Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, ed. & trans. Ronald Haladyna

This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.

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I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.

And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.

In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.

Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:

Alfredo Ages

The effigy sustained
by a thousand standard bearers
loses its force and colour.

The years attenuate
the militant rictus
and the great bully
looks old in the sun.

But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:

Still Life, 1

It’s not the partridges with their eyes
probably bursting out,
nor the bouquet of their legs
mingled with aromatic herbs;
nor the clay vase
that clearly shows
the prints of the fingers that molded it;
not even the dark,
irregular boards of the table,
whose veins and nodules still retain
the aroma of the forest:

not the old theme of appearance and reality,
nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes
that memory vivifies and recomposes:

perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible —
perhaps it’s the complete apprehension
of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked.

» I got the photo from Flickr; it shows the confluence of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná. The two rivers mark the border between Argentina (to the south and west) and Paraguay. So the photo is mostly Argentina; but it’s a nice image. It is © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a CC-by licence (although actually I think NASA photos are in the public domain automatically?).

Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos

An interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months before losing power to a coup d’état). He was a writer before he was a politician; Doña Bárbara was published in 1929. It is, of course, my book from Venezuela for the Read The World challenge.

I didn’t choose it because the author was president of Venezuela. I was more attracted by the fact that it has been made into a movie twice and a telenovela three times. And that suggests a novel with a good story to tell.

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It is indeed a rollicking yarn, full of love, lust, jealousy, dancing, cattle rustling, chicanery, revenge, murder, sweeping landscapes, colourful birds, and manly men riding across the plains. The portrayal of women is slightly more problematic, in that there are only two major female characters, and one is pure, virginal, innocent, passive and ineffectual, while the other — the eponymous Doña Bàrbara — is manipulative, ruthless, corrupt, witchy, and uses sex as a weapon.

To be fair, Doña Bàrbara is a terrific character, a sort of cowboy Lady Macbeth. Or Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches rolled into one. And in best superhero fashion, she is given a backstory of childhood trauma to account for her villainy. It’s just the contrast with the young Marisela which implies a rather narrow role for what a good woman can be like.

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Despite Gallegos’s later career, this didn’t strike me as a particularly political novel in the same way as, for example, a lot of the post-colonial fiction I’ve been reading. Although you can see how it could be a part of a developing Venezuelan nationalism, because it is very much a novel about a place and a culture; the plains and the plainsmen who raise cattle there. I could see it forming part of a Venezuelan identity, rather as other cowboys did in the US.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Doña Bàrbara notes that ‘it was because of the book’s criticisms of the regime of longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gómez that [Gallegos] was forced to flee the country’. So I obviously missed some nuances. I guess the portrayal of political corruption — even though mainly at the local level in the book — is the kind of thing that dictators get annoyed by. They’re a notoriously thin-skinned bunch.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. And despite the tone of my comments, not just as a slightly melodramatic yarn — although that was enjoyable — but as a literary novel. It has an evocative sense of place, atmospheric set pieces, strong characters. Good stuff.

» I’ve actually been to the llanos of Venezuela; I was there looking for birds. ‘Scarlet Ibis | Corocoras rojas (Eudocimus ruber)’ is © Fernando Flores and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod

This is the novelised true story of Elisabeth Samson, a freeborn black woman in C18th Suriname, when it was a Dutch colony built on slave labour. She became one of the richest landowners in the colony and fought a legal battle for the right to marry a white man, successfully arguing that Dutch law superseded the colonial law against it.

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The introduction explains that it is the result of twelve years of historical research, and I think that’s a strength and a weakness: the best thing about the book is the amount of interesting historical detail, but it does feel a bit like a novel written by a historian. It is solid but unremarkable as literature.

