Tag Archive | Latin American literature

Book 105: Honduras (Spanish) – Los Barcos = The Ships (Roberto QUESADA)



From what I could gather there was more than one ship in the port and we would have to work until late. The ships were the joy of us all, we knew that when the ships arrived we would earn more money. And there was nowhere where you could get more money than in the ships. When right through the town the sirens that the ships gave announcing their arrival were heard, everything changed: the packs of children ran towards the seashore, the business owners became happy and closed shop until midnight, the prostitutes did themselves up in the hope that the sailors would come down, the souvenir sellers cried and ran from side to side along the wharf, the city seemed to be a different city. In the pineapple packing factories, in the offices, in the loading and unloading on the pier, everywhere the talk was about the arrival of the ships. It was the same on the plantation; before the commander had arrived, the comrades already knew that the ships had anchored.

[my translation]

Honduras sadly has the reputation of being the archetypical banana republic. And this novel takes place on a banana plantation. It is set at the end of the 1970s as neighbouring Nicaragua falls to the leftist Sandinistas after the interminable Somoza dictatorship, and US forces start to appear in Honduras aiming to undermine that new regime.
Guillermo works on the plantation but has higher hopes, he wants to write a novel set there. When workers there go on strike for higher wages, they are partially successful, but are then are forced to work at night without pay to fill the boats and make up for it. The boats seem to symbolise war (both the economic war and the real war).
The author uses different styles skilfully. There are some breathless passages, word on word with no punctuation. This well-written novel is definitely worth reading.

Quesada, Roberto (1963 – ), Los barcos, NY, Big Banana Publisher’s [sic], 2014, ISBN 9681501015267
Published in English as The Ships with the same publisher/year.
(First published Tegucigalpa, Baktún, 1988)

Book 99: Dominican Rep. (English) – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot DIAZ)

 

 

His otherworldly advice was too terrible to consider. Exile to the North! To Nueva York, a city so foreign she herself had never had the ovaries to visit. The girl would be lost to her, and La Inca [Oscar’s grandmother] would have failed her great cause: to heal the wounds of the Fall, to bring House Cabral back from the dead. And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a país overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinvergüencería as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.

 

Here is one of several novels I’ve come across which have been bestsellers (or even cult novels), which haven’t really grabbed me. When that happens, I tend to blame myself. Maybe it was spoiled by hearing the revelation about Díaz’s personal misdemeanours shortly before starting it, but I didn’t really enjoy this book. I’m willing to admit that maybe I should give it another go. But there are so many great novels still to read and I still have about a hundred to read for this project!

The ‘hero’ Oscar is a fat nerd doomed to unpopularity, one would tend to assume because of his appearance and personality, but he himself thinks it is because he has been smitten by an old family fujú curse. But you can’t help admiring his resilience.

A large part of the story is actually about his hot sister, who is also a real character.

Oscar is a Tolkien fan (the only thing he has in common with me), but for him the DR dictator Trujillo is worse than Sauron. Maybe it was easier for Middle Earth to overthrow the Dark Lord than for the Dominicans to get rid of Trujillo, who was supposed to have created the perfect dictatorship. (Speaking of which, my preferred novel about the DR is La Fiesta del Chivo ((The Feast of the Goat)) by Mario Vargas Llosa, although he is not a Dominican, about this assassination). Trujillo’s sister is a character in Díaz’s novel.

There are lots of Dominican Spanish words, too many of which are not defined, although they certainly add colour to the text! (The unglossed ones in the quotation above are: country, prostitutes, shamelessness, cutie).

But don’t let me put you off – I’m sure many people will love the novel (it’s obvious that many did). It is often funny, the slangy language is alive and the characters are sculpted in high relief. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance myself…



DÍAZ, Junot (1968 – ), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-17955-8 

Book 93: Bolivia (Spanish) – Palacio Quemado = Burnt Palace (Edmundo Paz Soldán)

The years were passing. Sometimes I remembered how my re-encounter with La Paz had been, when, at the end of the eighties, I came to study history at San Andrés. I was struck by the colour of the heights, between ochre and reddish, a limestone conformation that hinted that we were in a place little given to the somnolent manifestations of routine, and the snowy majesty of Illimani dominating the city from the distance…

 

[my translation]

