I can't think of anything else written during the 1500's (or probably in any year up to this novella's publication and perhaps a century after) that r...moreI can't think of anything else written during the 1500's (or probably in any year up to this novella's publication and perhaps a century after) that rolls along in such a delightful, accessible, irreverent and hilarious way. It would be tempting to think that the book was written by a time traveler if it didn't display such an acute awareness of peon-level Europe in the grimy era of indulgences, squires, etc.
A few tastes of our hero's voice:
"Rather than throw the rope after the bucket, the poor woman got a grip on herself and obeyed the sentence. And in order to get out of harm's way and escape malicious talk, she went to work as a servant to the people who at that time were living in the Solana inn. There she was subjected to a thousand indignities, but she managed to bring up my little brother until he could walk, and me until I was big enough to fetch wine to the lodgers."
"All I can say is that my new master had collected all the stinginess in the world and was hoarding it. Whether he had been born with that character or had put it on with his priest's cassock I don't know."
"I satisfied him on the subject of myself insofar as my talent for lying permitted. I expatiated upon my good points and kept quiet about everything else, for I didn't feel it was the moment for intimacies."
Lazarillo's grievous privations are hilarious because they reveal the failings of his social superiors without causing him any lasting trouble. It's not surprising (given the author's treatment of the Catholic church and other authorities) that this book was banned for quite some time, and it's a pretty good testament to the impact of its social and cultural criticisms.
Save this book for an afternoon where you need a two hour dose of good, old-fashioned humor; or use it to help introduce people to the notion that they might want to read things first written 500 years ago.(less)
"Lolly Willowes" is an endearing, down-to-earth fable of spinsterdom ambling towards a benign and solitary form of witchcraft. The eponymous character...more"Lolly Willowes" is an endearing, down-to-earth fable of spinsterdom ambling towards a benign and solitary form of witchcraft. The eponymous character is a fresh and welcome addition to the world pantheon of lady characters: her quiet, self-sufficient demeanor and her underlying stubbornness reminded me of Robert Walser's protagonists (notably Von Gunten) while Warner's wry subaltern humor and impeccable sense of decorum (and her sense of where it fails to satisfy) also suggested affinities with Walser's better long works.
This is easily the least overt, least preachy, most subtle and most memorable novel I've read that is primarily occupied with issues of female independence, ownership and manners. In its own way, it is feminist, provocative and subversive; but it carries a reader towards its conclusions in the company of a compellingly rendered, helpful and unassuming aunt-like figure whose intense desire to have some alone time in her later years seems more than a little reasonable and who faces a familiar and realistic array of banal obstacles.
Warner's writing is meticulously tight, capable of moving deftly between humor and compassion. See:
"They had already begun to weave a thicker clothing of family kindness against the chill of bereavement."
"But it was not possible to discover if it had assuaged his grief, because he concealed his feelings too closely, becoming by a hyperbole of reticence, reserved even about his reserve, so that to all appearances he was no more than a red-faced young man with a moderate flow of conversation."
"No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. If the boiler burst, if a policeman climbed in at the window waving a sword, Henry and Caroline would bring the situation to heel by their massive experience of normal boilers and normal policemen."
"Lolly Willowes" does slow down a bit during the third part, when I one might hope that strangeness and the devil will transport it to a different realm or tempo; but, the peacefulness and sedation is entirely in keeping with the character's own goals. (less)
Leo Perutz scatters small scale mysterious happenings and improbable acts of daring across the earthy and ethical background of this set piece on fate...moreLeo Perutz scatters small scale mysterious happenings and improbable acts of daring across the earthy and ethical background of this set piece on fate, judgment and redemption. Along with the exquisitely circular plot and the interwoven, parallel protagonists, this makes “The Swedish Cavalier” seem like a long ago entrant to the European canon of hijinx-meets-morality—tale from the horseback ages. A Robin Hood-like distaste for unscrupulous authority pervades this scrum of friars, brigands, vengeful law enforcement officers, peasants and nobility and readers are likely to find themselves rooting for a selfish rogue who shows honor among thieves while shaking his head at poor agricultural practices and dispensing bee-keeping knowledge to the chaplains whose churches he is robbing.
