28 September 2010

Reading diary: June 2010

JUNE 2010

35. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishapur by Edward FitzGerald

Some great dazzling quatrains. I'm surprised to see this book as one of "50 best cult books." I'm very tempted to share my favorite quatrains. In another post, maybe.

36. The Double Helix by James D. Watson

Science is fallible and human and, in certain moments, sublime. The Double Helix attests to this. It is a memoir of scientific discovery, but reads like a novel because of the suspense and the witty voice of Dr. Watson. His breakthrough on DNA structure is told without sanitizing the events. He just tells it as it is and in a very candid way. Science can be fun.

37. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

For the common reader, a very friendly source book of literary concepts and devices (e.g., metafiction, intertextuality, magical realism vs. surrealism, interior monologue vs. stream of consciousness, allegory vs. symbolism). Prof. Lodge made it look as if these aspects of fiction can be easily spotted in a book. The discussion of quoted passages from novels is very informative, except when Prof. Lodge discusses his own works. This is a big turn-off for me and so I'm never curious to put his books in TBH (to-be-had pile). Overall, it's a useful book on fiction fundamentals.

38. Yes by Thomas Bernhard, trans. Ewald Osers

The lack of paragraph breaks must be a European/Latin American quirk. Bernhard, Sebald, Saramago, Marías, Bolaño. Every one of them seems to be rebelling against narrative form. It must be some kind of political statement. Yes is one of Bernhard's relentless rants. There is something oddly uplifting in the whole exercise. Bernhard's cantankerous sensibility will either disarm or repel the reader. I am solidly in the first camp.

27 September 2010

Reading diary: May 2010

May must be my lucky month. I read the most number of books on May: 11 in all. Granted, most of them are short ones, but I was able to read for the first time authors like Ōe, Rulfo, and Lispector.

MAY 2010

24. Two Novels: J ; Seventeen by Ōe Kenzaburo, trans. Luk Van Haute

It's my introduction to Ōe and he certainly had an interesting take on the interplay of sex/politics and private/public life. The two novels deal with sexual perverts and how they become entangled with the politics of the day. They were said to cause a sensation when they were first published in Japan in the early 60s. They still maintain their shock value in terms of graphic descriptions. I'm hoping that Ōe will allow the publication of "A Political Youth Dies", the sequel to Seventeen, which he apparently suppressed because it angered extreme right-wingers and he was uncertain about the style and content of the book. He was like Murakami Haruki in the self-censorship aspect, but they have different motivation for censoring their own works. Haruki's motivation was aesthetic (he thinks his two early novels were too juvenile) while Ōe's was aesthetic and political (the rightists threw stones at his house, the leftists accuse him of betrayal).

My full review of this book can be found here.

25. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, trans. Michael Hulse -- reread

This novel is an amalgam of memoir, travel, and literary biography. On the surface of it, it recounts a man’s journey into Suffolk County, England, observing the destruction of countryside around him. The pervading tone is melancholia, but with small doses of black humor. A quirky novel and a sublime reflection on history. Its deeper currents intersect with horrible acts in history.

I wrote several blog posts and chapter summaries on this book:
The Rings of Saturn: The anatomy lesson
The Rings of Saturn: Somerleyton Hall
The Rings of Saturn: Herring, swine here, sand martins
The Rings of Saturn: Theater of war
The Rings of Saturn: Heart of darkness
The Rings of Saturn: Very the last stop
The Rings of Saturn: Silk

26. Maigret and the Madwoman by Georges Simenon, trans. Eileen Ellenbogen

Having sampled one of Simenon's romans durs (The Engagement), I tried one of his Maigret mysteries. It's a police procedural that courts the literary fence with its gritty portrait of human motives. Based on this novel alone, Inspector Maigret is a multi-layered character, without the foppish frills of a Monsieur Poirot. I would like to see more of Maigret on the page.

27. The Mirror of Ink by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Andrew Hurley

This is one of those 70 Pocket Penguins anniversary editions which are culled from longer works. It's a sampling of a few short stories from Collected Fictions. Borges is better absorbed in small doses. Some of the memorable stories included here are "The Lottery of Babylon" and sudden fiction like "Ragnarök." It's just a pity that the name of the translator was not recognized in any of its pages.

28. The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

It's about the search for the missing 400-year old painting "The Taking of Christ" by Caravaggio. I can't tear myself away from it as it's so full of suspense and revelations. Overall, a goodly entertainment for a nonfiction.

29. Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati, trans. Marina Harss

This comic strip has been called "avant-garde." It's a play on the myth of Orpheus descending. I like how the chorus of sexy girls suddenly break into poem and dance numbers.

30. Therefore Repent! by Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam

This completely lost me. A version of the end of times that is as depressing as its illegible drawings.

31. The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo, trans. George D. Schade

Very exacting stories. Rulfo wrote only two books in his lifetime. The other is the acclaimed Pedro Páramo. This collection of 15 short stories is an excursion into an inhospitable environment. Rulfo immerses you into the ugly and banal side of human nature. It's full of conflicts and peopled by criminals, adulterers, and rebels. The strange thing is that despite the ugliness described, the beauty of the writing comes across very well. It must be hard to balance this kind of thing.

A collection of 15 well-crafted stories about the human-landscape nexus. The setting is the Plain of Mexico, a barren wasteland where the drama of human conflicts play out. It's man against man, often with ugly consequences. It's also man against the environment, where natural elements are impossible to tame. The writing is altogether beautiful even if the descriptions are of the ugly and banal side of human relationships.

32. Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland

A mix of short poems and sudden fiction that blend in a mysterious harmony. The writing of Borges in Dreamtigers is charged with the same fire as the flaming tiger of William Blake. Not a minor work by any means, it aspires to a fearful symmetry of ideas, the stripe of dreams.

33. Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Chris Andrews

Early Bolaño that is not at par with the latter books. The book is soaked in an atmosphere of light and darkness, fear and dread. Disorientation.

I wrote a short review here.

34. The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector, trans. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz

My first book by Clarice and I'm not impressed. Plotless. It's an experimental short novel about a painter writing whatever thought comes her way. One can interpret it as a manifesto on embracing freedom, happiness, and spontaneity. Well and good. Only this kind of stream of consciousness narrative can be a bit jarring. Yes, poetic, more like an outpouring of fine writing, a stream of soul. But in places it just registers empty words. It is very self-conscious and very aware of that fact. I don't like it. But I'm not closing my doors on Clarice yet. The Stream of Life is just an overwhelming introduction.

26 September 2010

"The Slaughter of the Ponies" (João Guimarães Rosa)

     "I'll bet they're killing our ponies!"
     And the hell of it was, they were. The corral was full up with our mounts and the poor horses were trapped, hardy and blameless as they were; and they, the damned dogs, with no fear either of God or the law in their hearts, outdid themselves to torment and plunder—as if they were tearing our hearts from our bodies—firing into our ponies, to right and left! It made you sick to see such a sight. Bobbing up and down—somehow understanding, without knowing for sure, that the devil had been turned loose in their midst—the horses whirled crazily around and around, galloping in fits and starts. Some of them reared up on their hind legs and pawed the air with their front hoofs, and fell on top of one another, and tumbled in a whirling jumble. And some with their heads held high in the air beat the necks of others, shaking their stiff and prickly manes: they seemed no more than twisted, curved lines! Their whinnying came as it clutched at their hearts: a shrill, brief cry, if neighed out of rage; short also, but deep and hoarse, if neighed out of fear, like the shriek of a wildcat, blasted from flared nostrils. They spun madly about the enclosure, colliding with the stakes as they ran wild, kicking in frenzied welter. What we were seeing was like an infinity of wildly fluttering wings. They raised dust from the very stones! Then they began to fall flat on the ground, their legs widespread, holding up only their jaws or forelocks: their bodies rippled. They began to fall, nearly all of them, and finally all. Those that were slow to die whinnied in pain. From some it was a piercing, snorted groan, almost as if they were speaking. From still others a constrained whine in the teeth, uttered with great difficulty. That whinny was not breathed out as the animal gave up its strength; it was squeezed out as the animal gasped for its final breath.

This long quote comes from the first paragraphs of an excerpt published in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature, Volume II: The Twentieth Century – from Borges and Paz to Guimarães Rosa and Donoso (1977), edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie. The excerpt is titled "The Slaughter of the Ponies," one of the "Two Texts" by João Guimarães Rosa included in the anthology; the other is the short story "The Third Bank of the River."

The two texts are prefaced by a long introduction on the life and works of Guimarães Rosa. The introduction mentions near the end that: ' "The Slaughter of the Ponies,' is taken from Grande Sertão and is one of the episodes eliminated from the U.S. translation [emphasis added].' The U.S. translation is The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, published by Knopf in 1963.

The text of the "Slaughter of the Ponies" (pp. 683-686 of the anthology) is attributed as taken from "Grande Sertão: Verédas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), especially translated by Jack E. Tomlins." It's not clear whether Tomlins was credited for the U.S. translation (a clear mistake) or to the excerpt itself (possibly a mistake too, according to Gregory Rabassa below).

In his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (2005), Gregory Rabassa sustained the assertion that the text was left out in the U.S. translation:

[Grande Sertão] had already been translated but a lot had been slurred over and a lot had been left out. When Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie were putting together their Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature they both agreed on the chunk of Grande Sertão that would give the best sense of the book as a whole. Since a good part of their anthology made use of extant translations they went to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and found that their sought-after selection had been one of the many parts left out. Tom Colchie had to do his own translation, which stands out when held against the purported version. [pp. 71-72]

This claim, that the slaughter of the ponies was not included in the Taylor-De Onís translation, turns out to be false. The incident occurs in pages 280-284 of the book. The same opening paragraph reads:

     "Look, they are killing the horses!"
     Damned if they weren't. The corral filled with our good horses, the poor things imprisoned there, all so healthy, they were not to blame, and those dogs, with neither fear of God nor justice in their hearts, were firing right and left into that living mass, to torture and sear our souls! What an appalling sight. Realizing without understanding that the devil was at work, the frantic horses galloped around, rearing and pawing and coming down with their front hoofs on the backs of others, stumbling, colliding, their heads and necks stretched, their manes stiffly flying: they were just a lot of writhing curves! They were whinnying, too—high, brief whinnies of anger, and whinnies of fear, short, hoarse, as when a wildcat snarls through wide-open nostrils. Round and around they went, bumping into the fence, kicking, scattering, panic-stricken. They began falling, sprawled on the ground, spreading their legs, only their jaws or foreheads held upright, trembling. They were falling, nearly all, then all of them. Those slow to die were crying in pain—a high snorting groan, some as if they were talking, others whickering through their teeth, struggling with their last breath, gasping, dying.

This section is indeed one of the most memorable parts of the book and shows why Guimarães Rosa is considered a writer of descriptive power. The incident described runs for a few more paragraphs. In it, Guimarães Rosa evokes at once cruelty and sympathy—disgust at the suffering of animals at the hands of men, and men's genuine compassion for them.

Rabassa's observation that a lot had been left out may be true, but this particular incident at least is not one of them. However, it is clear from the length of the extracts that the Taylor-De Onís translation compresses a lot of the phrases and sentences compared to the earlier quoted Tomlins/Colchie translation. In the penultimate paragraph of the excerpt itself, the Tomlins/Colchie translation contains several sentences that are not present in the Taylor-De Onís translation. Other than that, the whole incident in the U.S. translation corresponds well with the Borzoi anthology excerpt, albeit in shortened form. This indicates that the U.S. translation possibly used a minimalist strategy that affected the lyricism and verbosity in the prose style of Guimarães Rosa. The minimalist prose has its charms but could alter the perception of a writer known for his verbal skills and wordplays.

