30 July 2012

Black Rain (Ibuse Masuji)

Black Rain (1966) by Ibuse Masuji, translated by John Bester (Bantam Books, 1985)

"Gentlemen," he said, "you have our deepest gratitude for giving thus of your services in these busy wartime days. I scarcely need to remind you that the injured whom you will be bringing back with you are blistered with burns over their entire bodies, and to request you, therefore, to take every care not to cause them yet further suffering. It is said that the enemy used what is referred to as a 'new weapon' in his attack on Hiroshima, which instantly plunged hundreds of thousands of blameless residents of the city into a hell of unspeakable torments...."

An antiwar novel, Black Rain probes the effects on humans of the atomic bomb dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 1945. It is presented as diary entries of a family (husband, wife, niece) describing their escape from the destroyed city and their encounters with the victims of the bomb. The frame of the story is the niece Yasuko being involved in matchmaking for a promising marriage. Having learned that she was possibly exposed to radiation while fleeing Hiroshima, single men who were considering Yasuko for a wife eventually started to back out of the negotiations. In order to prove that she is healthy and free of symptoms of radiation sickness, Yasuko's uncle instructed her to copy out her diaries written right after the period of the bombing so that her whereabouts were accounted for during the whole ordeal.

In using the marriage negotiations as the initial impetus for relaying the events of the bombing and highlighting the way marriage is being threatened by suspicions of radiation disease, Ibuse Masuji's novel thus underscores not only the immediate toll exacted on human lives and health but also the deleterious effects of the bomb on an entire culture and tradition. Sick or not, the survivors from Hiroshima were faced with social discrimination.

The uncle, Shigematsu Shizuma, later finds another reason to copy out the diaries of his family: "This diary of the bombing is my piece of history, to be preserved in school library." The novel becomes the fictional repository of this "Journal of the Bombing" which was based on documents and actual diaries of real persons. Documentation of a significant historical event accomplishes Shigematsu's desire to preserve memories for the information and education of future peoples.

The unspeakable nature of the bomb was evident from the harrowing effects it produced. The novel did not shy away from graphically describing some of the destruction. Alongside the horror, Ibuse has infused his characters, details, and setting with such strong and realistic particularities that the novel does not devolve into pure critique and fury. The dry humor, the day-to-day routine of the characters before and after the bomb, the understated despair of the characters, and their bravery and resilience—all of these contributed to a novel of compelling interest.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first large-scale laboratories for the atomic bomb, whose destructive power was clearly unseen before. Its name was not even known at first to the victims. It was always referred to as a "new weapon", and also called, as Shigematsu observed, as "new-type bomb", "secret weapon", "special new-type bomb", "special high-capacity bomb". Whatever its name and whatever justifications for its use were made, it cannot be denied that the man-made bomb is a product of a man-made war. Its harmful effects last for a very long time. It ended the second world war and yet it continues to perpetrate an intergenerational crime—the crime of unleashing unstable radioactive substances which can lead to fatal diseases. New research findings indicate that even low levels of radiation produce genetic damage that can be passed on to one's offspring. Furthermore, chronic low-dose radiation exposure had carcinogenic effects that only become evident years after the exposure1.

Black Rain is a forceful reminder of the destructive capacity of nuclear energy then and now. In the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which led to the nuclear meltdown of nuclear reactors of Fukushima power plant, translator and editor Ted Goossen wrote an essay, "Japan's literature of the apocalypse", describing three stages of Japanese apocalyptic writings since 1945. Goossen located Black Rain at the peak of the first wave which he called "atomic-bomb literature".

"What narratives will emanate from the present tragedy?" asked Goossen at the end of his essay. While Japan and the world are still waiting for new apocalyptic narratives, I think the "piece of history" in Ibuse's novel is sufficient to give us warning. "History repeats", as the novelist Ōe Kenzaburo aptly called his New Yorker piece which appeared after the 2011 quake. As if in answer to the question posed by Goossen, Ōe described the shape of narratives to come.

Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes.

... The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a “recipe” for growth. Like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory.

Even peacetime does not guarantee that nuclear energy is a fail-safe source of alternative energy. Three major nuclear accidents—in Sellafield, England; Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; and Chernobyl—did not deter countries from developing nuclear energy. Why do they keep on risking it when they know it's not always safe? "One hopes", Ōe concluded his piece, "that the accident at the Fukushima facility will allow the Japanese to reconnect with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recognize the danger of nuclear power, and to put an end to the illusion of the efficacy of deterrence that is advocated by nuclear powers."

A year before the Tōhoku earthquake, Ōe recalled in an op-ed New York Times article hearing from his mother about her friend who survived the Hiroshima bombing. His mother's friend was outraged as she watched "two children who had been playing out in the open ... vaporized in the blink of an eye". The novelist admitted that this was what most likely impelled him to become a writer. In the same article, he shared a life-long wish.

