title ("Pith") to recognize the word. But this is not only looking at a title or a fruit visually. One looks inside, at the essence of a thing.

One way of discovering the pith of things is to give them a right to exist and an opportunity to express their innermost thoughts. Two poems in the collection have this unique approach of personification. In "Archipelago", "the horizon, lover of light" and "priestesses rummaging through their rucksacks" – two entities introduced early in the poem – are suddenly privileged to communicate with each other. In "Pastoral", the inanimate "mossless cheek of a boulder" and "knife" suddenly engage in a conversation.

MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Too much shade
stunts the saplings.

KNIFE:
Do we wait for the trees
to fell themselves?

MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Upon this brittle pile of leaves.
Upon this fading patch of light.

KNIFE:
See me poised to gut you.
See my [serrations], blessed by time.

MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Examine the canopy.
Brother, who called us here?

KNIFE:
...

From which technique we can glean a direct confrontation with ordinary things often neglected in life. Much like Pablo Neruda's odes to common things, the poet here celebrates common nouns to find their proper place in the world. He awards them the right to self-determination in a universe continually challenged by disequilibrium such as deforestation, the felling of trees. In this collection, the balance of nature depends on every component part of the natural and built environments, an all-inclusive eco-poetic worldview.

I am glad to finally read a full length poetry collection from Mikael Co. I have only read his four poems appearing in Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets (2009). His first poem in that anthology already signals his affinity for certain thematic areas described above. The first stanza already announces brooding silence:

We begin with a house.
The spaces we inhabit
or used to inhabit. The silences.

["A House"]

There is the turn into metapoetry: "But this is not a poem about return / ... / This is a poem / about a house." There is the appeal to the pith-essence of a poem about a house: "See / the pith of an orange sits hardened, // orphaned on the kitchen counter."

For his poetry, Mikael Co has already received three grand prizes in the Palanca. As a translator, he has equally built an impressive résumé. He has translations of a section of poems in Shockbox: Ang Butas na Kahon ni Kulas Talon: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (2013) by Kulas Talon [Khavn De La Cruz] and couple of contributions in Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry (2011). His co-translation of the novel Eight Muses of the Fall (2013) by Edgar Calabia Samar is a finalist in the 2014 (Philippine) National Book Awards, where this book is also in contention in the category of best poetry book in English. One other finalist – To the Evening Star by Simeon Dumdum Jr. – I read last year. It is a strong bet. The other finalists – Luisa A. Igloria, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and Allan Popa – are seasoned Filipino poets. It is a tight race; it is a particularly strong field of poets. What Passes for Answers is in fine company, and they are in his.


September 8, 2014

Conversations


Conversations by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2014)



The theory of error states that no measurement is ever exact. From which it can also be deduced that (1) every measurement yields errors, (2) true measurements are never known, and (3) the exact size of errors present is also never known. In the case of fiction, César Aira has his own theory of errors, but instead of measurements it is applied to memories. His protagonist in Conversations, the latest novella from him in English, asserts that his memory is always perfect. At night, during his "nocturnal recollections", he can reproduce all conversations he had had in the morning. He claims he can produce through "rigorous step-by-step memory" every exchange he had with his friends, down to the smallest details, including the nuances in the inflection and tone of voice, the facial expressions of his conversation partner. He leisurely remembers at night what happened exactly in his morning conversations.

Here we almost have the same mechanism of remembrance as Don Juan in Peter Handke's novel of the same name, Don Juan: His Own Version. In the case of Handke the titular protagonist talks to someone about his past one day at a time through remembrance of what happened on a particular day exactly a week before. Eventually Don Juan realizes that there are details in the scene he was remembering that he only ever recognized right now as he is remembering it.

In Aira, as with Handke, remembrance of things past becomes an enriching experience by virtue of repetition. The morning conversations are intensified by "nocturnal representation".

