When I posted my university campuses post, one of my Twitter friends @buddclair said it’s all very well to be escapist, but what about ‘some pictures of the mundane, the Brutalist, the underfunded places where people spent their formative years, made friends and hopefully got a bit of education along the way’?
Of course, you know that my Friday Fun posts are all about escapism, so there was no way I would include ugly buildings in this collection. However, it did make me think of examples of 1960s or so architecture in public buildings that I could admire? Well, this could end up being a post entirely about Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. This is what I came up with, do let me know about your own favourites.
Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best
This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?
Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.
Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.
Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.
Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.
I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.
I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.
This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?
I have always failed miserably at initiatives such as the Twenty Books of Summer, but this year I’m going to try something different. I really enjoyed focusing on French history and on the Paris Commune in May, so I think I will attempt more of this country focus. A different country every month (while still allowing some breathing room with other reads in-between). I am tentatively selecting some books for each country, but will allow myself the freedom to suddenly swerve in a different direction (although still of the same country).
Honestly, it’s not Trump’s visit this month that inspired me, but I suddenly realised that I so seldom read any American authors (other than perhaps crime fiction). So I will make a more concerted effort to look at some of them in June: I have my eye on Ron Rash, David Vann, Sam Shepard, Laura Kasischke and Meg Wolitzer.
After so much Americana, I have no doubt I will be tempted to swing the other way and get a sudden craving for all things Russian, so July will be my month of Russian authors. Two Olgas, a Yuri and the diaries and letters of Bulgakov are on my list. I also really want to catch up with the TV series Chernobyl, as I still remember the events of that year (we were pretty close to the Ukraine and panicked at the time).
August is Women in Translation Month and I have already decided I want to dedicate it to Brazilian women this year. Clarice Lispector (a re-read of Agua Viva and a more detailed read of her complete short stories), Patricia Melo’s Lost World and Socorro Acioli’s The Head of the Saint. By the by, I might also dip that month into some Brazilian male writers, such as Chico Buarque and Milton Hatoum, or some of my new acquisitions in May.
If this initiative goes well, I might keep it up beyond the summer and venture further afield, to countries I have hitherto left unexplored. Of course, I still have a few countries to contend with on my #EU27Project…
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
For someone who proclaims to be mad about Brazil and keen to learn more about Latin American culture in general, I don’t actually own a lot of books from that part of the world. During my years of Ph.D. study, I was fortunate enough to be in an office right next door to the Department Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, so I borrowed heavily from their library and became enamoured of Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, Borges, Cortazar and many more. The ones I do own are not really obscure, but I did manage to find some that are special to me for various reasons.
Mario Vargas Llosa: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (transl. Helen R. Lane)
Appropriately enough, my first choice is the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author who lectured briefly at the very department where I was completing my informal Latin American literature education. Vargas Llosa is well-known for his serious political books, but the one I chose here is a racy, humorous, deliberately madcap account of him falling in love with and courting his aunt-by-marriage, Julia, much to the horror of the rest of the family. She became his first wife, and they went together to Europe, where he embarked upon his literary career. She later wrote her own version of the story, because she claimed that Vargas Llosa minimised the part she played in assisting him in his literary efforts. Nevertheless, despite its biased view of events, it is a brilliant example of the vitality and verve that I particularly love about Latin American literature. It is this closeness to popular culture, the use of vernacular, the candid expressions of sexuality and everyday street life that I enjoy much more than the more ethereal magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or heavy symbolism of Paulo Coelho.
Diego Trelles Paz: Bioy
Unintentionally, my second choice is also Peruvian. Although I haven’t read it yet, it is the translation (in French, by Julien Berree) of a political thriller, exploring the troubled 1980s in Peru under the increasingly dictatorial regime of Fujimori. It’s a book that my kind-hearted niece, who had accompanied me once to the Quais du Polar in Lyon and knew my passion for crime fiction, bought for my birthday. She met the author in Paris and got him to sign it for me in French and Spanish: ‘This super-special edition of my novel is dedicated to Marina Sofia for her birthday. I hope you like it and that it scares you! Happy birthday, good health and rock’n’roll!’ Oddly enough, although all of my friends know how crazy I am about books and reading, it’s the only present of this nature that I have ever received. I really don’t know why I haven’t got stuck into it yet…
James Woodall: A Simple Brazilian Song
This is not a novel, but a journey through the music of Brazil, especially the music of Rio, with a particular emphasis on Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, two of my very favourite musicians. Part musical analysis, part biography, part travel memoir, it is a book which does its best to capture the hypnotic, insistent beat of the samba and bossa nova. Through its music, this journalist also tries to convey the complexity of this beautiful, contradictory, often infuriating yet always colourful and enticing country.
This book is precious to me because it reminds me of my youth, when I thought the world was my oyster and that I was going to do anthropological research in the favelas of Rio or Bahia. I bought this at the time when I first came to London and was being mistaken for a Brazilian because of my long hair, love of dancing and uninhibited manner. I thought I was going to learn capoeira and celebrate carnival with the samba schools in London. I even briefly contemplated going to Brazil for a post-doc position. I gave up on that, but I insisted on going to Brazil for my honeymoon and my love for the country has outlasted my love for the husband.
Brazil is in the news today with the impeachment of its president – and will be in the news soon again with the Olympics (and will all the stadiums get finished in time). Its troubled history and on-off economy are easy to mock; the violence inside and outside its favelas is dramatic. And yet it also remains a country of extraordinary beauty, passion, music and literature. I’ve vowed many times to learn Portuguese and to read its authors in the original. Luckily, for my sanity, there are splendid translators helping me to enjoy Brazilian literature, although very little contemporary literature gets translated. Is there a fear that it will not appeal? Certainly, the recent crime novel by Raphael Montes was strange and unsettling, but a refreshingly different read in a landscape that has often become rather uniform.
The same can be said for Tatiana Salem Levy’s exploration of cultural and personal identity The House in Smyrna. Apparently, this book was initially intended to be a dissertation on literature and family history, but Levy’s Ph. D. supervisor suggested that she write it as a novel instead. The novel was entitled ‘The Keys to the House’ in the original Portuguese. Since its publication in 2007 (year in which it won a prestigious Brazilian prize for best debut), it has been revised and edited by the author prior to its translation into English. The author speaks English very well, as I found out when I saw her a couple of years ago at Lavigny, and she works as a translator, so she may have streamlined the text to make it more palatable to English readers.
Palatable, perhaps, but not easy. The narrative is fragmented, very much like Brazilian sensibility itself, which, the author says ‘if there is such a thing, it’s all about mixed identities’. The author is reluctant to close any doors, she doesn’t answer questions, merely asks more. It feels like she wants to allow the readers to find their own path through the novel and formulate their own interpretation of the story. So below is my personal interpretation of it.
A young woman lies helpless on her bed in Rio de Janeiro, filled with self-hatred and self-pity, victim to some kind of wasting disease. She has inherited a key to the house in Smyrna which her Jewish grandfather had left decades before as a young man. Her mission is to find the house and try the key. At first, she has no intention of doing that, but after her mother’s death, she somehow hauls herself off her sickbed and flies off to Istanbul. We then trace her route through Turkey, all her travel experiences, then her return via Lisbon, where she was born (her parents having lived there in exile during the dictatorship in Brazil). At the same time, we have flashbacks to her loving yet complicated relationship with her mother, and also a passionate but increasingly violent relationship with a lover.
By this point, it was getting very confusing: was the protagonist severely disabled or was she able to travel? What happened first, what next, all those switches between time frames made me nervous? And then I came across the following quote and the mystery deepened but also resolved itself:
This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.
This immediately gave an added poignancy to the story. We don’t know if the travel is real. It could be a pilgrimage in her mind, wishful thinking, an attempt to understand herself and the people around her while powerless to make the actual journey. Perhaps we are doomed to never quite understand our full heritage. Perhaps the paralysis is metaphorical: the equivalent of ‘writer’s block’, the need to find out more about the past in order to start building the future. The key is of course a metaphor, perhaps a very obvious one: the key to the narrator’s life, her sense of purpose.
There is a throbbing, raw, emotional style to this kind of writing, which reminds me of Clarice Lispector and of Elena Ferrante. Unashamedly candid about sex, lyrical in the description of places the author visits, musical in its repetitions and waterfalls of sentences. Yet the pathos is gently tempered with down-to-earth humour. When the narrator proclaims that sense of loss of identity in exile:
I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land — but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?
we have the voice of the mother cutting down her fanciful pronouncements to size:
There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…
You can listen to an interview with the author in English on Australian radio, which I think helps greatly to unravel the mystery of this novel.