I’m haunted by the thought that, ultimately, I was never able to write a “big novel” about the people who experienced the bombings and the subsequent 50-plus years of the nuclear age that I’ve lived through—and I think now that writing that novel is the only thing I ever really wanted to do.

With due respect to Ōe who has written essays on the aftermath of the bombing in the mid-1960s, collected in Hiroshima Notes, I think that the big novel on the Hiroshima bombing experience was already written 46 years ago. Black Rain is that novel. It is a masterwork which, in the midst of tales of perversity and destruction, was sustained by human dignity and compassion. Almost seven decades after the atomic bombing of Japan's cities, Ibuse's message in his novel still rings loud and true and clear. One hopes it will be heard for years to come.

1. Lichtenstein, K., and Helfand, I. Radiation and health: Nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment, ed. E. Chivian et al. The MIT Press, 1994.

Read for the Literature and War Readalong, hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

20 July 2012

Bartleby has company

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne (The Harvill Press, 2004)

(Note: The following is not a review but a transcription. While flipping through my copy of the Vila-Matas novel, three sheets of folded paper with writing on one side suddenly fell from between the pages. There appears to be consecutive numbers in superscript in the text. I reproduce the text below. It is signed "V" on the last page.

Bartleby & Co. is the Week 3 selection of Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos.)


Writing is terrifying. The mind is occupied by what heart and soul dictates. Doubts accompany every pronouncement and sentence. The structure of the prose makes impossible demands. Stumbling blocks arise from every awkward-sounding phrase. Writerly confidence evaporates. The tongue-tied draft discourages the careful patience of the craft. Literature is seasonally abolished. If I keep silent, who will hear me from among the invisible hierarchies of invisible cities?

This book, if it is a book, if it amounts to a book, is my stream of semi-consciousness. He, the other character, will introduce himself in the footnotes. Bottom-dweller, he will crawl the floor of the pages, searching out his company of terrified writers. He shuffles to fill out the forms. I have faith in his capacity as protagonist and agonist.

Robert Walser1, writer of infinitesimal codes, is not mere clerk of court. I laugh. Can miniature ideas be grand? I pour out these empty words. I pour this thought into the invisible ink. Uncle Celerino rests in peace. But the ghost of his nephew, Juan Rulfo, is wanted for a lie detector test.

When a thirteenth foreign language is understood, does it not rattle the tongue? Does it not colonize thought, adulterate the native mind? Go ask Felipe Alfau2. If words are nothing but hallucinations, then a poet's refusal to record hallucinations3 must be heroic. I can't keep silent on this point, dear Socrates.

This long history4 of non-writing complex, or Block syndrome, is a beautiful subject to write about. To dig more about it is to imagine an empty mental hospital room being occupied, by someone mad5 or lacking in vanity. Someone with incontrovertible introversion6. (Between reading and writing, I'll take the first. Between rereading and rewriting, I'll definitely take the first. But I hope the narrator in the footnotes keep up. I hope he opens up new grounds7 I lay before him. I can't withstand the formulaic.)

One specifically writes to not forget the atrocities8 of history. Nunca mas!

And then there was the case of Cadou9, starstruck with an idolized author. At a glance from Gombrowicz, he transformed himself into a piece of furniture. Some writers are not born to write, and some mercifully receive the No letters10. My annotator has been nursing his literary eclipse11 for some time. Next time we meet I must ask him if it was the solar or lunar kind.

What if writers draw inspiration12 from their disappearance? As if they write firsthand account of their vanished souls? Here's your cue, close reader. Put the soul in the footnotes.

Not writing13 is still writing. Once ink is set beside paper, the writer unleashed his desire to be the paper. Desire is enough to retain the purity of a blank sheet. The imaginary contents of a universal library14 are enough to bring the unwritten to attention. The best thing is there's no fine to overdue imaginary books.

"I don't know" is a good place to begin15 a speech.

Poets are vultures. This includes my understudy who seeks an appointment with a vulture16 in order to supply the missing dead meat.

I look in the mirror17 and see someone else. A voice, writing after me, below me, marching and trailing one after another. One, two, three, ...

If the mirror has eyes, what do they see in a mirror?

In between the thinking thought and the written word is digression18. Ergo, to not write anything is to digress, which is a form of writing.

One does not write, not because they prefer not to do so, but because one doesn't know how to. If one knows how to write, then during the time he can not write, he simply doesn't know the way. One rebels either from knowledge of ignorance or ignorance of knowledge.

I must exercise to cheat death and to write19 some more.

For lack of ideas, you may conjure20 up a letter. Or would you rather play chess?

