31 December 2010

Clandestine in Chile (Gabriel García Márquez)

The plan was to film an underground documentary on the increasingly desperate situation in Chile after twelve years of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. I had been unable to get the idea of making this film out of my mind. I had lost the image of my country in a fog of nostalgia. The Chile I remembered no longer existed, and for a filmmaker there could be no surer way of rediscovering a lost country than by going back to it and filming it from the inside.

Gabriel García Márquez faithfully transcribed Miguel Littín's voice in Clandestine in Chile (trans. Asa Zatz), a book of reportage. Littín is a Chilean filmmaker living in exile, homesick and determined to come back to shoot his documentary. To do this he was forced to impersonate a new identity, as a Uruguayan businessman. The transformation was complete: his physical appearance, his accent, and his family history and emotions were calibrated to another person's. This book turned out to be dedicated not only to exposing life under dictatorship but to describing a voluntary "identity crisis" and the large amount of risks a person is willing to undertake in order to practice his art (filmmaking) for purposes he believed were noble. Was it all worth it?
Santiago has always had street vendors but I cannot remember ever having seen as many as now. There is hardly a spot anywhere in the business center where they are not standing in long, silent ranks, selling everything imaginable. They are so many and so diverse that their presence alone reveals the social drama. Side by side with a physician who is not permitted to practice, a destitute engineer, a woman with the air of a duchess who is trying to dispose of her wardrobe from better days at any price, there were orphaned children peddling stolen goods and housewives offering homemade bread. Most of these once successful professionals have lost everything but their dignity. Standing behind their wares, they continue to dress as though they were in their former offices. A taxi driver, once a wealthy textile merchant, took me on a tour of half the city that lasted several hours, and at the end he refused to charge me.

The social drama that Littín witnessed was the drama of ordinary people coping with a changed political and economic circumstances. Daily life under the Pinochet regime was, at surface, a veneer of good times, perhaps just as good as life outside Chile. But deep inside was raging silent protest. There was a persistence for ordinary people to continue existing, always hopeful that a better living condition awaited them, because they remember the benevolent past, and it was enough for them to go on. Littín's account of his clandestine shooting was permeated with feelings of nostalgia. Surprisingly, the main pathos of the story derived not from the filmmaker's film rushes but from his living a double life in disguise. While pretending to be someone of different profession and nationality, Littín was unwittingly recapturing his own identity in the pictures of the country he was taking. The documentary which was ostensibly meant to bring to light the injustices of military dictatorship became the same document that eulogized the country of a man dreaming, of the past and the lost possibilities.

In the book's preface, Francisco Goldman said that the book had acquired an extra-literary life after publication, perhaps even eclipsing the actual film made of it. The author being no less than García Márquez who is no stranger to power, and the subject matter being the strongman Pinochet, the conception of the book was far from neutral. Fifteen thousand copies of the book were burned in Chile to stanch any possible damage it may bring to the regime.

Goldman also mentioned that the book never really produced a memorable scene or image that depicted the horrors of the military rule. This is debatable. It did seem that the narrative style of the book, which stuck to the individual voice of Littín, had filtered the horror to the extent that one reads a dry recounting of socio-political and historical events, not an anguished litany of abuses. García Márquez's nonfiction was consciously written in that style, as he explained in his introduction. In a way, the novelist acted as film editor to Littín's director, cutting out extraneous scenes from a very long interview, trying to work with what footage was available, and producing a whole picture out of the whole intrepid project of an exiled man – filmmaker, citizen, son – going home. The editor constrained himself with faithfulness to the vision of the filmmaker. His stylistic decision certainly did not give full dramatic mileage to the horrors of history which were somehow dampened by the nostalgic voice of his subject. Goldman added that one only need read Roberto Bolaño's novels Distant Star and By Night in Chile, in order to come face to face with evil perpetrated under Pinochet's rule. I agree. These two novels about Chile provide a richer canvas for understanding the uses and misuses of art for political ends.

Bolaño's immediate concerns in Distant Star and By Night in Chile are the heinous crimes perpetrated by writers in the name of literature and the collaboration of the Chilean literary establishment with the totalitarian regime. He employed in his fiction the registers of both the journalistic and the poetic. Like García Márquez, the journalistic was used to report objectively on unspeakable crimes. But Bolaño's treatment argued for an ethical dimension of literature, hence a more powerful discourse of evil was essayed. The merger of the journalistic with the poetic allowed Bolaño to dramatize his scenes and represent evil and its relationship to literature and politics as both palpable and paradoxical. His passionate engagement approached that of Littín's belief in his artistic enterprise.

Clandestine in Chile did contain some unforgettable stories. At least two incidents in the book illuminated how the Chileans reacted to violent abuses committed under the regime. A few months before Littín entered Chile, an opposition militant and sociologist named José Manuel Parada, along with two other activists, was kidnapped by military. Parada was an officer of Vicariate of Solidarity, which was critical of the government and was working for human rights. A few days after the kidnapping the bodies of the three men were found bearing the signs of torture; their throats were cut. Public outrage led to the resignation of the police commander believed to be the mastermind of the murders. At the end of this recollection, it was mentioned that the name of one of the streets leading to Plaza de Armas, the location of the vicariate, "was erased by an unknown hand and replaced with that of José Manuel Parada, the name by which it is now known."

The second incident told of a man named Sebastián Acevedo who set fire to himself after failing to find help in stopping the torture of his two children. His son and daughter were arrested by the authorities. As a result of this sacrificial act, the public was outraged and his children were eventually released from the torture chambers. Acevedo was able to speak to his daughter before he died. "Since that time," the story concluded, "the people of Concepción have had a secret name for the place of sacrifice: Plaza Sebastián Acevedo."

These stories showed that the laying down of life under the cloud of injustice is a sacred act that people do not take for granted. More importantly, it showed that people under the iron rule are not prevented to commemorate in order to honor those who were killed in the name of freedom and justice. In loud protest lies liberty and in the record of memory lies salvation. This was true for Chile then, and perhaps will be true for countries where dictatorships still prevail and where freedoms and rights are curtailed.

