30 April 2009

Review: El Túnel

Ernesto Sabato's El Túnel is the first person account of an artist's murder of the one person who understood him best. At an exhibition, Juan Pablo Castel notices a woman captivated by the window that takes up a small section of one of his finished paintings. She is the only person who appears to have realized the importance of the window, which leads to him becoming to become slowly and utterly fixated on her.

He seeks her out in a somewhat roundabout matter, finally running into her seemingly by accident. He learns that she has been thinking about his painting all the time since that showing. They become romantically involved, but Castel feels she is not being completely honest with him. He begins to suspect she has other lovers, perhaps even that he´s just a plaything to her. He becomes increasingly obsessed with possessing her until his actions cross over into derangement.

This is a novel about obsession and man's futile struggle for meaning, and it is no surprise that Camus found it important enough to have translated into French. I must admit I was not entirely captivated by the story. Though I'm fond of eccentrics in literature (especially the obsessive kind), I often found Castel's obsessiveness more irritating than contagious. I also felt the metaphor of the tunnel as reflecting the essential loneliness of human existence was a bit on the literal side.

So, overall an interesting look at one man's obsession and how it reflects modern man's fruitless search for connection, but not entirely satisfying.

Review: Cola de Lagartija

When Juan Peron returned to the Argentine presidency for the last time in 1974, he brought along two intimates who would go on to create some trouble. The first was his third wife Isabela, who would ascend to the presidency after his death. The second was Jose Lopez Rega, a character so odd it seems hard to believe he was not invented by Arlt or Borges. Rega was fascinated with occult and mystic arts, including Umbanda (like Santeria or Voodoo) and astrology. His interests earned him the nickname El Brujo, not inappropriate given the Rasputin-like hold he had on Peron and later Isabela. It was under Rega that Dirty War began, which was run out of the Office of Social Welfare under the auspices of the triple-A. (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance)

Cola de lagartija is based loosely on Lopez Rega, parting ways with the historical facts of Lopez Rega to create a surreal and disturbing meditation on violence and power. After the fall of Isabela's government, El Brujo heads to his childhood home of Laguna Negra in northern Argentina with his followers. Here he organizes new rituals of blood and sacrifice, and stages a very twisted orgy to which he invites prominent members of Argentine society.

Even in internal exile, he is dangerous enough to inspire enemies, among them the ruling junta, a revolutionary, and an author working on El Brujo's biography. The revolutionary and the author have a brief relationship, during which the revolutionary asks the author to finish her book by killing off El Brujo. But can she really pull it off in such a way as to kill the original?

El Brujo soon finds a new enemy in the mayor of the town of Capivari and its little newspaper. He takes over the town and the newspaper, changing the emphasis of the latter to occult themes. This inspires in him the plans for a new ritual, an immaculate conception which will cleanse Argentina in a river of blood.

I was expecting a touch of the strange, perhaps even some magic realism, when I started this book, as can only be expected from a story based on an already strange individual. But the story is strikingly surreal, often disturbing or funny, presenting an exaggerated look at the relationship between power and violence, and the role of the journalist or writer in responding to the terrible.

28 April 2009

Review: El Cantor de Tango

Bruno Cadogan is writing a dissertation on Borges' view of the tango--especially the older, less sentimental tangos Borges would have heard in his youth--when he hears that in Buenos Aires there is a man, Julio Martel, who sings the tango in this older style. Since no recordings exist of Martel's singing, Bruno heads to Buenos Aires to seek him out personally.

When he lands in Buenos Aires, he finds a room for rent in the very same building which housed Borges' Aleph in the story of the same name. From here he begins his quest for Martel, which turns into a labrynthine wandering through Buenos Aires in time and space. Martel, it turns out, has decided to forgo a career in order to use his tango singing to mark off places and events in the city that hold some particular meaning for him. He also becomes fascinated by the possibility of finding the Aleph in the house where he is staying.

This labrynthine wandering was the strongest aspect of the novel, and I really appreciated how Martinez explored and even celebrated the city of Buenos Aires and its lengthy and often tragic history. I cannot say if someone who has never visited the city would feel something similar, but I would certainly hope that the book would provide some motivation for planning a visit.