To further illustrate whether the Tomlins/Colchie translation really stands out when compared to the Taylor-De Onís translation, perhaps it's best to quote the ending of the Borzoi extract and its counterpart to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands:

Tomlins/Colchie translation:

     The flow of time during those days and nights got choked and snagged in confusion: it was all directed toward one final horror. It was a block of time within time. We were trapped inside that house, which had become an easy target. Do you know how it feels to be trapped like that and have no way out? I don't know how many thousands of shots were fired: it was all echoing around my ears. The shots continued dizzily whining and popping and cracking. With walls and plaster still standing around us, the beams and tiles of another man's ancestral home set themselves up between us and them as our only defense. I can tell you—and I say this to you so you'll truly believe it—that old house protected us grudgingly: creaking with complaint, its dark old rooms fumed. As for me, I got to thinking that they were going to level the whole works, all four corners of the whole damn property. But they didn't. They didn't, as you are soon to see. Because what's going to happen is this: you're going to hear the whole story told. . . .

Taylor-De Onís translation:

     Those days and nights went by in sluggish confusion, directed toward one single terrible objective. Time took on a different rhythm. We inhabited a roofed and walled target. Do you know what it is to be holed up like that? I don't know how many thousands of rounds were fired—my ears were filled with the dizzying noise, the constant whining, popping, cracking. The plastered walls, the beams and tiles of the big old house, these were our shield. One could say—and I want you to believe me—that the entire house felt outraged, creaking complaints, and smoldering with rage in its dark corners. As for me, I thought it was just a matter of time before the whole thing would be razed and nothing left but the bare ground.  But it did not happen that way, as you will soon see. Because you are going to hear the entire story.

23 September 2010

Brazil 50

The top 50 Brazilian novels of the previous century, as chosen by a panel of eight experts from Rio and São Paulo.

The list was compiled by Rio's weekly magazine Manchete in 1998.

This link gives a brief description of each book:


The top 3 novels are:

Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa
Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade
Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma by Lima Barreto

I tried to track down the titles of English translations. Those I found online were given below the titles in Portuguese. It appears that some 12 books remain untranslated. I'm not sure I found everything, so I welcome any correction.


1. Grande Sertão: Veredas, João Guimarães Rosa
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís

2. Macunaíma, Mário de Andrade
Macunaíma, trans. E.A. Goodland

3. Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma, Lima Barreto
The Patriot, trans. Robert Scott-Buccleuch

4. São Bernardo, Graciliano Ramos
São Bernardo, trans. Robert Scott-Buccleuch

5. O Tempo e o Vento, Érico Veríssimo
Time and the Wind, trans. L. L. [Linton Lomas] Barrett

6. Memorial de Maria Moura ("Memoirs of Maria Moura"), Rachel de Queiroz

7. Menino de Engenho, José Lins do Rego
Plantation Boy, trans. Emmi Baum

8. Fogo Morto ("Dead Fire"), José Lins do Rego

9. Memórias Sentimentais de João Miramar, Oswald de Andrade
[?]Sentimental Memoirs of John Seaborne, trans. Ralph Niebuhr and Albert Bork

10. Vidas Secas, Graciliano Ramos
Barren Lives, trans. Ralph Edward Dimmick

11. Angústia, Graciliano Ramos
Anguish, trans. L. C. Kaplan

12. Esaú e Jacó, Machado de Assis
Esau and Jacob, trans. Elizabeth Lowe

13. O Coronel e o Lobisomem ("The Colonel and the Werewolf"), José Cândido de Carvalho

14. O Quinze ("1915"), Rachel de Queiroz

15. A Bagaceira, José Américo de Almeida
Trash, trans. R.L.S-. Buccleuch

16. Quarup ("Quarup—Indian ceremony for the dead"), Antônio Callado
Quarup, trans. Barbara Shelby

17. O Encontro Marcado, Fernando Sabino
A Time to Meet, trans. John Procter

18. O Amanuense Belmiro, Ciro dos Anjos
Diary of a Civil Servant, trans. Arthur Brakel

19. A Menina Morta ("The Dead Girl"), Cornélio Pena

20. Os Ratos ("The Rats"), Dionélio Machado

21. Crônica da Casa Assassinada ("Chronicle of the Assassinated House"), Lúcio Cardoso

22. As Meninas, Lygia Fagundes Telles
The Girl in the Photograph, trans. Margaret A. Neves

23. Serafim Ponte Grande, Oswald de Andrade
Seraphim Grosse Pointe, trans. Kenneth D. Jackson and Albert Bork

24. Os Sertões, Euclides da Cunha
Rebellion in the Backlands, trans. Samuel Putnam
Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, trans. Elizabeth Lowe

25. Capitães da Areia, Jorge Amado
Captains of the Sands, trans. Gregory Rabassa

26. Incidente em Antares ("Incident in Antares"), Érico Veríssimo

27. Recordações do Escrivão Isaías Caminha ("Recollections of Clerk Isaías Caminha"), Lima Barreto

28. Perto do Coração Selvagem, Clarice Lispector
Near to the Wild Heart, trans. Giovanni Pontiero

29. Terras do Sem Fim, Jorge Amado
The Violent Land, trans. Samuel Putnam

30. Jubiabá, Jorge Amado
Jubiabá, trans. Margaret A. Neves

31. Gabriela Cravo e Canela, Jorge Amado
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, trans. James L. Taylor and William Grossman