Memory allows me to go more deeply into ideas that pass by too quickly in the course of reality. I can stop wherever I want and contemplate a thought or its expression, analyze the mechanisms that articulate it, discover a defect in an argument, make a correction, retrace certain steps. I look at these conversations, which have become miniaturizations, through a magnifying glass, and my sleepless contemplations render them as beautiful and flawless as jewels. Their very disorder, redundancies, and lack of purpose are swathed in an artistic iridescent sheen because of and thanks to repetition.

While tracing his perfect memory of a particular conversation with a friend about a blockbuster film, the narrator betrays his intellectual pretensions by his constant allusions to the quality of the conversations over coffee he had with his friends, the philosophical flavor of the topics, and a general cultural elitism that makes his reliable narration a bit comical. The way he namedrops Hegel, Plato, and Nietzsche in a matter of fact way while expressing support for blockbuster movies and blasting "cultural" programs on TV – in a manner that seems to say that he is always open to popular fare ("I've always distrusted those intellectuals who have never heard of the Rolling Stone.") is kind of funny.

A crack in the narrator's nocturnal duplication of morning's events starts to appear while he was recalling his long debate with a friend about the problem of verisimilitude in one film's scene. He questions the presence of a Rolex on the wrist of a poor desert goatherd, a character played by a famous actor. Surely that was unrealistic? The conversations that follow become a launching pad for Aira's thoughts on the nature of fiction and reality.

While I was reconstructing the conversation (and there, also, I was implacable in not skipping a single word, and I might have even added a few), I realized that the "actor" was already the "character" in a certain sense: not the character that he would soon embody during the shooting of the movie, but the character of the story that I, marginally and for the rhetorical imperatives of the demonstration, was recounting. [emphasis supplied]

Some few words start to slip in. The narrator begins to discover that his memory of the conversation about an actor playing a (fictional) character in a movie also makes the actor a character, this time in his reconstructed story that gradually he acknowledges as becoming less and less objective (i.e., more fictional).

What complicates the conversation is that the narrator and his friend have not actually seen in full the movie they are talking about, being distracted from time to time by various activities like answering the phone and going to the bathroom. The perfect nocturnal representation of a conversation about a half-seen movie starts to disintegrate into unknown territory when the layers of stories within the movie itself become apparent. How much more meta can a meta be?

The narrator's recollection and reflection are distracted by several thoughts about what he is recollecting and reflecting about. The distractions impair the pace of his memory such that the rigorous, hundred percent recollection starts to founder, "So to catch up I had to sum things up and take a leap forward".

The act of "summarizing" a bit of the conversation already introduces a wrinkle in the nocturnal telling. Is he already fictionalizing what happened in the past? Is he violating his conjecture on the ability of memory to perfectly duplicate reality? What does it say about the "fragmentary nature of one's perception" of reality? Is memory, which is "a reality of experience" and also an experience of reality, also fragmented? The narrator asked it tentatively in two ways: (1) "We were in the realm of fiction, right?" and (2) "To ride on a dehydrated goat through the star-studded sky, wasn't that fiction?"

In the end, the narrator faces up to the theory of error as applied to fiction and memory. He violates the very rule he introduces in the beginning. In Your Face Tomorrow, it takes Javier Marías's verbose protagonist all of three volumes of dense brick prose to reverse his admonition to contain all careless talk and keep secrets from anyone forever by admitting that "there comes a point when one has to tell things, after a lot of time has passed, so that it doesn't seem as if they simply never happened or were just a bad dream ... "

In a much shorter span of time, Aira's reminiscing narrator changes position about the perfect co-incidence of memory in the "real" and "fictional" levels. He finally confesses that everything remembered may, after all, be fiction. He is a fearless practitioner of fiction.

Whatever was improvised and stuttered and stammered, sometimes without proper syntax when we got carried away in the excitement of the discussion, I then polished and smoothed out and varnished during my nocturnal repetition.

...

