I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!
When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.
But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.
The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:
It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.
You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.
I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:
… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?
There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.
What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…
Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.
The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).
The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’
Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.
What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.
What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.
Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’
If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).
The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.
They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.
Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.
Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.
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.