And perhaps because the personal stuff — the dialogue and the characters’ inner lives — is relatively weak compared to the background information which has obviously been so carefully grounded in research, I found myself always second-guessing her portrayal of Elisabeth’s opinions and motivations. Especially since there is a tendency for racial/social issues to be explored in a rather unsubtle way by being put in the mouths of the characters; they sometimes slip into talking in long paragraphs, as though they were newspaper editorials.

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There are of course plenty of issues to explore. So for example, Elisabeth is presented somewhat as a heroic figure, standing up against the racial attitudes of the time, but she also kept slaves herself. And her battle for the right to marry a white man, and establish herself finally as a fully respectable member of colonial society, hardly makes her a fighter for the rights of black people more generally. Cynthia Mc Leod generally presents her as right-thinking but constrained by her time; she was after all in a vulnerable position. But a less sympathetic interpretation might also be possible.

But history is messy that way; and she would still be a remarkable figure whatever she was like as a person.

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I found it engaging and enjoyable, although I was engaged more by the history than the fiction, so I wonder whether it might have been even better as straight biography. Maybe not.

The Free Negress Elisabeth by Cynthia Mc Leod (trans. Brian Doyle) is my book from Suriname for the Read The World challenge.

» All three images are from the British Museum. The toucan and the caiman are from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705; the toucan is by Maria Sibylla Merian, the caiman is attributed to her daughter Dorothea Graff. The engraving ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave‘ was engraved by William Blake in 1793 for the first volume of J.G. Stedman’s Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the revolted slaves of Surinam, after an illustration by Stedman.

Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Beyond the Islands is set in the Galapagos. It’s a novel in the form of a set of eight stories, each about a different character. Each picks up from where the previous one left off, and there is continuity and overlap, but they are somewhat separate stories; eight narrative arcs rather than one overarching one.

The translation, by Amalia Gladhart, is new, but the novel was originally published in 1980. And so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of the old magical realism going on. That term probably now gets used too widely to be helpful — if it ever was — but this is a late C20th South American novel in which magical things occur, so it’s probably fair to use it here.

And although I get annoyed by some of the novels that seem to show magical-realist influence — novels that insert fabulous or improbable events as a rather lazy way of trying to seem more interesting — in this case it works pretty well. Perhaps because it is central to the whole structure and tone of the book: it’s not just being used as a decorative flourish.

Anyway, I don’t have anything very interesting to say (it’s too close to Christmas for thinkfulness), but I did enjoy it, on the whole. Beyond the Islands is my book from Ecuador for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of the flightless cormorant is by me.

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

I knew that To Sir, With Love was a book about a black Caribbean man struggling with racial prejudice in 1950s London, so I was quite amused that the opening — his description of travelling on a bus full of East End women — reads so much like a white colonial Briton describing the natives of a third world country. It’s the combination of effortless cultural superiority and an anthropological eye.

The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck – they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants. Their cows were motor-driven milk floats; their tools were mop and pail and kneeling pad; their farms a forest of steel and concrete. In spite of the hairgrips and headscarves, they had their own kind of dignity.

They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me – a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted felllow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.

There was another particularly fine example of the type later on the book:

I did not go over to him: these Cockneys are proud people and prefer to be left to themselves at times when they feel ashamed.

It could be a conscious literary decision to subvert expectations, but firstly Braithwaite doesn’t particularly strike me as that kind of writer — he’s generally pretty direct — and also I can imagine a white British writer with a similar educational background writing in much the same way; like Orwell’s representation of the proles in 1984.

In other words it’s partially a class thing; Braithwaite was from a very educated background; both his parents went to Oxford, which I assume was pretty rare in Guyana at the start of the C20th, and he studied in New York before serving as a pilot in the RAF during the war and then doing a Master’s degree at Cambridge. But then race is always partially about class. The class structure is one of the ways that racial status can be monitored and enforced. And it was only because of Braithwaite’s race that he was doing what no similarly educated white Briton would be doing: working as a teacher in a grotty East End secondary school. He was rejected from all the engineering jobs which he was better qualified to do, often on explicitly racial grounds in the days when it was legal to tell people that to their faces, and fell into teaching because it was the only option available.

