04 November 2010

Reading diary: October 2010

Twelve books read in October! This makes the past month the most productive of my reading this year.

One other highlight of October is my breezing through the rest of César Aira's fiction in translation. The completist in me is more than satisfied with this reading marathon. No, not marathon. This month is like a leisure walk with 7 novels, 2 poetry collections, 2 nonfiction, and 1 brilliant short story collection.

57. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The book's rhythm is perfect, I think. It's like hearing the drums from time to time. Achebe developed a straightforward diction that lends gravity to his themes. The incorporation of oral storytelling and ancient myths makes the story universal, especially for its themes of colonialism and social transformation.

What I noticed in the choice of words is the almost complete lack of adverbs. In exceptional cases when adverbs do appear, they appear in sentences that anticipate something ominous. The adjectives are the only modifiers, and they always come singly. The use of two consecutive adjectives is very rare. This limitation may be similar to the ones used by OuLiPo writers to achieve poetry. The result of these limitations is a no-frills, plainspoken voice, very rooted to the land and perhaps signifies the stability, purity, wholeness of culture. That is why the advent of changes in social norms, religion, and form of government at the end of the book represents an apocalyptic transformation for the African tribe, the "second coming." As the white colonizers try to impose their influence on the original settlers of the land, the Nigerians lose their original gods, their beliefs and stories, their very identities. Against the wishes of the elders and the vanguards of customs like Okonkwo, the protagonist, they are 'modified.'

I read this book as part of a group read in one of my Shelfari groups.

58. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai (no, not the) centers on the adventures of a young prodigy brought up by a single mother. It recounts his search for his father, his mother's obsession with Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai, and some very amusing mishaps. For a po-mo novel with lots of linguistic tricks, it's really funny. The set-piece stories soar. When Ludo, the little protagonist, starts to gamble at the end, we learn that what makes a true samurai is neither physical nor mental prowess. It's something more that could ultimately define his destiny.

59. The Literary Conference by César Aira, trans. Katherine Silver

A translator named César is bent on world domination. He enacts the role of Mad Scientist in comic books and attempts to clone the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. It's a sci-fi romp whose cinematic climax will give Hollywood movies a run for their money.

60. How I Became a Nun by César Aira, trans. Chris Andrews

A little girl named César Aira was poisoned by contaminated strawberry ice cream. Her/his father took revenge on the ice cream vendor by dipping his head in the tub of poisoned ice cream. Only a literary monk could have written How I Became a Nun. The book is ultimately a missal of wicked intents. It's a childish book, a false memoir, a feat of child psychology, a nightmare come true. Readers get no chance to throw fits of tantrums.

61. Dance Dance Dance by Murakami Haruki, trans. Alfred Birnbaum

MakiMurakami H. as a self-help/inspirational writer, sharing "life lessons." Who would think of it?

62. Poems of Akhmatova by Anna Akhmatova, trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

This is a bilingual edition of selected poems arranged chronologically, containing her celebrated work "Requiem" and extracts from "Poem Without a Hero." Akhmatova's witness is one of profound sensitivity to human suffering and cruelty. One of the virtues of her poetry is personal pride, the positive aspect of it, the strength to resist passively and to not succumb to people and institutions in power.

63. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts by Wisława Szymborska, trans. Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

Szymborska is my favorite poet. Her style and Akhmatova's are comparable to some extent but I find Szymborska's poems to be less weighed down by her themes. I'm not too enamored by the translations but the power of the lines still emanate from their playfulness and wit. Not that I understand Polish, but the versions in View With a Grain of Sand (translated Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) sound better to me especially with the symmetric quality of the lines. However, this collection is important for being the first substantial harvest of Szymborska in English translation, and for its very good thematic introduction.

Here's one of my favorite poems in the book:

by Wisława Szymborska

Woman, what's your name?—I don't know.
When were you born, where do you come from?—I don't know.
Why did you dig a hole in the ground?—I don't know.
How long have you been hiding here?—I don't know.
Why did you bite the hand of friendship?—I don't know.
Don't you know we will do you no harm?—I don't know.
Whose side are you on?—I don't know.
There's a war on, you must choose.—I don't know.
Does your village still exist?—I don't know.
Are these your children?—Yes.

– Translated from the Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

64. The Jaguar by João Guimarães Rosa, trans. David Treece

Short stories by an unforgivably under-read and under-translated Brazilian writer. João Guimarães Rosa is probably the long lost great prose stylist (in any language), who is now rediscovered thanks to translator David Treece. The eight stories are tightly selected and survey a range of Guimarães Rosa's stories of life journeys, from setting out to arriving, corresponding to the three parts of the collection: "Setting Out," "Lost Souls," "Final Farewells." As he wrote in his celebrated book, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, "The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey." The middle of the journey here ("Lost Souls"), and the heart of the book, contains the title story. "The Jaguar" is a tour de force of descent into madness and captures the irony of existence, civilization and barbarity existing side by side in a human being. (I recently read a different translation of this long story, by Giovanni Pontiero, noted translator of José Saramago and Clarice Lispector. The readings of this story in two different registers makes for two distinctive experiences. I have to say though that Treece's version sounds more mad to me, and that's a compliment.)

The "Setting Out" part contains three stories told from the point of view of children. The word inventions in these stories are exhilarating for their fresh perspectives on how children begin to view the world through their observant eyes. The final section ("Final Farewells") contains another long story, "In the Name of the Grandfather" which is translated here for the first time, and two more which are widely anthologized, "The Third Bank of the River" and "Soroco, His Mother, His Daughter." The long story is yet another feat of word invention and narrative stream of consciousness. In Treece's versions, Rosa's modern language is resurrected in beautiful living idioms, alive through interpretation. It unfolds, is lived and experienced.

65. The Fixer by Joe Sacco

Nonfiction graphic about a recent war. There are many things to commend in this graphic: the complex character of "the fixer," the strong sense of place, and the subject matter. This humanist book achieves artistry through its "objective" imagining and imaging of war crimes that are indelibly registered on sheets of paper and, it is to be continually hoped, in human memory.

66. The Hare by César Aira, trans. Nick Caistor

About an English naturalist who entered Mapuche Indian territory in Argentina to search for an elusive animal, the Legibrerian Hare. The first of Aira's books to appear in English, whose original Spanish was published fairly early in Aira's career. It is also the longest, at a safe novel length. The more words expended should make it the weakest of the translated books, but no! This is Aira in the same enfant terrible form, if not less terrible. With its discourse on continuity, continuum, and simultaneity, the novel is key to understanding the same delightful ridiculousness in what came after (books #59 and 60 above).

This book is pure happiness. I posted my notes and speculations here.

67. Managing Online Forums by Patrick O'Keefe

Didn't read this book from cover to cover. But I read what I needed to read. Even if one is using a different online discussion site/platform from the one in the book, one can always apply the general guidelines prescribed. Useful, yes.

68. Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry, trans. Simon Watson Taylor

Alfred Jarry started the movement called 'pataphysics which is a sort of extension of science, metaphysics, and religion. The principles of 'pataphysics are conspicuously given in this experimental book. The language is beautiful, always courting poetry. But it needs a ton of annotations to be understood. Well, maybe not a ton, but surely ample footnotes. The uninitiated (like YT) will either appreciate the surreal prose poems which soar like kites, or blink helpless at the surreal passages zooming over one's head like rockets. Let's just say it deserves its cult status for being obscure.

Ha ha.*


*Ha ha.

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