Monday, December 10, 2018

Manuel Mujica Lainez, Bomarzo (1967)

So here's one you won't have heard of.  I discovered it via this list of "books you didn't even known existed in translation," which seems like a bit of an odd way to title that: if I knew about any of these books, period, I probably would've idly checked to see if there were English translations.  As it happens, however, I didn't know about them, in any language, and indeed I was only aware of one of the authors (Nikos Kazantzakis).  Some of them looked more interesting to me than others, but for whatever reason, I chose this one to read.  Well, I say "whatever reason," but there are perfectly straightforward reasons: I was still sort of on an incipient Latin-American-Boom kick, for one, and the fact that this was translated by none other than Gregory Rabassa certainly didn't hurt.  But then there were also economic reasons, which probably don't say good things about how capitalism makes us act: so I looked the book up on the usual sites, and I saw that, for whatever reason, the gods of the free market had decided that the minimum price for used copies should be seventy dollars.  Now...I wasn't likely to pay that kind of money for a book completely on spec.  But when I idly looked on ebay and found a copy available for only twenty-five...well, comparatively it just seemed like such a deal that I couldn't resist it (it had been there for a while, and the fact that it hadn't been snapped up indicated to me that the odds of those seventy-dollar copies selling is somewhat slim).  Blah.
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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Bilge Karasu, The Garden of Departed Cats (1979)

Turkish literature: it's more of a thing than I was aware of. I think it's for a variety of reasons that I wasn't more aware of it: Turkey is at least partially a European country, but it feels kind of separate. The people speak a non-Indo-European language that few outsiders learn because--unlike, say, Japan--the country doesn't have much economic impact in the larger world and its pop culture hasn't caught on internationally. And, really, who KNOWS anything about it? I mean, aside from the fact that if you've a date in Constantinople she'll be waiting in Istanbul? If anything, you'd probably associate it more with epic poetry than you would modern and contemporary novels, and if it sounds like I'm trying to dance around sounding vaguely racist, yeah, fair cop, though for whatever it's worth, I've had a number of Turkish students who described their country as being on the border between "traditional" and "modern" cultures, or words to that effect.
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Monday, November 05, 2018

Harry Mathews, Tlooth (1966)

So I gave Mathews' first novel, The Conversions, a kind of mutedly positive review, but in reading his second, Tlooth, I started to think that I hadn't quite given Mathews his due. Because this kind of sort of anti-novelistic thing, filled with digressive shaggy dog stories, religious arcana, and postmodern conspiracy theories really seems quite groundbreaking. He is, as I noted, doing a somewhat similar thing to what Pynchon did in The Crying of Lot 49, but I think it's most likely more a case of convergent evolution than anyone consciously copying anyone. Whatever the case, as far as I know, there was really nothing like it at the time, in English, at least (what do you want to bet there was some never-translated thing in some Eastern European language?). I don't know what you would've made of this at the time, and the influence on Perec--which perhaps should've been obvious from the tribute I noted--is really enormous. Also, while I complained about the kind of bland, matter-of-fact style at the time, that style combined with all this bizarreness really does create an Effect. No denying it. Very impressive.

So the story of Tlooth, such as it is, is that the narrator is a former violinist whose career was cut short by having had part of his hand cut off by a doctor to provide meat for a cannibalistic deli. Currently, the both of them are in a Soviet prison camp with sections divided according to obscure religious sect. After several failed Rube-Goldberg-esque assassination attempts fail, the doctor, Roak, escapes, our narrator and some others in hot pursuit (okay, "hot" would be pushing it). They traverse Asia and many strange tales of questionable relevance are related. The narrator ends up in Italy, where there are several unbelievably obscene fantasias that turn out to be the scenario that he(?)'s been hired to write for a pornographic movie. He chases Roak some more, to India and Morocco. Things end very inscrutably and anti-climactically. And that is that.

Here's the thing: as I said, I feel like I really started to appreciate Mathews more as I read this novel, but that appreciation does not, in this case, translate into actually liking him any more. His writing remains very dry and alienating, and even if that's the intent, it fails to fascinate me. Don't get me wrong; I love Mathews in theory. It's just that when we get to praxis, things start to get a little more dicey.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Erje Ayden, Confessions of a Nowaday Child (1966)

Let us raise a glass to Tough Poets Press, which--as far as I can conceive--is the smallest theoretically possible press: it's just A Guy, name of Rick Schober, who specializes in reprints of quirky, obscure, and long-out-of-print books--just my thing. Apparently, it's perfectly viable to do this just by getting ~six hundred dollars of support per book on Kickstarter: this allows for books to obtain an ISBN number, be printed and--I think; I'm certainly not an expert--to stay in print indefinitely via print-on-demand technology. It's really cool.
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Thursday, November 01, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, War of Time (1956)

Why do the short stories always come last? Well, here they come. There are five of them, and there is never a dull moment. You just don't know what's coming next; what Carpentier has planned for you. The first one, "The Highroad of Saint James," is probably also the most normal. It concerns a Spanish pilgrim in...I wanna say the seventeenth century...who gets distracted from his mission by the New World and all its allure, which nonetheless does not turn out to be as alluring as one might hope. And then he lures someone with the same name as him to go in turn, in a cyclical kind of thing. It's very vivid, as you'd expect given the author, but man, the protagonist is such a little shit--nothing but racism and misogyny--that...ah. Fuck 'im, I say! It's...I don't know, by Carpentier standards, it seems like kind of a normal historical thing.
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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State (1974)

Yes! So now we come to this one--the book about a Latin American dictator that Carpentier wrote as part of a deal with García Márquez and Roa Bastos that led to those two writing Autumn of the Patriarch and I the Supreme respectively. Gotta finish the epic trilogy!
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, Baroque Concerto (1974)

In this novella, a Mexican nobleman and his black page, Filomeno in the early eighteenth century take a trip to Europe. After some general whoring around, they go to Italy for a festival, where they happen to run into three of the most prominent composers of the time, Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, and George Frideric Handel (who apparently really did have a meet-up around this time, though not, I'm thinking, in this context), and hold an impromptu concert. The (unnamed) Mexican is dressed as Montezuma as part of this carnivalesque celebration, and this inspires Vivaldi's opera of that title, which takes extreme liberties with the historical context as it synthesizes the Old World and New. This is the most blatantly fantastic of Carpentier's works that I've read so far: time and artistic endeavor start blurring together: there are references to Stravinsky and Wagner, and the novella ends with Filomeno in attendance at a Louis Armstrong concert.

This is one of Carpentier's more obscure books, at least in English; the translation seems to be long out-of-print, and goodreads doesn't even have the cover picture (of Fernando Botero's "Dancing in Columbia") on file. I'm not entirely sure what my Official Opinion here ought to be. On the one hand, I really do like the level of oddness, which, as I say, I've never seen in Carpentier before. On the other hand, I can't help feeling that it's a little...I don't know, slight? On the third hand, that may well be criticizing it for being a novella instead of a novel, which doesn't seem to make much sense. And, I mean, what it does, it does well. I mean, it's Carpentier; what do you expect? If anything you've gotta wish that he had permitted himself to go nuts more often. It sure lingers in your mind.