Here is one more passage where the novelist was able to capture Littín's speaking voice, where both filmmaker and editor were closely listening to the travails of another artist singing her soul – the whisper of a sweet song – bitter, tender. The speech evoked the blood of history as being perpetrated by the audience's disregard. We only finally listen when we recognize what we've lost.

I sat down on a bench to read the newspaper but my eyes ran over the lines without seeing them. What I felt just sitting there on that bright autumn morning was so intense that I couldn't concentrate. All at once, the twelve-o'clock cannon went off, the pigeons scattered in fright, and the notes of Violeta Parra's most moving song, "Gracias a la Vida," floated from the cathedral carillon. It was almost too much to bear. I thought of Violeta, of how often she had gone hungry and homeless in Paris, of her unfaltering dignity. The system had always rejected her, ignored her songs, and mocked her rebelliousness. A president had to die, gun in hand, Chile had to go through the bloodiest martyrdom of its history, and Violeta Parra had to die by her own hand before her country discovered the profound human truth and the beauty of her songs.

Clandestine in Chile is the December 2010 book selection of The Wolves (Richard, Emily, Sarah, Frances, E. L. Fay, and Claire). Also read by Stu and Lizzy. Check out The Wolves' lineup for 2011.

28 December 2010

20 December 2010

Favorite reads of the year 2010

2010 favorites

Mon/The Gate/Pa
Some Prefer Nettles
Guns, Germs and Steel
Death in Midsummer & Other Stories
The Last Samurai
The Jaguar and Other Stories
The Hare
The Insufferable Gaucho
Blow-Up and Other Stories
The Wild Geese

Ryan's favorite books »


1. Mon by Natsume Sōseki, tr. Francis Mathy

2. The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai, tr. Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein

3. Piercing by Murakami Ryū, tr. Ralph McCarthy

4. Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki Junichirō, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker

5. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

6. Death in Midsummer by Mishima Yukio, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker et al.

7. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

8. The Jaguar by João Guimarães Rosa, tr. David Treece

9. The Hare by César Aira, tr. Nick Caistor

10. The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews

11. Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn

12. Tres by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Erica Mena, unpublished translation

Books read in 2010:


16 December 2010

Reading list: Po-mo

"The thing about postmodernism is it's impossible to pin down exactly what might make a book postmodern," says the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. This, however, did not prevent them from compiling last year a list of essential postmodern works of literature.

A postmodernist work, according to them, contains at least 2 of the following attributes:

- thick (1,000+ pages)
- the author is a character
- self-contradicting plot
- distrusts/plays with form
- comments on its own bookishness
- plays with language
- pastiche of letters, lyrics, other books, etc.
- reality and fiction are blurred
- includes historical falsehood
- thin (less than 200 pages)
- po-mo progenitor

61 essential postmodern reads

Kathy Acker's "In Memorium to Identity"
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers"
Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"
Paul Auster's New York Trilogy
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine"
J.G. Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition"
John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy"
Donald Barthelme's "60 Stories"
John Berger's "G"
Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser"
Roberto Bolaño's "2666"
Jorge Luis Borges's "Labyrinths"
William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch"
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"
Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"
Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor"
Stanley Crawford's "Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine"
Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves"
Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street"
Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"
E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"
Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence"
Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana"
Dave Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"
Steve Erickson's "Tours of the Black Clock"
Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier"
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"
William Gaddis's "JR"
William Gass's "The Tunnel"
John Hawkes's "The Lime Twig"
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"
Shelley Jackson's "Skin"
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn"
Ben Marcus's "Notable American Women"
David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"
Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"
Joseph McElroy's "Women and Men"
Steven Millhauser's "Edwin Mullhouse"
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"
Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds"
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"
Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"
Philip Roth's "The Counterlife"
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"
Gilbert Sorrentino's "Mulligan Stew"
Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance"
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & II
Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"
Scarlett Thomas's "PopCo"
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"
David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"
Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"

Source: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/07/the-mostly-complete-annotated-and-essential-postmodern-reading-list.html

11 December 2010

"Dumating ang Takipsilim" (Mark Angeles)

Night Is Upon Him

It is such a secret place, this land of tears.
- The Little Prince

Night is upon him
without his expecting it.
And he decides to come back
to the garden, his secret garden—
a glimpse into his own territorial
discovery and embrace;
the garden of tears
which trace each crease
of dried leaves
falling delicately
in autumn season.

But the trees are not there
anymore, the cradle
that rocked him is not there,
the yellow bulbs that bore
the flowers are not there.
Everything is gone except
the red color of his face.

But he does not shed a tear.

He stands in the center
without pursing his lips
or blinking his eyes.

He stands in the center
and watches the waving
sadness taking shape
in the clouds. He watches
the early morning light,
the ceaseless stream
of life begging to escape
from his grasp.
Something seems not right in that place.
His spirit is leaving
from between his chest.
And everything around him
dissolves like his teeth.

Night falls and the wind blows
and the cold washes his face.
All the stars that night
smile at him. Millions
of distant stars smile
at him that night. The night
shines like broken glass
mixed with sand
and dried under the sun.

Night is upon him
without his expecting it
but he knows what it means.


10 December 2010

Conversation about a cathedral, 2

We play at believing ourselves immortal. We delude ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in hell.
- 2666

In his last interview for the Mexican Playboy, Roberto Bolaño was asked of his opinion of those who think he will win the Nobel Prize. “I am sure, dear Maristain, that I will not win it, as I am sure that some lazy person from my generation will win it and not even in passing mention me during his or her Stockholm speech.”

I’m not sure what Bolaño meant by a lazy person. Is that the same as a lazy writer? The present laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, is not of the same generation as Bolaño. Nor did he mention Bolaño in his Nobel lecture, though the Peruvian did harbor certain opinions of the Chilean.

It’s interesting nonetheless that two young writers from Peru, in talking about Vargas Llosa’s win, couldn’t help but speak of Bolaño in the same breath.

