Samanta Schweblin ‘Fever Dream’

—There are children of all ages. It’s very hard to see. I hunch down over the steering wheel. Are there healthy children too, in the town?IMG_1080 There are some, yes. Do they go to school? Yes. But around here there aren’t many children who are born right.

Amanda is on holiday in the countryside in Argentina with her daughter Nina, Schweblin’s rurality is  dangerous, she paints us a picture full of anguish and worry heightened by the storytelling process, with Amanda lying in bed in a feverish state with a short time to live explaining events to David, a child, who is pushing her to remember when it all started, the key moment, when everything changed.

First of all, who is Amanda, and why does she have this notion of rescue distance to her daughter, measured by an invisible rope, so firmly ensconced in her, what family secret lies behind this notion:

—My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things.

Amanda begins by telling the story of David, which she had heard from David’s mother Carla, about David suddenly becoming  ill and Carla, in an attempt to save him, taking him to the local healer’s green shack where his body and his mind are separated to enable him to live on, with his parents then no longer recognising him. We later understand that this is not a one off event and that in this isolated community everyone consults the healer and that animals as well as people are concerned:

—Carla thinks it is all related to the children in the waiting room, to the death of the horses, the dog, and the ducks, and to the son who is no longer her son but who goes on living in her house. Carla believes it is all her fault, that changing me that afternoon from one body to another body has changed something else. Something small and invisible that has ruined everything.

What are in the plastic drums used on the nearby farm? One of which, left on the grass near where Nina was playing, Amanda manages to trace back to the point when everything changes. Schweblin’s story is a mystical account of an insidious ecological disaster:

—Yes. But the nurse’s son, the children who come to this room, aren’t they kids who’ve been poisoned? How can a mother not realize?
—Not all of them go through poisoning episodes. Some of them were born already poisoned, from something their mothers breathed in the air, or ate or touched.

First Published in Spanish as “Distancia de Rescate” in 2015 by Literatura Random House
Translated into English by Megan McDowell as “Fever Dream” and published by Oneworld in 2017
Translated into French by Aurore Touya as “Toxique” and published by Gallimard in 2017

Lorenzo Silva ‘Une Femme Suspendue’

-I’ll give you a good tip, Rubén. It was the girl friend that did it, in a rush of anger, and your job is to piece together a coherent explanation.***

At the end of the nineties, Lorenzo Silva penned this, the first in an award winning series of crime books, seven to date, featuring Sergeant Bevilacqua and his assistant Chamorro of the ‘Guardia Civil’.image This story, ‘The Hanging Woman’ read in French, takes place in the holiday resorts of Majorca, A young and rich Austrian woman is found hung from the ceiling of a holiday villa with two bullet holes in her head, and the murder weapon is found nearby with the villas occupant, her vanished girl friend’s prints on the handle. The investigation seems cut and dry as the initial quote tells us. This book was read for Spanish lit month 2016.

I’ve said all I’ll say about the intrigue, the interest for me was in the two ‘Guardia Civil’ characters, Silva caught what I would imagine to be a military police atmosphere, Bevilacqua and Chamorro operating in a background of rules and obedience, the following exchange between the two Guardia Civil officers illustrates this:

-You should know that as long as you’re with me, if anyone criticises what you are doing or how you do it will be as if they are spitting in my face. And I can assure you that when someone spits in my face I’m pitiless….
-Understood sergeant! I’ll not mention it again.

As they went undercover Silva had me laughing at times such as when these two uniformed police officers were required to spend time on a nudist beach, and he describes their discomfort with the idea, which they hide by military abruptness:

-Once on the beach I indicated to my subordinate. Over there and let’s try not to draw attention to ourselves
My assistant seemed confused
-Come on, Chamorro! I haven’t brought a camera.
But this didn’t seem to be the problem
-listen, I said trying to make things more acceptable, me too I’m feeling the same embarrassment as you. I wasn’t brought up by the clergy, but my mother didn’t walk around the house naked either. Let’s just carry on as if there wasn’t a problem and think no more of it.

This was not a must read crime book but it’s dry humour made me smile, one of this series is available in English, ‘The Faint-Hearted Bolshevik’.

First Published in Spanish as “El Lejano Paìs de los Estanques” by Destino in 1998
Translated into French by Dominique Lepreux as ‘Une Femme Suspendue’ and published by Lattès in 2000
*** My translation

J. Á. González Sainz ‘None So Blind’

‘The entire linguistic topography of threats and intimidation encapsulated in expressions—preceded by silences, gestures, and looks—that people had to take in stride, imageas if living with threats were just as completely normal as the idea that there might be rain one day instead of sun.’

This 2010 novel from González Sainz about Felipe Díaz Carrión and his family’s move to the Spanish Basque country is, in this time of Islamic Terrorism, full of actuality. How can your own family become radicalised around you? The title of course gives away some of the writer’s thoughts. This book was read for the Spanish lit month 2016. González Sainz sets the scene early on of the economic migration behind the story:

It was a time when many young people and even some not-so-young people emigrated from the area to large cities and industrial zones, to Barcelona or Madrid, to Zaragoza or the industrial towns and centers in the north, and that’s just the ones who didn’t cross the Pyrenees or even the Atlantic. Those cities and regions seemed to have made off with all the wealth and activity in the country, with all the advantages and incentives, and more than anything else, they seemed to hold an absolute monopoly on the future.

Felipe Díaz Carrión and his family then move into an industrial town, which seems only to exist for the particular industry, lumping together the workers and their families into cheap identical apartment blocks where we live Felipe’s difficulty to integrate, epitomised by his habit of walking, originally in the beautiful countryside but now in his new industrially oppressive landscape, whenever he is troubled. And of course living grouped together in such a way radicalises the society and put’s pressure on the weak as well as those with no roots looking for acceptance.

More than wealth or age or sex or worth or career, that separated people there into two groups: the people who proffered such expressions with varying degrees of bravado or conviction, and real-life consequences, and the more scattered, defenseless, vulnerable group of people who stood on the receiving end of them with varying degrees of composure—and varying degrees of fear—and then had to face those consequences.

Felipe and his younger son, the only one in his family born in the industrial town, live through the gradual radicalisation of the eldest son and of Felipe’s wife, without seeing or wanting to see what is happening around them, despite the comments of the people around them to Felipe:

“You just don’t get it, Felipe,” they said to him again as they watched him stare unblinkingly at the photo of his wife on the page of a newspaper he now bought himself. “You know it, but you don’t want to admit it.”

After the tragic events and hate thrown up in the novel, Felipe, after his retirement, moves back to the old farm, where of course life has moved on, only his memories have remained stationary. We then learn that the violence we have witnessed in the industrial town had of course always existed and that Felipe’s father himself had been killed in such a bout of violence, with different words to describe the group’s involved and understand to an extent Felipe’s understanding and need to avoid violence. But I do not think, and I guess this is the author’s point, that we understand his blindness to what is happening around him and what could he or should he have done.

In current circumstances this is a thought provoking read.

First Published in Spanish as “Ojos que no ven” by Anagrama in 2010
Translated into English by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross as ‘None So Blind’ and published by Hispabooks in 2015

Rodrigo Blanco Calderon ‘The Night’

‘From The Murders in the Rue Morgue of 1841 through to Death and the Compass in 1942, the wheel had come full circle. imageWith this short story, Borges perfects the genre. Lönnrot Is a detective who reads detective stories. A fool who dies for having taken literature for reality. He’s the Don Quichotte of police stories.’***

This quote should sum up this book which begins in Caracas with the three main characters, Mathias Rye, A struggling writer, struggling with drugs, and with themes, for which he meets regularly with Miguel Ardiles a psychiatrist who counts killers and psychopaths amongst his patients hoping to get insight for his writing. This book was read for the Spanish lit month 2016.

-So tell me, what’s the worst book to have one the ‘prix du Nacional’…
-…The title of the one I’m thinking of is unpronounceable. I can never remember it but it’s by Pedro Álamo. It was in 1982 and it was the most controversial edition in the history of the prize. It’s completely incomprehensible from start to finish. Me, I’d always taken it for the work of a mad man, but there were a few critics that saw it as a chef-d’oeuvre. I think that at last I’m going to be able to check my hypothesis.
-What hypothesis?
-You’re going to help me. Pedro Álamo is one of my students at the writing workshop.
-What do I have to do with it?
-We’ve almost become friends. I gave him the number of your private practice. Can you squeeze him in on Monday? Álamo suffers from panic attacks’***

Pedro Álamo talks about the symmetry of his life, his past with his now dead wife Margarita and that to come with his girl friend Margarita, he also talks of palindromes such sa his book Tnevarapel, le paravent and also of Yo sonoro no soy.

There is a linguistic/semiotic current running through this book and taking up a good half of it, linking linguistic theorists to Pedro Álamo via the Venezuelan poet Lancini. This whole current of the book was in far too much detail and explanation for a novel, My take away here is that Dario Lancini is famous in Venezuela for his book of palindromes, Oir a Dario, which brought together thirty of his palindromes, ranging from one sentence to a 750-word text based on Ubu Roi the largest palindrome ever written and that he lived in political exile for many years.