When I go over conversations at night, alone, I turn into the artist or the philosopher who works his material at his will, like the director of a movie who does what he wants to or can do with the script. I, like all of them, have to face the superior unity of collective creation.

In Katherine Silver's winning translation, Aira's miniaturized philosophical meditation on the nature of fiction, perception, and reality somehow codifies or integrates together his preoccupations in his other books. It is a unified theory of fictional memory that he brings afresh here and that subsumes his general ideas on the continuum, improvisation, spontaneity, and (dare I say) world domination.


Also for the Doom at Caravana de recuerdos.



September 7, 2014

Kasal sa Dugo


Kasal sa Dugo [Bodas de sangre] by Federico García Lorca, tr. Bienvenido Lumbera (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007)



Dumating na naman ang oras ng dugo.

(The time for bloodletting has arrived once more.) 

Violence foregrounds Federico García Lorca's tragic play about a blood wedding. The image of blood is even there in the lullaby that puts a baby to sleep. The bride and groom-to-be are in many ways a perfect match. The young man is rich, strong, and extremely handsome. His intended woman is fair, beautiful, and timid. Class distinction can even be ignored in favor of making a family of strong children. But the riches of the landed man, his extensive vineyards, may stand in the way of a conjugal relationship, may disturb the equilibrium of love, as they sometimes do. Moreover, the unresolved issues of the couple's pasts are a yoke on their backs. The woman cannot forget Leonardo, her first love, who is now a married man but still crazy for her. Leonardo stalks her outside her house. When he gets the chance to talk to her, their conversations are often pregnant with lust and longing for their youthful affair.

           NOBYA:
Bakit ka naparito?

           LEONARDO:
Para makita ang iyong kasal.

           NOBYA:
Ako rin, nakita ko ang kasal mo!

           LEONARDO:
Nakagapos sa iyo, ginapos ng mismong mga kamay mo. Maaari nila akong patayin, pero hindi ako papayag ng ako'y duraan. Ang pilak, na sobrang makinang, kung minsa'y nandudura.

           NOBYA:
Sinungaling!

           LEONARDO:
Ayokong magsalita, dahil madaling mag-init ang dugo ko, at ayokong marinig ng mga bundok sa paligid ang mga boses na gustong kumawala sa aking bibig.

           NOBYA:
Mas malakas ang boses na aking pinatahimik. 


           *

           [WOMAN:
Why are you here?

           LEONARDO:
To witness your wedding.

           WOMAN:
Me, too. I was present during your wedding!

           LEONARDO:
I'm bound to you, bound by your very hands. They can kill me, but I will not let them spit on me. The silver whose shimmer is extremely blinding can sometimes spit on one's face.

           WOMAN:
Liar!

           LEONARDO:
I don't want to speak, because it makes my blood boil, and I don't want the mountains around us to hear the voice inside me that desperately wants to escape my mouth.

           WOMAN:
The voice I repressed within me has a louder sound.]

Bound by personal and societal standards of morality, the illicit lovers cannot openly express the raging passions inside them. But the blood is hot not only with desire but with hate. There is a blood feud between the families of Leonardo and the groom. Leonardo belongs to a family of men who killed the groom's father and brother, crimes that the groom's vengeful mother will not forgive and forget. The mother's wronged past is crying out for blood. Even the upcoming wedding cannot quell her thirst for revenge.

Federico García Lorca thus prefigures the inevitable violence that haunts the play's unraveling. Its direct reference to the doomed affair of one Romeo and one Juliet assures us that the fatal ending is ordained for the major players. It is only a matter of knowing the manner and circumstances of death. Leonardo plans to pursue the affair regardless of the wedding. A woman's dignity is on the line.

           LEONARDO:
Ang manahimik habang natutupok sa pagnanasa, iyan ang pinakamalupit na parusang puwedeng ipataw natin sa ating sarili. Ano ang kabutihang naidulot sa akin ng aking dangal, nang di ko pagtingin sa iyo, ng pag-iwan sa iyong hindi nakakatulog gabi-gabi? Wala kahit ano! Wala kundi ang pag-alabin ako! Akala mo ba, hinihilom ng panahon ang bawat sugat? Natatakpan ng mga dinding ang paghihirap ng loob? Hindi iyan totoo, hindi totoo! Kapag tumagos na sa ating kaloob-looban ang lahat-lahat, wala sinumang makababaklas sa kanila!
           NOBYA:
(Nanginginig.) Hindi ko kayang makinig sa iyo. Hindi ko kayang makinig sa boses mo. Para akong nilasing ng samboteng anis at nakatulog na balot ng kumot na mga rosas. Kinakaladkad ako ng boses mo, at alam kong malulunod ako, pero napadadala pa rin ako.
                     *
           [LEONARDO:
To remain silent while being razed by lust, that is the worst punishment we can impose on ourselves. What good does my dignity offer me, my denial of your existence, my leaving you unable to sleep every night? It offers not a thing! Nothing but to stoke my feelings! Do you think time heals each deep wound? Do you think the walls can hide one's suffering? Not true, not true at all! When everything pierces us in our deepest being, no one can pry out the spear!

           WOMAN:
(Shivering.) I cannot listen to you. I cannot listen to your voice. It is as if I get drunk by a bottle of anise and fall asleep covered by a blanket of roses. I am being dragged away by the timbre of your voice. I know I'll drown, but I am still carried away.]

The verisimilitude of Lorca's drama relies on the macho society which conditions the violent actions and reactions of the characters. Even the female figure of the groom's mother condones naked violence and the ascendancy of a husband over his wife if only to affirm the patriarchal family traditions and arrangements.

The "blood" in the title [Spanish sangre; Tagalog dugo] is an inherent stain passed down from one generation to the next. It is violent, intolerant human nature that is transferred, because this human nature to injure and to do harm is bred in every macho generation. The mother attributes Leonardo's "unwell" (sick or bad) blood [Ang dugo niya'y hindi magaling.] to the blood that runs in his murderous family.

Anong magaling na dugo ang maaasahan sa kanya? Dugo ng buong pamilya niya. Galing sa kanyang kanunu-nunuan, na siyang nagsimula sa pagpatay, dumaloy sa ugat ng buktot na lahi, mga taong sanay magwasiwas ng kutsilyo, mga taong pakunwari ang ngiti.

[What good blood can we expect from him? The blood of his family. Inherited from his forefathers, the ones who started the killings, it flowed to the veins of a perverted race, people who are skilled in brandishing knives, people who smile falsely.]

There is strength in the Filipino translator Bienvenido Lumbera's choice of words, which I hope have captured and retained in my L2 translations of selected passages above. The somewhat quaint vocabulary and diction of a few passages add to the flavor of ancient and timeless conflict of human capacity for violence. The way in which the characters give full currency to upholding one's dignity and justifying killings to be able to do so, reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Lorca's play and García Márquez's novella in fact share the same theme and the same conflict operating in the same conservative society.

The unique style of Lorca's play offers another kind of marriage: the marriage of realism and symbolism. This is achieved through expressionist prose and the insertion of "symbolic characters" of the moon, Death (in the guise of a beggar), and the woodcutters. Their unrealistic presence heightens the realism of the blood feud and the transgression of a married woman's honor. It creates a space in which to comment on the proceedings and tragic aftermath of the wedding.

As he explains in the introduction, Lumbera (b. 1932) began to consult Graham-Luján's English version of the play for his translation. He was, however, not satisfied with how the translated dialogues sounded and flowed and how the songs and poetry interspersed in the play appeared in translation ("Hindi ako nasiyahan sa tunog at daloy ng dialogo at ng mga awit at tula sa wikang Ingles"). He eventually decided to translate directly from the original Spanish. Even so, some Tagalog lines of the songs in the play sounded rather awkward to me. (Perhaps they are the same in Spanish, or perhaps they are rendered literally. Lumbera's prose dialogues registered well than the poetry whose short lines weaken the Tagalog's density and linguistic register. Tagalog words are usually longer in length (with a larger number of letters) than English ones. If expressed in clipped Tagalog lines, the seriousness of the songs and poetry can derail the momentum of the play.)

