Last #WITMonth book: Hurricane Season is indeed a hurricane

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season, transl. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Someone on Goodreads describes reading Hurricane Season like ‘running downhill’ and that is probably the best description of what it feels like: the mad rush, the acceleration, the inevitability of gravity pulling at you. You get caught up in something inescapable and you cannot stop until you reach the bottom of the hill, whether in one piece or not. This is one of the few instances where I perfectly understand and concur with the author’s choice of syntax and style: eight chapters, eight different voices, and it feels like each chapter is composed of just one very long sentence. In actual fact, there might be more than one, but the overall effect is one of precipitation and agitation, so you cannot put the book down and it propels you along to its terrible conclusion.

Not that the beginning isn’t terrible as well. It starts with some children playing by the canal in the Mexican village of La Matosa and finding the body of the local ‘witch’. The rumours go into overdrive about what could have happened to the person they called the Young Witch, to distinguish her from her mother, who was likewise known as a Witch and to whom all villagers turned to for medicine, potions and fortune-telling. In each chapter we find out more about the murder and the witches themselves, the village and several of its inhabitants, in their own language, via their own unfiltered thoughts.

The breathless, feverish style may make for an exhilarating read, but it’s not a joyful one. You may feel the urge to shower or go for a long walk after being in those people’s heads for a while. Poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and homophobia in the rural area are conveyed with such urgency, that they feel like a blow to your stomach. In the interview with Fernanda Melchor and her translator at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the author says she deliberately set out to shock the audience with the violence of the discourse, to demonstrate that this kind of language, thought and behaviour are not normal, that we cannot be complicit in it. She also said she had to start therapy after finishing the book, because so much work and heart and passion went into it – and I’m not surprised.

What really struck me is how angry each of the characters is – anger is often the way they express their loneliness or desperation or need to be loved. The men, especially, come across as weak, pathetic losers who have to take it out on those weaker than themselves, usually the women and children. The author says she is not excusing the monstrous behaviour of those people, but she wanted to show how monsters are made. And she certainly succeeds. She does not shy away from describing the mud and stench, the lack of opportunities, the small and great betrayals, where even the family no longer represents a safe harbour, and where church and superstition constrain people even more.

If you dislike strong language and graphic descriptions of violence and bodily functions, you are going to struggle with this one. The author used the speech patterns of her own native Veracruz region, but also described how she was inspired by A Clockwork Orange to construct a fictional language that would really highlight the problems. Although I haven’t read Selva Almada’s Dead Girls yet, that book (which is a true crime recount similar to In Cold Blood) would provide and interesting contrast with this fictional insight into femicide, a huge problem in most Latin American countries.

This is a world in which men and women distrust and merely use each other, both sides feeling trapped, not realising that it is society that has entrapped them. The men tell each other:

And there are bitches who go even further, they head into the hills in the rainy season to pick a wildflower shaped like a trumpet… and they brew them into a tea that turns you into a real prick, a real soft touch, brings you to your knees, cowering at their feet like a slave, and you don’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on… They’re all the same, dipshit, all up to the same tricks, all capable of untold fuckery just to hold on to you…’

Meanwhile, the women give each other advice as follows, even though they are talking about their own sons:

Got to keep your wits about you in this world… You drop your guard for a second and they’ll crush you, Clarita, so you better just tell that fuckwit out there to buy you some clothes. Don’t you be anyone’s fool, that’s what men are like: a bunch of lazy spongers who you have to keep rounding up to squeeze any use out of them… you’ve gotta keep men like that on a tight leash, keep them busy to stop them coming out with all their shit.

There are a few, very few glimmers of hope, the tentative possibility of real love – all too often nipped into the bud almost before it has had a chance to blossom. Ultimately, however, this is a horrific read, because it is a horrifying subject: the violence that humans perpetuate against each other, and especially against women. Towards the end of the novel, we realise the full extent of it, the national problem one might call it, as Melchor moves from the specific story to the bird’s eye view of the region.

They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal – May and not a single drop of rain – and that the hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between rival clans; rapes, suicides, ‘crimes of passion’, as the journalists call them.

But just when you think there is no hope, no escape, when the women in town agree that ‘there’s no treasure in there… nothing more than a searing pain that refuses to go away’, you get the final chapter. Tenderness and a release of sorts, when a gravedigger known only as Grandfather buries the ‘overflow’ bodies from the morgue, the ones for whom there were no more spaces at the cemetery. He seems to be the only one showing some compassion for the poor mutilated bodies, some understanding of all the suffering, and he believes in talking to the dead as he buries them, guiding them into the afterlife. The final words seemed as powerful and elegiac as the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Don’t you worry, don’t fret, you just lie there, that’s it… The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever. See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.