Bolaño is not of the same generation as Vargas Llosa’s. Bolaño is what came after. We would have to wait until 2020 – at least that’s the year Carlos Fuentes predicted, in his novel, that César Aira will win the Nobel – when a Latin American writer of the same generation as Bolaño will stand on a Swedish podium.

The last interview took place shortly before Bolaño’s death, and one can surmise that Bolaño was sure that he will not win it because “death is certain”, as he wrote between his teeth in Last Evenings on Earth. His first book to be translated in English, Shit Storms By Night in Chile, will not appear until the end of that year (2003). But for the life of him, posthumous fame will certainly not qualify him for any well-meaning award.

Not unless it was decided in Comala.

Bolaño could not have predicted Vargas Llosa’s win. Or maybe he just did. In the last piece in The Insufferable Gaucho (trans. Chris Andrews), in an essay called “The Myths of Cthulhu” (a fascinating essay wherein Bolaño gave a diagnosis of Latin American literature, but really a meandering, perhaps unfinished, yet very snobbish essay, snobbish in a bookish-snobbish way, an essay of the most wicked negative psychology), he differentiated the virtues (vices) of the bestselling writers (Pérez Reverte, Muñoz Molina, et al.) from those no one reads anymore (Puig, Arlt, et al.). In the same essay, he discussed how critics cling to old masters and what this implies for Latin American letters. And how much literature loves power too...

Today I read an interview with a famous and shrewd Latin American author. They ask him to name three people he admires. He replies: Nelson Mandela, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. With that answer as a starting point, you could write a whole thesis about the current state of Latin American literature. The casual reader might wonder what links those three figures. There is something that links two of them: the Nobel Prize. And there is something more that links all three: years ago they were all left wing…. All three have made way for deplorable heirs: the clear and entertaining epigones of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, and, in the case of Mandela, the indescribable Thabo Mbeki, the current president of South Africa, who denies the existence of AIDS. How could anyone name those three, without batting an eyelid, as the figures he most admires? Why not Bush, Putin and Castro? Why not Mullah Omar, Haider and Berlusconi? Why not Sánchez Dragó, Sánchez Dragó and Sánchez Dragó, disguised as the Holy Trinity?

And from there Roberto's own eyelids hit for low batting average.

08 December 2010

Don Q, via Cide Hamete Benengeli

Do we live in the age of translation?

Cervantes, an early instance of greatness in the "history" of the novel, has a ready answer in Don Quixote. The novel is presented as a translation by a Spanish-speaking Moor, from the Arabic of a certain historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli, of the history of the knight errant Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. While the unnamed narrator recounts this "translated" history, he constantly reminds us of this fact. At several junctures in the novel, the narrator interjects the (i) translator's and (ii) his own annotations of the Arab's version of the events. In Part II, for example, the narrator interrupts the story to say:

Cide Hamete, the chronicler of this great history, begins this chapter with the words: 'I swear as a Christian and as a Catholic ...'; to which the translator adds that when Cide Hamete swore as a Christian and a Catholic, being a Moor, as he most certainly was, he only meant to say that just as when the Christian and Catholic swears something he swears, or should swear, the truth, and he swears to tell the truth in everything he says, so Cide Hamete was also telling the truth, as if he were swearing as a Christian and a Catholic, in everything he wrote about Don Quixote ... [Part II, Chapter XXVII, tr. John Rutherford]

Ah, the truth! And then Cide Hamete (through the translator, via the narrator) goes on to discuss a seeming "inconsistency" of previous events in the first part of the history, specifically the theft of Sancho Panza's donkey by the convict Ginés de Pasamonte. The inconsistency arises presumably from the "printers' carelessness" that led to the omission of the incident in the publication of the first part of the history. This "has led many people to offer their opinions and blame the printing mistake on the author's poor memory."

It appears then Cervantes craftily introduces a mistake in this long and clumsy history, but its teller (Cide Hamete), its translator, and its narrator are there to set the record straight. The mistake acquires a new kind of significance as Ginés, now a puppeteer and master of a fortune-telling ape, becomes embroiled again in the glorious adventure of our knight errant and his squire.

In an article in The New York Times, novelist Michael Cunningham argues that the act of novel writing is an act of translation: "the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper." The sense of translation here is as an internal interpretation of the novelist's story before finally writing it down. This is for works in the original language. As for translated books: "The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation." Cunningham completes his idea:

Here, then, is the full process of translation. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. Some time later we have a translator struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. And then, finally, we have the reader. The reader is the least tortured of this trio, but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision.

In the case of the Quixote, a pack bag of postmodern tricks and a vessel of wit, the act of its translation is more assiduously mapped. The translator is translating a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. Confound the reader! To specify: the translator (Edith Grossman, or John Rutherford, or Burton Raffel, or Samuel Putnam, etc.) is translating a translation (by the unnamed narrator of the Quixote) of a translation (by the Moor who translates to Spanish) of a translation (by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli) of a translation (by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra). And lest we forget, the unnamed narrator is only the “second author” of the history, the “first author” being the one who was telling it right up to the section where the manuscript was supposedly truncated at the end of Part I, Chapter VIII.

In the case of Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", a ménage à trois between the novelist, translator, and reader is compounded by another interest, lost in flames. But that's for another post maybe.

To answer the question posed above, it may be best to quote again an interruption by our narrator regarding the integrity of Don Quixote's written history, demonstrating as it is how the telling of Truth in every History is ever so relative in every telling of it. At every remove, of the novelist from the story, of the translator from the source, of the teller from the tale, and of the reader from the page (not to mention the English translator's remove from the Spanish prose), the accumulation of subjective interpretations and authorial decisions is staggering.