Sometimes this project, at least the reading in the original language, seems like a struggle between encouragement and discouragement. Yet again, after the disillusionment with my Spanish when struggling to read Tres Tristes Tigres (for Cuba), comes an easy and enjoyable novel from Bolivia which restores my faith in my language ability. The same happened not long ago when Guinea followed Chad in French. It makes me hope that maybe it’s not me, it’s the books.
Oscar is obsessed with the presidential palace. As a boy he frequented the Palacio Quemado (the Burnt Palace), a labyrinthine, disorienting building, the symbol of the country’s lost governments, which received its strange name from being almost totally destroyed in an 1875 revolt. His brother Felipe had died there, giving him another level of mystery to penetrate.
His father worked in the Palacio Quemado as dictator Banzer’s Information Minister, and he himself ends up in the press office concocting inspiring speeches that he doesn’t believe in for the president. It is a moot point what he does believe in, if anything. For him the speeches are virtually only works of art, not something that represents life and death to the people. Nevertheless he seems to think that if only his speeches were true, Bolivia would be saved. The compassionate speech that he writes for the president doesn’t match Canedo’s body language, its failure is all down to him. Oscar turns out to be out of sync with both Canedo (who is a lame duck less than a year into his presidency) on the one hand and the people on the other (who are in a tax revolt).
His relation with Natalia, who also works in the government, is ambiguous, like the one he has with the government itself. She tries to open his eyes to how corrupt political life really is. When he goes into a slum the people there intimidate him for his supposed support of the government. Oscar’s own sister is on the opposite side of politics.
Palacio Quemado is a great look inside the unfortunate side of Bolivian politics, and highly recommended. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been translated into English.

 

PAZ SOLDAN, Edmundo (1967 – ), Edmundo, Palacio Quemado, Miami, Alfaguara, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59820-546-3

Book 92: Cuba (Spanish) – Tres Tristes Tigres = Three Trapped Tigers (Guillermo CABRERA INFANTE)

“What’s more, my word it was so weird. Boy, I swear I didn’t get a word of it.”

 

[my translation]

 

Cuba is where I would have been travelling this month, but I had to cancel due to COVID-19. (The second time this has happened when my book and trip were scheduled in the same month – see Madagascar). My best wishes to everyone there!

The title of this book (in Spanish: ‘Three Sad Tigers’) comes from a Cuban tongue twister and the whole novel is a word-play, I suppose that was its only point.
This cinematic novel was not an easy read, although I felt a bit better when my Salvadorian friend (who lived in Cuba for a while) told me that he hadn’t gotten much out of it at the first reading, either. It is written in a disjointed, often stream-of-consciousness style and is full of Cuban slang. It is a series of (as far as I could see) mostly unrelated episodes, in different styles (including descriptions of the death of Trotsky as re-told by several famous Cuban writers apparently in their own styles – I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of any of them, apart from José Martí and Alejo Carpentier). The one section I found enjoyable (and funny!) was in the middle – the incident of an apparently stolen walking stick as told separately by each of a US tourist couple who contradict each other on almost every point.
Among the many things I didn’t understand were why the character Bustrófedon writes strangely (e.g. mirror writing) but doesn’t write in real boustrophedon (left to right and right to left on alternate lines),
I feel as if I owe you an apology – perhaps I was too stupid to understand what it was on about, or need to read it a few more times, but on first reading I found it self-indulgent, (overly) ingenious, and show-offy. Nobody talks like that, in non-stop puns, no one is so remorselessly clever (and tiresome). Basically – I’m sorry to say – I found it annoying. Partly with myself – I feel I need to put more effort in to discover its virtue.
Some much more enjoyable Cuban reads (for me at least) were Cuba and the Night (Pico IYER) and Dreaming in Cuban (Cristina García).

 

CABRARA INFANTE, Guillermo (1929 – 2005), Tres tristes tigres, Barcelona, Planeta, 2016, ISBN 978-84-322-1780-7 (originally published 1967)

English translation:

CABRARA INFANTE, Guillermo, Three Trapped Tigers, translated by Donald Gardner & Suzanne Jill Levine, London, Pan, 1980, ISBN 9781536669657

Book 91: Haiti (French) – Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams (René DEPESTRE)

I died on the evening of the most beautiful day in my life: I died on the evening of my wedding in the Saint-Philippe-&-Saint-Jacques Church. Everyone believed that I had been struck by lightning at the sacramental Yes which had gushed out of my guts. It was said that I had been carried away by the fire of my consent, so powerful and true was it. I was supposed to have been hit by my own bridal thunderbolt.