Meanwhile, the segway from one protagonist to the next and the desire to discern Perutz’s boundaries between magic, predestination and heavenly decree are all meaty narrative hooks—to say nothing of the love story and vendetta. Ultimately, "The Swedish Cavalier" has so few lose ends that it feels a bit airless and Perutz doesn’t seem to invest all that much effort in his language. He’s more like Arthur Schnitzler (especially in his shorter novels that also navigate social classes on a deteriorating national landscape) than the weightier and more mournful/poetic of his countrymen (say, Von Doderer or Musil). I may not seek out his other books; but this could make a good addition to a high school syllabus, especially as it would prompt some lively discussions of interpersonal ethics as well as national and religious loyalties.(less)
This volume of poetry is supremely accessible. While it would be exhausting and difficult to read straight through a volume by most poets, I glided fr...moreThis volume of poetry is supremely accessible. While it would be exhausting and difficult to read straight through a volume by most poets, I glided from cover to cover of this book in less than two hours. Oliver is so gentle and transparent with her readers, whom she directly addresses with great frequency, that it feels as if she is holding your hand on a guided tour (with dogs) through a country side full of singing birds and (somehow not depressingly) animal carcasses.
Since a search for meaning can be fatiguing (and fruitless), Oliver makes absolutely certain that her readers know what she is up to, both in terms of her aesthetics and her mission. (As I quote her, I will not be including tiny slashes to indicate line breaks, since she tends to write in fairly conventional and complete sentences and since her line breaks rarely warrant special attention):
"I want to make poems that say right out, plainly what I mean, that don't go looking for the laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves."
"It is what I was born for--to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world--to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation."
"What else can we do when the mysteries present themselves but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words that will applaud them"
She is a celebrant; she is full of praise and positivity. She is not ashamed to find ordinary things miraculous and to exhort people to "look" and to "listen" with the conviction that doing so is a life-saving (or, at least, mood-elevating) endeavor.
In this regard, she is a bit like a no frills Rilke, a less philosophical Annie Dillard or an aerated and slightly less overtly Christ-obsessed Gerard Manley Hopkins. Also, she is a bit like Francis Ponge, especially in her comfort with prose and her love for humble subjects. I absolutely love everyone that I just compared her to and was impressed that she reminded me only of writers I devour and never of ones that I reject.
Her dogged humility somehow makes her leaps of spirit more lovable and open, especially because she has an endearing habit of back peddling, now and then, after particularly bold or poetic comparisons, as if to make sure that her readers remember that she is not taking her words as seriously as she is taking her mission. For instance, "At my feet the white-petaled daisies display the small suns of their center-piece, their--if you don't mind my saying so--their hearts. Of course I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know."
Or, for her informality: "I have read probably a hundred narratives where someone saw just what I am seeing. Various things happened next. A fairly long list, I won't go into it." These appearances of a conversational tone ensure that everyone can keep up, they are inclusive and tremendously effective. They also soften the more critical edge of her worldview. Oliver has little time for moping, complaining, sorrowing--little time, in general, for people who turn inward and spurn all of the miracles/joy/beauty that are available for free every day of the year. "The poet with his face in his hands" is an absolute gem in this vein. And for a concluding line, how is "Be ignited, or be gone."?
This volume was enough of a pleasure that I will read more of Oliver (and I would recommend giving this volume to anyone: young people, your grandparents); but as the collection moved further into her past (only as far as the mid 1990s), I did notice that she seemed more rhetorical, a little bit more Christian in language (angels, lord, Alleluia) and a bit less warming and impressive in her lines about sparrow song. We'll see. It doesn't matter how she wrote, because she's clearly turned into a voice of affirmation, encouragement and wonder.(less)
Few figures in literary history have taken charge of their national development so bravely, so successfully and with such integrity. Wole Soyinka rout...moreFew figures in literary history have taken charge of their national development so bravely, so successfully and with such integrity. Wole Soyinka routinely risks his liberty and his life to oppose the decades-long tapestry of injustice in his home country of Nigeria. He does this while producing a well-respected body of dramatic works, moving and original poetry and seriously dense, generally autobiographical prose. Marvellously, amidst cruelly devised suffering and casualties, he moves away from cynicism and bitterness towards humor and celebration.
Various reviewers have faulted Soyinka’s sometimes challenging syntax and vocabulary, the slow start of the book and his focus on Nigerian politics to the exclusion of detail-sharing about his own personal life. Let’s take these criticisms in reverse order: Certainly, after 500 pages, I know much more about Sani Abacha, Babangida and Obasanjo than I do about Soyinka’s various children who appear very rarely without warning for a paragraph or two and I don’t know a single thing about any of the women that he sleeps with, nearly elopes with, falls in love with or marries. Wole Soyinka doesn’t sell out a single one of his friends, colleagues, lovers or family members to make his narrative spicier or more accessible. Given the exceptional public stature that he enjoys in Nigeria, his silence about other living, younger Nigerians seems appropriate, loving and forgivable. Indeed, judging by the treatment that the majority of Nigerians receive in his memoir, you’d rather not show up on his radar. Thankfully, the intense drama both of his personal struggles and of his (inter)national ones does not need recourse to romance or interpersonal sentimentality.