It is said that in the original manuscript of this history one reads that when Cide Hamete came to write this chapter his translator did not render it as the Moor had written it, with some sort of complaint against himself for having undertaken such a dry and limited history as this one about Don Quixote, always feeling himself restricted to talking about him and Sancho, never daring to venture out into any digressions or more serious and entertaining episodes; and Cide Hamete added that to have his mind, his hand and his pen always constrained to writing about one subject and speaking through the mouths of so few characters was intolerable drudgery, which yielded nothing to the author's advantage, and that to avoid this problem he had in the first part had recourse to certain tales, like those of Inappropriate Curiosity and the Captive Captain, which stand, as it were, apart from the main story – although the other tales narrated there are events in which Don Quixote himself was involved and which could not be omitted. [Part II, Chapter XLIV]

And then the narrator went on to describe Cide Hamete's justifications for the apparent divergence of style between the first and second parts of the history. The translator and narrator of the Quixote both seem to be acting as apologists for the historian, smoothing out the wrinkles in the narrative, and justifying the choices and style of its composition. Cide Hamete is, at least according to the translator, undermining the very virtues of the history he is writing, stopping short of calling it “boring” in many places. These self-references constitute an assertion of the freedom of the “multiple storytellers” in Don Quixote to comment on the work at hand and play with realism, without which the story will indeed be just an assembly of “intolerable drudgery,” “a dry and limited history.”

I'm presently on page 792 of the book, which I'm reading intermittently since July as part of a group read, at Stu’s Winstonsdad's Blog. Obviously I was waylaid by other books and failed to stick to schedule.

(First posted in early form in Project Dogeared)

05 December 2010

Reading list: Writers' top 10

At year's end, most writers are asked by book sections of dailies and blogs to name their most favorite books read in that year. But then these writers have been reading all their lives; they can't help not to; their genes programmed them to do so. So I guess it will be more interesting to know what they did like in all those reading years of their reading lives. Which books made the deepest impressions, which masterpieces were presumably influential to their own writings.

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (edited by J. Peder Zane) is a book containing the top 10 favorite books-of-all-time of many writers. You can pick out your favorite writers, or any writer whose reading taste you want to try out, and see which books they love. The writers' top tens are available here:


Home page: http://toptenbooks.net/home.cgi

A writer is not what he reads, but some choices are quite personal as to tell something about the writer in question. A reader who looks at these lists may feel a certain sense of validation in knowing that novelist A loves this novel of writer B. John Banville and Peter Carey both included a book by Sebald, and that's enough for me. Claire Messud likes Thomas Bernhard. Great.

It can also go the other way. Aha, this writer likes books of this kind, I figure as much from her own insipid writing. Writers who are essentially "monotonous" in their top 10 selections can be easily spotted: Walter Kirn, Lorrie Moore, Scott Spencer, David Lodge.

Still, others like Jonathan Franzen chose books that are hardly new. Too academic, or too fond of the usual masterpieces: John Irving, Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates. I prefer writers who venture into underdog territories, who list books outside of the mainstream, like A. L. Kennedy.

Each reader's personal preference for certain genres can make him curious about the works of new writers he's never read before. It's good to know that Norman Mailer and David Mitchell loved Borges's Labyrinths. Fantastic, maybe I should finally try out a book by Mitchell.

For its diversity and for its inclusion of a favorite, Chad Post's book set gets my vote for the best writer's top 10. The worst top 10 for me is the one by DFW – an easy target. I'm sure DFW got his reasons for his "snobbish" choices.

Chad Post's top ten

1. Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
2. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
3. Act of the Damned by Antonio Lobo Antunes
4. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
5. Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec
6. Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig
7. VALIS by Philip K. Dick
8. Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley
9. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
10. Cigarettes by Harry Mathews

David Foster Wallace's top ten

1. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand by Stephen King
3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line by James Jones
5. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
8. Fuzz by Ed McBain
9. Alligator by Shelley Katz
10. The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy

You can also post your own top 10 in the site. I posted mine back in July.

P.S. Also in July, Peder ran a contest where one was asked to submit a top ten list of books inspired by Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual. The Prize: no less than the revised edition of the same book! Well, I won. I submitted two top 10 Life-inspired lists, which I'll share later here.

04 December 2010

Reading list: 10 "best-of" lists

December is the month of the "year's best books" lists. I'll post several of my own later. Meanwhile, here's a short list of lists of the "best _____ of the _____."

There are many canonical lists out there, but the ones here are popular ones. All attempt to rank or list books according to merit or comprehensiveness or their being essential/important. At least some try to cover an international range of books. The recent spate of publications and translations of neglected and forgotten works being brought out by progressive publishers, usually independent, ought to shake up most of these lists.

I've provided ratings for each list. Can I do that without reading most of the books in a certain list? Well, why not? It's a world swirling with ratings.

1. Books of the Century (New York Public Library)


My favorite list from among here. Mainly because of its great presentation. I like the categories they used to group the books.

Rating: 4/5 bookmarks

2. The top 100 books (fiction) of all time (Norwegian Book Clubs)


Released by the Norwegian Book Clubs. Based on the votes by 100 noted writers from 54 countries, so this may be fairly representative of international literature.

And yet every list with The Old Man and the Sea in it makes me wary.

Rating: 4/5 bookmarks

3. Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century


English-language novels only. Voted by Modern Library editorial board. (Don't bother with "The Reader's List" on the right side. The selection of some books there are indicative of malign imaginations amongst us.)

Rating of The Board's List: 3/5 bookmarks
Rating of The Reader's List: 0/5 bookmarks

4. Radcliffe Publishing Course's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century


An alternative to the Modern Library list. It falls short.

Rating: 1/5 bookmarks

5. TIME'S List of the 100 Best Novels in English (1923-2005)


English-language novels only. Chosen by two TIME critics. Not as solid as Modern Library’s (#3). Some entries are really just popular. It's obvious the two critics are not reliable taste makers.

Rating: 1/5 bookmarks

6. The 100 greatest novels of all time (The Observer)

They've listed some unusual titles in it.


Rating: 2.5/5 bookmarks

7. 100 novels everyone should read (The Telegraph)

A bit of an international selection.


Rating: 2.5/5 bookmarks

8. 110 best books: The perfect library (The Telegraph)


Various genres – classics, poetry, biographies, romance, sci-fi, crime, children's books, "books that changed the/your world", history

Rating: 2.5/5 bookmarks

9. Newsweek's Top 100 Books: The Meta-List

Derived from other lists. Newsweek is too lazy and unoriginal to make their own. They include lists from Oprah's Book Club and Wikipedia, so highly questionable. I can't find the link at the Newsweek site, but here's a blog that typed it up.