 

[my translation]

 

Now we are in Haiti and in the world of voodoo, which originated in Benin, our last country! In 1938’s Haiti, a young French bride, Hadriana, dies at the very moment of making her marriage vow to Hector Danoze in church. Her death provokes a religious tug-of-war between the ‘enemy brothers’ of the orthodox Catholic church and the adherents of voodoo spiritualism, a microcosm of the religious situation in Haiti as a whole.

There is a forest butterfly, manipulated by a secret society, which poisons virgins and turns them into zombies. It poisoned the lemonade at her wedding. A sorcerer is believed to have taken her corpse out of the cemetery to make use of it.

Will she escape?

The tale is told by Hadriana herself, including her experiences after becoming a zombie! I had always ridiculed tales of zombies, but reading this beautifully written tale from Haiti where they are deeply embedded in religious belief – as with vampires, after reading Mary Shelley’s Dracula – changed my thoughts (to some extent…) Zombies are carefully (almost scientifically) described as people who display all the symptoms of clinical death, but are still able to use their mental faculties. After burial they are raised by a sorcerer to be subjected to forced labour in the fields (zombie-jardin) or an urban workshop (zombie-z’outil).

There is some wonderful writing, such as the lovely description of the butterfly-colourful local buses, tap-taps.

You could take the symbolism further and see Haiti (once the richest place in the Western Hemisphere) as a whole as the beautiful, promising woman who has fallen into zombiedom. On the whole, a lovely, disquieting book.

 

DEPESTRE, René (1926 – ), Hadriana dans tous mes rêves = Hadriana in all my dreams, Barcelona, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 978-2-07-038272-9

English translation:

DEPESTRE, René, Hadriana in All My Dreams, translated by Kaiama L. Glover, NY, Akaschic Books, ISBN 9781617755330

Book 76: Guatemala (Spanish) – el Señor Presidente = The President (Miguel Angel ASTURIAS)

‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.

 

This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:

 

‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’That’s odd’.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’

[my translations]

 

While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.

 

ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0

In English: The President.

Book 75: Ecuador (Spanish) – Huasipungo = The Villagers (Jorge ICAZA)

‘The Indians cling with blind and morbid love to this scrap of land which is lent to them in exchange for the work which they give to the hacienda. What’s more: in their ignorance they believe that it is their own property. You know. There they put up their thatched huts, farm their little smallholdings, raise their animals.’
‘Sentimentalities! We must overcome all difficulties no matter how hard they may be. The Indians… What? What do the Indians matter to us? To put it better… They must… They must be important TO US… Of course… They can form a very important factor in the business. The arms… The work…’
[my translation]

 

In 1930s Ecuador, building a road through the jungle should have brought prosperity and modernity to the local Indians, but landowner Don Alfonso only thinks of using it to increase his personal wealth. He robs them first of their labour then of their huasipungos (small plots of land allocated to tenant farmers by the hacienda/large estate owner in exchange for work), causing them to revolt and be massacred. (A more accurate spelling in English orthography would be ‘wasipungo’).
Icaza was maybe the greatest Ecuadorian author of the 1900s. ‘Huasipungo’ needs to be seen in the context of the indigenista movement (which was influential across the arts spectrum), which highlighted the oppression and struggles of the indigenous people. Its themes are exploitation by big landowners and gringos, racism (including the racism of the mixed-race mestizos against those with more Indian blood than themselves), class struggle, and the venal, collaborationist church which functions as part of the power structure and has been bribed into using the faith as a weapon against the indigenous.
The casually inhuman treatment of the natives as if they are not people is quite shocking. For example, in one incident, cattle invade the corn fields during the night. Don Alfonso thinks he’s a hero just because he had to get up in the middle of the night to do something about it! To reward himself, he rapes a powerless indigenous girl. They are basically treated like property, even the indentured labourers. These have been subjected to forced labour under the very real threat of losing their land.
Fuelled by chicha, a fermented corn drink (which is doled out to them like medicine), they are forced to drive the road through a marsh, against the engineer’s advice, leading to a horrific death.
The Ecuadorian Spanish spoken by the indigenous people is not too hard to follow, but is obviously influenced by their native Quechua which only has the vowels a, i, u, so that their Spanish loses its e and o vowels. The Indians tend to speak as a chorus almost like in a Greek tragedy. They are an integral part of the country, while the whites seem out of place and slightly ridiculous.
This important and engaging novel shows in black and white the long shadow that colonialism cast over Ecuador.