So if you are a linguistic theorist, this is the crime story for you. Otherwise like myself you may find this a particularly hard slog for one half of the book.

The rest of the book, the crime mystery part centres around Montesinos, and the disappearance and deaths of a large number of women, this extract from a chapter early on taken from a blog, identifying Montesinos, by one of his supposed victims, Rosalinda, and named Ana and Mie is a deep dive into eating disorders

-Hi!!! My little princesses!!! That was the worst birthday I’ve had since I was born. I’m a fat cow, nobody likes me. Ana and Mie are my only friends, the only ones that help me live, to attain my dreams.***

Ana et Mie are short hand for Anorexia and bulimia. The crime mystery is not easy to follow but some crimes continue after Montesinos is arrested  and Álamo’s girl friend, Margarita, is one of the victims. As Calderón says:

-sometimes I write with the ease and pleasure that only reading can offer, and at other times I read with the difficulty, the uncertainty and the fragility characteristic of all true writing.***

As a reader this book placed me clearly in the second category, I feel a second reading would help but do not have the courage to undertake such an adventure.

Ps the photo is of Dario Lancini and his wife Antonieta Madrid

First Published in Spanish (Venezuela) as “The Night” by Alfaguara in 2016
Translated into French by Robert Amutio as ‘The Night’ and published by Gallimard in 2016
*** my translation

Manuel Puig ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’

– What’s your definition of incredibly good looking? I’d like to hear.image
– Well, he’s tall, dark, wears a moustache, very distinguished-looking, broad forehead, but with a pencil-line moustache a little bit like a pimp’s….I don’t know if I’m making it very clear….a wise-guys moustache, which gives him away.

I saw the film back in the 80’s with William Hurt’s Oscar performance and decided to explore this book and Manuel Puig for the Spanish lit month 2016.

The book written in the 70’s centres on two prisoners sharing a cell in an Argentinian jail cell, there is Valentin, a hardline Marxist who feels he is a small, committed part of a movement to change the world where feelings are irrelevant, and there is Molina, homosexual and effeminate, in jail for sexual offences with a minor, who has no political consciousness and who romanticises little known ‘B’ movies and their heroines.

An example of the difference in their personalities is given early on in the book when Molina talks about a married waiter he has talked to and become friendly with and fantacises about helping him leave his job and study

That he might come to live with me, with my mom and me. And I’d help him and make him study. And not bother about anything but him, the whole blessed day. Getting everything all set for him, his clothes, buying him books, registering him for courses and little by little I’d convince him that what he had to do was just one thing: Never work again. And I pass along whatever small amount of money was needed to give the wife for child support, and make him not worry about anything at all, nothing except himself, until he got what he wanted and lost all that sadness of his for good, would’ that be marvellous?

Valentin, unable to see this as a fantasy replies with a viewpoint that is so classical as to be a parody of Marxist thinking

yes but unreal. Look, there is one thing, you know, he could also go right on being a waiter but not feeling humiliated about it or anything like that. Because however humble his work is, there’s always the option: joining the union movement
-but he doesn’t understand any of that.
-he doesn’t have any idea about politics?
-no he’s rather ignorant. And he even says some foul things about his union, and probably he’s right.
-Right! If the union’s no good he should fight to change it, so it gets better.

In order to pass time before sleeping when the lights are out, Molina tells the story of films, slowly hooking Valentin on his movies, these are short stories within the book telling of a triangular love story between an architect, his assistant and an enigmatic young girl who turns out to be a panther woman or of a love story between a French singer and a German counterespionage officer in Paris and Berlin during the war, both of these stories end tragically and as Valentin gets sucked into further stories we start to see his slow softening process

– I’m sorry because I’ve become attracted to the characters. And now it’s all over, and it’s just like they died
– So, Valentin, you too have a little bit of a heart.
– It has to come out some place….weakness, I mean.
– It’s not weakness, listen.
– Funny how you can’t get along without becoming attached to something…It’s….as if the mind had to secrete affection without stopping.

Why do these such different characters share a cell? This we learn halfway through the book as Molina is put under pressure to deliver Valentin’s political secrets in return for a pardon. The prison authorities are slowly poisoning Valentin to weaken him, causing Molina to look after him in his bouts of illness and bringing the two prisoners both mentally and physically closer together, leading to them to have a homosexual relationship which begins with no tenderness and moves toward a close relationship illustrated by the passage giving the title to the book

-I’m curious…. would you feel much revulsion about giving me a kiss?
-Mmm… It must be fear that you’ll turn into a panther, like the first movie you told me.
-I’m not the panther woman.
-It’s very sad being a panther woman; no one can kiss you. Or anything.
-You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.
-How lovely! Oh, I like that.

