Friday, December 30, 2011

Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico

When Borders was shuttering its doors several months back, I picked up a few books on the 80% off day, and one of them was Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico (trans. Esther Allen). It isn’t the kind of book they usually carried by their end (a translation and one by a small press to boot), so I can only assume it is something a patron had special ordered and then didn’t pick up. This turned out to be lucky for me, as I’d been wanting to read something by Marías without necessarily committing to one of the longer works that he is more known for. Bad Nature was a great introduction to Marías, I’m happy to say, and it leaves me wanting to read more.

The book is tiny, and much like Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon it seems like it should be the capstone of a story collection—but it is hard to complain given how delightfully excessive and funny Marías is as he explores the story of a translator hired to work with Elvis on a film set in Mexico. Something, we learn early on, has gone terribly wrong, and the narrator became a target:

No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with great deliberation, determination, dedication, and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score. It isn’t that someone has it in for you and stand at the ready to pounce should you cross his path or give him the chance; it isn’t that someone has sworn revenge and waits, waits, does no more than wait and therefore remains passive, or schemes in preparation for his blows, which as long as they’re machinations cannot be blows, we think the blows will fall but they may not, the enemy may drop dead of a heart attack before he sets to work in earnest, before he truly applies himself to harming us, destroying us.

This first paragraph goes on for a few more wild sentences, and then the discussion of all the things being hunted down is not like continues for several more pages: Marías revels in all the different ways he can think up to say the same thing. Despite the narrator’s description of a terrible incident, the novel is comedic, a long anecdotal joke full of humorous descriptions of the people surrounding Elvis and their bizarre behavior. Moreover, Marías makes use of this humor to deflate machismo (and its American equivalent): here, characters’ homophobia and aggression lead only to trouble.

How nice to end a year of reading on such a high note, especially after the bad taste of The Bad Girl.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Bad Girl

Having not read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa, I hopped at the chance to buy a super cheap copy of The Bad Girl (trans. Edith Grossman) a couple of years ago, but it had been languishing on my shelves until now. I wish I had let it be. I can only assume Llosa was given the Nobel for other work, because this novel is truly one of the worst things I’ve read in ages. It reminds me a little of Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and perhaps I should take note that both have the same translator. Does Edith Grossman only translate Latin American novels about a aging male narrator’s screwed up relationship with women?

The novel, in brief, comprises episodes in the life of Ricardo Somocurcio, an expatriate Peruvian translator living in France. Specifically, the chapters record a series of encounters (brief and long) with a woman he considers the love of his life but who nonetheless rejects him in favor of a series of relationships with wealthy men, every time with a new identity. At the same time, the narrator describes the political and social scene in each of these moments.

Part of the problem here is the tale of the tragic women, complete with a narrative comeuppance for her bad behavior. The other major issue is the social and political description. Both the romance and the atmosphere are simply dull-—maybe no word characterizes the novel so much as “dutiful,” in the worst sense. Llosa seems to feel obligated to show us that he is a very good boy and knows about revolutionary activity in the 60s, the sexual revolutions, AIDS, the changed economy of the 90s, but none of it carries any weight. It is just a series of facts and cultural observations, reported without passion or consequence. Likewise, the portrayal of Latin romance is like some ludicrous stereotype Llosa rehearses for the audience. Ricardo and the bad girl joke about his “cheap” clichéd romance. I suppose we are to think that despite its banality his passion is nonetheless true to life, but I found it hard to take seriously.

Even A Naked Singularity a had a few redeeming virtues: unless I’m pretty unlucky, I think Llosa’s novel will end up being my worst read of the year. At least it was relatively short?

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (trans. Jay Rubin) turned out to be a great post-semester read. Somber and reflective even while leading me on with mystery, it helped clear my mind of everything that had been cluttering it. The novel follows Toru Okada, whose cat and then wife disappear, as he gropes forward with nothing but the opaque clues offered by psychics and other people imbued with mystical attributes.

These clues frequently lead him to stories half-fabricated about Japan’s past in China and Russia during World War II, and the book walks an interesting line in evoking this past as partly responsible for the series of events involved without clearly revealing how this is so. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the various English and U.S. novels of contemporary families whose pasts, tied into major historical events, catch up with them—-novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But Murakami’s novel predates all of these and those like them, and it takes the narrative of history catching up with the present in a different direction in large part due to its embrace of fantasy and mysticism (or magic realism). Those other novels are written much more in a tradition of realism: full of descriptive details that reveal class and milieu, but also dealing with the histories more concretely in order to connect them to the present of the novel. History’s finally unraveled connection to the present in these novels pushes them towards realism’s comedic side: the past events may be full of trauma and danger, and their consequences for the present are not always happy, but they are finally fully recognized to humorous effect (White Teeth ends with the novelistic equivalent of the screen freeze you might see at the end of a sitcom when a final joke has just been uttered and has begun to invoke the ire of its target).

Murakami’s magic realism, on the other hand, invokes the past as a source of contemporary traumas but never fully explains the connection to current events, and the lingering mystery keeps unease in the air even when the novel’s plotlines resolve themselves. At one point, Toru Okada’s teenage neighbor May Kasahara writes him a letter that criticizes causal explanations of the world. It isn’t one of my favorite passages precisely because May Kasahara comes across as an annoying kids-say-the-darnedest-things character mostly meant to speak the author’s mind in a cutesy voice (not to mention she is somewhat creepily sexualized). However, it does speak to a key difference between this novel and those later novels that have become somewhat common, and as much as I like those other novels I think Murakami’s approach is more successful because it makes more demands of the reader by leaving you grasping for the connections between past and present—inventing some of them for yourself. Magic realism isn’t necessarily the only way to go about this, but it is fundamental to the way Murakami approaches the task.

As usual, when everyone else is reading the new release I’m reading an older book by the same writer. I’ve got a copy of 1Q84 on my shelf: I’m not sure if I’ll get to it very soon, but I’m looking forward to it after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle despite the mixed reaction it has gotten.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beauty Salon

I read Mario Bellatín’s incredibly short Beauty Salon (trans. Kurt Hollander) a few months ago now—the semester really got away from me, and I haven’t had much of a chance to read the things that I want or write about them until now. Bellatín has been on my list since Beauty Salon was published in English, and I’m not sure I liked it as much as I thought I would. However, I half-think this is because the story is sold as a novella rather than a short story in a larger collection. It comes in at 63 pages and a relatively small number of words per page--there are short stories that are longer than this. Perhaps this seems trivial, but I do think there is something about a short story that is different from a novella or novel, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that Bellatín is publishing this in the form that he is due to publishers’ beliefs about the value of short stories.

Beauty Salon is narrated by a former salon proprietor who has turned his business into a refuge for those dying from a mysterious disease, one that necessarily echoes AIDS in its progression but also due to the story’s setting in a queer community. And yet it cannot be reduced to AIDS either: the narrator intimates a street gang is responsible for infecting at least some people with the disease. As the narrator tends the dying, he also tends his once-thriving collection of aquariums. The story takes as an epigraph “Anything inhumane becomes humane over time,” and as it unfolds it focuses more and more on how the narrator, unable to do anything to really help these people, ends up making a habit of certain cruelties in order to make the situation bearable for himself--even as he awaits the onset of disease in his own body. Relatively early on he becomes attached to one of the patients until, he claims, he “lost interest” watched the young man die as indifferently as the rest. But the lost interest seems more self-protection than anything else.

All of these concerns pack anger and regret under a style that masquerades as spare and disaffected: a critique of a culture that has allowed this decimation of an underclass, but a critique that also points back to how managing the fallout makes the narrator, as a member of that underclass, complicit with the damage. Yet, dynamic as all of this is, the story feels at last more like a short story or peek into a larger narrative than a novella in its own right, and thus packaged for different expectations than it meets. Perhaps this is because simple waiting is so central to the narrative--to have any more of a sense of beginning and ending would betray something fundamental--that the story either would have to be very short, like this, or very long, one of those behemoth novels where the point is that nothing happens to change the situation.