32. Mar Morto, Jorge Amado
Sea of Death, trans. Gregory Rabassa

33. O Vampiro de Curitiba, Dalton Trevisan
The Vampire of Curitiba and Other Stories, trans. Gregory Rabassa

34. A Pedra do Reino ("The Kingdom's Stone"), Ariano Suassuna

35. Maira, Darcy Ribeiro
Maira, trans. E. H. Goodland and Thomas Colchie

36. Ópera dos Mortos, Autran Dourado
Voices of the Dead, trans. John M. Parker

37. Avalovara, Osman Lins
Avalovara, trans. Gregory Rabassa

38. Mundos Mortos ("Dead Worlds"), Octavio de Faria

39. Canaã, Graça Aranha
Canaan, trans. Mariano Joaquín Lorente

40. Memórias de Lázaro, Adonias Filho
Memories of Lazarus, trans. Fred P. Ellison

41. Galvez, o Imperador do Acre, Márcio Souza
The Emperor of the Amazon, trans. Thomas Colchie

42. Os Corumbas ("The Forgotten"), Amando Fontes

43. A Paixão Segundo GH, Clarice Lispector
The Passion According to G.H., trans. Ronald Sousa

44. Zero, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão
Zero, trans. Ellen Watson

45. A Estrela Sobe ("The Star Rises"), Marques Rebelo

46. Quase Memória ("All But Memory"), Carlos Heitor Cony

47. O Púcaro Búlgaro ("The Bulgarian Mug"), Campos de Carvalho

48. A República dos Sonhos, Nélida Piñon
The Republic of Dreams, trans. Helen Lane

49. Sargento Getúlio, João Ubaldo Ribeiro
Sergeant Getúlio, trans. João Ubaldo Ribeiro

50. A Grande Arte, Rubem Fonseca
High Art, trans. Ellen Watson

22 September 2010

Aphorisms of João Guimarães Rosa

The following link goes to my contribution to a contest ran by A Missing Book: On The Devil To Pay In The Backlands, or Grande Sertão: Veredas. It's about some great quotes from the Brazilian novel.


The Makioka Sisters (Tanizaki Junichirō)

I recently finished The Makioka Sisters by the Japanese novelist Tanizaki Junichirō. It was translated into English by Edward G. Seidensticker. This was the second book of Tanizaki that I've read. I was on and off it in the last three months, following the schedule of Tanabata who hosted a group readalong at In Spring it is the Dawn.

After Some Prefer Nettles [review], I was eager to follow up my reading of Tanizaki. The Makioka Sisters was considered his masterpiece for its scope of characters and broad cultural canvas. I'm not going to give a full review of the book. All the images are still floating in my head. After putting down the book, I find myself spent on good writing, as if I was drinking cup after cup of saké. I was drunk with Japanese culture and with the intensity of feelings embodied by the characters. Let me just say that characterization is Tanizaki's greatest strength. He thrived on the quirks of his characters and every plot twist and development he pulled was tied closely to the actions of his characters. The beauty of the novel derived in part with the important period it covers--Japan right before the second world war. As with Some Prefer Nettles, we witness here a direct confrontation between the old and the new, the conventional beliefs and the modern temperaments. We get a front seat to the shifting mores of Japan at the eve of the war, of the transformations the characters undergo as they face significant events that define the course of their lives as members of an extended family. The portrait of Japanese aristocracy enacted by Tanizaki was a portrait in transition. It was a momentary glimpse of fickle destinies unfolding over time. It was an experience.

For the many cultural references in the book, I refer you to the three-part post at In Spring it is the Dawn [Book One; Book Two; Book Three]. In it you'll find some useful contexts contained in the book.

13 September 2010

A guide to online writings of Roberto Bolaño

(Updated Aug. 2013)

This is a compilation of the links to Roberto Bolaño’s writing that were made available online. The works are limited only to translations in English.


from Last Evenings on Earth, trans. Chris Andrews

"Sensini", The Barcelona Review

"A Literary Adventure" [audio], Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

"Phone Calls", New Directions website
Also translated by Mark Schafer for Grand Street (reproduced here)

"Last Evenings on Earth", The New Yorker

"Gómez Palacio", The New Yorker
"Gómez Palacio" (audio), read by Daniel Alarcón, The New Yorker fiction podcast 

"Dance Card", PEN American Center

from The Return, trans. Chris Andrews

"William Burns", The New Yorker
Audio reading/podcast can be downloaded here or here.

"Clara", The New Yorker
"Clara" (audio), read by Francisco Goldman, The New Yorker fiction podcast 

"Prefiguration of Lalo Cura", The New Yorker

"Meeting with Enrique Lihn", The New Yorker

from The Insufferable Gaucho, trans. Chris Andrews

"The Insufferable Gaucho", The New Yorker

"Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey", The New Yorker

from Between Parentheses

"Beach", trans. Riley Hanick

from The Secret of Evil, trans. Chris Andrews

"Scholars of Sodom", NYRblog
"Labyrinth", The New Yorker
"I Can't Read", Harper's
"The Tour", trans. Guillermo Parra

from Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews

"The Mendiluce Clan", The Virginia Quarterly Review

"The Many Masks of Max Mirebalais", Words Without Borders

"The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys", Bookforum


from The Romantic Dogs

"Self Portrait at Twenty Years", trans. Laura Healy, The Threepenny Review

"Resurrection", trans. Laura Healy (reproduced here)

"Ernesto Cardenal and I", trans. Laura Healy, Poetry Foundation site

"The Worm", trans. Laura Healy, New Directions website

"The Front Line", "The Detectives", "The Lost Detectives", "The Frozen Detectives", trans. Laura Healy (reproduced here)

"Visit to the Convalescent", trans. Laura Healy, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities

"Godzilla in Mexico", trans. Laura Healy (reproduced in Periódico de Poesía and in The Guardian); also trans. B. H. Boston, Poetry International

