The OF Blog

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo/Red April

Con fecha miércoles 8 de marzo de 2000, en circunstancias en que transitaba por las inmediaciones de su domicilio en la localidad de Quinua, Justino Mayta Carazo (31) encontró un cadáver.

Según ha manifestado ante las autoridades competentes, el declarante llevaba tres días en el carnaval del referido asentamiento, donde había participado en el baile del pueblo.  Debido a esa contingencia, afirma no recordar dónde se hallaba la noche anterior ni niguna de las dos precedentes, en las que refirió haber libado grandes cantidades de bebidas espirituosas.  Esa versión no ha podido ser ratificada por ninguno de las 1.576 vecinos del pueblo, que dan fe de haberse encontrado asimismo en el referido estado etílico durante las anteriores 72 horas con ocasión de dicha festividad. (p. 13)

Police procedurals, or "whodunnits," are a very popular literary genre.  If crafted well, each scene, each character interaction builds toward something greater until the final revelations are made and the case is closed.  But what if this murder/mystery tale were wedded to political turmoil and terrorism?  What if coercion and covert sympathy for the offenders were to play a major role in blocking a case from being solved?

Santiago Roncagliolo in his 2006 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Abril rojo (available in English translation as Red April) manages to create a near-perfect melding of these elements.  Set in an isolated, mountainous region of Peru between March 9 and May 3, 2000, Abril rojo is the tale of a state prosecutor, Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, who is trying to solve a series of murders in his hometown of Ayacucho.  What Chacaltana discovers, however, is that the local people may or may not be complicit in harboring some of the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla/terrorist group that had terrorized much of Peru, especially the more Quechua-speaking areas of the mountains, during the 1980s and 1990s.

Roncagliolo develops the action carefully, utilizing several investigative interviews conducted by Chacaltana to provide context for what is transpiring in Ayacucho.  In these scenes, the citizens interviewed reveal only small fragments of information, leaving Chacaltana impeded in his search for justice for the growing number of people dying in the region, most especially during the weeks leading up to Holy Week in late April.  Furthermore, his efforts seem to be leading to more murders, as those who do agree to divulge information appear to be targets for the murderers.

However, there are some interesting twists to what might seem to be a standard tale of nefarious bandits terrorizing the locals.  Roncagliolo also presents a very realistic portrait of the senderistas through some of the testimony provided in Chacaltana's interviews.  This composite portrait, derived from actual court cases according to the author, provides valuable insight into the reasons behind the senderistas becoming dedicated to overthrowing the national government, as well as providing a glimpse into the appeal the Sendero Luminoso had for even the more privileged members of Peruvian society.  It is this sense of veracity within this procedural tale that makes each plot development in Abril rojo feel so vital.

Roncagliolo's writing is sharp throughout the novel.  There is a gradually building narrative tension that rarely suffers from longeurs.  The characters are well-developed and even though some might at first glance appear to be stock characterizations, there is a level of depth to them that often does not appear in murder/mystery stories.  Although the conclusion is slightly weaker than the middle portions of the novel, it provides enough detail and narrative power to make this novel one of the more enjoyable police procedurals that I've read in either Spanish or English in quite some time.  Abril rojo is one of my favorite Premio Alfaguara-winning novels and this re-read after an initial read almost eight years ago confirmed my original high opinion of this novel.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mid-December reviewing plans

It's nine days until Christmas, my usual drop-dead date when it comes to writing reviews for a year.  I have 27 2014 releases left to cover, most, if not all, in 1-2 paragraph length mini-review round-ups.  Starting after work late tonight/morning, I'm going to alternate writing 4-5 book mini-reviews with covering the final five Premio Alfaguara winners that I haven't yet reviewed (depending on when I finish reading them; might make an exception and cover some of these after Christmas). 

Starting with Christmas, I will spend the final week of the year covering various Best of 2014 lists, including a Top 50 out of the 160+ 2014 releases that I've read this year.  I have dozens of short fiction collections, works in non-English languages, debut novels, and other categories to cover, so hopefully this year's lists will be the most comprehensive ones I've posted in the 10+ years I've operated this blog.