Coincidentally, I was reading another novel of fragments and wildly different time frames just a few days later, Québécois author Alain Farah’s novel Ravenscrag. Initially exhilarating and intriguing, hinting at some mysterious disappearances and indoctrination, it ultimately disappointed me. By not exploring some of its most promising possibilities, it did not quite fulfill its promise and left me unsatisfied.
2013 was the first year I joined in any online challenges and I am very pleased I did so. You sometimes need that extra little push or public commitment to go beyond the borders of your little world (or at least, I do).
So, how did I do?
I completed Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, which this year was still hosted on her Mysteries in Paradise website. Kerrie herself is a fantastic resource of information about crime fiction not just from Down Under, but worldwide, and I have learnt so much from the enthusiastic fellow participants in the challenge.
I completed the Medium Level of the Challenge, which meant two books from each of the six geographical continents, plus a seventh continent which could be a realm of fantasy or Antarctica or something you haven’t tried before. Here are the books I chose (quite different from the list I had originally planned, subject to availability and mood).
All in all, a fantastic challenge: it may sound cliché, but it really opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and reading about local atmosphere and customs in books, so these took me to places I may not have visited otherwise. There was only one book I really didn’t like (The Historian) and one which I found average (Mean Woman Blues). All of the others were good to excellent. I discovered writers that I am most certainly going to read more of (Louise Penny, John Burdett, Garcia-Roza, Michael Stanley).
My favourite discovery was the unparalleled king of the Mediterranean Noir: Jean-Claude Izzo, who completely transported me to the world of Marseille and got me listening to its music.
Until recently, I did not believe I had completed the Reading in Translation Challenge – or rather, I felt I had not reviewed enough books for it. Of course, I could have entered the same books for both challenges: Deon Meyer, Ōsaka Gō, Garcia-Roza and Padura would all have qualified. And I did read and review some other excellent works, such as The Mussel Feast, A Man in Love, A Crack in the Wall or Pietr the Latvian. So, in the end, I think I will consider that challenge complete too. Thank you, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm for enticing me to do it!
What challenges am I participating in for 2014? I would like to continue with both of the above challenges, but this time limit it to 1 book for each continent for the Global Reading Challenge and 6 books of translated literary fiction (rather than crime fiction, however much I love it). The reason I am being modest in this respect is because I am introducing two major challenges of my own:
1) The Clear My Physical and Virtual Bookshelves Challenge (CMPVBC – catchy title!) – as of today, I have 56 books on my Kindle, 21 on my shelves, and 8 on my laptop, all waiting for me. So that brings my target up to 85 before I have even taken a step.
2) The ‘My Favourite Countries’ Focus – I used to love reading books in German and Japanese, while Brazil is my favourite country. I want to reignite that passion and catch up with the best of contemporary writing from these countries. I have no upper target, but I would like to read at least 3 books from each of these countries). I already have a few on my shelves: Arjouni, Zweig, Bernhard Schlink, but am constantly coming up with great new suggestions from outstanding bloggers such as Tony Malone, Simon Savidge, Dolce Bellezza, Words and Peace and Jackie at Farm Lane Books, to name but a few who inspire me.
Brazil has long been one of my favourite countries – although I can only claim a very short (two-week) personal acquaintance with it. However, I have danced to its music, rejoiced in its football victories and read all the news I could about this beautiful, dramatic, troubling and troubled country. I have also succumbed to its literature and gone through bouts of a rigorous diet of Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector and Machado de Assis. I have even read one book of crime fiction set in the country, written by the American Leighton Gage, which was my Crime Fiction Pick for August 2012. But until now, I had not read any crime fiction written by a bona fide Brazilian author. Now, thanks to the challenge set by Kerrie through the Global Reading Challenge, I have been introduced to Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza and his pensive detective Inspector Espinosa.
Ambitious executive Ricardo Carvalho is found shot in his car in the parking garage just outside his office in the centre of Rio. It may look like suicide, but the weapon and the victim’s briefcase have gone missing. So the police initially believe it is murder: a car-jacking or robbery gone wrong, as is so often the case in the mean streets of Rio. However, Inspector Espinosa is not content with obvious explanations. He wonders about alternative scenarios. Could Carvalho’s work at the rather shady international mining company Planalto Minerações have led to his killing, or could his beautiful, independently-minded wife have finally taken her revenge for his relentless womanising? Then Carvalho’s secretary, Rose, disappears before she has time to disclose something important to his wife. Both the police and the readers believe they now have a straightforward procedural, with interviewing of witnesses and sifting through clues, but the book suddenly changes gears. We now see the story through the eyes of Max, a small-time crook who witnessed Carvalho’s death. As each of the characters operates from greed, lust and other very human flaws, the story gets more and more complicated.