"My Life in the Tubes of Survival", trans. Laura Healy, Boston Review

from Antwerp, trans. Natasha Wimmer

"Praise to the highways", Harper's

Excerpt, Scribd

from The Unknown University

"Roberto Bolaño’s Devotion", trans. Laura Healy, NYRBlog

"A Fly Inside a Fly a Thought Inside a Thought and Mario Santiago Inside Mario Santiago", trans. Laura Healy, Boston Review

"Mexican Manifesto", trans. Laura Healy, The New Yorker

"When Lisa Told Me", trans. Laura Healy, The Paris Review

"Victory", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Now your body is shaken by...", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Gypsies", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Post Scriptum", trans. Guillermo Parra

"I’ll give you an abyss, she said...", trans. Guillermo Parra

"A Sonnet", trans. Guillermo Parra

"The Lost Detectives", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Applause", trans. Tim Pilcher

"All the Wind", trans. Tim Pilcher

from Tres, trans. Laura Healy

"Tales of the Autumn in Gerona" [excerpt], trans. Erica Mena, Words Without Borders

"16 poems" [excerpt, limited-time preview], BOMB
Also linked here

"Excerpts from A Stroll Through Literature", Aldus

"Table Talk", The Threepenny Review

"Laura Healy reads for U35 at the Mass Poetry Festival" (video), YouTube


"I Never Went to Blanes" by Diego Trelles Paz, trans. Carolina De Robertis, n+1

" 'Dear Ruffinelli': My Private Correspondence (Just One Letter) with Roberto Bolaño (The Secret Life of a Uruguayan Poet)" by Jorge Ruffinelli, excerpted and translated by Max McClure and Alice Nam, The Claw Magazine

"One Classic, One Modern: The Brief Correspondence of Roberto Bolaño and Enrique Lihn" by Annette Leddy, East of Borneo


"First Infrarealist Manifesto" (trans. Tim Pilcher ; trans. altarpiece)

"The Corridor with No Apparent Exit" [excerpt], trans. unidentified, The Virginia Quarterly Review

from The Insufferable Gaucho

"Literature + Sickness = Sickness" [excerpt], trans. unidentified, News from the Republic of Letters

from Between Parentheses, trans. Natasha Wimmer

"Fragments of a return to a native land" [audio, excerpt, the essay starts at 27:40]

"The Caracas Speech", trans. David Noriega, Triple Canopy

"Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories", trans. David Draper Clark, Molossus in partnership with World Literature Today

"A Powerful Endorsement", Granta [excerpt from the essay "Neuman, Touched by Grace"]

"Eight Seconds with Nicanor Parra", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Ernesto Cardenal", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Translation Is An Anvil", trans. Guillermo Parra

"An Afternoon with Huidobro and Parra", trans. Guillermo Parra

"Exile and Literature", The Nation

"Who Would Dare?", NYRblog

"Exiles", NYRBlog

"The City: Geneva and Madrid", Newsweek


"Posthumous Nostalgia for Roberto Bolaño" by Alfonso Carvajal, El Nacional, trans. Guillermo Parra

from Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview

"The Last Interview," interview by Mónica Maristain [excerpt], trans. Sybil Perez, Paper Cuts

"Roberto Bolaño," interview by Mónica Maristain [pdf, excerpt], trans. Sybil Perez, Five Dials

"Roberto Bolaño" by Carmen Boullosa, trans. Margaret Carson, Bomb

11 September 2010

Numb (Sean Ferrell)

In the Bruce Willis movie Unbreakable, my favorite from among the nocturnal ventures of M. Night Shyamalan, a train derailed and collided with an oncoming. One man, David Dunn, survived the crash; everyone else on board was killed. Dunn was unscathed. He didn't have a single scratch or bruise on him whatsoever. We learned later that he has superpowers. Later, David was stalked by a sinister character, Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This character had brittle bones and he could easily be hurt by the most benign of causes. He had a medical condition called osteogenesis imperfecta. He had the most fragile constitution that was always on the brink of breakage. They called him Mr. Glass.

In the Sean Ferrell novel Numb, a man suddenly materializes out of a car accident, his origins unknown. We do not even know if he's a refugee from Krypton. This man is numb. He cannot feel any pain. He is a walking painkiller. He is diagnosed with a condition called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. His name is Numb.

The problem with Numb is not that he is numb, but that he is a magnet for disaster. He can be cut, wounded, hit, ran over, kicked, slapped, knifed, nailed, punched, burned, inflicted with every imaginable assault. But it won't make a difference. He is untouchable.

I must have lost a lot of blood reading Numb. You know, squinting my eyes every time the tingle of imagined pain travels from the stressor to the nerves, propagating through the nervous channels, right up to the brain center of activity, down the spinal column, and back to the dendrites and axons of the skin muscles which felt the stimulus and, being stimulated, twitched and contracted and felt the final irrevocable pain. Numb can't feel them but I, reader, can. It's making me touchy.

Numb is an anti-graphic novel, an intelligent one. An anti-graphic in the sense that it offers a send-up to the concept of superheroism in books and films and graphic media. For a first-time novelist, Sean Ferrel does it with supernatural ease. The entire set up for the hero is complete. Here's a list.

The costume: Check. See the book cover for the first Numb costume. Pants torn by tiger claws, complete with red scratches. There are more fancy "suits" Numb gets to try out in the book. They all looked good on him. There is even one for the pair of him and his sidekick parodying the caped crusader and the bird-crested boy.

The make up: Check. Ever arrived for a photo shoot with surgical threads dangling out from a freshly stitched wound on the forehead? Or with holes in the palms of the hands and soles of feet, just like Jesus resurrected and taunting the doubting Thomas. Or trailing with blood down hospital corridors, smearing the floors with "bloody footprints." It's cool.