Kasal sa Dugo is part of Ateneo de Manila University Press's Entablado Klasiko series. There are four plays in the series, all translations into Filipino by Lumbera. The other plays are Julio Cesar by William Shakespeare, Kaaway [Enemy] by Maxim Gorky, and Retrato ng Artista Bilang Filipino [A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino] by Nick Joaquín. Lumbera, a literary critic and scholar, started translating in the 1960s when he was a student of comparative literature in Indiana University. Other works he translated include poems by T. S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda.


September 5, 2014

The cart, the folding bed, the stegosaurus



Shantytown by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2013)


Maxi, the muscular and boyish protagonist of CésarAira's La villa, was a volunteer loader of junk and trash in a suburban village in Buenos Aires, in a section of the city right beside the curving rows of shanties whose lights at night lit up like unblinking fireflies. He became a regular, reliable help to the trash collectors, all of whom were dwellers in the shanties. Maxi's selfless assistance earned him the trust of the mobile community. Garbage and trash picking was perhaps a fitting backdrop in a novel whose components and small pieces were collected and assembled into a novel form which attained solidity and function despite the pliant materials. The ingeniousness of the garbage collectors in creating something useful out of trash was evident in the way they fashioned found objects into functional art; for instance, the trash cart itself.

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away. The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart. Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. He had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size ... in every way, really. Some were made with planks, sticks, or pipes, others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles, baby carriages, even cars. Naturally, no two carts looked the same, each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not an entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city's carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). But now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn't have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Each individual cart was unique in itself, functional, and artistic. The fastidious construction of a cart might be another self-referential nod to Aira's own artistic program (or lack of it). The final output was determined by literary discovery, by an improvisation. Building sturdy carts out of ordinary, available materials was an engineering project determined by just the basic literary requirements of form and structure. A parallel example was later made with the building of a folding bed, which eventually played a critical role in a critical juncture in the story – the opportunity when the garbage collectors could finally repay their debt to Maxi's unsolicited yet welcome help in carrying and hauling their trash for them. The bed was custom-built for Maxi – customized and reinforced to withstand his extra-large size, to fit into a small space (as in the space within a fileteado), and to be handy and portable enough to be transferred from place to place at short notice.

It was a sort of camp bed, made of coarse elastic fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, with four sets of hydraulic hinges. It had solid metal detachable feet, two feet high, arranged in three rows, one at either end and one in the middle. The shanty dwellers made a folding bed because it would have taken up too much space otherwise, and naturally they didn't want anyone but Maxi to use it. Plus it was easier to hide. ... They also carried out simulations every so often, to be sure that when the moment came they could unfold the bed and make it up in a few seconds.

Between the cart and the bed was the story of a policeman pursued by a female judge while he was trying to bust a suspected drug ring. The policeman was also spying on two girls – Maxi's sister and her friend  – who were eavesdropping on Maxi. Shantytown was a cat and mouse novel, obeying Aira's fictional model (or lack of it). His were novels of pursuit. The one who pursues was in turn being hunted by another pursuer. In The Hare, the title animal was pursued by a scientist, while Indians were searching for their chief who went missing, and somebody else was tailing someone else. In Ghosts, a young woman was being pursued by male nudist ghosts. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a child, a seamstress, the bridal gown the seamstress worked on, the bride, and a talking wind were all somehow mixed up in a Patagonian pursuit.

Perhaps the novel of pursuit was the ideal fictional template with which Aira could manifest his instinctive storytelling. The outcome of a racing contest, like any contest, was unpredictable, open to any possibility, to any inconceivable cannonball run. In How Became a Nun, a young child named César suddenly became aware of a stalker following him. He fell victim to the whims of storytelling. So was Carlos Fuentes who was the target of a mad scientist who was planning to clone the novelist.

This appeal to a dynamic plot was driven by improvisation. The weird turns in the story were "dictated" by an organizing principle we can call improvised realism, a term both tautological and oxymoronic. Improvised realism was the construction of fictional reality on the spot. The novelist gambled everything though he was not after the prize.

Results were secondary. The masterpiece came first. In the end, after all the time he'd spent thinking about it (or not: it came to the same thing), the operation had performed itself; he'd barely had to intervene. After all that thinking and promising not to let what he did be governed by impulse or circumstances, it had been an improvisation on the spur of the moment. That's why it had been easy; that's why it had seemed to happen all by itself.

The about face parenthetical aside – "or not: it came to the same thing" – was characteristic of someone pulling one's leg. The third person storyteller of Shantytown was prone to these asides ("Vanessa saw her turn slowly, like a sleepwalker (or was it an effect of the distance?) and look all around"). The teller was sketchy on many details; memory's demand was the least of his concerns. Uncertainty and unreliability were the fate of works of improvised realism. What differentiates it from magic realism was its ability to conveniently forget. Steve Dolph, a translator of Argentinean novelist Juan José Saer, described in an interview how uncertainty was subsumed within Saer's prose style and how this style differed from that of a Boom author like Gabriel García Márquez.

On the formal level, the narration in many of [Saer's] novels, especially after Glosa, is hesitant, unsure. There’s quite a bit of direct questioning and a sort of vulnerability in the way it reaches out to the reader for support. All of which creates these long, intricate thoughts that build up, clause after clause, to form a dense cloud of uncertainty. In that syntactic fog, without a clear focus to the sentence, or the paragraph, the reader doesn’t quite know which way to turn. Within all of this, one of the central themes of Saer’s novels is the fragility of memory, how fraught our effort to reconstruct the past becomes when narration, whether through text or images, is the means we use. This sense of what memory is and how it does or doesn’t function effectively to portion out our identity is starkly different from what you find in a writer like Márquez. So as to avoid getting too wonky in the analysis, just look at the central characters in their novels and note the difference in the way they remember things: Márquez’s characters tend to have incredible memories. Not so much in Saer, or at least there’s often a strong force that undermines their efforts to remember.

Even Márquez’s own positioning as an author, from the monumental autobiography that effectively concluded his career, to the often-repeated quote that he’d gathered all of the material for his novels by the time he was eight, from his grandparents, overhead gossip, urban legends, and so on, all of which suggests that his entire oeuvre is one immense act of remembering. (Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious” is the perfect parody of this authorial position.) It’s possible that his popularity in the U.S. owes something to an analogous sense of fiction in the ’60 and ’70s, which wholeheartedly valued this strong, romantic concept of the value and reliability of individual memory. 

The "syntactic fog" was a kind of improvisational image, the very fog that was lifted in the fictional worlds of García Márquez. The foggy memory of improvised realism was a clean break from the magical clarity and the perfect memory in García Márquez. (Even the latter's journalism was hyper-realistic as in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Clandestine in Chile. Their narratives relied on 100% memory: the verbatim transcription of a subject's words.)

The black hole of perfect memory had the tendency to devour fiction. Aira's hyper-plot, even at the level of a sentence, managed to escape the gravity of the situation.

A massive wind had risen, blowing in all directions, chaotically. The plants in the little gardens were thrashing about madly, throwing off leaves and buds like a frenzied gambler throwing dice.

...

She saw him as a bloodthirsty stegosaurus hoisting his rocky neck from a lake of oil, on the night of the end of the world.

Uncertainty is a byproduct of improvisation. To be perfectly certain is to throw realism to the mad wind. When it closes the room for interpreting or questioning reality, hyper-realism disables realism. And perhaps humor.



FILETEADO

 
For The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom by Caravana de recuerdos.