So that’s the set-up: educated, well-dressed black man takes a job teaching in a run-down East End school full of problem teenagers. And if you’ve ever seen a movie where an inspiring teacher goes to work in a deprived inner city school, you pretty much know how the rest of it plays out: he is stern but wise and passionate, and he overcomes their initial hostility and prejudice to teach them the value of education and good manners, and above all he teaches them self respect. And he in turn learns his own lessons, about not being such a snobby prude (although he doesn’t learn the lesson that if you’re a grown man writing about fifteen and sixteen year old girls, there are only so many times you can mention their breasts before it starts to seem a bit creepy).

I’m being a bit glib; there is a lot that’s interesting about this book, and it’s well written. But when I say it’s like a Hollywood movie: it really does read like that. And of course you wonder if it’s too good to be true. Clearly he is an impressive man, and I can believe he was an inspiring teacher, and I expect the broad outlines are all true… but for something which claims to be non-fiction, it just seems like it was written by someone who was willing to burnish the truth for the sake of a good story.

It’s not that I fetishise historical accuracy for its own sake — I don’t have much objection to things like characters being composites of several people — but I do worry that I’m getting a less perceptive, less insightful book if too many if the complications and contradictions have been tidied away.

To Sir, With Love is my book from Guyana for the Read The World challenge. I seem to have been harder on it than I really intended. I think it’s probably fairest to say it’s a good book which has aged badly. But there’s still plenty to like about it.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 12: Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

This is one of my favourite birds ever, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla:

Or in a more orthodox portrait:

They have a simple three-note call, and on a birding trip to Venezuela we encountered one individual that consistently got the notes in the wrong order. Which got funnier every time it did it.

» Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, perhaps my favorite blurry shot ever is © Andy Jones, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and used under a CC by-nc-sa licencechestnut-crowned antpitta was originally uploaded to Flickr by jj birder and is © John Jackson.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a novel about a cooking teacher whose first husband is a charming lowlife, who is always disappearing in search of wine, women, song and roulette, and her second marriage to an upright, responsible, devoted pharmacist who, for all his good qualities, is duller and more reserved. Especially in bed.

Having read the long and mildly tedious Island Boy, I picked it up in the hope it would be a bit more fun. It’s fiction, it’s Brazilian, all the blurbs on the cover go on about it being exotic, sexy, tropical, the work of a great story-teller… all the kind of joyous clichés you’d hope for from the country that gave us Elza Soares, Ronaldinho and the caipirinha. I don’t only want to read books reinforce national stereotypes, but in a wet London November, a bit of Brazil seems quite tempting.

And more importantly, it was recommended by a friend. So after some of the deeply obscure, hit and miss books I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, I was hoping for something juicy and enjoyable. Something that was not likely to feel like a chore.

Sadly it didn’t quite hit the spot. Not because it doesn’t have all those Brazilian clichés: it starts with a character dying unexpectedly during carnival while dancing in full drag, and the whole book is full of gamblers and whores and serenades, and sex and food, and humour and social satire, and a bundle of other things besides. Just reading my own description of it almost makes me want to read it again; but the actual experience of reading it wasn’t so great.

Not that it’s a bad book, but it didn’t ever quite grab me; and after 550 pages, any book that you’re not actively enjoying is going to seem like a bit of a chore. I’d be hard pressed to identify any very glaring problems with it. The characters seemed a trifle two-dimensional — particularly the two contrasting husbands, who might as well be called Id and Superego, or Apollonian and Dionysian — and the plot is perhaps stretched a bit thin; but it might just as well be that I wasn’t in the right mood for it and tried to read too much of it when I was half asleep. So while I’m not about to give it a glowing endorsement, I wouldn’t want to be too negative, either. Pathetically wishy-washy, I know.

» NOM NOM NOM is © Capitu and used under a CC by-nc licence.