The sidekick: Check. A man named Mal, the Spanish word for "evil." The name sends signals that this guy Mal is more than the usual Jimmy Olsens and Sancho Panzas. Hell, this sensitive friend could be the archenemy himself masquerading as a friend. The evil guy Mal is an anti-sidekick. He's the one who supported Numb during his first sally with the first enemy: a tiger in a cage. Then due to irreconcilable differences, he and Numb had a falling out and parted ways, but later they reunited for several more sallies. Don't sidekicks stay with the hero till the end? This one is different. The sidekick has his own mind, his own pain trips and "power trippings." He is a sidekick who wants to kick Numb aside. There's their misadventure of the spontaneous combusting engine, the misadventure with the murky waters via bungee jumping, and a final unforgettable sally that marked Numb for life and Mal for death. Mal is the narcissistic hunger artist who is his own hero. A perfect foil for Numb's understated powers.

The love interest: Check. A blind woman and budding artist named Hiko. Sculptress of found objects, including Numb. Her installation artworks have more than an aesthetic function to the novel's forward motion. Her sharp pieces double as performance art to Numb's artless actions. Hiko's found art is a mechanism that drives the book's found direction, its love interest. There are uncommissioned pieces of things in the book that suspiciously function as pieces of art: the bungee jump harness left hanging for a while in the chair, the TV draped with pages torn from a book of Braille. Numb's body is an artwork in itself. It's target practice, open to all interpretations of pain, repository of all kinds of sharp objects.

The third party: Check. Emilia: the model with long fingernails and long legs. A tigress: she is no Catwoman. Perhaps the second villain in the story after the tiger (but really there are so many hidden villains here it's hard to not label everyone around Numb as villain, including the writer who plotted everything down pat and the reader who relished the benumbing turns of events). Anyway, Emilia. Lust, caution. She instigated a sexconflict in Numb that sets Numb on direct course to selfdestruction. Here, the classic lament of antiheroes. The only enemy is one's self, overcome yourself and you are Zen-certified.

The power: Check. As described, the inability to feel any pain. But the scratches, bites, slits, wounds, gashes, scars are still manifest on the body.

The weakness: Check. Numb's loss of memory, or his lack of it in the first place. He doesn't know who he is other than being the numb Numb. If not for that, he is good to go. Only, the pain does not always come in the form of physical pains. It also comes as a multitude of pains in the ass that surround him and dictate to him what to do with his life. He has his agent who looks after his business interests (which means finding sources of more pain). There are unknown cameramen who follow him wherever there's a small chance he'd sprain his ankle or twist his elbow.

Having no past, his privacy is secure. But the ongoing present, the blow-by-blow moment, is his past. Numb, pain personified, is the dream of reality television. He brings the circus to the tube. He grants interviews but is asked to sit on a chair studded with 2-inch nails pointing up. Escaping from the circus, he lands on television and magazines, staffed by the same carnies. The PPV viewers pay per pain just to see his perforated flesh and relish the open skin. Don't people just love to project their pain on someone else?

The power and the weakness of Numb do not at first mix well. But later on in the novel, after his hardships and mal-adventures, we get the sense that the states of numbness and amnesia may not be mutually exclusive after all. That is, being numb is being forgetful. The absence of memory presupposes the absence of pain. For what is numbness but forgetting pain, not being able to process the hurt, the condition of invincibility. What is more painful for Numb is not that he is being wounded on all sides, but his inability to express his pain. More than losing his sense of touch, he is out of touch. Insensate, he lost a sense of reality. He became unresponsive to his own needs and those of the person he loves. He lost his sensitivity; he became an insensitive monster. His numbness overtook not only the physical, but his mental and emotional domains, too. Comes the all too painful realization: Oh my god I created a monster inside my own invincible body. I am the villain. I am the bad one. I am Numb.

The villain. Check. For one, there's tiger Caesar in the cage. But the tiger and the aforementioned tigress are only physical manifestations of villainies. There is a higher order in the spheres of superpowers and allied sciences. It's a sticky thing. There are many candidate villains in the story. There is a commentary here about the mass media exploiting the abnormalities and special abilities of people. The commodification and marketing of pain. Numb is being branded as a product, the new miracle man. Carnies flock like vultures around the dead flesh of human numbness, while the carnivores-viewers consume the pains of others like vegetarians devouring leaves.

The novel's strength and weakness are in its use of language. Numb as a character disengaged from his own physical situation is well described early on. This is when our hero accidentally nailed himself to a pole. He was trying to stick a tent flap to a pole using a nail gun.

I was embarrassed. The others already teased me about not knowing how to tie decent knots. Now I was stuck to a pole. I pulled my hand hard, but the nail was deep in the wood. The skin was purple and getting darker. I pulled at it more but thought the flesh would tear before the nail came out, so I stopped. I was surprised by how much stretch there was in skin.

The last sentence perfectly captures not only Numb's clumsiness in the job but also his, well, numbness. The book is well written but is marred by explaining too much its rhetorical flourishes. Some sentences tend to squeeze in the meanings of words, instead of letting them speak out for themselves. Early on, for example, when Mal picked out the piece of glass protruding from Numb's back, he said to the guy, "I don't know what you're up to, but you're not gonna start making keepsakes out of the things that hurt you." Numb then follows this through with a thought: "I knew he wasn't only talking about the glass. He didn't like Darla ..." Ferrell could have kept the word "keepsakes" as it is; its intended irony would have been more effective when information that was already sensed by the reader was withheld. Another example: Before the fight with Caesar the tiger, Mal again had to mind Numb's injury: "'You'll want to clean out that cut,' Mal said. 'You don't want to get an infection before your big day.' He said 'big day' as if he were spitting the words out, as if they tasted wrong." The "big day" could have been left with its meaning sinking through without spitting out its ironic sense the way Mal bitterly delivered the words out.

These minor points aside, this novel holds its own as something unexpected in literary fiction. It brings fresh perspectives on the literal pain of heroes in novel ways.