I'm breaking my silence. I'm smashing the chains of self-censorship. I speak to you, character, creation. You are privileged to speak in the notes of this book. To structure its structure, carry on the imposture, trickery, charlatanry21. Only death22, not its impersonation, releases the manifold silences of a sonnet.

Imagination23 is plenty, but its use is scarce. Yeah sure, invent characters24 to characterize whatever it is you want to symbolize.

I think I know which of the two of us is fictitious, and which the original. Unlike Borges, at least I know which of the two of us is writing this page. Must you overcome25 the challenge before you. Know what is dangerous to your health. For one, the dramatic practice26 of silence without wit.

Writing the novel of denial27 is impossible. Useful tip to a young novelist of denial: preach what you do not practice.

Dear footnote-taker, I assure you, you have not the past life28 of a beast. Please make sure they didn't find out in the office that you fake your own depression. Else you're toast29. Do not prolong the story of J.D.30 anymore. Get to it31.


The literary genius, having known the limits of his literary imagination (i.e., none), opts to spurn literature32 for one reason. He can afford to do so. Only the non-genius tries and tries to type his mustard-piece but it always falls and falls short of the aim. Even heteronyms33 know their boundaries. Literary expression is insufficient, says Hoffmannsthal's "Letter of Lord Chandos"34, to embody human experience. Wars, for example, devalue language. Turn it into linguistic trauma. Mere stuttering35.

I shall lead you to relevant materials, dear Marcelo, pro bono36.

For example: Writing is inversely proportional to thinking37 (see Valéry's Monsieur Teste). If one does not think, where is the spark when I say I would write no more (after Keats38)? And Rimbaud's39 "Adios, letras!" And Broch's dying Virgil assailed by loud, individuated voices40 of ... silence. And Perec beginning his rap in the manner of Proust (maybe41): "Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way, in this neutral place that belongs to all and to none, where people write almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds." Be resourceful. Literature does not participate42.

I found my objective: to produce a text that makes the invisible43 visible. By writing about not writing, I pay tribute to the literature of the No. At the same time, I enact the literature of the Yes. There's no middle ground. No literature of Perhaps.

For this invisible book made visible, I have these as working titles44:

Non-writers Anonymous
Unlimited Unwriting
Club of No
Blocked Heads

In freely quoting writers, in commenting about their literary (mis)behaviors, the annotator has my imprimatur. A gaze45 is enough to read one's fortunes: publish or kapeesh, choose your own adventure. To live46 in what one has finally written. Ultimately the story is not owned by anyone. The copyright belongs to the elements47.

That Melville ended up a Bartleby48, an office clerk, is beyond the scope of the literature of negation. We hew exclusively to the text (or non-text). To silent conversations between writers49. To declarations, final, that the work of the poet50, though endless, is over.

"Not writing for pleasure" can be one of the best gifts51 of freedom. You ask, Who will answer when the knock52 of the book-that-begs-to-be-written comes at the door? Why, the writer-in-you of course. Take the case of the octogenarian Henry Roth53 who mercifully bided his time. He wrote from bondage – the bounty of existence – before calling it sleep.

The poet Juan Ramón Jiménez54, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Literature, could not bring himself to celebrate. The love of his life expired three days after the prize announcement. Stricken by grief, he could not bring himself to attend the awarding ceremony in December of that year. He relayed a message to the Academy through a friend whom he asked to read his speech: "My wife Zenobia is the true winner of this Prize. Her companionship, her help, her inspiration made, for forty years, my work possible. Today, without her, I am desolate and helpless." Ramón Jiménez suffered two more years of despair not even close to literary in this world.

Quite the opposite of Kafka who had the dogged belief55 that marriage is a condemnation not to write!

I once saw a film56 by Antonioni – who also adapted Cortázar's story "Las babas del diablo" – where feelings dry up like sweat during an eclipse. Feelings like the inspiration to write.

My character delicately asked me, Can a short story57 be inserted in a footnote? I think a novel can be made from footnotes, provided there's ample space and the ideas never run out of prose.

Another question from M: Are all writers practitioners of the theater of the No since, when it comes to it, all writers die58 and their pens and papers with them?

I roll my eyes. So are readers and their failing eyes doomed in that sense.

Borges's tiger59 lies in the realm of fiction. Thus, it's a non-tiger, but no less fearsome. I, the text, am the tiger (the idea of silent literature). The footnotes, parasites, feed on the non-carcass of the non-tiger stitching a non-novel out of its non-stripes.


Prolificacy60 is a really rather unstoppable quality. After winning the Nobel Prize at age 76, Saramago was still writing for a living. He was unstoppable. A writer built to last. To think that he once declared, "It was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say." This after he abandoned his second novel, Skylight, after being ignored by the publisher he sent it to. "I had nothing to say, so I said nothing." It's that simple. After writing his first novel The Land of Sin in 1946, it would be close to twenty years before he would re-enter the Portuguese literary scene again, and some thirty years before another novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, was to appear.