Finally Molina is released in a hope he will lead the authorities to Valentin’s political connections where Molina then makes a choice that seems to come from one of his films.

First Published in Spanish as”El beso de la mujer araña”  in 1976
Translated into English by Thomas Colchie and published as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Vintage in 1991

Juan Gabriel Vázquez ‘The Sound of Things Falling’

imageJean Gabriel Vázquez’s ‘The sound of Things Falling’ is a story about Colombia and about the inevitability of our actions and their consequences. The story is told by Antonio Yammara who, looking back, tells us about his life and his brief friendship with a self effacing older man Ricardo Laverde in the mid nineties, who, we understand, had spent some time in prison and whom he had grown to know superficially when they were both regulars in his local billiard hall in Bogota. Antonio, who had led a life avoiding responsibility and seducing his female students, was beginning to get his life together with Aura who had lived outside of Colombia as an adolescent and they were expecting a baby.
Then one day at Ricardo’s request Antonio arranges for him to be able to listen with headphones to a tape, Ricardo cries emotionally and as they then walk down the road, two men on a motorbike execute Laverde at close range and seriously injure Antonio.

Unable to come to terms with the event, Antonio’s relationship with his world around him slowly deteriorates as he becomes more and more detached from his wife and child over a two year period, then one day Antonio is contacted by Maya, Ricardo’s daughter, and so begins the unravelling of the mystery.

We learn that the tape was the black box recording of the last conversations, remaining calm but knowing they had made a mistake, of the flight crew of a tragic accident in which Ricardo lost his wife, as the recording advances we feel the inevitability of fate, we know they will crash, we can do nothing but we have to listen.

We then learn about Ricardo and his American wife Elen living in Colombia in the seventies, she a Peace Corps volunteer and he a light aircraft pilot, as they move to a much bigger and more secluded mansion in the countryside near Medellin and as Ricardo spends weeks at a time away before coming home with large Quantities of cash, then comes the parallel, we again feel this inevitability of fate, we know he will be caught and sent to prison, we can do nothing but we have to listen.

We learn of key events in Colombia’s violent drug related history and understand better why Antonio unlike Aura, having grown up in such violent times, should experience such a deep state of trauma.

After twenty years in prison, and after the death of Escobar why would anyone want to kill Ricardo for events of yesteryear, but of course! old habits die hard, a pilot is always a pilot and easy money….

Well worth the 2014 IMPAC award.

First published in Spanish as El ruido de las cosas al caer by Alfaguara in 2011
Translated into English by Anne McLean as The Sound of Things Falling and published by Bloomsbury publishing in 2012
Translated into French by Isabelle Gugnon as Le Bruit des Choses qui Tombent and published by Seuil in 2012

Gioconda Belli ‘Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand’

Giaconda Belli’s book expands on the mythology of the garden of Eden and mankind’s expulsion recentered from a female viewpoint, starting with the title from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, feminised in the English translationimage To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. Belli chooses not to attack the myth itself:- expelling and replacing the warm, providing female earth gods of fertility, harvest etc by the haughty, removed, unforgiving male air god. But instead to revisit the myth changing the view of Eve from that of the week partner being easily tricked and ensuring mankind was ejected from paradise to the strong partner making the necessary decisions Adam was too afraid to make: Clearly it is inconceivable that Adam and Eve could avoid being forced out of the garden of Eden since humans have free will and this will always confront blind obedience. She paints Adam as fickle, Adam chose not to comprehend. It was easier to blame her than the Other who never allowed himself to be seen.
Belli’s novel treats duality, He (Adam) saw the Serpent. “It’s you. I recognize you….. You know him (Elokim) very well.”
“We have been together for a long time. As long as he exists, I will exist, too.”
“You exist to contradict him.”
“Without me he would find eternity intolerable. I provide him with surprises, the unpredictable.

This is not a book about creationism and an all powerful God ruling over us, as the serpent says to Eve
“Are you saying that we will create Good and Evil on our own?”
“There’s no one else. You are alone.”
“And Elokim?”
“He will remember you from time to time, but what he forgets is as vast as what he remembers.”
“We are alone.”
“The day you accept that, you will be truly free. And now I must go.”

The first half of the book dealing with the Garden of Eden myth kept my attention, the second half dealing with Cain, Abel and their twin sisters I found rather tedious.

First published in Spanish by Seix Barral in 2008
Translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden and published in 2009 by HarperCollins