Wouldn't it be great if Night directed the movie of Numb? With Jim Carrey playing him, like, laid-back. It's slightly right up their alleys, no. But Numb's handlers in the book seem to have their own ideas. There are suggestions of a possible "Will Ferrell vehicle" or a Farrelly Brothers flick. But with script written by novelist Sean Ferrell, who knows more than his alliterative affinities, it would be a nice Ferrell-Farrelly-Ferrell combination. Far-fetched?

Going back to Unbreakable... Dunn and Elijah's many encounters in the movie culminated in a confrontation that unveiled the definition of their roles in the world, the meanings of their in-born powers. It was a scene well prepared in advance, the only possible conclusion between the clashing will powers of two identities, two opposable thumbs. Unbreakable enacted its own template of the comic book enterprise.

Whereas the movie is concerned with the nature of heroes and villains as the natural state of things, the book Numb does not have a neat black and white distinction in its moral compass. There is only a broad spectrum of shades of gray in its human scale. The book is so laden with comic inconsistency as to be a Will Ferrell slapstick. I think it's more like a Colin Farrell fit.

In Numb, the roles are played out in the less discrete analogues of heroes and villains in society. It is a more earthy state of man in a comic situation, less rigid in its distinction, and thus less clean and more blood. The hero-villain fills up his own niche according to his capacity to dole out sympathy and rise above his benumbed state and act in accordance to what decency dictates. Mal and Numb are not totems of good and evil but the potentialities of good and evil. Numb enacts its own comedy of existence.

"[This] book has a lot of heart," says the enthusiastic front cover blurb. It has that, yes. More. It's got some little bits of soul in it too.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher.

10 September 2010

"The Remorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Work of Peter Weiss" (W. G. Sebald)


W. G. Sebald's essay on Peter Weiss (1916-1982) is the last one in On the Natural History of Destruction. It mixes literary criticism and art (paintings) criticism. What is puzzling here is that, given Sebald's penchant for illustrating his books with photographs, this essay did not reproduce the many paintings mentioned in the text. The essay began with a description of a painting called Der Hausierer (1940) by Peter Weiss. It shows a circus right in front of an industrial complex. It's the one pictured above. Sebald interpreted this "self-portrait" of Weiss as an expression of the artist's (the peddler in the picture) need to enter the dwellings of the dead, represented by the circus tent. Death is closely associated with the painter, who survived the death of his sister, bosom friend, parents, and "all the other victims of history." Sebald expounded on this death motif and, in the process, perhaps shared his self-identification with Weiss:

The process of writing which Weiss has recently planned, now that he is about to embark on his literary work Ästhetik de Widerstands ("Aesthetic of Resistance"), is the struggle against the "art of forgetting," a struggle that is as much part of life as melancholy is of death, a struggle consisting in the constant transfer of recollection into written signs. Despite our fits of "absence" and "weakness," writing is an attempt "to preserve our equilibrium among the living with all our dead within us, as we lament the dead and with our own death before our eyes," in order to set memory to work, since it alone justifies survival in the shadow of a mountain of guilt.

Sympathy (one that goes "beyond mere pity"), added Sebald, is the element which reinforces the recollection of the dead against forgetfulness of the living. These sources of Weiss's writings—death, melancholy, memory, guilt, pain and sympathy—are ever present in Sebald's novels. As with Jean Améry, the novelist’s identification with this forerunner is grounded in the attempts of men to make sense of cruelty and evil in history. The two writers are speaking for the dead, who returns to us.

From this first painting Sebald moved on to Weiss's Das grosse welttheater ("Great World Theater," 1937, pictured below) which he compared to Albrecht Altdorfer Alexanderschlacht's "Battle of Alexander" (1529). The latter painting was also mentioned in Sebald's prose poem After Nature.


The other paintings discussed include Weiss's "Concert in the Garden" (1938) and the anatomical painting of a corpse lying on a dissecting table (1946), which led Sebald to once again reflect on Rembrandt van Rijn's (1606-1669) "The Anatomy Lesson," the one about Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and the guild of surgeons surrounding the body of Aris Kindt. This painting was written about at length in the first chapter of The Rings of Saturn and Sebald here reiterated its significance to Weiss's work and, possibly to his own: "Rembrandt's picture of the dissection of a hanged body in the interests of higher ideals is an unsettling comment on the particular kind of knowledge to which we owe progress."


Sebald's fixation with "The Anatomy Lesson" in his novel and here in the essay on Weiss reflects a particular obsession with suffering and mortality. The context surrounding his investigation of the painting in the novel starts with the search for the skull of Thomas Browne (1605-1682), a contemporary of Rembrandt. Here is a summary from my previous post:

Sebald speculated on Browne’s possible presence in an "anatomy lesson" conducted in Amsterdam in 1632. In fact, Sebald speculated on the presence of three men in that lesson: Browne, Descartes, and Rembrandt.


Sebald’s description of the painting betrayed his sympathy for Aris Kindt, the criminal whose body was being dissected. Sebald thought of the anatomy lesson as an extension of the corporal punishment on earth of a man hanged just a moment before. He seemed to be giving something of a critique of the scientific enlightenment that the lesson was providing its onlookers. In any case, it was hard not to detect an aversion on the part of Sebald while viewing the painting as if he himself was present during the entire operation, watching the Guild of Surgeons surrounding the body on the table, each surgeon fixated on the "open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being."

It was likely that Sebald identified with the body prostrate on the table as he returned to his recollections of his time in the hospital after his own surgery....

In the light of the painting's explication in Weiss's essay, it is apparent that the dissection of a body represents more than a personal association for Sebald but his central critique of human capacity for cruelty and capital punishment. Sebald can be said to be viewing the autopsy and harvest of a dead man's vital organs as the second death of the man already punished by men on earth. This is highlighted by the reactions of the onlookers in the painting which treat the body as only a material or life's residue to be learned from, the remains of a man already devoid of humanity or soul.