My disabled double has to produce some lasting impressions61 on his own. I worry for him (he's not sociable and is easily affected by normal human activities62) as an author of an absent book63 which is based on an absent one and based on the idea of absence.

"They say the first sentence64 in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway." Wisława Szymborska's Nobel lecture, "The Poet and the World", was touched by the utmost humility. She continued, "But I have a feeling that the sentences to come – the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line – will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry."

The totalitarian modus operandi of invasion of privacy is the most effective way to break a person's resolve. The Cuban Piñera65 showed a way to dramatize the resistance. Writing on it was almost as good a way to resist.

I feel like this invisible-text-made-visible appears more and more like fictional footnotes materializing out of some primordial soup of chance. Random referents originating 100% from the ether. But I must see this text through if only because I have gone on long enough. Delusions66 are free for the taking.

In the guise of a discouraging letter67, more notes to supply the subconscious. The void68 is the goal; Kafka shows the way.

Dearest A, my last request: Everything I leave behind me in the way of blank notebooks, bits of paper, news clippings (my own and others'), Post-its, anything unwritten, etc., to be burned in your mind. That they are blank is a telling evidence.... Yours, Enrique Martín

To mythologize or expose69, it doesn't matter so long as you set out to disprove my claims. I await rebuttals of unsound claims perpetuated like bad books70 on bestseller shelves. Readers are free tourists forever stranded71 by words traveling from page to page. Hypothetically, a novel is endless72 though it has to end somehow. With a period or a question mark or what eats, shoots, and leaves you have. With a hanging word or the symbol ∞.

Anti-readers can abandon their reading any time they choose. A clear exception is the Chilean poet who called himself the ideal reader73 in one of his poems. Ideal because he read everything he can lay his hands on. For him every word is sacred. He ended his poem with a heartrending lament: "... I'm asking you [members of the jury] to give me / the Nobel Prize for Reading / as soon as impossible".

Insert a Kafkaesque nightmare74 here.

"Become the night", says Emilio Adolfo Westphalen75.

Look at the white face and black body of the Night until you stop perceiving the difference between whiteness and blackness.
Since you will only know Night if you lose yourself and disappear in the Night – if you become Night.

I do not lack essence76 even if you will not acknowledge these pages. No, you will dream of them and think of them. You will enter an underground cave with words painted on its wall: "The last writer was here."

Then you will talk to your solitude in a soliloquy77. Contemplate hunger strike78. Wonder if a blocked writer descends from another. Wonder when will the real Thomas Pynchon stand up79, where did Simenon80 acquire the indefatigable energy to prefer to.

I'm not a key or master list. I just navigate the stream of a transparent liquid without oars. Mental or spiritual blockages are seldom forerunners of creativity, though they could spur one to think81. Of things like immortality82, thereby shielding the writer-thinker from trivial writing-thinking. The feeling83 for poetry comes and goes. But poetry abides.

Consider the many masks of B. Traven84. His reclusive life was built on multiple personalities. He took new names like wearing a shirt. He shed them just as easily from his naked self.

This is the penultimate statement85 for footnoting: To end here would be awesome. But no, Marcelo my friend. I don't need to convince you.

"It is a minor question of style, and of consideration for the reader," writes F. L. Lucas in Style, "whether (apart from mere references) a writer should allow himself to use footnotes." He listed two issues against this device: (1) they are distracting; and (2) if the author took more trouble, he could weave them into his text. But Lucas eventually concluded, "But these arguments do not strike me as very convincing."

The last sentence in a work is probably just as hard as the first. So I will end with nary a metaphor or word86.

16 July 2012

All'estero: Sebald syndrome 2


[mass noun]
a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.

late Middle English: from Latin, 'whirling', from vertere 'to turn'

Oxford Dictionaries

The narrator of the second section of Max Sebald's first novel was recounting a visit to a home for the elderly with his companion Clara. The recollection came as a digression from a previous remembrance of his visit in the very same spot two years later, in 1980. As was his wont, Sebald broke off his memory-narratives in order to enter other memories, shuttling back and forth in time, weaving a tapestry of many pasts whose collisions and juxtapositions induced feelings of melancholy and dizziness in the narrator.

Through the barred, deeply recessed windows there was a view down onto the tops of the trees on the steeply sloping ground to the rear of the house. It was like looking upon a heaving sea. The mainland, it seemed to me, had already sunk below the horizon. A foghorn droned. Further and further out the ship plied its passage upon the waters. From the engine room came the steady throb of the turbines. Out in the corridor, stray passengers went past, some of them on the arm of a nurse. It took an eternity, on these slow-motion walks, for them to cross from one side of the doorway to the other. How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time. The parquet floor shifted beneath my feet. A low murmuring, rustling, dragging, praying and moaning filled the room. Clara was sitting beside her grandmother, stroking her hand. The semolina was doled out. The foghorn sounded again. A little way further out in the green and hilly water landscape, another steamer passed. On the bridge, his legs astride and the ribbons on his cap flying, stood a mariner, signalling in semaphore with two colourful flags. Clara held her grandmother close as they parted, and promised to come again soon.

The narrator imagined his surroundings to be a heaving sea, a comparison brought about by "the steeply sloping ground to the rear of the house." (This novel was full of sloping surfaces and objects moving along inclined angles.) His vivid imagination transformed the home into a "water landscape" complete with foghorn, steamers, engine rooms, and mariners. The elderly became passengers walking infinitely slowly from one doorway to another. They seemed to tread slowly so as not to lose their balance. The narrator felt like "leaning against the current of time", the current seemingly like a force intent on destroying lives and memories.

Elsewhere in this section, the narrator's frequent travels abroad brought him face to face with strange events that he strongly felt were strangely connected to each other. The section's title All'estero (Abroad) alluded to the partly Italian setting of his journey, but a play on the word estero (estuary or creek) could be intended in a work full of references to water bodies (tidal waves, canal crossings, wave surges, lakes).

Interspersed with his wanderings were his ruminations on the diary entries of Grillparzer and Casanova, often reflecting about each writer's experience of injustice in the legal system and the imminence of death. He also saw several artworks, describing in detail the frescoes of Tiepolo, Pisanello, and Giotto. While seated on a cafeteria he imagined people around him as looking "like a circle of severed heads." He had a nagging feeling of being observed and, sure enough, when he glanced around he saw two men with their eyes on him. He believed that he crossed paths with them before.

He took notice of the news from the papers announcing the anniversary of the date on which an unknown group claimed responsibility for a chain of murders committed in Italy three years before. Looking at a receipt from a pizzeria dated the day after the anniversary, the word CADAVERO swam before his eyes.

Other misadventures followed the narrator in a later (1987) travel in the same territories of Vienna, Venice, and Verona. Once he was unfortunately mistaken for a pederast. At another time he lost his passport. A new one was eventually issued him, with a photograph crossed with a vertical black strip but clearly bearing the likeness and signature of a certain "Sebald". He also recalled the travels in the same waters of Riva by Dr K., and feelings of being followed by two men still assailed him.

He had conversations with a waiter about the story right before WWI from the book 1912+1 by Leonardo Sciascia. Salvatore, the waiter, said to Sebald: "Once I am at leisure, I take refuge in prose as one might in a boat. All day long I am surrounded by the clamour on the editorial floor, but in the evening I cross over to an island, and every time, the moment I read the first sentence, it is as if I were rowing far out on the water. It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane."

Later, Salvatore visualized an imaginary showing of Aida in a Cairo opera house:

Christmas Eve, 1871. For the first time the strains of the Aida overture are heard. With every bar, the incline of the stalls becomes a fraction steeper. The first ship glides through the Suez Canal. On the bridge stands a motionless figure in the white uniform of an admiral, observing the desert through a telescope.

That image was to be swallowed by fire, also conjured, breaking out in the opera house. Fire was yet another persistent image that leveled off objects and memories in the book. Fire and water. The turnings of memory are for ever threatened by elements, engineered by nature or man.

14 July 2012

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas, edited by Cass Canfield Jr., introduction by Ilan Stavans (HarperCollins, 1996)

The eight novellas in this anthology represent a diversity of Latin American styles. Each is retrofitted with a theme distilled from the writer's worldview. Each represents an articulation of the writer's linguistic brio. There is one work translated from Portuguese—that of João Guimarães Rosa. The rest is from Spanish.

As with any discussion of the novella form, the accessible introduction by Ilan Stavans notes the apprehensions surrounding a story whose length ranges inconsistently between a long short story and a short novel. What really makes a novella? Is it the mileage of pages or the wattage of effect? To be more precise, what makes for a Latin American novella? The scholar has an elegant answer:

   From the Latin American writer's point of view, a novella is a most challenging endeavor, a trial of will and muscle. It requires the meticulousness, the mathematical approach of a short story, each word sitting in its right place so as to carry the plot's overall effect; but it also needs the panoramic appetite and ardor of a novel, its wider cry and spell, to be properly effective. Parsimonious by nature and perhaps even avaricious, a [short] story succeeds by subtraction; its beauty is in its smallness, its delicate balance between brevity and scope. The novel ... is an anything-goes, hodgepodge genre whose main principle is addition ... The novella is far less flexible—"the middle ground," in García Márquez's words, "an addition by way of subtraction."

As noted also in Stavans's introduction, a useful reference point around which to gauge the effect of the novellas assembled before us is the period of la generación del boom. This Latin American burst of creativity in the late 1960s put many writers on the world literature map and set a new literary aesthetic and standard. The "Boom" is represented in the collection by Gabriel García Márquez, G. Cabrera Infante, and Julio Cortázar. The signature works of this fertile period (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in The Cathedral, Terra Nostra, and Three Trapped Tigers) still cast their awesome shadows.

Succeeding writers, those enamored by the spell of magic realism and intergenerational sagas, failed in their imitations of this generation. Magic realism, unfortunately, is the literary movement that has been largely associated with the Boom. Those who took a crack in overthrowing the old vanguards also didn't come up with lasting alternatives. It was not until the late 1990s and onwards that new novelists emerged from the shadows of their predecessors and made an emphatic generational break through works that better "explain contemporary Latin America" (to borrow the words of Mempo Giardinelli cited by Stavans).

The trio of Alejo Carpentier, João Guimarães Rosa, and Felisberto Hernández represents the preboom era in this collection. Collectively, their works are as varied and inventive as can be. Carpentier is baroque; Guimarães Rosa, avant-garde; and Hernández, surreal.

Ana Lydia Vega is the only female writer here, a reflection of what Stavans observed as a "male-dominated affair" in Latin American letters right up to la generación del boom. Vega's is the only post-boom response in the collection while Alvaro Mutis, while almost contemporaneous to the famed generation, writes his own restrained series of existentialist novellas.

Here are brief descriptions of the "masterwork" novellas included in the volume.

1. The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother by Gabriel García Márquez (43 pages), translated by Gregory Rabassa

Here presented in its full revealing title, Innocent Eréndira has the tired mannerisms of magic realism but is nevertheless engaging for crisp descriptions and forward plot movement. (It made me realize how some of César Aira's fantastical short experiments, such as The Seamstress and the Wind and Varamo, are but more whimsical variations of magic realism.) The story of young Eréndira was conditioned by the seasonal blowing of the "wind of her misfortune." Her abject fate was to be pimped by her ruthless grandmother to countless men. García Márquez relied on absurdity on top of absurdity to propel Eréndira's tale into an incredible and sad and heartless conclusion.

2. Ms. Florence's Trunk by Ana Lydia Vega (67 pages), translated by Andrew Hurley

Ana Lydia Vega's historical novella is framed by old Florence Jane's reading of her diaries stored in her ancient trunk. When she was young, the beautiful and timid Florence became tutor to the scion of a slave-owning household in Puerto Rico. Based on real life figures like the anti-abolitionist Samuel Morse, the grandfather of Florence's student, the novella is a sentimental period drama of family and racial conflicts. Feelings of loneliness, physical and spiritual imprisonment, and unrequited loves are so unabated and freely flowing that the whole sob sister narrative feels like an unapologetic subversion of female psychological fiction, racial inequality, and male swagger, all at the same time.

3. I Heard Her Sing by G. Cabrera Infante (53 pages), translated by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine in collaboration with the author

The tragic story of the obese and proud diva-in-the-making La Estrella, I Heard Her Sing (Ella cantaba boleros) is a self-contained excerpt from the Cuban novel Three Trapped Tigers. It is animated with the chic rhythm of the Cuban bolero and the angst of its outcast characters. Set in the pre-Castro days (and nights) of Havana, La Estrella's rise and fall is recorded by a photographer who spotted her in one of his bar hops and immediately recognized her latent talent, her naked a cappella.

Without any music, I mean without orchestra or accompaniment from radio record or tape, she started singing a new, unknown song, that welled up from her breasts, from her two enormous udders, from her barrel of a belly: from that monstrous body of hers, and I hardly thought at all of the story of the whale that sang in the opera, because what she was putting into the song was something other than false, saccharine, sentimental or feigned emotion and there was nothing syrupy or corny, no fake feeling or commercial sentimentality about it, it was genuine soul and her voice welled up, sweet, mellow, liquid, with a touch of oil now, a colloidal voice that flowed the whole length of her body like the plasma of her voice and all at once I was overwhelmed by it. It was a long time since anything had so moved me and I began laughing at the top of my voice, because I had just recognized the song ...

Cabrera Infante's sentences are serpentine, with a certain rhythm to them, and charged with cunning and punning. It's no surprise that two translators collaborated with the author to bring the novel into English. Not every passage sounds natural or unconstrained but the bearable lightness and the wit make this stand-alone novella stand out as a verbal triumph.

4. The Snow of the Admiral by Alvaro Mutis (67 pages), translated by Edith Grossman

The Snow of the Admiral is the first of seven novellas featuring Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). Like Vega's Ms. Florence's Trunk, it is an epistolary story consisting of the Gaviero's diary entries accidentally found by the narrator inside the pocket of an old book. This is probably representative of the Maqroll novellas as it references earlier adventures (that are still to be written!).

   When I boarded the barge I mentioned the sawmill, but nobody could tell me its exact location or even if it really existed. It's always the same: I embark on enterprises that are branded with the mark of uncertainty, cursed by deceit and cunning. And here I am, sailing upriver like a fool, knowing ahead of time how everything will end, going into the jungle where nothing waits for me.

The fatalist, world-weary voice of Maqroll is sustained throughout. His long journey upstream of a river as a businessman intent on buying and selling timber is rightly compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But his story is not so much about him as about people (reader included) who interacted with him and has gained insight into their own lives. The transformation of people around him matters more than his own. His journey is not so much physical as the spiritual descent of Jorge Luis Borges in "The South" where the nature of man is revealed by the flash of a knife. As long as the pages of this story last, Maqroll's story is immortal between the pages. The many aphorisms contained in the diaries are worth underlining and thinking about.

Although I console myself eventually with the thought that the reward was in the adventure itself and there's no reason to search for anything but the satisfaction of trying every one of the world's roads, they all start looking suspiciously alike. And yet they're worth traveling if only to stave off tedium and our own death, the one that really belongs to us and hopes we can recognize her and take her as our own.

5. The Road to Santiago by Alejo Carpentier (31 pages), translated by Frances Partridge

The shortest story in the anthology oddly feels like the longest. That is because Alejo Carpentier is a maximalist. His sentences are packed, no, choked with details, often dangling interminably, extended by clauses dependent and independent. Digressions happen at the level of the sentence such that one paragraph is like one novel already, and one chapter is a Proustian sequel. The story: massacres, indoctrinations, wars, escapes, invasions, plagues. I will have to reread as I failed to get the gist.

Next there was a battle with syringes filled with sea water; a pole was tied to the next of an infuriated dog, which broke more than one head with its gyrations; a blindfold man chased a cock tied between two planks and decapitated it with a single sabre-stroke; and when all this had become tedious and money had changed hands ten times over at games of quinola or rentoy, fevers broke out, people collapsed with sunstroke, someone left his teeth in a ship's biscuit already gnawed by mice, a dead man was thrown overboard, a jet-black negress gave birth to twins, some vomited, other [sic] scratched themselves, yet others voided their entrails; and when it seemed that the fleas, lice, filth and stench had got beyond endurance, a cry from the look-out announced one morning that at last he could see the headland by the port of San Cristobal at Havana.

6. The Pursuer by Julio Cortázar (49 pages), translated by Paul Blackburn

The story makes evident to me how much Roberto Bolaño's insouciance and improvisational brilliance in The Savage Detectives and his free style stories owed to the spontaneity of Cortázar's jazz. The pursuer is Bruno, the jazz critic and narrator of the story of the self-destructive, genius horn player, and heroin addict Johnny Carter. The latter is also the subject of Bruno's recently published biography. The entire story is framed as a kind of essay or criticism where the critic tries to capture the essence of his subject, if such a thing is possible at all. Johnny seems to be past saving. He hallucinates about "fields full of urns" (Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial?).

The Pursuer is dark and funny and emotional. It is my runaway favorite in this anthology. An excerpt:

This is not the place to be a jazz critic, and anyone who's interested can read my book on Johnny and the new postwar style, but I can say that forty-eight—let's say until fifty—was like an explosion in music, but a cold, silent explosion, an explosion where everything remained in its place and there were no screams or debris flying, but the crust of habit splintered into a million pieces until its defenders (in the bands and among the public) made hipness a question of self-esteem over something which didn't feel to them as it had before. [...] Johnny had passed over jazz like a hand turning a page, that was it.

That first Cortázarian sentence is surprisingly Bolañesque. The story's carefree attitude reminds me of Jean Rhys's "Let Them Call It Jazz." Near the end of that story the protagonist couldn't care less for any version of the song she first heard.

   But then I tell myself all this is foolishness. Even if they played it on trumpets, even if they played it just right, like I wanted—no walls would fall so soon. ‘So let them call it jazz,’ I think, and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.

The first version is the only authentic one, just like Johnny's life is the song only he can play.

7. My Uncle, the Jaguar by João Guimarães Rosa (39 pages), translated by Giovanni Pontiero

The story appeared in a second translation in David Treece's The Jaguar which also contained another brilliant novella by Guimarães Rosa called In the Name of the Grandfather. (It also appeared along with six stories by the Brazilian writer in Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story which I wrote about here.)

I find in Guimarães Rosa the same handling and concentration of language in César Vallejo's Trilce. The neologisms and archaisms, the visually suggestive puns, the auditory effects. In fact, the first difficult-to-translate word (nonada, "the slightest thing", literally "a trifle") in GR's celebrated novel Grande Sertao: Veredas appeared in one of Vallejo's poems in Trilce ("XXVIII").

8. The Daisy Dolls by Felisberto Hernández (41 pages), translated by Luis Harss

The Daisy Dolls is the kind of story Hitchcock would have filmed. The childless couple at the center of the story has a collection of life-sized female dolls which they dress and put in different places according to a selected "theme" for the day. The surface of Hernández's story is the collapse of a marriage in a suburban home. Underneath, however, is the encroachment of perversity on the normal course of things as the dolls begin to be treated as members of the family.

"Why must the transmigration of souls take place only between people and animals? Aren't there cases of people on their deathbed who have handed their souls over to some beloved object? And why assume it's a mistake when a spirit hides in a doll who looks like a beautiful woman? Couldn't it be that, looking for a new body to inhabit, it guided the hands that made the doll? When someone pursues an idea, doesn't he come up with unexpected discoveries, as if someone else were helping him?"

This tale of psychological tension is perfect finale in an anthology whose myriad ideas were single-mindedly pursued and seen through to their end, by writers and readers both.

* * *

As bonus track, I'm copying here the titles of "memorable" novellas that Stavans enumerated in his introduction. They are for him "prime examples covering a vast stylistic and thematic territory", attractive for "their individual beauty, their distinctive mood and joie de vivre" and the consolidated effect they give to readers: Esteban Echevarría's The Slaughterhouse, Machado de Assis's The Alienist, Sallarué's The Negro Christ, Carlos Fuentes's Aura, María Luisa Bombal's The Shrouded Woman, García Márquez's No One Writes to the Colonel and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Augusto Roa Bastos's Kurupi, Ernesto Sábato's The Outsider, Guimarães Rosa's The Opportunity of Augusto Matraca, Antonio Skármeta's Burning Patience, Juan Carlos Onetti's The Pit, José Donoso's The Closed Door, Vargas Llosa's The Cubs, José María Arguedas's Amor Mundo, Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, Reinaldo Arenas's Old Rosa, and Elena Poniatowska's Dear Diego.

The anthology appeared in 1996 and already felt dated from the lack of translated works ambivalent to the masterpieces of the Boom generation. Meanwhile, novella-length works that define their own aesthetic have appeared in translation in the intervening years. My reading in this genre is limited but I submit for consideration of a new critical Latin American novella anthology: César Aira's Ghosts, Bolaño's Distant Star, Clarice Lispector's Água Viva, Fernando Vallejo's Our Lady of the Assassins, and Luis Fernando Verissimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.

Read for the Spanish Lit Month, presented by Richard and Stu.

08 July 2012

Sebald syndrome

Vertigo by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (Vintage Books, 2011)

"Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet", the first section of Max Sebald's Vertigo, is a portrait of the French novelist Stendhal (1783-1842), based on his diaries and autobiographical works. It tells of his wartime experiences as a soldier under Napoleon, the destruction and death he had witnessed during that time, and the numerous love affairs he fell into and suffered from. The portrait also makes references to the inadequacy of his memory to record events. Yet memory is all Stendhal had and often he had to remember scenes and events from the vantage of different times under different psychological states. He is not usually satisfied by what his memory unearths for him. The discrepancy between what he imagines and what he remembers causes him "various difficulties", including vertigo.

Now, however, he gazed upon the plain, noted the few stark trees, and saw, scattered over a vast area, the bones of perhaps 16,000 men and 4,000 horses that had lost their lives there, already bleached and shining with dew. The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.

In this Beyle section Sebald introduces motifs and themes that were to recur later in the succeeding three chapters. The most prominent of which include the slippery acts of remembering and feelings of dizziness, themes that also haunt his other novels.

The section also makes mention of Stendhal's suffering from syphilis and other physiological conditions: "... his sleeplessness, his giddiness, the roaring in his ears, his palpitating pulse, and the shaking that was at times so bad that he could not use a knife and fork". His heart is gradually failing.

There is in medical science what is called "Stendhal syndrome".

Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. (Wikipedia)

This sickness is named after the writer as it was something he described as having experienced from his visit to Florence. Dizzy spells. These have been experienced as well by the protagonists in the rest of the novel's sections as they constantly travel and visit museums.

The "Sebald syndrome", however, seems to be a more general disease, a literary one. It's a singular affliction attacking a reader through free associative images, through stretches of lucid, lyrical passages. Schwindel. Gefühle.