 

ICAZA, Jorge (1906-79), Huasipungo, Madrid, Cátedra, 2013 (originally published 1934), ISBN 978-84-376-1251-5

In English:
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers

Book 69: Chile (Spanish) – Eva Luna (Isabel ALLENDE)

“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Yes…”
“Often, child?”
“Every day.”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
[my translation]

 

I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.

The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.

I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.

 

ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X

Is publishing still living in the age of empires?

So, now that I’ve posted on more than 50 books, I’m about a quarter of the way through my project to read something from all the countries in the world. Since it is so much in the news at the moment, I thought it might be interesting, as my own personal little comment on globalisation (for what it’s worth), to see where the books I’ve been buying for this challenge were actually published – whether in the country in question, or, more usually, in the former colonial power. Of course, many of these books are translations, usually into English, even though I’ve tried to read in the original language wherever I could.
When I began this reading project, one of the minor benefits I was hoping for was to do a little foreign aid to support the local publishers and booksellers in each country. And I do almost always buy books when I’m in a country. But it has proved surprisingly hard to find local booksellers that can ship to Australia. So I’ve ended up buying most from The Book Depository or Amazon. And as for publishers, as you can see it is still largely the former colonial powers that are still in control… although the great collection of exotic lands proves that the USA is not as isolationist as it sometimes seems…
I’ll update this list every now and then.

*Acquired by me in the country itself
(You can see that a large number of the ones under “Published in country of origin” are ones I bought on my travels as souvenirs – books are my favorite and usually only travel souvenirs! Some of these poor books had been waiting patiently on the shelf for quite a while for me to get around to reading them!)

Published in country of origin:
*Australia
Brazil
*Bulgaria
*China
Denmark
*Egypt
Estonia
*France
Georgia
Germany
*India
Italy
*Macedonia
*Mexico
*Namibia
Netherlands
Norway
*Serbia
Spain, Catalonia
*Swaziland (? No publishing place given)
Sweden [*gift from Swedish person]
*Thailand
United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales)
Zimbabwe

Not published in country of origin:
Published in Australia:
French Polynesia
Papua New Guinea
South Sudan

Published in France:
Algeria
Benin
Burkina Faso
Burundi
Chad
*Greece
Guinea
Ivory Coast
Madagascar
Mali
Morocco
Niger
Senegal
Tunisia

Published in Germany:
Austria
Iraq
Kazakhstan
*Romania
*Slovakia
Switzerland

Published in Mexico:
Nicaragua

Published in the Netherlands:
Belgium
North Korea

Published in the Russian Federation:
Tajikistan

Published in Spain:
Argentina
Chile
Cuba
Ecuador
El Salvador
Haiti
Peru
Venezuela

Published in the UK:
Afghanistan
*Albania
Bangladesh
Botswana
Congo Republic
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Equatorial Guinea
Finland
Hungary
Iceland
Israel
Japan
South Korea
Laos
Lebanon
Libya
Malawi
Malaysia
Mozambique
New Zealand
Nigeria
Pakistan
Philippines
Russia
Samoa
Sierra Leone
South Africa
Sri Lanka
Sudan
Syria
Turkey
Ukraine
USA
Uzbekistan
Vietnam
Zambia

Published in the UK/USA:
Ethiopia

Published in the USA:
Angola
Azerbaijan
Belarus
Bolivia
Bosnia-Herzegovina
Burma/Myanmar
*Cambodia
Cameroon
Canada
Colombia
Congo DR
Eritrea
Ghana
Honduras
*Indonesia
Iran
Jordan
Kenya
Nepal
Poland
Rwanda
Saudi Arabia
Singapore
*Slovenia
Somalia
Taiwan
Trinidad and Tobago
Uganda
United Arab Emirates
Yemen

Book 49: Venezuela (Spanish) – Doña Bárbara (Rómulo GALLEGOS)

Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.

[my translation]

 

This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:

 

“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”

 

While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.

 

GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4