Says Sebald in introducing the first anatomical picture of Weiss, "... there undoubtedly lies panic terror of an execution that will inflict further destruction, even after death, on the guilty victim's body.... [Weiss] diagnoses this process not merely as a legal measure in those societies which make a public festival of capital punishment ... but points out that even (and indeed more particularly) "enlightened" civilizations have not abandoned that most drastic form of penalty which consists of cutting up and disemboweling the human body, thus literally making detritus of it."

One can safely assume that Sebald, humanist novelist that he is, is not a proponent of the death penalty. This is, in fact, the first cruelty prior to the lesson in anatomy. Weiss himself painted two versions of the dissection, which constitutes the second act of cruelty. The first picture is a cubist work in which the expressions on the faces of the three men (abstract, contemplative, indifferent, professional) were likened by Sebald to the vague, blank expressions of the guild of surgeons in Rembrandt's first painting.


Of the second "much more primitive anatomical picture" painted two years earlier, Sebald detected a "far more humane and far more cruel" stance, a disturbing contradiction. Sebald saw the possibility in the picture that "Peter Weiss felt a certain morbid interest in the process and identified with the anatomist":

One cannot be certain whether the painter imagined himself subjected to the procedure he shows, or whether, like Descartes (known to have been an enthusiastic amateur surgeon who in all historical probability attended several of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lessons), he thought that he could discover the secret of the human machine in the dissection of bodies, a subject to which he returns again and again.... [W]ith a knife in his right hand, an organ he has removed in his left, and bending over the human body he [the anatomist, though it could apply to the painter as well] has opened up with an expression of utter desolation.


(It is interesting to note that both Rembrandt and Weiss painted two anatomy lessons each. The Aquarium of the Vulcan blog pointed out that there was speculation in 1950 that Thomas Browne may be a sitter in the second dissection by Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman" (1656). This could lend credence to Sebald's supposition that Browne may have attended an anatomy lesson. Sebald may not be aware of this connection to Browne for otherwise he would certainly include this possibility in his novel full of circular references to Browne and to discussion of pictures from the perspective and point of view of painters. The dead man in the second picture is Joris Fonteijn, a condemned thief just like Aris Kindt in the earlier Rembrandt. The skull cap is being held by Deyman's assistant (the possible Browne study), Gysbrecht Matthijsz Calcoen, while Deyman is removing a piece from the brain.

According to the records of the Anatomy Theatre, Amsterdam: "on January 28th 1656, there was punished Joris Fonteijn of Diest, who by the worshipful lords of the law court was granted to us an anatomical specimen. On the 29th Dr Joan Deyman made his first demonstration on him in the Anatomy Theatre, three lessons altogether" (Haas, 1992, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.) The Republic of Togo issued a commemorative stamp of the painting in 1968.)

In the essay, Sebald also mentioned Weiss's history of the painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) in Aesthetics of Resistance which once again demonstrated Weiss's use of the death motif in his art: "Such an affinity with the dead, impelled by a desire for knowledge but also implying a libidinous occupation of the dissected body, makes one suspect that the handling of paint in a case like Géricault's, an example of the extremist practice of art to which Weiss too subscribes, is ultimately equivalent to an attempt by the subject, horrified as he is by human life, to do away with himself through successive acts of destruction."

Théodore Géricault

The rest of the paintings in "The Remorse of the Heart" are collected in this German site:


* * *

The human body, the physical body, is a theater of war. As foreign instruments invade the skin and penetrate the muscles and tissues, they invade the territory of man's shell-casing. The humanity and the cruelty, or just the plain cruelty, of the exercise are exemplified by the systematic cutting and processing of the shell-casing and in laying out and labeling of the component parts. Knowledge generated and gained from the exploitative procedure, to be exploited by medical science, does not matter because, as Sebald notes, it "makes little difference to the process itself." It's double death arriving, driving home the truth of cruelty to the first cruelty, that is death by hanging or torture.


The idea of the dissection as torture is clearly evinced from another representation of the dissection by William Hogarth (1697-1764). "The Reward of Cruelty" is the final engraving in the series "Four Stages of Cruelty." Hogarth here depicted a criminal on a dissecting table amid a flurry of spectators. The novelty of the picture is that the dead victim is represented as alive or like someone still alive, his mouth open as if protesting and suffering in the indignation. Hogarth, who is referenced at the end of Chapter VI of The Rings of Saturn, presents the idea of dissection as torture and as a just reward for the dead criminal on the table who inflicted his many shares of cruelty when he was still alive. This engraving is a "propaganda" to deter criminal acts by showing the possible consequence of criminal behaviors. The chief surgeon supervises the guild atop his chair like a judge, thereby extending the death sentence of the hanged criminal. The picture is presented as a fictional story in four parts, with the dissection as the culminating picture. It is suggested, however, that the protagonists in it are based on real persons.

It makes no difference whether the man being dissected (or injured) is dead or alive. In the case of Jean Améry, torture can be seen as a dissection of a live person, whose anatomies are being inflicted with assortments of pain and whose "medical" resistance is tested to its mind's limits. It also makes no difference whether the dissection is done to a single person, in groups, or to an entire race or community of people. The human body or bodies (i.e., humanity), under dissection, under autopsy, under conflict, under air war, under extermination, under destruction, is humanity undergoing cruelty. The far-reaching grasp of cruelty is such that it applies both to the scale of one man and to millions of men.

The epigraph of Sebald's essay came from Léon Bloy: "L’homme a des endroits de son pauvre Coeur qui n’existent pas encore et où la douleur entre afin qu’ils soient." ("There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.")

In Hogarth's dissection picture, the dead man's entrails are trailing down the table where a dog starts to feed on the heart. Throughout history, the default punishment for cruelty is cruelty, and its reward is the remorse of the heart.