This story feels as if it completes a cycle of sorts with the first story as we once again see the Dragones Infernales, a seasoned, elite group of montoneros. Among them is a gaucho who is something of a horse whisperer and a wiz with the lasso. Meanwhile, the royalist forces appear to be on the defensive, risking their lives to guard some pasture land to keep their animals alive.
The gaucho's lasso skill comes in handy when the montonera finally attacks the royalists and their grazing animals. The battle, violent in itself, has a pretty gruesome end. Like "Despedida," the combination of sudden, gory violence amidst Lugones' somewhat verbose style can make for a shock. I'd be willing to call it a dramatic cheat or a celebration of nationalist violence, except that it really does fit in with the sort of hardscrabble existence painted in even those stories that lack much in the way of violence.
As I wrote in my last post, most of the stories seem to have the same elements repeated over and over. The patriot here is an old monk. The land isn't so much inhospitable, though it does play a role. And there's the encounter with the royalists, who have taken over the town where the monk resides. The monk decides that he can't abide the royalists, and so when the Spanish forces ride off to ambush a force of montoneros, the monk rings the church bell so as to warn the gauchos. The royalists ride back and grab the monk, beating him severely. However, his action leads to the royalists' defeat, and he manages to escape as they retreat.
Embedded in the story is the monk's own background, as a gaucho who decided to become a man of the cloth, although he maintains a certain uncouth individualism. Again there is the patriotism which leaves me a little flat, though I thought this story at least grounds it in an interesting character.
A royalist force guards a mountain pass during some harsh winter weather. A rider comes up, but there is something sort of suspicious about him. A tell-tale sign allows the guards to realize that the rider is a woman whose lover has been fighting for independence and who has been carrying messages across the lines. That's roughly the whole story, and I'm starting to think many of the stories can be broken down into a few elements. The patriot and their motivation for fighting the Spanish. The inhospitable terrain. The encounter with the Spanish.
It's not a formula per se, and I think Lugones does more within those bounds than he did, say, with Strange Forces. Lugones, of course, was principally a poet, and I can't help but see some connection to Borges here. Borges was also first a poet, and most (if not all) of his stories can be thought of as pretty simple, but manage to achieve a certain abstract transcendence with very few elements. Lugones doesn't really come close to Borges in that respect, but there's a certain power to his repeated use of the same themes.
"Al Rastro" seems like a good companion to "Tactica," as both of them concentrate pretty clearly on the battle aspect, showing how the montoneros would have waged this sort of war. Lugones apparently drew from an existing oral tradition when writing the stories, but this one sounds almost too good to be true.
In the story, a gaucho decides that he has had enough of the Spanish troops in his country and stages a one-man attack on a fort. First, he detonates a gunpowder-filled cart in front of the local fort, and then he attacks the survivors, until he himself is mortally wounded. It's a fun little bit of badassery, which is why I find myself feeling somewhat skeptical about its basis in truth.
After a story which pretty much relegates the war to the background, "Tactica" takes us back to the hear of the war. The story regards a battle between a large contingent of royalist forces and an even larger force of montoneros. But first, Lugones spends some time on the toll that the long campaign has taken on both sides. Although this is a theme that he's brought up before, it added to the realism of the account.
One thing I realized is that Lugones' descriptive powers are interesting but thhere's something about the language I find challenging. One description of a fire seemed hard to follow, until I looked up a couple of works and realized that he was comparing it to the mane of a red horse. Considering the importance of the horse in gaucho culture, it seemed like a pretty apt metaphor.
Whenever the royalist forces would retreat from the field of battle, the montonera would get together, in part to celebrate and in part to take advantage of the opportunity to get a lot of people together for a celebration. The story takes place during one of these get-togethers, which includes two weddings. The celebration includes a cock fight and the slaughtering of a steer for the feast. The choice cuts of meat are to be grilled up, as is the standard for Argentine outdoor events.
So, there's not really much of a war and not that much of a plot, but it is an interesting portrayal of life and celebrations in the Salta of the early 19th century. Included is a ritual where some of the steer's blood is used to draw a cross on the door of the house outside of which the celebration is held, as well as the burying of small pieces of meat at all the four corners of the house.
