Friday, January 28, 2011

2011 Best Translated Book Award Longlist

Yesterday the longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award went up over at Three Percent. I've been eagerly anticipating the release: last year's longlist, and more importantly the book-by-book discussion Three Percent hosted (and promises to again this year), highlighted a lot of books I hadn't heard of and promptly put on my to-read list when I did. I got around to reading a few of those this year--Death in Spring (pre-blog: but I loved it), Op Oloop, Rex--and I hope to get to a few more this year or sometime in the future.

I actually read one book that would have qualified for this year's list, Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees, but it didn't make the cut. Otherwise, I was already looking forward to César Aira's The Literary Conference after my recent read of Ghosts. The rest of this year's list I know next to nothing about, so I will look forward to reading the descriptions over the coming months and finding lots of things to put on the "to read" shelf.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ghosts

By now César Aira’s Ghosts (1980, trans. 2008 by Chris Andrews) has gotten a lot of attention and people have moved on to other Aira titles (of which there are a lot of choices), so I’m a little late to the party. It is a fantastic little book, deceptively short in that it demands pausing and letting your mind work over the densely interwoven details: not that the prose is especially difficult, although some of the more philosophical passages take time to parse, but anyone reading alertly will keep stumbling over details that suggest others in the book. Aira’s increasingly well-known writing method, wherein he writes a page a day and refuses to return and edit a finished page, shows in the way that the narrator’s focus shifts relatively quickly from one topic to another, or from one character’s perspective to another’s. Patri, the young woman who becomes the focus of the later part of the novel, considers at one point, as her mother and aunt shift among conversation topics, that it was “something to be marveled at, a challenge to belief: how is it that conversation topics keep coming up, one after another, inexhaustibly, as if they weren’t tied to objects, which are finite, as if they were pure form?” This comment is clearly self-referential to the book’s structure, but it neglects the way that all these arbitrary transitions build up into a chain of metonymic connections: passages that at first seem unconnected are nonetheless evoked as the book continues, and despite what appears like slipshod construction on a page-to-page basis, the novel builds a solid structure.

The novel follows the activity of a day at a construction site on New Year’s Eve when the work should be done but isn’t. In the morning the various future apartment tenants show up with their personal decorators to take measurements and make plans while the workers continue their jobs. By lunch, the tenants are gone and the holiday begins for the workers, and the book narrows to focus on the family of Raúl Viñas, who doubles as security guard for the site and lives on the top floor, as they prepare for the arrival of relatives for a New Year’s Eve dinner and fireworks. Meanwhile, throughout the book, ghosts haunt the construction site—ghosts whom only the workers and their families can see.

I’ve seen a number of brief interpretations of the ghosts, several revolving around their representation of sexuality (particularly to Patri, who is apparently sexually active but on the verge of being officially an “adult” expected to find a husband ASAP)—but I think in some sense this is opposite of the truth. My take is that the ghosts signify counterfactuals: that is, futures that will not come to pass, things that could be but will not. This is why we have the focus on the almost-complete year and the incomplete construction site, and on Patri’s almost completed childhood. The owners of these future apartments can’t see the ghosts, I think, because the building is going to end up just the way they want it, suited just to their (middle-class) needs. Likewise, to the extent that they suggest sex at all for Patri (and really I think a big part of the attraction is that despite their nakedness their sexuality is mute), it is against a narrative of growing up, getting married, and repeating the lives of her mother and aunts. The ghosts, in this case, suggest everything the life of a young woman might be, if she weren’t tethered to the real expectations of marriage and motherhood that are likely to push other possibilities into the realm of fantasy. Patri’s preference for the ghosts, at the end, is to me a kind of protest against life if life must mean a set path that she would not imagine for herself. My sense is that some readers may take Patri’s actions, as her mother does, as a sign of a problem with Patri, but I take it as indicative of a problem with her world that she sees and cannot solve.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Celebration in the Northwest

In keeping with my desire to read more women writers translated from Spanish, I tracked down a used paperback copy of Ana María Matute’s Celebration in the Northwest (1963, trans. Phoebe Ann Porter 1997). I find it strange that the University of Nebraska Press currently only has this available in hardback (and crazy expensive at that), and also that there is so little Matute available in English. I would like to think her recent win of the Cervantes Prize will help motivate publishers, but I’m not sure whether that will be the case.

The most enjoyable thing about this book is Matute’s rather twisted but beautiful descriptions and comparisons. Here, for example, is part of protagonist Juan Medinao’s perception of his mother when he is a child: “The black beads of her rosary, like a caravan of ants on a business trip to her soul, looped over her wrist where her blood pulsed erratically.” Or, on first encountering a young priest: “As he watched him, Juan experienced a feeling similar to that which came over him before he ate a baby partridge.”

About the story itself I have somewhat mixed feelings: I enjoyed it most in the first half, where it was harder to get a grip on the allegorical element. Briefly, the story opens with the involuntary and disastrous return to Lower Artámila of Dingo, a traveling mimic, whose presence spurs the memories of Juan Medinao, the owner of most of the region. Yet, while Dingo features briefly in the past scenes, Juan’s memories center instead on his evolving relationship with his half-brother Pablo, a local laborer whose mother had an affair with Juan Senior. It is here where the novel’s allegory starts to become clearer, as Pablo comes to represent values of uprightness, self-sufficiency, and independence against Juan’s position as a landlord who really does nothing and gets his sense of self-worth from religion rather than action. I’m sympathetic to the critiques of class and religion, especially as they apply to the context of mid-century Spain, but an unfortunate side effect of the way Matute approaches them is that moral goodness is equated with “perfect” bodies and immorality with disability. Moreover and because of this, Juan’s feelings toward Pablo comprise an intense jealousy and desire—increasingly sensualized and homoerotic so that homoeroticism comes to be identified with a lack of self-confidence and honesty. In the last half of the novel, this gradually chipped away at my pleasure in the prose.

Still, the book makes me want to read more of Matute’s work and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy some of her other stories more. She clearly has a wicked streak in her understanding of children, and I am curious to see how that plays out in some of her stories geared to a younger audience.