The novel did have a couple of flaws. Bruno Cadogan is meant to be an American, but he really thinks and acts more like an Argentine. While a minor flaw, it does cost the novel some verisimilitude. For me the larger flaw was that the novel was almost too Borgesian (never did I thought I would say that) in its use of allusions and homages to the point where it almost became distracting. (Bruno himself seems an obvious homage to Cortazar's "The Pursuer," also about a writer named Bruno fascinated with a troubled musician whose art allows him to experience time differently.)

Despite these flaws, I still found it a captivating read and greatly enjoyed its wanderings through the mazes of space and time which make up the reality of Buenos Aires.

Review: Plata Quemada

A group of Argentine criminals have got what could be a great heist planned out. They will grab the municipal payroll in a daring daytime robbery, then cross the river and slip into Uruguay until the heat dies down. The gang includes Gaucho Dorda and Nene Brignone, who are lovers; Cuervo Mereles, who swaggers with outlaw charisma; and Malito, a cold-blooded and calculating man and their defacto leader. The robbery goes off as planned, but they soon find themselves on the run, guns blazing as they drive their getaway car through the streets of Buenos Aires. Though the events related in Money to Burn seem outrageous enough to belong to a Tarantino film or a pulp crime novel, Ricardo Piglia as invented nothing in this hypnotizing tale of crime, loyalty and vengeance.

Piglia has a minor personal connection to the story, having met Mereles' ex-girlfriend in 1966 while on a train ride to Bolivia. During the trip, she told Piglia a confused and seemingly incredible story of the man she had been in a relationship with and the crimes he had been involved in. Though he never saw her again, he became fascinated by the story and began to research and attempt to write about it. It was a project that he ended up setting aside for the better part of two decades, only to return to and finish later.

Plata Quemada is a novelistic retelling of true events, with Piglia acknowledging where the historical record is ambiguous or incomplete. The only license taken is in the extent to which we get inside the heads of those involved, not just the criminals but also the police who are hunting them. What emerges is a fascinating portrayal of criminality and politics in Argentina and Uruguay of the 1960s, as well as an unforgettable portrayal of characters far outside the pale.

27 April 2009

Review: Toda Mafalda

Joaquín Salvador Lavado, aka Quino, is a cartoonist with a talent for observing the human condition and translating it into striking and darkly comic observations. Many of his works feature recognizable people in situations whose nightmarishness is made more painful by the truths so cleverly expressed. (It should come as no surprise that Quino's representations of bureaucracies at work bear some resemblance to Kafka's.) However, the comic strip Mafalda combines this dark comic sense with the more innocent realm of kids growing up in Argentina in the late 1960s.

If you are already familiar with Mafalda, Susanita, Manolito, Felipe and the rest of the gang, you probably need little convincing as to why Toda Mafalda, which features every Mafalda strip Quino ever created (including several for side projects or that were left out of previous collections) is a very good thing. (Sadly, the book is not in translation, though the individual collections have been published in English under the name Mafalda & Friends.)

Whenever I've tried to describe Mafalda to friends, I usually resort to describing it as "cross between Peanuts and Bloom County or Doonesbury." Like Peanuts, the principal characters are a group of kids with striking personality differences. (Though unlike Peanuts, the parents are also characters in the action.) But like Doonesbury and Bloom County, the comic deals with political and social topics of its time, including the Vietnam War and the crises affecting Argentina.

The appeal of Mafalda, though, is not in its topical commentary, much of which is dated or inaccessible to the non-Argentine. For one, as with Peanuts, the characters are quite memorable. There is, of course, Mafalda herself, a little girl more fixated on the problems of the world than adults around might find healthy. There is a certain poignancy to her, a sense that sometimes we feel a bit like children ourselves when faced with the complicated and seemingly unsolvable problems of the world. Mafalda has a perfect foil in Susanita, a superficial gossip girl who dreams of achieving status through marriage and motherhood. Her ambitions are something of a throwback, even for their time, but her fascination on the social realm and its secrets is still with us today.