Sometimes I think Lugones is being a bit funny with the names. For example, this story does have an artillery piece, but the story seems to revolve more around one character: a wealthy and beautiful spinster. The woman in question has remained a spinster because she is a mulatto and therefore socially marginal. She does take up the patriot cause and even sends her slaves to fight alongside the montoneros.
Another way in which she serves the cause of independence is by throwing parties at her estate for the Spanish forces, thereby getting them all worn out and hungover before they have to fight the montoneros. This does raise some doubt on the part of the gauchos as to where her loyalties lie, but she comes through for them by providing metal to forge cannonballs for their artillery piece.
There's a curious sort of parallel at work in the story. The story introduces two spinster sisters but then goes on only to involve one of them. Similarly, the story introduces two artillery pieces, but one is quickly destroyed, leaving only one in the story. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it.
Perhaps the most curious element in the story (at least to me) is that of race. Lugones really plays up the sort of seductive otherness of the woman when discussing her parties meant to distract the royalists in a way that now would seem dated. And yet, she does come off as a heroic figure. Overall, a little hard to gague whether its racial politics are painfully dated or intriguingly ambiguous. It does make me more curious as to the history of people of African ancestry in Argentina.
This is kind of an interesting change of pace, in that the story is really just about a bunch of gauchos sitting around passing the mate around and chewing the fat. One of the gauchos happens to be a great storyteller, so the other gauchos convince him to tell them some stories. (The gaucho as storyteller element comes up in Don Segundo Sombra, too.)
There's an interesting progression to the three stories he tells. The first is a pretty typical folktale about the fox and the jaguar, with the fox and the jaguar being relatives and friends until the fox cheats the jaguar. The second story is something of a ghost story, introducing a human element and some local color. The final story completes the process by being a pretty horrific story of a gaucho and his dog.
There's always something a little artificial about stories within stories, but I tend to find them quite a thrill when they're done well. I wouldn't place this at the top of the scale, but I thought it was quite well done.
The story begins with the ambush of royalist forces by montoneros. The montoneros later meet up with a person who would probably be described (in PC terms) as mentally challenged. He ends up becoming sort of adopted by the group as "El Tontito de la Patria." But he turns out not to be as harmless as they originally assumed.
I've had a little less to say over the last few stories, in part because there hasn't seemed to be as much to point out. None of the stories have really bugged me, as did some of the first ones that leaned a little heavily on shout-outs to the homeland. Also, my expectations have fallen more in line with the stories, so I'm no longer feeling disappointed that they don't seem to tell that much about the Gaucho War as a war.
There's an interesting sense of the place and of the sort of desperate situations that men could find themselves in when in such a terrain. (In that way, they´re somewhat reminiscent of Horacio Quiroga's stories of life in the jungle.) There´s occasionally an interesting character or a surprising plot development, sometimes with a hint (or more) of the supernatural. Overall, it's a fairly coherent and enjoyable, if not transformative, collection of short stories.
As the royalist forces retreat following a defeat, a group of them remain behind to convalesce at the estate of a local widow. The soldiers have become aflicted with yellow fever I believe, and as the rain continues to pour outside, day after day, they are slowly dying. The widow whose estate they stay at knows enough about medicine to take charge of the care of the soldiers, although there is not much she can do to halt the effect of the fever.
It turns out that her loyalties lie elsewhere, and though she doesn't neglect the soldiers, she lets her views be known. The sergeant, in charge of the remaining eleven soldiers, sees no recourse but to punish her. This sets up the miracle from which the story gets its name.
Sort of with the last one, the strongest element struck me as the grim atmosphere. The conflict would be more dramatic if Lugones had better skill at characterization.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is like a little segment of nightmare, a dream-like tale of innocence threatened by a malignant evil. When a carnival comes to town too late at night and out of season, it is the kind of curious omen that cannot help but draw in two boys on the edge of adolescence, such as Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Cougar and Dark's Pandemonium Carnival shows up mysteriously, appears to go up just as mysteriously, and promises secret delights somehow just a little more extravagant than those of the average carnival. So, it can hardly come as a surprise when it turns out that the Hall of Mirrors or the Carousel conceal darker secrets.
Jim and Will are first drawn to the marvelous carnival but soon find themselves the only ones aware of its intentions. As they take action to stop its plans, they make enemies of the strange characters who populate it, especially the sinister Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark. To resist the sinister forces moving against them, they will require some outside help, but who will possibly believe them?