“You Must Set Forth at Dawn” does get off to a bit of a halting start. I certainly made a few attempts (over nearly a year) before I got hooked and I didn’t get swept away in world-ignoring fascination until the second half. If you aren’t totally out-classed by Soyinka’s learning and his form of self-expression; if your complaint is that he’s moving too slowly or seems to be a bit disorganized (and not that you don’t understand him), do yourself a big favor and stick with this book. I suspect that some of the narrative molasses derives from a sort of traditional structure that Soyinka confers upon his work, hinted at most obviously in the titles of the memoir’s “parts.” I don’t really care how this structure works or what ceremony of invocation, praise, burial or commemoration might underlay it. But I do suspect that something of the kind is active and that its activity does not accelerate matters.
I would be inclined to a bit more critical of pacing and artiface; but I think that it has something to do with how Soyinka makes his memoir simultaneously a testimony to one of his closest friends. Soyinka’s love and appreciation for Femi is touching and humanizing. Indeed the prominence of this unlikely friendship throughout the memoir is a wonderful tool for making Soyinka approachable. Femi, is jovial, practical and seemingly free from Soyinka’s intensely cerebral characteristics and rage. The consistent strand of memorializing Femi throughout the narrative is selfless and beautiful; a wonderful example of how to share narrative space and celebrate friendship. But, I concede, “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” starts slow and stays slow for a little while. Proceed. In all likelihood you will read the last 200 pages in one sitting.
I believe there is also something convoluting Soyinka’s syntax that is persistent enough throughout his prose writings that I have often wondered if it is not a grammatical influence of Yoruba. Soyinka’s sentences sometimes (once every fifty pages or so) seem out of order; their punctuation at first suggesting a way of reading that will not even result in a complete sentence or thought. It doesn’t happen too often; but it happens now and then—often in some of his double barrelled, flights of lyricism. When it comes down to it, Soyinka is good enough at writing, intentional enough, deliberate enough and passionate enough about his communication that I think he deserves the extra effort and attention that some of his passages demand.
Yes, he overwrites. The dramatist and radio personality is evident, happy to be heard and glad to reaffirm his wisdom and authority. Ever since Soyinka first stepped into prose with “The Interpreters” he’s shown that he clearly enjoys the freedom from poetry’s exactitude and relatively minimalist precision that prose offers, but that he’s brought along an intensely poetic insistence on freighting any pronouncement that he really believes in with as much weight, beauty or significance as it can bear—and sometimes more. And he really believes in the vast majority of his pronouncements. He is not an uncertain or indirect writer. It’s fire and steel, something wryly, earthily hilarious, a bit of ozone and oxygen deprivation and then more fire and steel. Though, against that intimidating characterization it must be emphasized, that Soyinka’s infectious and inspiring confidence tempers his assertiveness with an ever-present affirmation of life, of celebration. His love of wine, his willingness to smuggle a frozen civet cat via airplane into Europe for a banquet designed exclusively to cheer up some crestfallen countrymen, his glee at caper and intrigue, his distrust of those who cannot let loose and be wonderfully free, everything of this color and lightness suffuses the book and is one of the things that makes Soyinka exceptional. His is not a head held high out of stubbornness or self-righteousness, bitterness or simple will power. He is masterfully rooted, sure of the world and even of his nation, confident, it seems, that there will be more and more to celebrate and committed to playing his part in bringing about that preferable reality.
Some examples of Soyinka laying it on thick and lovely:
“The military had become enthroned as the new elite, and the level of fawning and jockeying to be merely noticed and smiled upon by any pretender in uniform already spoke of a nation that was loudly pleading to be crushed underfoot. The army was only too willing to oblige, the message ground into public consciousness—of young and old, big man and nonentity—that there was a new overlordship sprung to life in full formation, that the ragged boot of the lowest corporal rested permanently on that rung of the ladder where the hands of the civil engineer, the business tycoon, the university professor, the crowned head, and even the cleric competed for a hold that might eventually haul up the rest of the body one more step.”
“There would come that moment when the mind revolted. I would look around, listen to the conversation around me—a pretentious note, perhaps, a preposterous proposition, an artificial ardor, a comfortable liberalism or armchair radicalism—and the wine would turn flat on my tongue, my mind would go blank, leaving only the rebuke: What are you still doing in this place?”
“It is only natural that a bond should exist among ‘inferior’ beings, a silent but palpable hostility toward overweening superbeings. It has to be this current of sympathy that transmits itself to the potential victim, and the greater the danger, the stronger the current. It is not so much that they speak directly to you, it is a language in their body, eloquent, effortlessly communicated to others with whom they share the bond of this imposed ‘inferior’ status. Since they know what is happening or what is about to happen, they emit a silent wave of despair or anguish, a deep resentment, and a sense of impotence. It flashes past you, and your antenna picks it up—I think that is all there is to it.”
As Soyinka matures and grows stronger, as he becomes more resourced and focused, I had this wonderful feeling that my narrator was rolling up his sleeves with the intent to kick ass and the vicarious thrill was exhilarating. I had never properly studied the complicated history of Nigeria; but learning it on the shoulders of a man who battled to preserve the best of his culture and to excise the various cancers that it (and many other nations) suffer was easily the best way that I have ever learned the history of anything. Unfortunately, I don’t know where in the world to look for another figure like Soyinka, for anyone else that could pull me into the struggles of his country and make me believe in the thrilling wonderful privilege of celebrating a constant fight against injustice. (less)
When a novelist waits to the fading end of his career to write his memoir, there is a risk that he may assume that everything about his life is intere...moreWhen a novelist waits to the fading end of his career to write his memoir, there is a risk that he may assume that everything about his life is interesting to his fans—that his greatness in the world can propel a reader through any mundane episodes or trivia pertaining to his life (or worse, his intellectual development). I think it’s best to get this kind of thing out of the way with a first novel (“Stephen Hero” style), since the egoism of youth may excuse the tendency to write about the play you saw, the book you read, the performance of something in Paris, etc.; whereas grown, humble men frequently become aware that some of their reflections and aesthetic experiences do not translate well to public prose. Brink’s incautious, include-it-all approach to this dry, decades-spanning narrative is poor tactics.
After an outstanding belly flop of a forward, Brink manages sixty odd pages of action-packed, suitably colorful, somewhat standard narrative of youth discovering hierarchy, sex, doubt and art. And he does this with an even-handedness about racial matters that is exceptional for a white South African author of his generation. It’s refreshing to see the readiness with which Brink will reveal the cruelties of his own race/community and refreshing, also, that he doesn’t do this only to absolve himself of following it up with an even more savage account of cruelty orchestrated by black South Africans.
But then, pretty much from the moment that he starts rambling about tennis and the rugby in his bones (around page 70)—and sadly, at about the time I’d hoped his narrative would get raw and fascinating, shedding light on the South African counter-culture and apartheid opposition—his narrative focus unravels. Perhaps because at this point, chronologically, he becomes a notable agent, he sacrifices the art of writing to the practice of situating himself on the world historical scale by iterating minute and insignificant conversations, letters, non-events.
I tried to reconnect with this book for the next two hundred pages; but after a few paragraphs, I’d feel like Brink was rambling on, peppering re-narrated history with the odd personal anecdote that authorizes him to do so. He seemed to think I ought to be interested in this story and stopped using language craftily in order to earn that attention, stopped organizing his narrative into something capable of creating, holding and manipulating tension and interest. It starts to feel like he’s interviewing himself; it’s hasty and informal. Getting walked through each novel, the reception of every public pronouncement . . . not interesting. Not unless you are Wole Soyinka.
Compare “A Fork in the Road” to Wole Soyinka’s “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” and you will see what Brink’s book fails to be. Of course, Soyinka was more deeply involved, more personally and dangerously involved in the struggles of his country than Brink was in the affairs of South Africa—where he faced the odd hostile review or bout of censorship vs. Soyinka’s life and death hunter/hunted stance vis a vis a bag of dictators—and this makes Soyinka’s life (the raw material of his narrative) more interesting. But there is much in common with the literary project that the two African writers undertook and they both include stories and reflections of a non-suspenseful/political nature. It’s just that Brink writes lazily and with less humor and fire.