I could go on, but I fear that my descriptions would not do the characters justice, nor Quino's often funny takes on politics, work, friendship, life and death. This is the kind of collection worth having on hand and revisiting quite often.

Review: El Juguete Rabioso

El Juguete Rabioso (usually translated as The Mad Toy), the debut novel of Roberto Arlt, was published with the help of Ricardo Güiraldes. It is arguably Arlt's most biographical work, chronicling the (mis)adventures of Silvio Drodman Astier as he attempts to find some way out of the poverty and alienation he has been born into.

Silvio is the parent of immigrants, an outsider in the world of early 20th Century Buenos Aires. He does not lack for ambition, though it often seems that the world works hard to thwart whatever minor dreams he may nurture. Because his father has abandoned the family, he finds himself having to quit school and seek work in order to support his mother and sister. At first he gets together with a couple of other neighborhood kids to engage in some theft, though their first crime--the break-in and robbery of a library--becomes their last after a close call with the police. Later, Silvio goes to work for a dishonest book seller, lands a job with the mechanic corps of the Air Force, and finally works as a paper salesman. The last of these turns out to be such drudgery, that he begins to consider returning to a life of crime.

Arlt expresses Silvio's drive, his hunger for success, in terms that must have been very familiar to him, as the changing circumstances move Silvio to alternate between hope and despair. The title is perhaps a little obvious in its metaphor: Silvio's overwhelming drives and passions combined with his inability to be enact them make him feel like some fierce frivolity. These different poles of existence are expressed in Arlt's unique prose, which combines lyricism with the street language of Buenos Aires.

El Juguete Rabioso, as with most of Arlt's works, is a bracing, sometimes almost painful, work with moments of dark humor or fascinating inventiveness. It pales a bit in relation to Arlt's later The Seven Madmen (arguably his best work), in comparison with which it seems somewhat conventional, but if you've never read Arlt and are interested in encountering his unique representation of the alienation of modern life (Argentine style), El Juguete Rabioso would be a good place to start.

23 April 2009

Review: Don Segundo Sombra

Don Segundo Sombra is the story of an orphaned boy named Fabio who has spent most of his early years in a small town living a somewhat rootless experience. One day he meets a gaucho named Don Segundo Sombra, the character who gives the novel its name, and is so impressed by the gaucho's quiet dignity that he decides to take him up as a mentor. He seeks out to the ranch of Sombra's current employer in order to obtain work alongside the gaucho. In the years that follow, he learns much from Sombra and travels widely around Argentina. The narrative details some of the adventures he encounters along the trail, including time spent among other gauchos.

Though there is some overlap, there is also a marked difference between the gaucho life as portrayed in Martin Fierro and that seen in this novel. Martin Fierro may have his honorable aspect, but he is basically an outlaw and a killer. While Sombra has its share of drawn knives, bloodshed is generally avoided. The one death that does result is portrayed as a tragedy and waste, without the outlaw romanticism of the older book.

What is most striking is the extent to which the gaucho is a civilizing influence. It is through Don Segundo that Fabio learns about courage, honesty and loyalty--values it is implied that he would not have picked up had he stayed with the distant relatives with whom he is staying at the beginning of the novel.

Like Martin Fierro, the novel's language draws heavily from Argentine, especially gaucho, manners of speaking, though written in a more natural and readable style. As with much gauchesque literature, the gaucho Sombra serves as symbolic of national character. Unlike those older works, Sombra was written when the real-life gauchos had begun to disappear and so reflects the shift of the gaucho from reality to myth, a lost emblem of the forging of personal and national adulthood.

22 April 2009

Review: La Guerra Gaucha

One dramatic footnote in the Argentine War of Independence took place in the northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy, where Spanish-led troops faced off with a guerrila force made up of local gauchos. Though not as strategically important as the campaigns of San Martín, Leopoldo Lugones found the confrontation between Spaniard and gaucho to be fertile ground for an exploration of courage, honor and patriotism. He travelled to the region to learn the oral traditions of the conflict and see the locations where the fighting had taken place.

Though he originally intended to write it as a novel, Lugones found that he could not work everything he wanted to say into one narrative, so La Guerra Gaucha became a collection of stories about the war. The short stories are to some extent disconnected: some feature skirmishes or battles while others feature the more day-to-day aspect of life during the war, and rarely does one get a sense of where each story fits into the larger strategic struggle.

The fighting, however, does serve as the binding force of the narrative. Even a simple local gathering can suddenly erupt into tense confrontation, and there are several stories in which the act of violence occurs suddenly, shockingly. The stories are also connected by several thematic elements, including the harshness of war, the desire for freedom, courage, sacrifice, fatalism.

The book does not want for fascinating characters--the friar who risks his life to signal the patriots, the gaucho who stages a suicide attack on a royalist fort, the young royalist lieutenant falling in love with a local widow--but Lugones' descriptive powers are effectively used to evocatively describe the land and its features. I never really considered Lugones a brilliant writer, as his other short story collections (Strange Forces, Fatal Stories) were longer on concept than linguistic fireworks. La Guerra Gaucha, on the other hand, reflects a sophisticated and striking command of language and imagery in service of the story he tells. Here he crafts a real sense of place to serve as powerful backdrop for the war being waged.

I will admit there were off moments, where Lugones shades off into a simplistic nationalism. Perhaps these struck me as terrible in part because I was aware of his later embrace of fascism, but luckily there were very few of those moments. Overall, I'd have to call it the strongest of Lugones' short story collections.

(Sadly, this book does not appear to have ever been translated.)

21 April 2009

Review: Facundo

Domingo Sarmiento wrote Facundo while he was in exile in Chile, having had to flee Argentina due to Juan Manuel Rosas, the country's first dictator. Facundo can be read as his attempt to come to grips with the forces that brought his country under dictatorship and sent him to exile.

Facundo is presented as the biography of Facundo Quiroga, a gaucho and fighter in the War of Independence who would go on to serve as one of the most important generals in the civil war which would bring Rosas to power. Sarmiento uses the biography of Quiroga as a basis for a deeper exploration of Argentine politics and society. Even before Quiroga appears, Sarmiento gives a brief account of the geography of Argentina, and how its history led to a divergence between the city of Buenos Aires--cosmopolitan, cultured, with an interest in new political ideas--and the rural provinces, in which violence and corruption had come to dominate. In doing this, Sarmiento lays out the central struggle of Argentina as one between the Civilization of Buenos Aires and the Barbarism of the provincial caudillos, of which he sees Quiroga as an embodiment.

Quiroga makes for a larger than life figure, so there is a certain logic to his centrality (as opposed to Rosas) for Sarmiento. As a young man, Quiroga had a run in with a puma and killed it with a knife, earning the sobriquet "El Tigre de los Llanos" (The Tiger of the Plains). He dropped out of school while still young to pursue a gaucho existence buyt did not really make much of himself until becoming a leader of men during the civil war. Though not a great strategic thinker, his leadership of bands of gauchos turned out to be key in the victory of the Federalist forces under Rosas. Once Rosas is in power, Quiroga shows little interest in government, and ends up being violently assassinated. (Sarmiento alleges Rosas ordered the assassination, though the historical record is unclear.)

Quiroga can be thought of as many things: as novel, biography, history, and an exploration of the forces at work in Argentine history. Sarmiento sees the gaucho and his culture as expressions of the Barbarism which rejects the standards of Civilization. He advocates for the importance of education and the development of commerce in order to allow Argentina to rise to greatness. Though his theory of this struggle between Civilization and Barbarism tends at times towards simplification,(He seems to have a particular fetish for the use of European-style clothing as expression of political sophistication.) the difference between the European-influenced porteños and the insular world of the gauchos does bring insights into Argentina's history. Whatever its flaws, it's a fairly thorough and fascinating portrait of Argentina's internal struggle after independence and one very noteworthy figure in that struggle.

20 April 2009

Review: Martin Fierro

Martin Fierro is a two-part epic poem about a nineteenth century gaucho of the same name. It belongs stylistically to a tradition of gauchesque poetry, written not in traditional Spanish but in a Spanish filtered through the language, wordplay and lyrical traditions of the rural life of Argentina.

The first part of the poem, "The Gaucho Martin Fierro" introduces us to the character of Fierro, a poor and uneducated, but basically decent gaucho who lives with his common-law wife and children and eeks out a a basic existence. Trouble begins when he is pressed into military service by the authorities (a common occurrence at the time) and sent to serve on the frontier with the "unsettled" lands ruled over by fierce tribes of Pampas and Araucans. Here he is underpaid, underfed, poorly supplied, and generally mistreated. When he sees an opportunity, he flees back to the world he left behind. Later, the authorities catch up to him, and his resistance reveals such a depth of courage and nobility that he finds an unlikely ally in this struggle. Together, the two friends travel beyond the bounds of civilization.

"The Return of Martin Fierro" picks up several years later, with Fierro having found life in the wilderness much harsher than he expected. He returns to his home, where he meets up with the sons--all grown up now--whom he had to leave behind ten years prior. Together, they share stories of hardship and struggle, and of dealing with corrupt and callous authorities. While Fierro finds that the authorities have forgotten about his outlaw status, one act of violence from his past returns to haunt him and to leave the narrative with an ambiguous ending.

Martin Fierro is a sympathetic protagonist, though not without his flaws. He is not just an outlaw and a deserter, but also a brawler and a killer, though he is not without his sense of nobility. When contrasted to the authorities, which exert such power over him yet care little for his welfare, it becomes only natural to feel for the gaucho. I found the combination of the outlaw mystique and the realism of the gaucho's social marginalization to make for a moving tale.

To add to this, Fierro is not only a noble outlaw but also a musician, making his role as archetypal figure all the more noteworthy. The narrative is presented as one in which each of the main characters tell his own story in song, and the combination of musical performance with outlaw machismo struck me as just as deeply embedded in North American culture, whether you're talking of cowboys or gangstas. The climax of the second part involves a "payado," a sort of traditional gaucho song duel in which two guitar-players/singers trade off improvising songs on a theme.

The use of gauchesque style and language make for something of a double-edged sword, providing a unique feel while being potentially difficult to fully grasp. The edition I read was bilingual and thoroughly footnoted, which I found to be very helpful. I managed to understand it pretty well while reading the original, with only occasional glances to the translation. If your Spanish, like mine, is good but could be better, I recommend a bilingual edition. If you're more of a beginner, you're probably better off sticking to a translation, though much of the texture of the gauchesque language will be lost.

Marin Fierro is considered among the first classics of Argentine literature, and as with many a book that I'd heard much about, I approached it with a certain sense of wariness, fearing age would have dimmed its power. However, with its portrayal of a heroic criminal confronted by corrupt authority, and its beautiful and unique language, Martin Fierro certainly earns its classic status.

01 April 2009

LGG: "Tailon"/"Güemes"

My copy of La Guerra Gaucha goes out not with a bang nor a whimper, but a D'oh! Just as "Tailon" reached its dramatic climax, it seemed to suddenly break off into a completely unrelated story. Lugones engaging in some sort of pre-post-modern wackiness? No, pages 273 - 288 just happened to be missing, apparently a major screw up in the whole printing/binding process.

Which frankly was a bit of a shame, because Tailon seemed a pretty solid story which cut off just as the big bad gaucho came back to put a hurtin' on the people he believed responsible for the death of his beloved. (I may have misread it, but I think the death was drawn somewhat ambiguously.) Prime among his targets seems to be a local functionary who is a royalist sympathizer. But the story cuts off, and I was left with the last couple pages of "Güemes" about the important montonero caudillo. Those last two pages seem to be a somewhat hagiographic portrayal of his death, though too much was cut out for me to get a good sense of it.

So, I'm finally done blogging the stories in La Guerra Gaucha, and only two weeks late. I'm going to hold off on the next collection (Silvina Ocampo's La continuación y otras páginas) until I've managed to write some reviews, on which I've managed to fall too far behind.