Of course, as always with me, things can change...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Interesting article on the "clomping foot of nerdism" and the latest Hobbit movie

This weekend, The Telegraph ran an article that discussed how the over-emphasis on "realism" in fantasy (or to be more precise, the seeming near-elimination of "imaginative gaps"), especially in relation to adaptations/responses to J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, sucks the joy and wonder out of matters.  While I might quibble a bit on the discussions of Tolkien himself (I think it's a more complex case with him, although I agree that LotR has some significant flaws), I do find myself sympathetic with most, if not all, of the article's claims and statements.

Thoughts on the article?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Folio Prize longlist announced

There are 80 titles on this list.  I have read 27 of them (bolded).  Based on the 1/3 that I've read, this is a good list of what was memorable in lit publishing in 2014, at least in the UK (some US-only releases I liked better, but that almost goes without saying).  Here's the list, copy/pasted from this page:

The 80 books nominated by The Folio Prize Academy this year are:


10:04   Lerner, Ben
 
A God In Every Stone  Shamsie, Kamila

Academy Street  Costello, Mary

After Me Comes The Flood  Perry, Sarah

All My Puny Sorrows  Toews, Miriam

All Our Names   Mengistu, Dinaw
 
All The Days And Nights  Goviden, Niven

All The Light We Cannot See   Doerr, Anthony
 
All The Rage  Kennedy, AL

Amnesia   Carey, Peter

Annihilation   Vandermeer, Jeff
 
Arctic Summer  Galgut, Damon

Bald New World  Tieryas Liu, Peter

Bark   Moore, Lorrie
 
Be Safe I Love You   Hoffman, Cara
 
Boy, Snow, Bird   Oyeyemi, Helen

Can't & Won't   Davis, Lydia
 
Dear Thief  Harvey, Samantha

Dept. of Speculation  Offill, Jenny

Dissident Gardens  Lethem, Jonathan

Dust  Owuor, Yvonne Adhiambo

Em And The Big Hoom  Pinto, Jerry

England And Other Stories  Swift, Graham

Euphoria   King, Lily
 
Everland  Hunt, Rebecca

Eyrie  Winton, Tim

Family Life  Sharma, Akhil

Fourth Of July Creek   Henderson, Smith
 
How To Be Both    Smith, Ali
 
In Search Of Silence   Mackie, Emily

In The Approaches   Barker, Nicola

In The Light Of What We Know   Rahman, Zia Haider

J    Jacobson, Howard
 
Kinder Than Solitude    Li, Yiyun

Lila   Robinson, Marilynne

Life Drawing   Black, Robin

Lost For Words   St Aubyn, Edward

Love And Treasure   Waldman, Ayelet

Nora Webster   Toibin, Colm

On Such A Full Sea   Lee, Chang-Rae
 
Orfeo    Powers, Richard
 
Outline   Cusk, Rachel

Perfidia   Ellroy, James

Road Ends   Lawson, Mary

Shark   Self, Will
 
Some Luck   Smiley, Jane
 
Stay Up With Me    Barbash, Tom

Stone Mattress   Atwood, Margaret

The Ballad Of A Small Player   Osborne, Lawrence

The Bone Clocks   Mitchell, David
 
The Book Of Gold Leaves   Waheed, Mirza

The Book Of Strange New Things   Faber, Michel
 
The Country Of Icecream Star   Newman, Sandra

The Dog   O'Neill, Joseph
 
The Emerald Light In The Air   Antrim, Donald

The Emperor Waltz   Hensher, Philip

The Fever   Abbott, Megan

The Heroes' Welcome   Young, Louisa

The Incarnations   Barker, Susan

The Lie   Dunmore, Helen

The Lives Of Others   Mukherjee, Neel
 
The Narrow Road To The Deep North   Flanagan, Richard
 
The Night Guest   McFarlane, Fiona

The Paying Guests    Waters, Sarah

The Tell-Tale Heart   Dawson, Jill

The Temporary Gentleman   Barry, Sebastian

The Wake   Kingsnorth, Paul
 
The Zone Of Interest   Amis, Martin

Their Lips Talk Of Mischief   Warner, Alan

Thunderstruck    McCracken, Elizabeth
 
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour    Ferris, Joshua
 
Travelling Sprinkler    Baker, Nicholson

Upstairs At The Party   Grant, Linda

Viper Wine    Eyre, Hermione

Virginia Woolf In Manhattan    Gee, Maggie

We Are Not Ourselves    Thomas, Matthew
 
What You Want    Phipps, Constantine

Wittgenstein Jr    Iyer, Lars

Young Skins     Barrett, Colin

Your Fathers, Where Are They?...     Eggers, Dave

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tomás Eloy Martínez, El vuelo de la Reina

A eso de las once, como toas las noches, Camargo abre las cortinas de su cuarto en la calle Reconquista, dispone el sillón a un metro de distancia de la ventana para que la penumbra lo proteja, y espera a que la mujer entre en su ángulo de mira.  A veces la ve cruzar como una ráfaga por la ventana de enfrente y desaparecer en el baño o en la cocina.  Lo que a ella más le gusta, sin embargo, es detenerse ante el espejo del dormitorio y desvestirse con suprema lentitud.  Camargo puede contemplarla entonces a su gusto.  Muchos años atrás, en un teatro de variedades de Osaka, vio a una bailarina japonesa despojarse del quimono de ceremonia hasta quedar desnuda por completo.  La mujer de enfrente tiene la misma altiva elegancia de la japonesa y repite las mismas poses de fingido asombro, pero sus movimientos son aún más sensuales.  Inclina la cabeza como si se le hubiera perdido algún recuerdo y, luego de pasarse la punta de los dedos por debajo de los pechos, los lame con delicadeza.  Para no perder ningún detalle, Camargo la observa a través de un telescopio Bushnell de sesenta y siete centímetros que está montado sobre un trípode. (p. 11)

There is a relatively new cliché that obsession is more than a perfume by Calvin Klein.  Yet there is something beguiling, alluring even, about displays of obsession that draws people's attentions.  Perhaps it is our own half-understood realization that we all have our things or people that become our objects of fixation and desire.  Seeing it in others can be revolting as well, as though we are witnesses simultaneously something quasi-criminal and a too-clear reflection of our own most shameful lusts.  Yet, sometimes, we observe, perhaps behind some metaphorical curtains or bushes the obsessed soul in action.  We might feel helpless to resist, but there it lies, waiting for us to see how this obsession will unfold.  Sometimes, it'll be fortuitous, with the obsession transformed into reciprocal love.  Other times (and these can be the most delectable for us, loathe as many of us may be to admit it), the obsession crashes into disaster.

In Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez's 2002 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel El vuelo de la reina (The Flight of the Queen), the reader encounters a disturbing sort of obsession straight from the opening paragraph.  Camargo, the head of Buenos Aires' most influential newspaper, is spying upon a
young woman, a reporter named Reina.  It is not a Romeo espying a Juliet; it is a predator stalking its prey.  Camargo is double Reina's age and furthermore, he has all sorts of power over her:  his ability to block or accelerate her career advancement; his knowledge of an extramarital affair that she had; and his awareness of how precarious her position is in a society that has a double standard when it comes to issues of sex and morality.

It would be too easy to view Camargo as the villian, as after all, he has very few, if any, redeeming personal qualities and his lusts for power and dominance are not exactly heroic.  Yet Eloy Martínez, by having us see events through Camargo's thoughts and actions, forces the reader to confront these detestable qualities head-on.  Camargo is so blinded by his obsession with Reina that he justifies all sorts of nefarious actions in such a fashion that at times it is hard not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for him, controlled as he is by his desires.  But it is in a few scenes with Reina, leading up to the denouement, that we see the full extent of his power plays and the deleterious effects this has on the young woman.  Here is where Camargo's self-delusions and machinations are laid bare and the reader is confronted with the insidious nature of Camargo's actions.  Eloy Martínez manages to execute this so well that when the novel concludes, the reader is left with two wavering images of Camargo, each seeming to elide into the other, with the dissonance serving to illustrate how Camargo's self-image differs from the reader's.