If I seem too uncharitable towards Brink it is simply because I am not cutting him any slack because of fellow feeling or solidarity with his good politics. Only a burning interest in this particular man, a devotion to South African matters (or a compulsion to finish what you start) could propel you through this memoir. (less)
Probably 60% of the books in the Heinemann's "African Writers Series" offer some kind of coming of age in a changing Africa and/or coming to terms wit...moreProbably 60% of the books in the Heinemann's "African Writers Series" offer some kind of coming of age in a changing Africa and/or coming to terms with expatriate/refugee existence somewhere in the world's hard to reach affluent countries. Ike Oguine contributes a mature, unsentimental and quick-reading novel to this collection. Oguine avoids preciousness, folklore and self-pity, which is awesome. In fact, his protagonist (It's hard not to assume this is an extremely auto-biographical piece) is far more agreeable for the straightforward way that he owns his character flaws. He's dishonest, opportunistic at the expense of other people and a bit of a non-producing tag-along. His lack of grandeur or tragedy protects his novel from the crushing weight of characters who are supposed to represent whole nations and generations. Granted, he does propose a theory about his generation, their greediness and poorly-focused vision; but it was a fairly fresh and non-self-flagellating observation and it had none of the annoying tragicness of the Ngugi's and Achebes, to say nothing of the White South Africans.
His way with words is entirely adequate and his dialogue rings true. He's not a poet; but he doesn't waste words and his text is consistently and bluntly humorous. For a taste:
"I was amazed at how his mind had completely revised the past like a Stalinist historian, retroactively awarding himself the friendship of people who had never hidden from him their contempt for and derision of him, transforming cynical bastards into nice young men and loyal friends with clean hearts, only a little confused and slightly distracted by matters of the flesh."
"I suspect his bitter face was responsible for turning Robo's mother, a pleasant enough woman, into a gloomy, nervous mound of incompetence." Or;
"It was somewhat comforting, in this age when you keep running into comparisons between Asian tigers and African laggards, to find an Asian who not developing or bootlegging new software or managing billion dollar investments, but was hopelessly thrashing about in a bog of failure; whose daughters were not precocious superwomen or specialists in some rare branch of medicine, but were regular young women slowly and painfully learning the lessons of love and pain as we all must."
This style and lightness (along with the effective temporal resequencing of the plot) makes "A Squatter's Tale" very approachble for audiences of different backgrounds and it does a surprisingly good job of revealing aspects of both Nigerian and Nigerian refugee culture--with minimal stereotyping. Its outsider's perspective on Oakland is also rewarding; it wouldn't hurt people who trash Nigeria to pick this up and see a sympathetic look at things (I kept being reminded of the 2008 U.S. market crash when the narrator describes the hard times impacting Lagos in the early nineties).
When I finished the book, I was wondering about how quickly it had passed and how in so relatively few pages and with relatively few narrated events it had managed to cover so much ground. I was not surprised to hear Oguine described as a short story writer; but I sincerely hope he writes another couple of novels. His country could do with a novelist who doesn't just get worse and worse. (You hear me Ben Okri? Get your shit together.) (less)
Alain Mabanckou already knows most of what’s wrong with his book. After a hundred and twenty odd pages of his desultory jabbering he lays out, nice an...moreAlain Mabanckou already knows most of what’s wrong with his book. After a hundred and twenty odd pages of his desultory jabbering he lays out, nice and clean:
“I’d write down words as they came to me, I’d begin awkwardly and I’d finish as awkwardly as I’d begun, and to hell with pure reason, and method, and phonetics, and prose, and in this shit-poor language of mine things would seem clear in my head but come out wrong, and the words to say it wouldn’t come easy, so it would be a choice between writing or life, that’s right , and what I really want people to say when they read me is ‘what’s this jumble, this mess, this muddle, this mish-mash of barbarities, this empire of signs, this chit-chat, this descent to the dregs of belles-lettres, what’s with this barnyard prattle, is this stuff for real, and where does it start, and where the hell does it end?’”
To this Mabanckou astutely addends a well predicted complaint about his complete avoidance of full stop punctuation and other standard structuring tools. In a book full of convenient page breaks and awkward run-ons where full stops should have been, his avoidance of conventional punctuation feels totally forced and unsuccessful; he lacks the grammar and flourish to pull it off.
Since I let him begin his indictment, I’ll let him begin his defense: ‘this jumble of words is life, come on, come into my lair, check out the rotting garbage, here’s my take on life, your fiction’s no more than the output of old has-beens designed to comfort other old has-beens, and until the day your characters start to see how the rest of us earn our nightly crust, there’ll be no such thing as literature, only intellectual masturbation, with you all rubbing up against each other like donkeys”
Great. Are we done? I’m done. I can’t handle quoting him anymore. I’d just start compiling his ham-fisted and incessant literary “references” with which he woefully oversalts this narrative and then lining up a few gross-out passages full of poop or quarrelling just to make it clear how generally unpleasant the whole environment of this book manages to be.
Now, I’ve read the bulk of what he’s referencing. I’ve enjoyed works that swirl around confusing, failed autistic drunks (Becket); I’ve enjoyed the avoidance of punctuation in favor of punishing, psychosis-conjuring onslaughts of strange (Bernhard); and I’ve enjoyed the literature of the African ghetto: Ben Okri, Dambudzo Marechera, Ayi Kwei Armah—even the less well crafted, streetier efforts by whoever wrote “Going Down River Road” and some of the Heinemann African series stock and trade (to say nothing of the “Palm Wine Drinkard,” which was lovely in its over-ripe and fantastical, oral-tradition of story-telling conventionlessness). But Mabanckou doesn’t belong amongst these craftsmen, these story-tellers or these punters. He lacks the vision, the technique, the patience or the purpose. When he drops a reference (or twenty in a row), it is as if he is just going through a list of famous book titles and figuring out the quickest, easiest way to refer to them before crossing them from his list—sort of like Joyce figuring out how to include the name of every river in the world into “Finnegans Wake,” only Mabanckou’s references aren’t embedded bones deep in his language while evoking meticulously choreographed and dynamic themes.
I don't think Mabanckou tried hard enough; the book was too angry, too uninvested and too self-assured. "Broken Glass" seeks-shelter and validity in its references, only to sprawl around on the floor, throwing feces and trying to be shocking. It has nothing to do with “how the rest of us earn our nightly crust”. This book is not informed by social justice or the working poor and it fails to underscore the superficiality of the cultures which it wishes to charm by slightly offending (while paying constant obeisance via cultural reference).
Yes, I grant you, that somebody who has never set foot in Africa may finish this book with a small and somewhat authentic vision of what it can be like in certain places—of the local bar culture and its satellites; of how some folks quarrel and what a rant might sound like in Doula. But if that was its goal, the book got derailed at some point and becames something more scattered and less revealing, something frail and sorry.
I’ll read something else by Mabanckou, just to be sure. But if it is also hastily constructed of referential scaffolding and muck, it’ll be the last.
And now, lastly and with a charitable heart, I have to rank Mabanckou well ahead of the heavy-handed moralists and state-sponsored, legend-regurgitating recidivists that fall seamlessly into heavy-rotation in African lit classes and high school syllabi. Go ahead and read him before you read another nationalist/symbolist piece of mindrot. Definitely, some young people might like him. (less)
This was my introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, chosen because it was the only book at an airport kiosk that bore a Nobel prize sticker where other ti...moreThis was my introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, chosen because it was the only book at an airport kiosk that bore a Nobel prize sticker where other titles were boasting of their sales accomplishments. I suspect that this was not the best introduction to Llosa, as it would now take a specific recommendation (or under-preparedness conniving with another understocked airport bookstore) to drive me back into his oeuvre.
“Death in the Andes” conjured an oppressive, dreadful and forlorn atmosphere with such relentless success that my spirits sunk slightly whenever I opened the book. This is a success in technique; but it’s a poor strategy for attracting readers. The book is sparsely populated with hazy, dissatisfied men, moping around or grimacing at each other, sharing awful stories of torture, fear and death or doing “unspeakable” things to one another in drunken backrooms all in overwhelming opposition to a thin thread of vulnerable love rendered less charming by the mewlishness of its weaver. There is little contrast in the shunned, threatened and hopeless space from which this narrative issues.
But there is some. Aside from the whimpering and hard-to-believe love story, there is a pure and wonderful vein of the subversive and potent carnivalesque: the bar owners cum sorcerers cum violators (italics deliberately withheld) who set the tone of the mining town at night are a well-crafted, dark and elemental presence. The obviously named Dionisio rants, “Not everybody travels when they dance or sing or drink, only the best ones. You have to have a will for it and lose your pride and shame and come down from the pedestal where people have put themselves. The man who doesn’t put his thoughts to sleep, who doesn’t forget himself, or throw off his vanity and pride, or become the music when he sings and the dance when he dances and drunkenness when he drinks—that man does not leave his prison, does not travel, does not pay a visit to his animal or rise up to become spirit. That man does not live: he is decay, he is the living dead. And he cannot nourish the spirits of the mountains either.” After a passage like this (which is nourishing balm after two hundred stoic pages), I put away my ten foot pole and start reading Vargas Llosa dust jackets.