Bradbury has crafted a fine little work of fantasy. Though it's not particularly scary, it succeeds at creating a rather childlike sense of dark enchantment. There's an almost mythic quality to his portrayal of not quite innocent childhood confronted with the wider world. His prose is mostly perfect for the sort of nightmare adventure described, although it did have moments where he seemed to so commit to inflating an already overinflated sentence or metaphor that you lost all sense of what he was actually talking about. But overall, it's the sort of book that makes you wish yourself could visit Cougar and Dark's Pandemonium Carnival, even if just once, no matter the consequences.
A young montonero is mortally wounded in combat with royalist forces. As he flees from the battlefield, he is found by his lover, a young woman of native ancestry. She carries him to safety, although the effort causes her to have to stop multiple times. Finally, she brings him to a cavern, one into whose walls appear to have been carved iconography of the people who lived on the land before the arrival of the Spanish.
It's harrowing, dying-in-the-jungle element reminds me a bit of Quiroga's "A la deriva," though that is a story of a man dying alone. There's also some degree of the same ambiguous supernaturalism that shows up in "Castigo." Though not a horror story, it's certainly horrific, especially right at the end.
The story involves a montonera that, lacking arms and men, decides to use a novel strategy for taking down a royalist fort. There's a pretty strong description of the desperate situation they are in at the beginning of the story. They manage to eke out an existence, relying on some of the local flora and fauna for nourishment, but it is not a particularly hospitable environment. This is an instance where Lugones' fondness for description is quite effective, both giving a nice sense of place to Salta and adding to the impression of hardship.
There's also and interesting section in the middle which gets into the gaucho attitude to the horse, which is an integral part of the culture. While reading Don Segundo Sombra, I was struck with how the gauchos seemed to have a word for every different kind of horse, even down to the different types of coloring.
The men finally decide to use the stampede the horses at the fort (shades of "The Horses of Abdera"), causing destruction, a decision they are not entirely please with. The description of the stampede, staged as it is at night, is quite striking.
Maybe it's just me but the stories are getting more complex, which makes for a better reading experience though one that sometimes leaves me feeling like I may have missed something. This one involves a flashback to an expedition that was intending to raid a ranch belonging to a patriot. The royalist forces attempt to get to the ranch via the rivers, but are tricked by their Native American guides and then slaughtered in an ambush by the tribe.
However, the title (which means "punishment") refers to a seemingly supernatural act of revenge that takes place outside the flashback. Dramatic finish, though I would probably benefit from rereading it.
It's a rather brutal tale of revenge, though the revenge comes pretty quickly at the end. Otherwise, there's some interesting characterization of two characters and some interesting local color, including a game of taba. (A game that involved throwing the knucklebone of a cow and betting on which side would land up. Also featured in Martin Fierro.) Overall, a pretty good story.
The name of the story comes from the serenade that a payador/montonero sings for a landowner in order to convince him (the landowner) to give him and his buddies some aid in the war. The plot is that the payador shows up with two fellow montoneros at the hacienda of this patriotic landowner. The song gets performed, and the landholder gives the men fresh horses, provisions, and a firearm. This one appears to involve mostly subtle touches.
There's the usual atmospheric motif, which struck me as rather enchanting in this story. It didn't really add to the plot but Lugones' use of imagery and metaphor was striking.
There's also some interesting character sketching, both with the payador and the landholder. The landowner is fixated on the book Historia de Carlo Magno y los Doce Pares de Francia, which I believe translates into The History of Charlemagne and the Twelve Pairs of France. From the little we're told about the novel, it appears to be a rather sensational telling of the life of Charlemagne and includes feats of derring-do against creatures like giants. When someone tries to tell him the book is largely fiction, he gets angry and refuses to believe it.
When the payador shows up and asks him for aid, the landholder gets excited and starts talking about the characters in the book. The payador only understands that the landowner is talking about great men who are long dead and infers that the old man is talking about people he knew in his lifetime. So, there's some shades of Don Quixote there, though with Lugones' own variation on it.
(Due to sleep deprivation, I had to read this story twice and ran out of time to write it up. I'll be doing two today.)