Newsweek also has its own Top 50. Can't find the link to that one.

Rating: 1/5 bookmarks

10. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

A killer list, so I'm not providing the link. You can search out for it. A list with such a stupendous number of books defies any rating. But I don't want lists playing safe. The whole enterprise is an exercise in futile inclusiveness.

Rating: 1.5/5

11. Reading list of St. John's College


Pages of great boring stuff. From the site: "The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading into the 19th and 20th centuries."

I'm stupefied by this list.

Rating: 2.5/5 bookmarks

Image from A Journey Round My Skull.

(Posted earlier in Shelfari)

What happens when poetry fell from the skies?

Poetry is Germany ... Poetry is Chile ...

Poetry from the sky?

This reminds me of the performance art in Distant Star, but in the opposite sense. This one is a real work of art.

from Berlin 'bombed' with poetry
Alison Flood, guardian.co.uk,

"Poetry rained from the skies on Saturday night in Berlin as 100,000 bookmarks printed with poems by 80 poets from Germany and Chile were dropped on the city from a helicopter.

"Lasting for half an hour, the initiative was intended as a protest against war and a message of peace, as well as a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the independence of Chile. It was the fifth "poetry rain" project from Chilean art collective Casagrande, which has arranged previous poetry bombing events in Santiago de Chile (2001), Dubrovnik (2002), Gernika (2004) and Warsaw (2009) - all cities which, like Berlin, have suffered aerial bombings during their history.

"Organisers say that just as wartime bombings were intended to "break the morale" of the inhabitants of a city, so the poetry bombing "'builds' a new city by giving new meaning to events of her tragic past and therefore presenting the city in a whole new original way"."

02 December 2010

Reading diary: November 2010

I'm inserting a widget from Goodreads so that I don't need to manually add the book covers every time I post my short reviews. Nifty. I just don't think black background complements the virtual shelf well.

Ryan's nov-2010 book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists

Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías, tr. Margaret Jull Costa

This is hard-going for me. Alas, after five books of Marías, it's still hard to get accustomed to his style. But then the late style is more stultifying than the previous digressive acts. I really liked the first volume (Fever and Spear) and yet this second one capitalizes on the same drudgery. The "Dance" chapter is a long boring set-up, but the suspense in the "Dream" part makes up for it. Needless to say, the concluding chapters of the third volume, "Poison", "Shadow", and Farewell" will make or break it for me.

The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig, tr. Michael Hofmann

A novel of WWII, with lots of combat action. Visceral, powerful writing that makes me think of the war films of Spielberg and Malick. It's one of those books that were neglected in its own time but really deserve a wider readership. NYRB publisher is to be thanked for bringing out these lost gems.

Read as part of the NYRB Reading Week. My full review is found here.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden

A fine example of magical realist novel. The story moves between the past and the present and between the worlds of the living and the dead. Imagine ghosts being haunted by ghosts!

It's too bad I don't have anything more to read by Rulfo. He wrote just two books and I already read the other one (The Burning Plain and Other Stories).

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier, tr. Lorin Stein -- reread

A reread of this memoir reveals several cracks in the exquisite vase but this remains a favorite piece of monologue. The hung-up and pathetic voice of its narrator, a French lover, is near pitch perfect. It's about how Grégoire Bouillier overcame his traumatic relationship breakup and his penchant for wearing turtlenecks.

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews

Seven pieces - 5 stories and 2 essays - by a "mythical" writer. The title story alludes to Borges. It's a posthumous collection but the stories are living stories, not dead, though they are often inhabited by zombies, or I should say zombie-like characters. I loved it. But then I'm partial to everything Bolañese.

Bolaño’s “powerful endorsement” of Andrés Neuman

An online-only excerpt from Roberto Bolaño's essay “Neuman, Touched by Grace” in Between Parentheses (2011, tr. Natasha Wimmer).


Andrés Neuman, from Argentina, is one of “The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” – the theme of the latest issue of Granta magazine.


The magazine is posting a profile of each of these “twenty-two literary stars of the future.”

All these writers are also profiled in Three Percent.


The excerpt is now added to our list of online works of Bolaño.


30 November 2010

Reading list: WLT's top 40

No, the compilation of lists isn't over yet. I'll have a couple of posts more. Bear with me.


On the occasion of their 75th anniversary, the World Literature Today magazine published their list of 40 most important works from 1927 to 2001. In terms of scope, this one appears to be a more focused list. It has a shorter time frame (75 years), for one. The coverage is also international and, thankfully, within the 20th century.

What I like about the list is that it's short. Only 40 titles, not the usual 100 best-of lists, not the 1001 that you have to scroll down before you die. Somehow, miraculously, 4 genres (poetry, fiction, drama, essays) are represented. And, so far as I can make out, more than half (23 titles) are books in translation. At least they somehow live up to the name of world literature. But how they came up with it is a mystery. It's an altogether brave, if flawed, list.


World Literature Today's top 40 most important works, 1927-2001

1927 To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf, England

1928 The Gypsy Ballads (Romancero gitano) - Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain

1928 The Tower - William Butler Yeats, Ireland

1929 The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner, United States

1931 The Turning Point (I strofi) - George Seferis, Greece

1933-47 Residence on Earth (Residencia en la tierra) - Pablo Neruda, Chile

1934 Independent People (Sjalfstaett folk) - Halldor Laxness, Iceland

1935-40 Requiem (Rekviem) - Anna Akhmatova, Russia

1941 Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) - Bertolt Brecht, Germany

1942 The Stranger (L'etranger) - Albert Camus, France

1943 The Four Quartets - T. S. Eliot, England/United States

1944 Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina

1945 "The Day Before Yesterday" [aka Only Yesterday] (Tmol shilshom) - S. Y. Agnon, Spain/Israel

1948 Snow Country (Yukiguni) - Yasunari Kawabata, Japan

1950 The Labyrinth of Solitude (El laberinto de la soledad) - Octavio Paz, Mexico

1952 Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot) - Samuel Beckett, Ireland

1952 Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison, United States

1952 The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway, United States

1952 In Country Sleep - Dylan Thomas, Wales

1953 The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) - Alejo Carpentier, Cuba

1956 The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Grande sertao: veredas) - Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Brazil

1956-57 The Cairo Trilogy (Al-Thulathiyya) - Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt

1957 Voss - Patrick White, England/Australia

1958 Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe, Nigeria

1958 The Guide - R. K. Narayan, India

1959 The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) - Gunter Grass, Germany

1961 A House for Mr Biswas - V. S. Naipaul, Trinidad

1961 The Book of Disquiet (Livro do desassossego) - Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

1962 The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing, Zimbabwe/England

1962 Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov, Russia/United States

1962 The Time of the Doves (La Placa del Diamant) - Merce Rodoreda, Spain

1962 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha) - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russia

1964 A Personal Matter (Kojinteki-na taiken) - Kenzaburo Oe, Japan

1966 Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 - W. H. Auden, England

1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien anos de soledad) - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia

1968 House Made of Dawn - N. Scott Momaday, United States

1972 Invisible Cities (Le citta invisibili) - Italo Calvino, Italy

1974 The Conservationist - Nadine Gordimer, South Africa

1978 Bells in Winter - Czeslaw Milosz, Poland

1987 Red Sorghum (Hung kao liang) - Mo Yan, China

Source: http://www.baylor.edu/english/index.php?id=45859

28 November 2010

"Ernesto Cardenal and I" (Roberto Bolaño)

I've added the link to the poem "Ernesto Cardenal and I" to "A guide to online writings of Roberto Bolaño." I somehow missed including this poem whose translation first appeared in Poetry magazine in 2008. The translator is Laura Healy, though she wasn't credited in the Poetry Foundation site. It's also in the collection The Romantic Dogs.

Ernesto Cardenal (b. 1925) was a Catholic priest and poet from Nicaragua. Bolaño also wrote about Cardenal in a flash essay in Between Parentheses (forthcoming in translation from New Directions). He considered him "one of Latin America's greatest poets."

26 November 2010

In Cebu

I was in Lahug, Cebu City, these past four days to attend a national workshop on coastal research and adaptive management for climate change. I was with two colleagues; each of us presented a paper. Mine was an ongoing study about a coral reef ecosystem-based model to estimate sustainable yields of live reef food fish.

At Mactan Airport before our flight back to Puerto Princesa, via a connection to Manila, I took some pictures of souvenir and delicacy shops. Guitars as colorful as jeepneys - each can cost up to 2,500 pesos inside the airport! Best to buy them in the city shops were they are cheaper. I bought half a kilo of dried ripe mangoes, of good quality and without the fluffy texture, the seller assured me. I also bought two kinds of local specialty biscuits: otap and piyaya. The seller was kind enough to tell me which brands to buy. The lechon (suckling pig) in one of the stalls was tempting too!

16 November 2010

"Papel, Gunting, Bato" (Mark Angeles)

Rock, Paper, Scissors
by Mark Angeles

Rock, Paper, Scissors:
try for a third of throws.
Which heart is yours?
The paper that flies away,
the scissors that shears away,
or the rock that crumbles down?

Rock, Paper, Scissors:
Which heart is yours?

- from Patikim ("First Taste")
Translated from Filipino

15 November 2010

Reading list: Winners of Best Translated Book Award

The Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) was created in 2007 by Three Percent, the international literature website of New York's University of Rochester. It is awarded in two categories: fiction and poetry. The inaugural awards in 2008 were chosen by popular vote of readers, while in the past two years the winners were chosen by a panel of judges.

All original translations published in the U.S. are qualified for the award. Re-translations and reprints are not eligible. The entries are judged for the "complete package" of the book, not only for the translation but for the work of the original writer, translator, editor, and publisher.
Below is the list of winners and finalists for the BTBA fiction category.



The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven (Israel, Melville House)
Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu


Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão (Brazil, Dalkey Archive Press)
Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira

The Discoverer by Jan Kjærstad (Norway, Open Letter)
Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland

Ghosts by César Aira (Argentina, New Directions)
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Russia, New York Review Books)
Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull

Rex by José Manuel Prieto (Cuba, Grove Books)
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

The Tanners by Robert Walser (Switzerland, New Directions)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (Netherlands, Archipelago Books)
Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas (Austria, Ariadne Press)
Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S Hansen

Wonder by Hugo Claus (Belgium, Archipelago Books)
Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim



Tranquility by Attila Bartis
Translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago)


2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions)
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

Voice Over by Céline Curiol (Seven Stories)
Translated from the French by Sam Richard

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans (Overlook)
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

Yalo by Elias Khoury (Archipelago Books)
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions)
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (New York Review Books)
Translated from the French by Richard Greeman

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (Melville House)
Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (New York Review Books)
Translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg

2010 translated fiction shortlist
2010 translated poetry finalists

14 November 2010

Reading list: Winners of Prix Femina Étranger

The Prix Femina is a French literary prize created in 1904 by 22 writers for the magazine La Vie heureuse (now known as Femina). The annual prize is decided by an exclusively female jury, although the authors of the winning works do not have to be women. The Prix Femina Étranger is the prize category awarded to foreign writers, starting from 1985. In the list of winning books below, some titles are in French or English.