Eloy Martínez's prose is excellent throughout the narrative, and he manages to shape through carefully crafted passages, nuanced portraits of the principal characters.  While Camargo's obsessed, mostly-malevolent character can be distasteful, especially when he is the primary character, Eloy Martínez manages to make other character perspectives feel dynamic and true to life.  Although there are a few moments where the narrative slows down overmuch, for the most part, Eloy Martínez's slow ratcheting up of the narrative tension adds greatly to the story.  While the conclusion might be a little "soft" for some readers, it too fits in with the themes of power and desire that Eloy Martínez explores to great depth here.  El vuelo de la reina is a very good novel, one of Eloy Martínez's best, and it certainly was deserving of its selection as a Premio Alfaguara-winning novel.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A fine quote for a Friday in December

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.  But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology.  The devaluation of the word "language" itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words – ignorance – are evidences of this effect.  This inflation of the sign "language" is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself.  Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign:  this crisis is also a symptom.  It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon.  It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, beginning to Chapter 1

Maybe I'll re-read it and write a review in January?  Would that be of interest to any?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo

 – Mamá, ¿allá atrás se acaba el mundo?

– No, no se acaba.

– Demuéstramelo.

– Te voy a llevar más lejos de lo que se ve a simple vista.

Lorenzo miraba el horizonte enrojecido al atardecer mientras escuchaba a su madre.  Florencia era su cómplice, su amiga, se entendían con sólo mirarse.  Por eso la madre se doblegó a la urgencia en la voz de su hijo y al día siguiente, su pequeño de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de la mano, compró un pasaje y medio de vagón de segunda para Cuautla en la estación de San Lázaro. (p. 9)

Some of civilization's greatest thinkers began their paths to discoveries by asking simple questions in life.  There is something of a child's wonder at what lies beyond the horizon, discovering whether or not there is truly an "end" to the earth, or if, as is stated by the mother above, that such a child can and will be transported to a place beyond current sight, a locale where perhaps conceptualizations of reality can merge with those of a child's flights of fantasy.  Such stories, both real and fictitious alike, can move readers who witness the development of that curious child into an inventor or trailblazer.

In Elena Poniatowska's 2001 Premio Alfaguara-winning La piel del cielo (a possible translation being The Sky's Skin or The Skin of Heaven), she traces the life of such a singular child, Lorenzo de Tena, from his impoverished youth through his struggles to arrive at where he seemed destined to be, an astronomer.  It is not the end point that fascinates as much it is the difficult journey that Lorenzo has to make.  The son of an out-of-wedlock relationship between a distant, wealthy businessman father and a determined, intelligent, yet impoverished mother, Lorenzo has to fight and scrape in order to follow his ambitions.  His humble social origins are repeatedly thrust into his face, as he has to battle in order to make it through into college.  He is for a time associated with Mexican Communists during his youth (the middle decades of the 20th century) before he changes course and becomes an astronomer.

Poniatowska goes to great pains to make sure that Lorenzo's narrative arc is not clichéd.  While he has difficulties in achieving his ambitions, some of the issues arise from his own sometimes prickly personality.  His demeanor and social attitudes can at times be offputting, but this is almost certainly intentional, as Poniatowska seems to be tracing the machismo roots of certain attitudes that Mexican scientists had during the mid-20th century.  Lorenzo's flaws, as much as his achievements, are a large part of what makes La piel del cielo such a fascinating character study.  It is difficult to make genius into something relateable, yet for the most part Poniatowska manages to pull this off and make it seem almost effortless.

Yet there are times where the story flags a bit, particularly in the middle sections of the novel.  Here Lorenzo's struggle does not feel as vital, nor is there a strong enough narrative "hook" to overcome this fall in the action.  However, this fall in narrative power only occurs for a few chapters in this book, as the beginning and concluding chapters are much stronger.  Likewise, Lorenzo's character, as mentioned above, can be polarizing in how he views the world and its people, but even at his least likeable moments, his strength of character shines through.  Poniatowska's prose is subtle in its depictions of character interactions and with only a few mild hiccups along the way, the narrative flows smoothly from beginning to end.  La piel del cielo ultimately is an interesting look at how genius can triumph over adversity without ever resorting to alienating the genius's personality from that of the surrounding environs.  It is a fascinating character/society portrait, one that is deserving of the literary prize bestowed upon it.



 
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