As a fiction writer, I wouldn't say Lugones is a brilliant writer, but there are some things I think he does well. One of them is write about fatalism and love, which seem often to be connected in his works. His Cuentos Fatales is intriguing in starting off like a sequel to Fuerzas Estrañas before transforming into an exploration of those entwined concepts. In a way, it's almost not surprising that Lugones killed himself in part over an unrequited infatuation.
"Juramiento" is the story of a royalist officer captured by a montonero raid on a fort. The montoneros want to execute him but feel he must first be allowed to heal from the injuries he received in the fighting. They take him to the home of a young widow who supports the patriotic (i.e. Independence) cause. While the officer heals, he and the widow, though sworn enemies, fall in love. For me, that part of the story, though cliché, worked pretty well, due for Lugones' talent at conjuring up romantic love as a kind of surrender to destiny.
However, the end of the story was awful or perhaps just dated. The officer decides to join the independence movement, mostly out of that same sense of destiny. He is accepted by the montonera, and he and the widow ride out and give short speeches about patriotism. The widow is decked out in blue and white, which happen to be the colors of the Argentine flag, so the patriotic symbolism hits incredible heights of obviousness.
It's possible I'd like this story more if I didn't know that Lugones would go on to become something of a fascist. It's easy to see in the combination of fatalism and patriotism as precursors to fascism. Or maybe it's that the patriotism in the book strikes me as a bit simplistic. My skeptical mind suspects that the gauchos of Salta might have been fighting for some less abstract than just the homeland, and that playing up their patriotism renders them dull saints to Argentine nationhood.
The title seems like a bit of a macabre joke. As the story starts, there are people gathered together in a small building and some musicians readying their instruments, so it would appear that the story will feature some sort of festivities, including dancing. Instead it turns out that the people are there for the velorio (memorial) of a dead child. The royalist forces show up, so the men run and hide in the woods. The soldiers then rape the remaining women, until the men come back, attacking with knives. As the fight proceeds, the women pick up the weapons of the fallen men and join in the attack on the royalist forces.
Like "Alerta" this story involves rape and the death of a child, though it otherwise different. (I'm reminded of Lugones' use of the idea of converting sound into other forms of energy in two different stories in Strange Forces.) Again, maybe I'm just getting more into Lugones, but the stories seem to be getting somewhat better. I still feel that the stories lack much in the way of actual conflict, especially since this is the second story in a row where the guerilla fighters are placed on the defensive.
Strange Forces seemed to sacrifice dramatic impact for some rather heavy "tecnoparloteo" (a term I owe to Evelyn Leeper), but La Guerra Gaucha leaves me wishing Lugones got a little more into the technical, or at least practical, aspects of a force of gauchos waging guerilla warfare in the mountains of Salta province.
The Memory of Fire trilogy, of which book is the first part, recounts the history of the Americas (with special emphasis on Latin America) through the unique device of breaking it up into bite-sized pieces. The short anecdotes that make up the book are drawn from historical sources, each one noted carefully, though Galeano dramatizes or condenses them to some extent. The result, far from being disjointed, provides a good idea of the history of the Americas.
The book starts with First Voices, which includes creation myths from several different pre-Columbian traditions, including the Maya, Aztecs and Toltecs, Inca, Haida, Araucan, and several other. Though not history in a literal sense, its inclusion starts the book off with a strong sense of the people and land that is about to be changed. It also sets up themes and imagery which will continue to echo through the history of the continent.
The clock starts ticking in 1492, in the section called Old New World, with Columbus' fleet and its sailors anxious to reach a destination, any destination. The arrival of Columbus in Guanahani brings change not only to the Americas but also to Europe, where the religious and political orders need to cope with and make the best of the discoveries that come from the new land that has been discovered. Columbus' few voyages give way to more and larger explorations. The news and rumors of gold, even cities of gold, makes the Americas a desirable destination, both for soldiers of fortune from Europe and the governments who perceive the advantage such a source of wealth can bring them.
Galeano's breaking of the history up into smaller segments proves quite powerful at giving a sense of the dynamic at work in the history of the Americas and also of some of the unique characters involved in those events.
This story is about a band of montoneros who are led by a captain who happens to be literate. The captain wishes he could get a hold of a bugle, because he feels the ability to sound off with a bugle would make give his men a fighting edge. One day, the meet up with an old blind guitarist who ends up joining their band. The guitarist composes a song for them, and the men of the group end up learning it. One night, while they are camped out, they are snuck up on and attacked by the royalist troops. At first, the men scatter, but then the blind guitarist begins to play the fighters' song. The men rally. And even though they are all killed, they fight bravely all the way until the end.
The stories may be growing on me, because I liked this one a little bit more than the previous stories. It does have something resembling an actual plot, although the idea of a bugle for what are essentially guerrilla forces struck me as a bit silly.
This story starts off with another extended description, this time of the apparent storm that is brewing. In the story, some royalist forces are stationed in a town. They rape a woman of the town, and later end up shooting her grandson. He runs off to the puperia, where the men of the village congregate, and his death stirs them up to go attack the royalist soldiers.
I think the storm clouds may serve a metaphorical purpose, though if so, it doesn't strike me as particularly subtle. There's an interesting bit where the weaver takes mate mixed with ashes and spreads them in a cross-shaped pattern in an attempt to influence the weather.
The first story of La Guerra Gaucha is "Estreno," which translates as "Debut." The story features a group of battle-hardened gauchos resting after a hard battle. There's some discussion about how the montonera is split up, with one group forming a permanent militia and the others acting more like Minutemen, able to assemble quickly to defend an area. The captain of the group notices that the man carrying the flag of the independance movement has fallen down the side of the mountain. The sergeant heads down the side of the mountain to retrieve it, but falls and is mortally wounded. He does manage to shout "¡Viva la Patria!" and though the men above cannot hear him, they know what he says.
So, plot-wise there's not much that's really intriguing. There are some powerful descriptions of the harshness of the mountainous terrain and the weathered and battle-weary gauchos. There's also the incorporation of the gaucho language, which does make it a little harder to comprehend. As an introduction, it's not bad if a bit on the jingoistic side. I'm hoping there's some variety to the stories.
The Joy of Work is the latest in Scott Adams' non-comic strip Dilbert books. The format combines Adams' writing with a few Dilbert strips to illustrate the points that he makes. In this book, Adams suggests that if you are unable to squeeze any more money from the disfunctional sadist who calls himself your boss, your best bet is to increase your enjoyment of the time you have to spend at work. Adams suggests several ways to achieve that end, from the absurd (cubicle yoga, pretending to be psychic) to the surprisingly not impractible (managing creativity). He also describes some of his own experiences in handling criticism, including strips of his which received surprising negative response and even responding to some of the claims of Norman Solomon. Adams' long-form humor is similar to that of his strips, a mix of sarcastic and silly, so if you read Dilbert, you have a good idea of what the book is like.
This book combines two different novels by Onetti.
The first is "El Pozo," which is a first-hand account from a man who has just turned forty years of age. Having turned forty he decides to write about his life, since that is the sort of thing a man should do at forty, "especially if he's lived an interesting life." The narrator turns out to be something of an existentialist character. He recounts something terrible he did when he was young, though he seems unable to grasp the gravity of his actions. He also relates his alienated wanderings around his city of residence. He feels a connection to only two people, a poet and a prostitute, but his attempts to communicate openly with them don't turn out how he expected. It's a brief but interesting sketch of a certain alienated personality.
"Los Adioses," the second story, is somewhat more complicated. The town of Santa Maria is a destination for people needing to convalesce. As the owner of the only market/bar in town, the narrator observes the arrival of a former basketball player who checks into the local hotel. Most of the narrator's knowledge of the basketballer is second hand. Even though the ex-basketballer comes often to the store to pick up beer and his mail, conversation with the narrator is virtually nonexistent. The player's stay brings a series of mysteries, such as the correspondence the player receives (consisting mainly in letters from two different people), why he decides to rent a nearby house, and the visitors he receives. Though the narrator tells us pretty much everything he sees and hears and all the gossip he is told, the mysteries tend to persist in this work of subtle power.
I was looking over the blog recently and it occurred to me that it might be fun to try my hand at the Story a Day format I had tried with Lugones' Strange Forces and Richard's Charity. I'll start on this by going back to Lugones, this time with La Guerra Gaucha. Unlike Fuerzas Estrañas or Cuentos Fatales, this one is likely of less interest outside Argentina. It is a collection of short stories based on the War of Independence and the montoneras (irregular gaucho cavalry) who fought the Royalist forces in Salta province.
Like much of Lugones', the book appears to have been popular during its time but later relegated to obscurity, though I suspect it has been influential. Fellow Argentine Manuel Mujica Lainez wrote two collections of short stories related to historic events: Aqui Vivieron and Misteriosa Buenos Aires and Uruguyan Eduardo Hughes Galeano relates the entire history of Latin America through anecdotes in his Memory of Fire trilogy.
Planned future projects in the same vein: Silvina Ocampo's La continuación y otras páginas, Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco, Stephen Millhauser's In the Penny Arcade and possibly a somewhat eviscerated version of Palahniuk's Haunted.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in a world where the nation of Israel did not survive war with its Arab neighbors, but the US did provide Jewish refugees with a colony in Alaksa. This colony, which exists as a semi-autonomous region, has opted for Yiddish instead of Hebrew as the official language. As the novel begins, Sitka is also only a few weeks away from reversion, when it will return to US jurisdiction and all of its residents will have to find new places to live. (US citizenship or residency status being difficult to obtain.)
For homicide detective Meyer Landsman, this means a new imperative to resolve all the existing cases before reversion comes around. And as he is informed by his ex-wife and new commanding officer, said resolution can be either through solving the case or marking it as unsolvable. Which puts him into something of a bind, as he's recently acquired a new case that he may neither be able to solve nor willing to let go of. The junkie who was murdered execution-style in his own hotel room would not normally be a top priority for Landsman, but since the fleabag flophouse the junkie was killed in happens to be Landsman's residence as well, he's taking it a bit personally.
Landsman's investigation takes him through several strata of the Sitka's diaspora community, from a humble Phillipino doughnut shop to the highest reaches of the social and criminal worlds. Chabon creates a complex and plausible world, imagintively detailed. I especially liked his use of language, where Hebrew and Yiddish words have morphed into slang, providing the novel with its own unique style of pulp dialogue. (I could mostly pick up their meanings from context; if dealing with unfamiliar words intimidates you, there are some editions that feature a glossary.) The mystery turns out to be rather on the grand side, to the extent that the resolution threw the novel a little of balance, but most of the investigation and its exploration of all the different ins and outs of the invented community was quite fascinating.
Astor Piazzolla holds an important spot in the history of twentieth century musicians. His nuevo tango, which incorporated jazz and classical elements into the traditional tango of Argentina, not only revitalized the tango, but but also gave it a new international resonance, inspiring such artists as Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim. What sort of person could create music so beautiful, poignant without being sentimental, modern yet with such depth? Wondering this, I had read Le Grand Tango, a very thorough account of Astor's life, and from what I've heard one of the better biographies written about him. But while Azzi and Collier do a good job of telling you what Piazzolla was up to throughout his life, they are somewhat less successful at giving you a sense of who he was.
That is one thing that made Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir such an enjoyable read. Piazzolla was apparently something of a difficult interview subject; Gorin compares him to Borges for his tendency to answer more in the spirit of provocation than information. However, Gorin seems to have managed to get Astor to open up about himself, partially because they were friends, and also one suspects due to some degree of doggedness or cleverness on Gorin's part.
The book is not a traditional biography, and it focuses mainly on certain times and themes of particular importance to Piazzolla. Quite a bit of time is spent on his musical inspirations, from growing up in New York, meeting Carlos Gardel, studying with Naudia Boulanger, and playing in the Orquesta Tipica of Anibal Troilo. So, too time is spent talking about Piazzolla's drive for innovation and his impulsive, sometimes tempestuous, personality which together led to his making enemies within the Argentine tango community. (And also to some short-lived experiments, such as Tango-Jazz and the Electronic Octet.) Piazzolla also talks about his private life, musicians he's played with, and his observations on the cultural milieu of which his music was a part. One gets a good sense of the intelligence of the man, his emotional turmoil, his devotion to tango.
It's a rich and fascinating portrait, one that I think any fan of Piazzolla would find interesting. That said, for the really interested, it is probably best to read a more traditional biography, such as Le Grand Tango, as well as Memoir in order to get the full picture.