‘The Silence of the Rain’ is the first novel in the series and perhaps it has a ‘first novel’ talent for breaking the rules of the crime genre. The book starts with a prologue that seems to give away the whole story… but it cleverly hides as much as it reveals. The point of view shifts from third person to first person not in a clearly-signposted, regular fashion as we have become accustomed with modern crime fiction. Instead, Inspector Espinosa goes to bed in third person and wakes up in first person, which I found a little disconcerting. Just when you think you have a handle on the story, the perspective changes, which is a very interesting technique and which I felt really enriched the story. However, it does not necessarily play by the Anglo-Saxon ‘rules’. We also find here one of the most imaginative methods of killing someone (even when handcuffed) that I have ever come across in crime literature – although perhaps a step too far for many readers.
This book offers an atmospheric description of the beauty and squalor of Rio de Janeiro and its inhabitants, as well as a rich panorama of a polarised society of haves and have-nots, where police corruption is expected and human vices are taken advantage of. But the reason I will be coming back for more books in the series (if I can get my hands on them) is because I am charmed by a detective who inhabits a different space and time from most people. Espinosa is an avid hunter of books rather than of criminals, susceptible to female charms but is not quite sure how to talk to women. He is a detective who lets different types of cheese accumulate in his fridge, opens a beer and is filled with world-weariness, who hates making decisions, who is basically a gentle, thoughtful man, as he ‘…started thinking about death – not about the abstract idea of death, but about specifically how much time he had left. Aged forty-two, on a Saturday night, in a bachelor pad in Copacabana. He decided he was already dead. He went to bed.’
Today is another ominous, rainswept day and I turn once more to music to lift my mood. Yesterday my good friend Nicky Wells posted the lyrics and translation of possibly one of the saddest (though most beautiful) songs in the world, which didn’t help. So I turned to more revolutionary songs that meant a lot to me in my youth, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. But that was depressing too, so what to do?
Confession time: I was never an avid follower of fashion in either clothes, music or literature. Especially with music, I just liked what I liked, usually becoming obsessive about a certain artist or band, following every single release and snippet of news about them. Some of my choices were kind of obvious for the time (Madonna, Duran Duran), others were more unusual or considered old-fashioned (David Bowie, Queen, Dire Straits). But one constant pattern in my life (which only really becomes obvious with the gift of hindsight) is my love for rebellious songs. Perhaps it’s the legacy of growing up in a Communist dictatorship, but I’ve always had a soft spot for songs that protest against the established order of things, that are critical of an unjust society, whether that society is democratic and capitalist (Bruce Springsteen) or more obviously in the grips of dictatorship (Mikis Theodorakis).
So here are two of my favourite songs, with very suggestive lyrics. And, despite the serious subject matter, the music somehow manages to uplift rather than dampen me!
First, the classic Supertramp song that almost anyone can hum along to: ‘The Logical Song’. And these are the lyrics that get to me every single time:
But then they sent me away
To teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world
Where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical
Secondly, a rather less well-known song ‘Superbacana’ by the great Brazilian singer, composer and political activist Caetano Veloso. He was briefly imprisoned by the military dictatorship in Brazil and had to go into exile in the late 1960s. I was unable to find a video of Caetano singing this, but here is an audio snippet:
My knowledge of Portuguese is very rudimentary, so my translation is probably not very accurate, but to me the song seems to be mocking the rhetoric of the absolutist Brazilian government of the time, promising ‘supersonic aircraft, electronic (high-tech) parks, atomic power, economic progress’, everything super-duper in fact, while contrasting it with the actual poverty of the vast majority of the population, who have ‘nothing in your pocket or your hands’.
Why do these songs cheer me up a little on such a gloomy day? [By the way, you may think I am harping overly much on the fact that it is raining, but I have been known to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it really is all in my mind!] Because they express anger in a humorous way. I find anger a more productive sentiment than sadness and despair, because it usually makes you want to do something to change matters. And when anger is tinged with humour, it no longer is simply destructive, but becomes instructive and constructive.
What do you think of these songs? Are you a fan of songs with ‘political’ messages? Or does that create an obstacle in your appreciation of a song? And what about songs in different languages, where you might not understand the subtext or even the outright meaning at all? Can you still enjoy a song, even if you think it’s about something completely different?