So pleased I managed to read this book in the nick of time to include it in the #WITMonth. One that I will be thinking about, uneasily, in years to come.

Carlos Fuentes and Vampires #TranslationThurs

I read this book in time for Halloween but didn’t have time to post a review on that day, so I am attaching it to Translation Thursday instead.

Carlos Fuentes: Vlad, transl. by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was a versatile and politically engaged writer. During his long career he published ambitious historical sagas such as Terra Nostra, experimental curiosities such as Christopher Unborn, psychological drama The Death of Artemio Cruz and so much more. He is difficult to pin down, except to say that he started off the boom in Latin American literature which happened in the 1960s/70s (coinciding with a boom in its musical popularity – think of bossa nova, conga, salsa etc.) and culminated in the Nobel Prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982.

Sadly, the novella Vlad, the last book that Fuentes published before his death in 2012, is not one of his masterpieces. I picked it up at random from the shelves because it relates to the myth of vampires and the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş, a ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century.

It is the first person narration (largely) of Yves Navarro, a partner at a Mexico City law firm who seems to have it all: the career, the house, the adoring wife, the cute daughter, and a politically influential employer, Don Zurinaga. The latter asks Navarro to help an old friend from the Sorbonne purchase a home so he can settle into their country. It seems like a simple enough request, and it just so happens that Yves’ wife, Asunción, is a real estate agent. True, the client Count Vladimir Radu (‘call me Vlad’) has a few eccentric requests: the house has to back onto a ravine, a tunnel has to lead from the house to said ravine, and all the windows are to be blacked out. After weeks of dealing his client remotely, Navarro finally gets to meet him in person – and soon discovers he is a vampire. And that it might not be a coincidence that he was picked to handle Vlad’s affairs.

So the set-up seems promising, but it would be fair to say that it’s not quite what I expected: a satire of Mexico City and life within it. There are brief elements of social critique scattered throughout the book – traffic coming to a gridlock, the difference between richer and poorer neighbourhoods, estate agents used to the most eccentric demands from wealthy clients, the fact that Vlad has found an almost endless supply of fresh blood without too many questions being asked by the police in such a populous city. Yet all these strands do not combine successfully to form a coherent and rich satirical vein (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). It’s neither funny enough, nor quite frightening enough.

Of course, what annoyed me most was the cod history of Vlad Ţepeş, taken from historical sources of dubious and biased origin. Many of the accounts of him at the time were written by Wallachia’s enemies, therefore he was portrayed as a monster, while in Romanian folk tales and history he is remembered as a positive, just, progressive figure. All of the regurgitation of Vlad’s supposed past was unnecessary for what Fuentes was trying to achieve – if I can even understand what he was trying to achieve.

Otherwise, the story offers a strange, surreal experience, with a knowing nod to horror films or literature: Dracula, obviously;  the little girls turning vicious – Stephen King’s twins; the idealised wife/woman/muse being used then abandoned – Master & Margarita; dead child – many classic ghost stories and folk ballads. I also found it quite off-putting for the graphic descriptions not so much of physical attacks, but of the accoutrements of vampirism: eating offal in Vlad’s house, the drainage system for blood flow etc.

So not a huge success from my point of view. But what about you? Have you read it? What did you think of it? Or perhaps you have read other books by Fuentes and enjoyed them?

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Slap to…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The starting point for May is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. A controversial and marmite book when it first appeared in 2008, it certainly established Tsiolkas’ reputation as a frank and uncompromising critic of Australian society beneath the easy-going, laid-back surface.

I haven’t read The Slap, but I was utterly charmed by Christos when I met him at the Livres sur le quai festival in Morges in 2015. I have read other novels by him and I am linking up to Barracuda, the story of a working-class lad trying to escape his upbringing through his talents as a swimmer. Shockingly frank and unsentimental look at Australia’s so-called ‘classless’ society.

Another book which explores notions of class and takes place in a school (as large chunks of Barracuda does) is Different Class by Joanne Harris. Set in St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, it returns to the fate of eccentric Latin master Roy Straitley who was persuaded to delay his retirement for a year – but begins to regret his decision with the appointment of a fashionable new Head, who was one of his nightmareish former pupils.

Joanne Harris is of course most famous for her book Chocolat, and another book with a strong link to chocolate is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is a love story underlining the strong sensuous link between cooking and lust (or perhaps cooking as a sublimation of passion), and the prevalence of chocolate in Mexican cuisine.

Another Mexican writer I have discovered more recently is Valeria Luiselli. Her Faces in the Crowd is the story of an obsession, as the narrator, a somewhat harassed mother and writer in Mexico City, tries to remember her life in New York and her growing fascination with the life and poetry of Gilberto Owen (who was a real historical figure).

The title of the book above refers to an Ezra Pound poem, so my next link is to his volume of Cantos, which influenced me profoundly in my love for poetry and for exploring other cultures, despite what I later came to find out about his anti-semitism and collaboration with the Fascists.

Perhaps another reason why I liked Pound when I was younger was for his stylish and unconventional translations of Chinese poetry, so my last link is to one of the Chinese classics which we all had to read when I studied Japanese at university, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid 18th century during the Qing dynasty. The opening poem of this epic family saga says all there is to say about the fine line between fiction and reality:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

So that was a whirlwind world tour – from Australia to the United Kingdom to Mexico to New York City to China. Where do your literary connections take you?

Women in Translation Month: Valeria Luiselli

WITMonth15 (1)Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Even before I knew anything about Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, I thought of the above poem by Ezra Pound. Only to find that the book is indeed named after it (at least in the English translation, more about the title below) – and has a poignant story to share about the origin of this poem (I have no idea if it’s true or not).

I’ve previously criticised ‘vignette’ type novels, calling them more of a collection of prose poems or flash fiction. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of the writing but the book just doesn’t hang together in a narrative arc that has taken me on a journey and left me emotionally charged or changed. And that’s what I expect from a novel.

facesHowever, this novel (and yes, I think we can call it a novel) is different. While the narration is fragmented, there is control and precision at work here. Every thing mentioned at an earlier point in the novel is then referred to again later on. It’s like a solo instrument introducing a melodic theme, then it gets picked up again by other instruments, until finally it is amplified and performed by the whole orchestra. So the structure is beautifully mastered and truly experimental ‘a horizontal novel, told vertically’, not just pretending to be experimental. There us indeed a fearless (and erudite) imagination at work there, not just someone trying to be achingly hip and cool.

The narrative alternates initially between two times and places: a young mother trying to find the mental peace to write her book in Mexico City; and her remembrance of the days when she was a young woman working in publishing in New York City.

The difficulties of writing with small children will sound very familiar:

Now I write at night, when the two children are asleep and it’s acceptable to smoke, drink and let draughts in. Before, I used to write all the time, at any hour, because my body belonged to me.
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Yet the conversations with the Boy also anchor the story, adding a wonderful touch of humour and instantly recognisable to anyone who has children or works with children.

Who are you hiding from, Mama? From Papa?
No.
From Without? [the house ghost]
From nobody.
If you want to hide, Mama, you have to find a more hidey place.
Isn’t the bed hidey?
No, the bed’s springy and a bit nuisancey when I want to run.

The narrator is aware that she is wallowing in nostalgia for something that perhaps never existed in the first place. She describes her simple New York routines, her far from glamorous, tiny apartment, her fear of loneliness and compulsive sharing of her apartment keys with friends.

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffoldings, structures, empty houses.

Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.
Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.

So it starts off innocently enough as a contrast between then and now, between young adult and motherhood, which would have been interesting enough in itself, although perhaps not very original. But then it becomes something far richer and more satisfying. The young narrator becomes obsessed with the life and works of a Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen, who lived in New York in the 1920s. She fraudulently claims to have found a collection of poems by Owen, supposedly translated by a better-known American poet Joshua Zvorsky. (By the way, both poets did exist, although the name of the American one has been slightly modified.) But then, when there is real danger that her forgeries will be detected, she turns to fiction instead and from that point on we move between Owen’s story and the other two strands. It all gets more knotted, more intricate, with apparitions in the subway (a woman in a red coat, Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca) until we have a fine danse macabre of ghosts and possibilities, a braided narrative of alternative universes perhaps.

I think this is what the author is getting at when she talks about the multiple deaths a person can go through. All the dead ends or paths we did not take, the things we did not become.

Naturally, there are a lot of deaths in the course of a lifetime. Most people don’t notice. They think you die once and that’s it. But you only have to pay a bit of attention to realize that you go and die every so often. That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase… Most deaths don’t matter; the film goes on running. Except that that’s when everything takes a turn, even though it may be imperceptible, and the consequences are not always apparent straightaway. I began to die in Manhattan, in the summer of 1928. Of course, no one except me noticed my deaths – people are too busy with their own lives to take notice of other people’s little deaths.

The title of the book in Spanish is ‘Los Ingravidos – The Weightless’ and that perfectly captures the sense of drifting in and out of lives, floating above and diving into our different selves (the imagined ones, the real ones, the discarded ones). You will occasionally have the impression, like the narrator, that you are ‘the only living girl in a city of ghosts’.

So don’t be put off by the book’s manifest ‘strangeness’: it is a very pleasant, often funny and emotionally candid read. Phew – this became a much longer review than I expected! That’s because this was a book I relished reading, with a style and openness to experimentation that reminded me of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf.