29 March 2012

Varamo (César Aira)

Varamo by César Aira, trans. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2012)

The book delivered the goods. This was to be expected. It's a well written tale and also an often funny book. What else to expect from Chris Andrews's seemingly effortless version? "Slim, cerebral, witty, fanciful, and idiosyncratic", the front blurb from Aura Estrada's review of Aira's early translations. Varamo (orig. 2002) was indeed all of the above. The plot seesawed from the sublime to the grotesque (that embalmed piscine species was quite a character). Varamo, the titular character, was your average Panamanian government employee. But he was also the future author of a literary masterpiece. He was marked for greatness. At the beginning of the novella, he didn't know it. The reader knew, but the full scintillating details were kept in the dark. The story will trace the moment-by-moment events that led to the composition of his epic poem. That was the beautiful premise of reverse engineering. I did not like it, however, as much as I wanted to. César Aira has already been there. César Aira has done that. Varamo partly disappoints because it conformed very much to the template of an Aira book. That was almost a paradox. Okay, that's a paradox. I.e., if an Aira book is as unpredictable as the weather, then the book cannot, will not, follow a certain template. The formula lay in non-formulaic spontaneous reality. Let me put it this way: Varamo was another elegant, but not radical, variation of Aira's experiments. I am very much in awe of his spontaneity and clarity of prose, his anything-goes method which was deceptively simple, the elegant discipline governing his fictional inventions. This was evident in the psychopathic atmosphere of How I Became a Nun and the quincuncial (read: connect-the-dots) approach of The Hare (orig. 1991). Both works exhibited disconnections that for some reason clicked into their proper places, as if through mental leaps of faith. Varamo possessed the trademark digressions, witticisms, and anachronistic turns of plot. However, too much nudge-nudge, wink-wink can bring the strategy "constant flight forward" to a standstill. The use of "free indirect style", for example, was made too much a metafictional Big Deal. Ultimately, it lacked elements that would compensate for its messiness. The sonic velocity of, say, The Seamstress and the Wind, or the frenetic energy of, say, The Literary Conference. Freedom, free writing, is Aira's only constraint. But too much freedom in writing can backfire. Varamo wore its minor novella status all too proudly. And I expected a lot given that there are dozens of books to choose from Aira's backlist to translate. If Roberto Bolaño was asked, he would readily suggest two which are yet to be translated: his 1981 "breakthrough" novel Ema, la cautiva (Ema, the Captive) and El llanto (1992, The Crying). And if the critic Ignacio Echevarría (via Caravana de recuerdos) was asked, the single most essential Aira was La liebre, which fortunately has already been translated. A good choice, I must say. The Hare, at a fair novel length, has the heft and substance of a long sojourn. Its adventures hover perilously between high and low entertainments, hanging as if at an angle of repose, at any moment at risk from falling off a cliff.... A lightning charge striking with all its pent-up electrical energy.... A short circuit of brain synapse.... A numinous moment in time.... And I will have to say that the prose of translator Nick Caistor, which was slightly inelegant and unpolished and neutral and wry, lent a certain understatement to the statement. It was Aira without the airbrush of beautiful writing, not the superhero but his alter-ego. In other words, this reader was not after exercises of perfection or near-perfection in a novelita. Let's face it. The long novel was the true test of a writer's métier. Arguable point, of course. But the form of the long novel, where anything can go wrong and the trappings of didacticism were ever present, where the temptation to over-deliver was stronger, where the writer struggles much harder to avoid false moves than make the right ones, the long form could provide a breath of fresher Aira. Publishers, take note. Go for the longer Aira, they were bound to be more spontaneous and more driven. And go for the critics' favorites. It would not hurt to consider "translating" the opinions of Spanish writers and critics. For one, the prestigious Semana list, of the 100 greatest Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years, had two Aira titles still awaiting translation. Cumpleaños (2001, Birthdays) is #82 in the list, while Una novela china (1987, A Novel of China) was fairly high at #56. (#71 Los fantasmas, 1990, was already translated as Ghosts.) Then there were stories waiting to be collected and translated. The short story masterpiece "Cecil Taylor", also highly praised by Bolaño, was long overdue. (At least things are looking up with the forthcoming books in the horizon. The Miracle Cures of a certain doctor is bound to introduce some funny medicine or wacky concoction. Also, the novels-in-cardboard-boxes from Eloísa Cartonera, hope to see them boxed up, too.) There was never any dearth of César Aira. It was just a matter of bringing out those diamonds in the rough.

25 March 2012

Laughing Wolf (Tsushima Yūko)

Laughing Wolf by Tsushima Yūko, trans. Dennis Washburn (Center for Japanese Studies – The University of Michigan, 2011)

(Image from: The House of Two Bows 雙寶之屋)

It was around 1889 that the Ezo wolf of Hokkaido was believed to have gone extinct. The main cause, according to Hiraiwa Yonekichi in Ookami—Sono seitai to rekishi (The wolf: its ecology and history) (Tokyo 1981, revised ed. 1992), was the intense persecution the animal suffered at the hands of humans. By 1905, the Japanese wolf, a distinct and endemic species found only in three islands of the Japanese archipelago, went missing as well. Its extinction was largely a result of hunting, the spread of disease, and the loss of habitat and prey. Anecdotal reports gave information of the possibility that the wolves were still in existence beyond these dates, but the truth of these claims was in question.

In fact, the extinction of the wolf species in western Europe came before these two species: 1680 in Scotland and 1710 in Ireland. A worldwide trend indicated that the population of the species was in decline.

   Hiraiwa claims that wolves went extinct so early in Europe because they were always seen as a threat to people who from ancient times had raised livestock such as sheep and cattle. They feared the wolf as man's mortal enemy, and constantly persecuted the animal by every possible means—guns, poisons, traps, and snares, even hand grenades—until they had finally eradicated them.

This natural history of wolf, including the appearance of the animal in legends and classic novels, was contained in "Prelude", in the opening of Tsushima Yūko's novel Laughing Wolf (published in Japan in 2000). The prelude ended with the mention of the extinction of the Japanese wolf in 1905 coinciding with the end of the Russo-Japanese war, after which, Japan was again involved in a war with China and then in the world war which ended in 1945, after Japan's unconditional surrender: "The Japanese wolf was no longer around, but as things turned out, wild dogs who had lost their masters could be spotted running through the smoldering ruins of Japan's cities."

For a work of fiction it was strange to read a long precis of a nonfiction book on wolves. It was also strange, and particularly jarring, when the following chapter changed in tone and took up an altogether different narrative thread, indicating a hybrid approach to the novel. The story turned to a father and his four-year old son living in the apocalyptic landscape and waste of postwar Japan. The two survived air bombings and were left homeless and hungry. The child's point of view could remind one of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The child recalling his early life through hazy memories: "One day fire came pouring down from the sky. The fence burned, the house burned, his mother, brother, and sister all burned. Even the cat burned. They all vanished from the earth." Later the child's father also died and the child was taken to an orphanage. But memory of one event particularly lingered in the boy's imagination. While he and his father were sleeping in a cemetery, he witnessed the suicides of three adults: two men and a woman. When already grown up, he investigated the deaths of these three and even visited the house of the wife and daughter of one of the men.

The narrative also took up the point of view of the daughter, the young girl Yuki being visited by the now grown up young man Mitsuo. The tenuous connection between them did not prevent their becoming easy friends. The young man and the girl, 17 and 12 years old, both orphaned of fathers, decided to leave Tokyo and take a train trip to the countryside.

The novel then recounted their adventures while on train journeys and stops, inadvertently witnessing the social and economic realities of postwar Japan. As with The Shooting Gallery, Tsushima's collection of translated stories, the two characters in Laughing Wolf were wont to escape their present situations, and in the process create and inhabit for themselves avatars or surrogate identities. In this novel, Mitsuo and Yuki took on the names Akela and Mowgli, respectively, characters from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. With their new aliases, they appropriated not only the identities of the children's book's characters but also the fictional reality associated with them. Hence, their every adventure was colored by plot elements of The Jungle Book, as well as the difficulties they faced in their takeover of Cold Lairs, the world of men, which they were seeking to understand via the book's law of the jungle—We be of one blood, ye and I. 

This newly created "alternate" reality allowed the novelist Tsushima and her characters to navigate the inhospitable, savage world-at-war heightened by poverty and crimes faced by the Japanese in the 1940s. In this reality, they resolved to adopt role-playing as a viable strategy for the two of them, Akela and Mowgli, to survive the world where they found themselves outsiders: "He's [Akela] the leader of the wolf pack, the solitary emperor who embodies the law of the jungle. He's the reason the human child Mowgli is allowed to live on the margins of the pack. I'm not all that distinguished, but I'm taking the name because I have responsibility for you. I'm the leader—the father, older brother, and teacher all rolled into one—and you're the apprentice. So I think Akela and Mowgli are perfect for us." And so they transformed into the wolf and the young boy, outsiders in the midst of monkeys, the "Man Pack".

Among the people they encountered in their long train journeys were homeless and destitute men traveling to work in the coal mines. After the war, when poverty and scarcity of food struck the majority of the population, some of the homeless, including children, were forced to enter into manual labor in the mines in exchange for low salaries. After this incident, where Akela and Mowgli observed the men consigned to backbreaking work, several news clippings were inserted into the text, dated December 1945 to January 1947. The news provided direct context and circumstances of child labor in the coal mines.

By the second half of the novel, the set of news clips were interspersed in the text more and more frequently. The effect was jarring. It forced collisions between what was happening in the made-up (fictional) world and the actual (real) events and the collisions of private and public lives. In the first place the real and imagined identities of the main characters already dissolved into their respective stories. In addition, the not seamless juxtaposition of the adventures of Akela and Mowgli and the accompanying news excerpts were also forcing the collisions of individual and collective histories. The hybrid text was now bringing out human-interest stories from war-torn Japan and was introducing a clash, or perhaps more appropriately a necessary confrontation, between fiction and nonfiction, to tell a larger story. These episodic news and stories concerned the aforementioned labor in the coal mines, the corrupt police raiding trains and confiscating rice and barley from the common peasants, a serial killer of young women, a major train accident, outbreaks of epidemic diseases, and other newsworthy social problems brought about by the just concluded war. With side-by-side accounts of events, the novelist was inviting a pairwise comparison of the fictive and the realistic, in a manner that was more interesting than the 1Q84-1984 dichotomy of Murakami Haruki in his 1Q84 (trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel). The latter novel was bogged down by didactic tendencies and narrative spoon-feeding doled out in serviceable prose. Tsushima, in contrast to Murakami, had the novelistic flair to use language and plot elements in a seemingly conventional manner at first and then turn it on its head without apparent self-indulgence and self-validation.

Also, by the middle of the book, Akela and Mowgli once again changed their avatars, as Remi and Capi of the French novel Sans Famille (1878) by Hector Malot (trans. Florence Crewe-Jones, Nobody's Boy, 1916; also trans. Adrian J. de Bruyn, Alone in the World, 2005). With these active shifts in characters' identities, the "Prelude" about the wolf at the start of the novel suddenly made sense. The states of extinction and of orphanhood as logical consequences of abiding wars, lawlessness, cruelty. In the words of Mitsuo/Akela/Remi: "I've thought it over carefully, and the scariest thing in the world is the Man Pack. Radiation and germs are scary, but unlike humans, those things don't think up evil ideas or try to inflict suffering on people."

She could hear the students and the old man chatting.
   "I heard that some smallpox patients escaped again. Why in the world would they do that?"
   "Because they're worried about their families and their jobs. It's a real hardship for them to be suddenly locked away in a hospital."
   "I've also heard rumors that there's been an outbreak of the plague."
   "Good god, they do everything they can to control it with vaccinations and DDT, but I wonder how much they can do to suppress it...."
   "Armed robberies, bandits, murders, whole families committing suicide—all are the result of losing the war."
   "There was a robbery in my neighborhood. The victim was hit on the head with an iron bar."
   "The way society's going, it's possible that someone will suddenly shoot you with a pistol and kill you."
   "That's right. Kids like them have no compunctions about committing really atrocious crimes. When there's no order in society, kids are the first to go bad."
   "But it's always kids and young people who are being sacrificed. There was a family suicide that happened in Kyūshu ... six kids were killed [...]"

Writing about the immediate aftermath of WWII in Japan, Tsushima was doing something interesting and innovative to the fictional form of the novel. Her technique had unassuming intelligence behind it. Laughing Wolf was a jarring text, in a provocative and brilliant sense, because it unsettled the pace and expectations of reading. The non-fictionality of past events was almost like a comment on the surrealism of the fiction-like present or future ("On a gigantic television screen atop a tall building the leaders of North and South Korea are shaking hands.").
A novel must somehow clear a path, demonstrate its mastery on the page, and Laughing Wolf did that by writing about aspects of Japanese postwar history in a manner that was not entirely beholden to the methods of conventional historical fiction. The central story of the novel—the friendship between a young man and a girl and their endless train journey—was ultimately heartwarming for its generous sympathy and understanding.