Winners of the Prix Femina Étranger

2010 Puhdistus - Sofi Oksanen

2009 Maurice mit Huhn - Matthias Zschokke

2008 Chaos calme (Caos Calmo) - Sandro Veronesi

2007 Le goût de la mère (Mother's Milk) - Edward St. Aubyn

2006 L'Histoire de Chicago May (The Story of Chicago May) - Nuala O'Faolain

2005 The Falls - Joyce Carol Oates

2004 Sang impur (The Speckled People) - Hugo Hamilton

2003 La porte (The Door) - Magda Szabó

2002 Montedidio (God's Mountain) - Erri De Luca

2001 Mauvaise Pente (The Long Falling) - Keith Ridgway

2000 Mon Frère (My Brother) - Jamaica Kincaid

1999 Le Bouddha blanc (The White Buddha) - Hitonari Tsuji

1998 Pleine Lune (Plenilunio/Full Moon) - Antonio Muñoz Molina

1997 La Capitale déchue (The Abandoned Capital) - Jia Pingwa

1996 Demain dans la bataille, pense à moi (Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me) - Javier Marías

1995 Rouge décanté (Sunken Red) - Jeroen Brouwers

1994 Royaume interdit (Sacred Country) - Rose Tremain

1993 L'Enfant volé (The Child in Time) - Ian McEwan

1992 Talking It Over - Julian Barnes

1991 Ce vaste monde (The Great World) - David Malouf

1990 Matin perdu - Vergilio Ferreira

1989 La Vérité sur Lorin Jones (The Truth About Lorin Jones) - Alison Lurie

1988 La Boîte noire (Black Box) - Amos Oz

1987 Mouflets (Monkeys) - Susan Minot

1986 Bethsabée (Bathsheba) - Torgny Lindgren

1985 Michael K, sa vie, son temps (Life & Times of Michael K) – J. M. Coetzee


13 November 2010

Reading list: Winners of the Orange Prize for Fiction

The annual Orange Prize for Fiction is awarded to the woman who the judges think has written the best novel in English. It is open to any full length novel written in English by a woman of any nationality, and published for the first time in the UK. Translations of books from other languages are not considered for the prize. The prize is run by a Women’s Committee and administered by Booktrust, a national charity. The sponsor of the prize is Orange (www.orange.co.uk).

The Orange Prize is judged by five women from a variety of occupations (writers, critics, broadcasters, book trade or library representatives) and from other fields of work who are at the top of their profession and have a passion for reading.

Prizes: £30,000 and a limited edition bronze figurine called the 'Bessie' created by the artist Grizel Niven

Site: http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/home

Winners of the Orange Prize:

2010 The Lacuna Barbara Kingsolver

2009 Home Marilynne Robinson

2008 The Road Home Rose Tremain

2007 Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2006 On Beauty Zadie Smith

2005 We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver

2004 Small Island Andrea Levy

2003 Property Valerie Martin

2002 Bel Canto Ann Patchett

2001 The Idea of Perfection Kate Grenville

2000 When I Lived in Modern Times Linda Grant

1999 A Crime in the Neighbourhood Suzanne Berne

1998 Larry's Party Carol Shields

1997 Fugitive Pieces Anne Michaels

1996 A Spell of Winter Helen Dunmore

12 November 2010

Reading list: The 100 best Arabic books

Top 20 of the 100 best Arabic books, according to the Arab Writer's Union.


1. The Cairo Trilogy, by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. Trans. William Maynard Hutchins. Everyman’s Library, 2001.

2. In Search of Walid Masoud, by the Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Trans. Adnan Haydar & Roger Allen. Syracuse University Press, 2000.

3. Honor, by the Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim. Untranslated.

4. War in the Land of Egypt, by the Egyptian Yusuf al-Qa’id. Trans. Olive and Lorne Kenny and Christopher Tingley. Interlink, 1997.

5. Men in the Sun, by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani. Trans. Hilary Kilpatrick. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

6. The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, by Palestinian Emile Habibi. Trans. Salma Khadra Jayyusi. Interlink, 2001.

7. The Desolate Time, by Syrian author Haidar Haidar. Untranslated.

8. Rama and the Dragon, by the Egyptian Edward al Kharrat. Trans. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden. AUC Press, 2002.

9. Thus Spoke Abu Huraira, by the Tunisian author Mahmoud Messadi. Translated into French. Untranslated in English.

10. Beirut Nightmares, by Syrian author Ghada Samman. Trans. Nancy N. Roberts. Quartet Books, 1998.

11. The Animists, by Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni. Trans. Elliot Colla. AUC Press, 2012.

12. Tattoo, by Iraqi author Abdul Rahman Majeed al-Rubaie. Trans. Shakir Mustafa. Unpublished(?).

13. The Long Way Back, by Iraqi author Fouad Al-Takarli. Trans. Catherine Cobham. AUC Press, 2007.

14. The Sail and the Storm, by Syrian author Hanna Mina (aka Hanna Minah). Untranslated.

15. Zayni Barakat, by the Egyptian author Gamal al-Ghitani. Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab Mustafa. Penguin, 1990.

16: Gardens of the Night, a trilogy by Libyan author Ahmad Ibrahim al-Faqih. Quartet Books, 1995.

17. I Live, by Lebanese author Leila Baalbaki. Untranslated.

18. No One Sleeps in Alexandria, by Egyptian author Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab Mustafa. AUC Press, 2007.

19. Love in Exile, by Egyptian author Bahaa Taher. Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab Mustafa. AUC Press, 2001.

20. The Cycles of the East, by the Syrian novelist Nabil Suleiman. Untranslated.

See the rest of the 105 books in this great site here:



11 November 2010

Reading list: 25 greatest science books of all time

The essential science reading list according to the editors of DISCOVER Magazine. Published in the December 2006 issue.

1. and 2. The Voyage of the Beagle (1845) and The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin [tie]

3. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) by Isaac Newton (1687)

4. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei (1632)

5. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres) by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543)

6. Physica (Physics) by Aristotle (circa 330 B.C.)

7. De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius (1543)

8. Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein (1916)

9. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

10. One Two Three . . . Infinity by George Gamow (1947)

11. The Double Helix by James D. Watson (1968)

12. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger (1944)

13. The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan (1973)

14. The Insect Societies by Edward O. Wilson (1971)

15. The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)

16. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

17. The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (1981)

18. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks (1985)

19. The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1814)

20. The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (1963)

21. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred C. Kinsey et al. (1948)

22. Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1983)

23. Under a Lucky Star by Roy Chapman Andrews (1943)

24. Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665)

25. Gaia by James Lovelock (1979)

Honorable Mentions

1. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (1900)

2. The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas (1974)

3. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)

4. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (1962)

5. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

6. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

7. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (1999)

8. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (1986)

Source: http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/25-greatest-science-books/

10 November 2010

The Stalin Front (Gert Ledig)

The Stalin Front, also published as The Stalin Organ, by Gert Ledig (1921-1999) is a novel about Russo-German fighting during World War II. It was first published in German in 1955, sixteen years after the author volunteered in the army. The English translation by Michael Hofmann appeared only recently in 2004. The novel constitutes Ledig's graphic reminiscences of the war. Its imagery brings to my mind recent war films like Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg and The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick.

The novelist must have an acute memory to be able to indelibly register such brutal and cruel moments of war - but what else to expect of bloody wars - or else an abnormal capacity to absorb the violence. The mess and chaos are sustained throughout the entire book in a visceral, realistic, and natural prose style. Consider the opening scenes in the prologue:

The Lance-Corporal couldn't turn in his grave, because he didn't have one. Some three versts from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.

   The NCO who was writhing on the ground with a piece of shrapnel in his belly, had no idea what was keeping his machine-gunner. It didn't occur to him to look up. He had his hands full with himself.

Such is the cinematic power of Ledig's novel that the words paint battle scenes in color, albeit the gray and brown and black colors of smoking tanks, muddy fields, and filthy uniforms, and the deep red color of blood spurting like merry fountains. More than reading a shooting script or screenplay, the reader seems to be watching the whole thing unfold on the big screen. The sound effects are deafening; the chamber music is literally absent; the editing is sharply executed. The pauses and the silences in between the hail of bullets do not give respite to the viewer. Instead they provoke a heightened sense of danger. The novel replicates the dread, boredom, over-fatigue, and nervous breakdown in a large modern scale war.

The story follows a group of soldiers as they try to either defend their position in the front or to attack the enemy. The "Stalin organ" refers to the automatic weapon (multiple rocket launcher) used by the Russian side to efficiently wipe out the Germans. Ledig picks up both points of view of the Russian and German soldiers that the reader is sometimes confused which side he is reading about. Eventually it dawns on us that it doesn't matter whether the story told is that of the German or the Russian side. Humanity has the same face and every one is interchangeable. Every man is an everyman whose life is readily extinguished by a bullet or bayonet.

The story is broken into short chapters that show the characters in the midst of combat and deliberating moral choices that test and define their physical and moral resilience. The characters, instead of being called by their names, are often reduced to their ranks (i.e., the Lance-Corporal, the Runner, the Sergeant, the Major, the Captain). Michael Hoffman, the translator of the novel from the German, mentioned in his introduction that he purposely capitalized the ranks of the characters to make them more distinct from each other. This stylistic choice of substituting ranks to names allows for easy recognition of the characters. One can imagine the difficulty of trying to ascertain the identities of soldiers through all the chaos and wasteland. This choice of the translator, however, may have undermined Ledig's apparent vision of the universality of men. That, again, every man is everyone in war, and each soldier (the lance-corporal, the runner, the sergeant, the major, the captain) slides into anonymity in the face of annihilation. Each may be acting according to his rank, with winning the war as the primary objective, but this is superseded by a more pressing individual concern, which is the concern of all: to survive, to preserve one's critically endangered life.

I bought this book on the strength of W. G. Sebald's blurb at the back of the NYRB edition. The blurb is taken from Sebald's essay "Air War and Literature," from the book On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald's essay takes to task the postwar German writers for failing to record the destruction wrought by wars. For Sebald, the books of Ledig, as well as that of Heinrich Böll and Peter Weiss, among others, are a rare exception to this apparent defect in the German letters. Sebald champions the kind of novels that speak plainly and precisely, and with unpretentious objectivity, as opposed to novels full of "aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects." He favors the concrete and documentary style of writing over the abstract and imaginary. For Sebald, accounts of suffering must be commensurate to the magnitude of the human loss; these are the kind of novels worth writing about in the face of total destruction.

What particularly sets Ledig's first novel apart from other stories of modern war and conflict is its own sense of the poetic injustice of men fighting fellow men, its cast-iron sense of irony, and its non-compromised portrayal of a "natural history of destruction." The natural history of war, in its literal sense, can pertain to a respect for Nature and the idea of war as a direct assault against it. This is achieved through poetic engagement with the natural world and the senseless plight of human beings in this theater. One can think of the images of the flowing grass and the wildlife in The Thin Red Line, but with less gratuitous intent as the images are part of or combined in the action. The insects and the trees have their own cameo roles in the novel:

   As soon as he entered the wood, he felt alone. The brush, the birch trunks - everything was silent. The log-road, built by Russian soldiers who had long since died of starvation or been shot, swayed silently underfoot. A swarm of mosquitoes danced over a dead body in the murky puddle in the clearing. A beetle in shining armour dragged a blade of grass across the path. A ring of scorched grass, an uprooted tree and a pile of broken boughs indicated that death had been at work, days previously, just yesterday, or even a matter of hours ago. A few sunbeams managed to break through the leaves and reach the ground. . . .
Men, together with their misplaced intelligence, play their tragic roles in theaters of war: to fight the other side to the death. The war rages on while, all around the very brave and noble and heroic combatants, millions of other species - lowly plants and animals - get on with their lives. Whether they are uprooted or remain rooted to the spot, the trees in the forest stand at attention in their precarious positions, awaiting their decimation. Yet the natural world is implacable in the face of material and human loss - the millions of human lives lost.

In The Stalin Front, wars are shown as machines that reduce humanity and nature into useless objects. Wars are shown for what in the first place they amount to: lost causes. The novel builds an argument for literature as a corrective to this dark history. It asks the same question that the purveyors of war never get to answer sufficiently. Why, after the curtain falls on these theaters of the past, do people today still want to engage in the same acts of destruction?

I read this book as part of the ongoing NYRB Reading Week (7-13 November 2010). This week of reading and reviewing great books is spearheaded by Honey at Coffespoons and Mrs. B at The Literary Stew. This is also part of the "NYRB Reading Plan" that I made back in January, in which I aimed to read at least 5 books published by NYRB this year. This is the 3rd NYRB book I read, after The Engagement by Georges Simenon and Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati.