30 June 2009

Denevi: La cola del perro

"La cola del perro" is that last of the stories in this collection, this one in the fable mode. A farmer is trying to maximize efficiency at his farm by making sure his animals are not goofing off. Since he doesn't have a good sense of how to judge their output, he decides to prohibit the dog from wagging his tail, under the theory that if the dog is wagging his tail he must not be working. The farmer goes so far as to threaten the dog with death if he will not stop wagging his tail.

The dog finds this very unnatural, but does learn that if he concentrates, grits his teeth and squeezes the right muscles, he can keep from wagging his tail. But he finds it very frustrating and stressful. As he becomes more stressed, his behavior becomes more hostile and threatening. Although the other inhabitants, including the farmer's wife, begin to think the policy has cost the dog his sanity. The farmer, though, thinks it is great, especially since a hostile dog makes for a much better guard dog.

Interesting story, which struck me either as a satire on workplaces that fixate on productivity or a commentary on communism. (They may seem like pretty divergent possibilities, but the Soviets were pretty fixated on productivity numbers in their days.)

29 June 2009

Denevi: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" is the last of Denevi's character-based pieces, and like some of the others has an element of confrontation between a certain porteño snobbery and the wider world. Two spinster sisters spend their nights listening to records of classical music in their apartment, which is in a building which is largely empty. One day the hear that a young musician has moved into an apartment in the floor below theirs. That night they hear him playing tangos in the apartment below.

The younger sister finds his tangos moving and becomes fascinated with him. She begins to think about running into him, seeing him as a potential escape for the lonely existence she is living with her sister. Though her sister acts horrified about the sort of music he plays, she also has an interest in meeting him.

In the end, things do not work out quite as either planned in a melancholy ending.

IPA: Snowmen

And here the book swings back into weird/fantasy/magical realism mode with a great story about a few days in winter. There's admittedly not much in the way of a plot here. Snow falls one day in the hometown of the narrator, who is a young boy. He heads out with his friends to play in the snow. Soon they encounter some very intricate snowmen. They wander around some more, and then go back outside day after day to see the new variations in snowmen. The snow figures become ever more fanciful: people in complicated scenes, animals, plants, mythical beasties. Of course, these are all pretty much figures it is impossible to make with snow, but I found it only added to the sense of the wondrous that Millhauser is after in the story.

CHM: The Same Dog

A tricky story to discuss, because it actually hinges on a little bit of a twist that I'd rather not give away. The story features two periods in time, the first when he was a young boy and the second having grown up and visiting the house he grew up in. As a boy he was a little bit of an outcast, but there was a little girl he was good friends with. They would go out exploring the English countryside together, roaming as far as they could get away with. One day they discover a strange house, guarded by a very frightening dog. As they leave, the boy thinks he sees something which creeps him out, but he catches only a vague glimpse.

Soon thereafter, the boy becomes sick and spends many days in bed. After he recovers he learns that his friend has died, but nobody will tell him what happened. He grows up never having known what happened to her. He returns to his childhood home from the army with a fellow soldier along. They go out exploring and discover the strange house that he had found as a child.

And to reveal anymore would be to give too much away. This again is Aickman at his most mysterious, with a sense of the strange but providing no ability to really puzzle out what has happened.

28 June 2009

BDT: Revelación de otoño & El invierno propio

These last two stories round out the seasonal section of Buzon de tiempo. "Revelación de otoño" is about an academic couple, who decided somewhat late in life to adopt a daughter. It's an interesting sketch of their lives, their friends and interests. The conflict arises at the end, when the daughter decides that she wants to know about her biological mother. As with the spring story, the seasonal connection doesn't seem as integral as it could be.

"El invierno propio" (One's own winter) is, unsurprisingly, about death. An old professor thinks about life and death as he sits in his library, looking at all the books. There's a certain elegance to the simplicity of the piece, and any bibliophile can appreciate the feelings of nostalgia of looking at books that have accompanied one through life.

IPA: A Day in the Country

"A Day in the Country" is the last story of the second section, all of which are stories with little to no fantastic element (outside of the stylistic approach) told from the point of views of women. The emphasis here is on epiphanies.

This story concerns an academic in her mid-thirties staying at a lodge. (I was reminded of the lodge in Yosemite National Park, though I don't think the exact location is ever named.) She reads, works and wanders around, running into different people. There is one woman in particular she feels a need to avoid. This woman, who is approximately a decade younger, has a look on her face that suggests she is looking someone to talk to, to unload her problems onto. One unexpected encounter between the two proves eye-opening, as the protagonist is forced to confront some truths that she has been keeping from herself.

While these stories have all been good, and I certainly like Millhauser's style, I have to admit I'm looking forward to see if the final section returns to some of the more interesting aspects of the first story.

CHM: The Hospice

A man on a business trip finds himself lost and running out of gas. He decides to see if anyone at the very large house nearby can help him. They seem friendly enough but behave a little strangely.

It's a pretty well-worn premise, which I wouldn't be surprised is older than the novel. As often in horror, it's all about execution, execution, execution. (Yes, pun intended.) There's a certain quality to Aickman's strange stories--an atmosphere that manages to be both uncanny and subtle--that is done particularly well in this story.

The house turns out to be a hospice, named simply The Hospice, which seems to specialize in healing people with some undefined nervous condition. The host seems friendly enough, though it is not clear if he can be trusted. The staff, too, are polite, though with a strangely condescending manner. The protagonist has dinner at The Hospice, where he is served the same gigantic portions as everyone else, which he is strongly encouraged to eat.

He meets another resident, a woman who flirts with him. Then he ends up spending the night, having to spend the night sharing a room with one of the residents, whose behavior, much like everyone else's, is a little bit off.

This ends up being one of Aickman's pieces where the atmosphere is the strongest element. There's no real resolution, no revelation as to what is going on, or even a final shocking twist. But it still manages to be quite tense throughout.

27 June 2009

I'm "with" the Band (dream fragment)

Though I realize there's nothing more dull than an account of someone else's dream, on occasion some dream strikes me enough that I feel like sharing. What follows is only a small fragment of what must have been a larger dream, but only this particular scene stuck with me after awakening.

For some reason the image is saturated in a violet tint, as if filmed through a filter. The scene begins with a man at a drum set, banging away with enthusiasm, which is reflected in the almost beatific look of joy on his face. His hair is long and straight, and though his clothing is hard to make out in the purple saturation, it's light tone and lose shape suggests the hippie look circa 1969.

The scene pulls back, revealing a similarly dressed guitarist, also playing with the same degree of bouncy enthusiasm. Also a mike stand stands before both of them, awaiting the arrival of the singer. There is something peculiar about their happiness, as if it comes just shy of being clearly parodic. The thought crosses my mind, as the viewer of this scene, that this may be a parody of a band, something akin to The Monkees. The music is largely unmemorable, but shares the exaggeratedly sunny feel of the rest of the performance.

The scene pulls back a little more, and a man comes into the foreground. He is wearing a suit, also circa 1969, and his hair is a large mass of pale curls. Were it not for the violet tint of the scene, which creates the impression of a clown wig, it would appear to be an oversized Harpo Marx wig. He doesn't say anything, only looks at the viewer, smiles, turns to look at the band, than turns back and smirks. There's a hint of an eye roll, and the whole performance communicates something like, Get a look at these guys, can you believe they're for real?

We than see come out on stage a third member of the band, who strides out to stand in front of the microphone stand. During the whole time he has been in the scene, he has been facing away from the viewer. Though he is dressed just like the other two members, he sports a large pale Afro, which looks similarly clown-like as that of the man in the suit. As he turns around, the scene comes to an end, but I am left with the conviction that had I seen his face, I would have seen that he was the same person as the man in the suit.

Some thoughts: I'm always struck by how seemingly ironic dreams can be. Perhaps there is some simple Freudian interpretation to the above. Yet what sticks with me are the odd ironic elements. The way the musicians' enthusiasm suggests a parody of enthusiasm. The man in the suit, which suggests something like the host of a music program, responding to the enthusiasm with the implication that he finds the whole thing ridiculous. Yet, it's not clear if he's supposed to be in on the joke (if there is one). Made all the more haunting by the suggestion that he is really the singer, though we don't ever hear his voice.

There are of course different theories on dreams. Freud believed that they were expressions of the unconscious, those things that we keep locked away from our waking selves. Others believe that dreams are just random scenes that don't really mean anything. I have to admit I'm agnostic on whether either of those two theories is entirely correct. But the above sort of dream really strikes me with the way it seems to neither be an expression of something as straightforward as anxiety or desire nor does it seem entirely random. Weird, yes; surreal, definitely; but with its own peculiar dream logic.


I drafted this earlier in the day and since have had some opportunity to think it over. Some elements are recognizable. The general tone of ironically upbeat rock music may have been inspired by my viewing of The Happening meets "The Happening" on the Agony Booth website. The man in the suit bore something of a resemblance to Syd Barrett (albeit with a blonde/purple Afro), though why he ends up being the presenter as well as singer is something that just seems original to the dream. And the image of a clown-like figure, who is about to turn around but is never seen doing so may have been inspired by Thomas Ligotti's "Gas Station Carnivals" which features a much darker variation on the same scenario.

Denevi: Viajeros

"Viajeros" is a curious little story. It's one of the metaphorical works in the collection. (The intro is right; there is a pretty clear breakdown.) It is about a couple who love to travel. They begin with road trips around Buenos Aires province, move on the bus trips around Argentina, then train trips around South American. Soon, this turns out to be insufficient, so the couple are flying to and fro. Not only are they fond of flying but also of collecting souvenirs and taking pictures, which they store with the narrator of the story. However, with so many places to travel to, they find they have no time to look at the pictures or do much with the souvenirs.

Soon, all the travel begins to take its toll. They get used to speaking in so many languages that their speech takes on a pidgin quality, incorporating words from several languages in a single sentence. And they also come to lost track of where they are. This is a fairly funny story, somewhat reminiscent of Kafka or Borges though with a slightly lighter touch.

IPA: The Sledding Party

As with the previous story, this story is told from the perspective of a young woman in a very short span of time as she comes to certain epiphanies. The protagonist of the story is at a high school party with her friends, when one boy reveals an innocent truth which puts her ill at ease. She first avoids him, then wanders the party before coming to terms with it.

In both this and the prior story, there is some subtle degree of wonder or mystery. This doesn't reflect so much the threat of something potentially unnatural at play as much as it is the wonder and terror of life at such an age. There was a moment early on, where an animal is spotted, which may be a cat or a rabbit, which reminded me of Denevi's Decadencia y caida, but nothing so strange happens.

CHM: Pages from a Young Girl's Journal

I'm not sure, but I think this story shows up frequently in anthologies. It did win a World Fantasy Award. I was aware when I started the story that it did deal with the theme of vampirism, and as the story opens I actually thought it might have been the journal of a "young" vampire girl. Even as the entries continue and that possibility seems less likely, I still couldn't quite be sure that there wouldn't be a final reveal that the author was a vampire all along. Again, Aickman does a great job with the atmosphere and keeping the reader just off balance enough.

The basic plot is that the narrative is a series of journal entries from a young Englishwoman as her family travels through Italy, where they tend to stay as guests of local landholders. There's an intriguing degree of allusions to other writers, particularly those of some Gothic importance. (As with Northanger Abbey, the narrator is fond of the Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe. She also learns that Shelley and Byron are staying nearby.) When it arrives, the vampire element is fairly conventional. (Who is that dark gentleman who the heroine is so drawn to?) The corruption of the narrator still makes more a compelling read and has a degree of ambiguity which reminded me of the end of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

BDT: Primaveras de otros & Nubes de verano

From here, we move to the last section, which works off a seasonal motif. The first story is "Primaveras de otros" (Other people's springs), which is about a man living a hermit-like wandering experience. He has been driven to solitude by despair over all the terrible things happening in the world, which have robbed life of meaning. As he watches a couple make love on a beach, he finds new meaning in life and calls the wife he left behind. I have to admit at this point, my feelings are a bit torn. Benedetti is returning to the theme of solitude and alienation, and I'm not sure the new variation on it adds anything new. While it can be fascinating to see an author work on a theme from multiple angles, this one bordered on cliche. (Both for the world-weariness of the narrator and the lovemaking as epiphany moment.)

"Nubes de verano" is the story of fifteen-year-old boy left alone with his cousin, while his parents go away for a weekend. Since he has little to do, he spends a lot of time thinking about his life and writing in his diary. His sister killed herself several years ago, and he has been unable to cry since then. He wonders what this says about him, if other people find him strange. He sits down to watch television, flips through channels. As he gets to an ad for aid, which features an African boy suffering from malnutrition, he begins to cry. Though the ending here also borders on cliche, I think it was stronger than the former story. For one, the cloud/rainstorm imagery as stand-in for emotional build-up/release is pretty effective. For another, the protagonist's dilemma feels a little more genuine.

26 June 2009

BDT: Contestador automático & Testamento ológrafo

These last two stories of the Buzon de tiempo section actually break with the format of letters from one individual to another. The first is the transcript of two voice mails left on an answering machine. (The title translates as "Answering Machine.") The messages are both from the voice (probably a ghost) of a man who was tortured by the man to whom he is leaving the messages. (The two messages are there because the machine appears to limit the time for any individual message.) Here, again, is the theme of coming to terms with the dictatorships of the 20th Century. Admittedly, except for the format, there's not really much here that hasn't already shown up earlier. (Aa in "El diecinueve.")

"Testamento" also falls back on some themes that have been pretty prevalent throughout the collection; the bittersweet acceptance of death. This document is a last will and testament, and the format does allow for a new variation on this already familiar theme, as the narrator switches between concrete and intangible items in coming to terms with his life.

Denevi: Las abejas de bronce

"Las abejas de bronce" is another one of Denevi's fables, and here concerns a Fox who runs a honey business. He makes pretty good money at it, but when he hears about some mechanical bees (made of bronze) he figures it's his opportunity to expand his business. The bronze bees appear to be a real wonder. They work constantly, do not get caught in spiderwebs, and are able to refine the have the honey refined by the time they get back to the hive. They have their drawbacks--the honey lacks the same flavor--but he is able to provide so much honey that he ends up cornering the market. However, soon the unintended consequences grow, and the Fox does not know how to stop it.

As it Boroboboo, the story seems to reflect a certain cautionary view of technology, especially its ability to take over swiftly. There are is also a degree of satire on the logic of modern capitalism.

IPA: A Protest Against the Sun

The story is a marked contrast to "August Eschenburg." To begin with, it is much shorter and told from the point of view of a specific character. Millhauser's style does retain some of its sense of the fantastic that appeared in the former, but here it appears to play a greater role as emotional shading to a specific moment in a character's life.

The story is of a teenage girl at the beach one day with her parents. She talks to them about books, goes for a swim, thinks about the way the opposite sex looks at her and her own thoughts on sex. As she sits with her family on the beach, they spot a young man at the beach wearing dark clothing, including a hooded sweatshirt. The narrator's dad feels very upset by this, believing the young man has deliberately attempted to draw attention to himself by dressing that way in such a place. But the narrator sees it as a protest against the sun and feels some kinship with the boy.

"August Eschenburg" featured moments when August thought of the moments in his life that seemed to hold special significance and wondered if it was only in retrospect that he had assigned special meaning to a few particular events. "Protest" bears some similarity to those moments, here told as it is happening, without the benefit or distortion of retrospection.

CHM: Niemandswasser

Niemandswasser is German for "No Man's Water," which in this novel represents an interesting variation on the theme of the Borderland as a realm where reality is not entirely solid. The story concerns a young man from the Austrian nobility who after a failed love affair, sinks into despair. To flee society, who hides out in a home by a lake whose shores border on several nations. It is in this lake that a friend of his was horribly bitten several years ago, losing part of his hand and sinking into depression himself.

One day the young noble spots a boat on the lake and asks a peasant about it. The peasant advises him against venturing out to the boat, since it is in No Man's Water. When the young nobleman inquires from one of the local teachers, he is told that not only is that part of the lake under disputed nationality but that it also appears to have a considerable collection of superstitions and uncanny stories built up around it. Out of curiosity, the young noble decides to row out there one moonlit night.

While "Real Road" was mostly a building up of atmosphere with a climax, that while intriguing was rather ambiguous, "Niemandswasser" ends with a more traditional horror story resolution. Aickman never resolves the mystery entirely, but he has crafted a satisfying horror tale.

25 June 2009

Review: La continuacíon y otras páginas

La continuacion is an anthology of stories and poems from Silvina Ocampo, who was friends with Borges, married to Adolfo Bioy Casares, and sister to Olivia Ocampo. In reading her short stories, I found it tempting to compare her to her contemporaries, Borges and also Julio Cortazar, which isn't entirely fair. Ocampo is certainly drawing from some of the same influences as those authors, but her perspective and style are clearly her own.

Among the themes are the blurring of identity (probably used most effectively in "La casa de azucar"), memories of childhood ("La siesta en el cedro"), and textual games ("Carta bajo la cama" and "El diario de la Porfiria Bernal"). Ocampo usually injects these themes with her own particular approach, as with the air of mystery and sadness that pervades the childhood stories. Of particular note is the sensuality of some of the stories, brining a certain liveliness to those elements. Admittedly, not all of the stories are great. (Of particular note is "El pecado mortal" for its oddly engaging take on the intersection of religion and sex.) Some of the later tales seem to have interesting concepts, though used in ways that struck me as less original.

Overall, a pretty nice collection presenting a sampling from the authors lifelong output.

24 June 2009

BDT: La muerte es una joda & Un sabor ácido

"La muerte es una joda" is the letter written to an old friend by a dying man. He is Argentine or Uruguayan, who moved to Mexico City after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Although he admits he is frightened of death, the letter is written with something of a light, almost joking, tone. He is already getting fainting spells, and he suspects the next time he faints, he will not be awakening.

"Un sabor ácido" is a letter to a childhood friend. After some brief thoughts on solitude and then some reminiscence regarding his childhood, the author goes on to explain why he has written the letter. He is in prison for shooting his wife. He had developed a problem with jealousy, and had hired a detective to follow her. The detective he hired worked alone, not with an agency, which he figured was a point in his favor. The detective had reported that she was having an affair. Enraged, the man shot his wife. He then flees and hides out in the house of another friend. Several days later, he finds out that his wife was not cheating on him, and that the detective worked alone because he was disreputable. He had a reputation for fabricating tales of infidelity concerning the wives he was watching.

There's a sense I get in this collection of these being very much the stories of a writer in his sunset. A lot of sort of bittersweet coming to terms with loss. This is pretty strong in the first story, but also comes through in the second story's nostalgic reminiscence. The theme of solitude seems to be most ironically used in "sabor," where it appears the narrators preference for solitude ends up dooming him.

Denevi: Decadencia y caída

The title translates as "Decline and Fall," and is probably the most surreal of the stories in the collection. It is told in flashback by the butler working for a wealthy family. One day, the gardener brings him a report of strange droppings, then of a strange animal that appears to be something like a rabbit or a cat. The chef sees something in the garden and tells the owner. He is told not to worry about it, so ends up quitting. Though the creatures seem harmless, they slowly end up taking over the garden.

This is one of Denevi's metaphorical works and reminds me a bit of Cortazar's "House Taken Over." Though it is established that the creatures do not attack people or animals, the sense of strangeness about them contributes to the atmosphere of the uncanny at work in the story.

In the Penny Arcade: August Eschenburg

In the Penny Arcade kicks off with the extended short story "August Eschenburg." (At 64 pages, the longest story by far.) This is the story of a 19th century German prodigy who becomes fascinated from a young age with clockwork automatons. The story kicks off with August's playing with a strange and cruel toy, a paper figure into which a small bird is placed. As the bird struggles to free itself, it gives the paper figure the illusion of being alive. It is a later encounter with a carnival magician's automaton that gets August interested in building his own.

He builds a few pretty good figures for the clock shop his father owns. He attracts the attention of a German industrialist looking to add some element of novelty to his new department store. August finds in the industrialist the opportunity to work on his clockwork figures with a focus he has not been privileged to before. The moving figures he creates are so striking that they make the department store a huge hit. But soon a competing department store opens, featuring its own automaton that are cruder but novel in a way that August finds distasteful. As the new department store begins to draw business away, August and the industrialist come to part ways. August returns to his hometown, where years later he receives a visit from a mysterious visitor with a new business proposition.

It's a delightful and fascinating look at creativity, at the tension between the artist and the public, but also just a very playful story about a manufacturer of clockwork wonders.

CHM: The Real Road to the Church

"The Real Road to the Church" is the story of an Englishwoman who is living on an unspecified European island, in which she has trouble communicating with the locals. She hears that the chateu she is renting is on "the real road to the church," a phrase which she finds vaguely troubling and which nobody appears capable of explaining to her. This is mostly a nicely atmospheric in which not that much happens until a subtle climax which may or may not be a hallucination. It's an intriguing story, though definitely on the quiet side.

23 June 2009

BDT: Bolso de viajes cortos & La vieja inocencia

Even a consistently strong collection can turn up stories that stick less successfully in the mind than others. I imagine this is even more true when there's a repeated theme, so that some story can give the impression of being a minor variation of the other similarly themed stories. I would have to say that about about "Bolso de viajes cortos" which returns to the theme of solitude and coming to terms with the past. I read it a few days ago, and when I went to write about it today, I could not remember a thing. Scanning it over, it mostly came back to me. It's a story about a man who chooses a solitary wandering life as a reaction to memories he can't let go off. I don't remember it being a bad story, but it did get a little lost among similar stories.

"La vieja inocencia" did leave a stronger impression. It's a letter being written by an octogenarian to the woman he lost his virginity to, and has a strong sense of wistful reminiscence, capturing the sense of innocence of that first encounter. (The title translates as "The old innocence.")

Denevi: La última Navidad del primo Vegelio

The story is told in flashback by a narrator who remembers when he was a young boy and his cousin Vegelio came to his family's house for Christmas. Vegelio is something of a sad sack, showing up in crummy clothes and always bringing the same flavored almonds every Christmas, which nobody in the family cares for. The narrator, however, has a certain fondness for Vegelio. That night, as Vegelio leaves he tells the narrator a certain secret, which would devastate the narrator's family if were to be revealed. It was interesting overall, but not one of the stronger stories so far.

Cold Hand in Mine: The Swords

Aickman has been on my TBR pile for a while now. To a large extent, this is mostly figurative since it was not until last year that I actually obtained some of his works. (I found Cold Hand in Mine for 25¢(!!) in a used bookstore in Madison, WI.) His work has been highly praised by (among others) Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and S.T. Joshi. One critic described his "strange stories" (as he called them) as "ghost stories in which there is no ghost." So, what I'm expecting is some good subtle weirdness.

"The Swords" certainly gets the collection off to a good start. The story is presented by the narrator as the story behind his first sexual encounter. It takes place during the two years in which he works as a traveling salesman. On one trip, he finds himself in a decayed English town holed up in a flophouse. (Accommodations having been arranged by the uncle who employes him.) With little to do, he visits a fairly pathetic carnival and wanders into a tent wherein a rather strange sideshow is being held.

The show features a young woman dressed up in sexy clothing and a collection of cheap-looking swords. The attendants to the show (who are all men) are each given the opportunity to stab the girl with one of the swords, after which they get to his her. Though she places her hands over the spot on her body into which the sword entered, no blood appears to flow and the girl evinces no pain. (Quite the contrary in fact.)

The boy sneaks off before his turn comes up, but he later runs into the girl and the showman in a restaurant. Here, the showman offers him a private performance by the girl. I'll skip summarizing what follows, since there's no way I could do it justice.

It's a perplexing story, one in which it seems pretty clear something strange is going on without it being really clear what.

22 June 2009

Denevi: Viaje a Puerto Aventura

There seems to be a bit of porteño-satire going on in this tale of an ill-fated road trip. The story begins with the narrator's wife telling the narrator how she also hates to see people driving around in cars, because she knows that they enjoy making her jealous, what with the way they flaunt their travel to some exciting/relaxing location with all their cool friends. She works herself up into a bit of a state, so the narrator agrees to take her for a drive.

He borrows a friends old Lincoln, and they dress up a bit and go for a drive. Between the narrator's struggles to deal with Buenos Aires traffic and his wife's forced attempts to look as if they're having the times of their lives, the scene quickly grows rather grotesque. It is at this point that the wife decides that it is all those people staying at home and showing off what a fun time they're having at that that really make her sick.

It's a bit broad to make for an emotionally resonant portrayal, but as a poke at the porteño obsession with being seen and envied, it works pretty well. There is also one final surprise in store for the couple, which I thought worked pretty well.

BDT: Con los delfines & Terapia de soledad

"Con los delfines" and "Terapia de soledad" are both from the Buzon de tiempo section of Buzon de tiempo. This section is made up of letters (or their equivalent).

"Con los delfines" returns to the Dirty War theme of "El diecinueve." It is a letter written by a young woman who was raised by a couple who were not her parents. She learns that she is actually adopted and that her parents were disappeared from their apartment and later dropped into the Rio de Plata. (I don't know what the estimates are, but the situation of infants being taken from parents who were disappeared was a real one.) The letter is being written to her adoptive father, who obviously knew where the infant he was adopting had come from, telling him how she found out and how consequently she does not ever want to see him again.

"Terapia de soledad" is a letter written by a woman coming home to her husband after having spent some time in the woods away from everybody. It's a pean of sorts to the joys of solitude. The theme of solitude is one of the themes that reappears frequently throughout the collection. Here it is fairly positive, a sort of chance for spiritual renewal.

Ocampo: Paradela & Keif

So, we come to the last two stories in the anthology, both of which incorporate fantasy elements. Paradela is the name of a furniture salesman who helps the narrator's cousin with furnishing a house she has bought. There is a fair amount of humor in the interaction between Paradela, who seems like something of a Porteño-type, and the cousin, who is something more of a humorless society woman. The odd events take place when Paradela comes into contact with furniture, although this is only revealed with two different pieces. One is an antique bed where a Russian prince died. When Paradela lies down on it, he begins to get weaker and appears to be dying himself. The other is a simple-looking piano bench which was once owned by Gardel, and which allows Paradela to sing like Gardel when he is sitting or kneeling on it. It's overall an amusing story, though lacking much in the way of punch.

The second story, Keif, is a little subtler in its use of fantastic elements, and more somber. Keif is the name of a tiger, which is the pet of a woman whom the narrator becomes friends with. Beyond having a tiger as a pet, the woman is rather eccentric in other ways. She decides that she has become tired of life and decides to walk into the sea to do away with herself, leaving the narrator to take care of Keif. The supernatural element doesn't really come until the final twist, which takes some of the melancholy off what should be a fairly depressing story.

And with that, I have read and blogged on all the short stories in La continuación y otras páginas. It was a fun experience, and I'm only sorry that it's taken me so long to finish. Although I don't think Ocampo will anyone forget Borges or Cortazar, she writes some pretty interesting stories. I'll be looking to read more of her works in the future. (And I'll try to spend some time with her poetry in the near-future.)

21 June 2009

BDT: Ausencia

One theme that reoccurs quite a bit in this collection is the legacy of Latin American dictatorships in the '70s and '80s, specifically those of Uruguary and Argentina. This story, the longest of the collection, concerns an ex-revolutionary in Uruguay. He had developed a relationship with Juliana, a girl from his hometown, and had even introduced her to the struggle against the dictatorship. The one day, she leaves for Montevideo and does not return. Her absence haunts the narrator. Several years on, he returns to the town he grew up in to seek out some isolation while he works on some writing. He begins to visit Juliana's family and gets to become friends with her sister, Carmela.

Without getting too much into the plot of the story, which was quite good, this seemed like a pretty powerful story. There's a certain haunting quality to the coming to terms with what happened under the regime, and also an interesting current of the fluidity of identity.

BDT: Más o menos hipócritas

The story was originally published as the first chapter of an exquisite corpse, where authors take turns each writing a chapter. The story is another of Benedetti's dialogue-based narratives. This one concerns a journalist interviewing an older writer. The journalist is asking the writer about what has happened to literary output he used to have when he was younger. There's some back and forth between the two, and the writer tells the journalist about his two marriages and how they may (or may not) have played a role in his output.

Whether or not the story is autobiographical (most of this collection appears to be from later in Benedetti's career), Benedetti's talent for crafting character is substantial enough that I can't help but wonder if the character is based on him.

Ocampo: Ulises & Los grifos

For some reason "Ulises" appears to end abruptly. Considering that there is no break in the page numbers, I'd guess that only a few lines are lost. If so, this story ends on a rather abrupt or fatalistic tone. This story incorporates Ocampo's frequent theme of childhood, though with fantasy elements incorporated. The story concerns the narrators' childhood and her friendship with a strange classmate named Ulises. Ulises has a reputation for telling outlandish stories, as well as a face that strikes most people as being that of an old man. He is also an orphan, living with three elderly and rather eccentric aunts. He and the narrator sneak out one day to visit a fortune teller, who offers Ulises his youth. That's when things take a decidedly supernatural turn, which is quickly reversed and at which point the story cut off. Intriguing, though I'm not really sure where it was going.

"Los grifos" is a pretty Borgesian, not least of all because Borges himself makes a few appearances. Grifos are faucets, and the story concerns a set of faucets which drip onto a basin and create a musical, almost mystical sound. Ocampo seeks out the wider meaning of faucets, suggesting a bizarre mythology of faucets. The story climaxes with a mysterious story of how the basin came into her hands. Interesting, but as can be expected from a Borgesian story, there's not much in the way of conventional plot.

12 June 2009

Ocampo: Amada en el Amado

"Amada en el Amado" begins much like "El lecho," with a couple that appears to be almost obsessively in love, though this story develops less disturbingly. Every day, the husband tells the wife his dreams of the previous nights. The wife wishes she could take part in these dreams, as she never has any dreams of her own. In an odd twist, the woman develops the ability to pull things out of the man's dreams. It takes another twist into odder territory after the wife manages to pull a certain phylactery from the man's dreams.

Denevi: Borobobóo

"Borobobóo" is one of Denevi's fables, this one featuring a jungle full of animals. One day, an ape in a suit shows up. After gathering some information, he tells the inhabitants that they need a computer. In a long passage, he enumerates all of the things that a computer will be able to do for them. (Almost to a one functions of absolutely no value to a jungle creature.) After thinking it over, the jungle animals agree that they need the computer. The ape says he will need to train some people to run the machine, just the brightest. He will also need to cut down a few trees to make room for the computer.

Later, he concludes that he will need more people to run the machine, then even more. Similarly, more and more space has to be cut for the computer. It reads as something of a parable, but it's unique enough that I wouldn't label it as a simple anti-technology screed. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to say exactly what the "moral" of the fable is.

BDT: Asalto en la noche y Los robinses

"Asalto en la noche" is another story (like "Conciliar el sueño") that struck me as vaguely Borgesian, though I won't reveal which story it reminded me of. A woman finds a burglar in her house and reacts fairly nonchalantly. A good deal of it is told through the dialogue between the woman and the burglar. There are a couple of twists in the story, which I won't get into. Funny, surprising, a little off kilter--a good story.

"Los robinses" has a premise that feels like the punchline to a joke. Five people, all of different nationalities, are shipwrecked on an island. The brief story doesn't dwell so much on the mechanics of survival, though there is a bit of that, as the relations between all the characters. (For one they give up on clothes.) Yet it is the nature of these evolving relationships that lead to a certain tragedy.

10 June 2009

BDT: El Viejo Tupi y No hay sombra en el espejo

Both of these stories are about time, the process of growing old and letting go of things. "El Viejo Tupi" is the name of a cafe, one which the narrator identifies with a particular time and crowd in Montevideo. The cafe is considered something of a local landmark, one of the five places that tourists should see when they are in the city. There's not really much of a plot, mainly that once the cafe has to move due to development, it doesn't end up lasting very long at its new location. From the way Benedetti tells the story, I would guess that he is describing a real cafe, a lost part of the Montevideo of his younger life.

"No hay sombra en el espejo" features as narrator and protagonist one Renato Valenzuela (Is this important? Does he feature elsewhere?) who is looking at himself in the mirror, as he does every day. It is here that he contemplates his life and regrets. Renato recalls his life, his young son, the wife who is no longer with him. It is here where he comes to the conclusion that reflected images have no shadows, no regrets. The image in the mirror may feel no regret, but manages to return accusations. Like Tupi, this story does not have much of a plot. It does make for a moving mood piece, though.

Ocampo: El diario de Porfiria Bernal

"El diario" bears some similarities to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw": an English governess in isolating circumstances, watching over a girl and a boy. One of the characters even makes reference to Henry James, although she is unsure whether the name is Henry or Francis James. Despite the obvious homage, the story is not another retelling of James' classic. Instead, it goes off into its own curious direction of lycanthropy, predestination and the text that mediates between them.

True to its title, the story does feature the diary of Porfiria Bernal, the young girl of the family. We are introduced to the diary by Helen Fielding, the English governess taking care of her. In a "Dagon"-like touch, Miss Fielding assures us that she is writing her introduction shortly before the end. We are never given specifics on why Miss Fielding has come to be in Argentina, the circumstances which have led her to her current position, but it appears she has something of an interesting family history. She describes how she came to work for the family and her experiences and affection for Porfiria. It was Helen's suggestion that inspired Porfiria to keep a diary. Miss Fielding is taken aback a bit when Porfiria asks her whether everything you put into a diary has to have really happened or not. She doesn't think much about the question until she has managed to read the diary. It is then the narrative shifts from Miss Fielding to Porfiria's diary.

What follows appears to be a normal account of a somewhat different girl, her family and governess. The Bernal's are upper middle class and travel a fair amount during the year, spending summers on the beach. There are suggestions that more may be going on. Miss Fielding gets along well with the family, but Porfiria doesn't really trust her. Miss Fielding also appears to have a strange reaction to cats.

After several months of entries, the diary is interrupted by Miss Fielding's writing. She claims that the diary is making things happen. She has had it away from Porfiria for several days, but still the events of the last several days have taken place just as described in the entries for those days. From here the entries grow stranger. Miss Fielding becomes more violent with Porfiria, until it culminates in a near fatal accident and a surreal transformation.

It's an interesting combination of elements, one that definitely plays with your expectations. I have to admit, it came as a bit of a surprise when the diary was interrupted by MIss Fielding--sort of equivalent to realizing someone has been reading over your shoulder. There is a pretty interesting ambiguity as to what is going on, whether the diary is causing things to happen or if Miss Fielding is having a nervous breakdown. (But if she is, so it would seem is Porfiria.) In the end, though I enjoyed the story, it struck me as perhaps more comical than haunting, which may or may not have been the intended result.

Denevi: ­¡Miss Maggie, Happy Birthday!

Miss Maggie Sills, who has often been told that she looks and sounds very much like the Queen Mother, has been invited by her friends to join them for dinner at a nice restaurant. She doesn't show up, which worries her friends very muhc. They wiat until late, and then end up going home.

The next day, she meets up with one of her friends, who tells them about how worried they were. Maggie tells the story of why she never made it to the restaurant, of how she took a taxicab with a very nice driver--how he got lost, stopped to get directions, directions which took him in the wrong direction, thus requiring new directions, they always appeared to be only a block or two away but found their way blocked by a one-way street, until after driving around for hours, the driver stops to let her use the restroom at a pizza parlor, but with the rain, they decide to eat right there, and since it's her birthday also celebrate with a bottle of champagne.

So, not much happens overall, but it is an engaging story and reflects nicely some of the social dynamics of Argentine society. It also has kind of a nicely ironic ending.

BDT: Conversa & El diecinueve

Though I've decided to try to look at at least two stories a day, today's entry works out nicely in that the two stories have a common element. Both of these stories are told principally through dialogue. "Conversa," appropriately enough, is told entirely through dialogue, while "El diecinueve" has a smattering of non-dialogue description.

"Conversa" pure and simple is the conversation of a man and a woman in a coffee shop. It's well written, capturing this sort of interaction quite realistically. The man here is the more assertive, and the woman's response--not hostile, but wary--seems pretty dead on. As well done as it is, I must admit if there was any deeper meaning or current there, it sort of passed me by.

"El diecinueve" (The Nineteenth) begins with a man greeting Captain Farías. The captain doesn't recognize his interlocutor, but soon learns that it is someone from his past, specifically his role in Argentina's Dirty War. There's a curious ambiguity to the 19th and his end of the dialogue. Is he a ghost or did he in fact survive? And what has he come back for? Nothing is really resolved, which makes the story either sort of frustrating or intriguing. (I opt for the latter, personally.)

09 June 2009

Ocampo: El pecado mortal y La pluma magica

I have to quote (via rough translation) the opening to the "El pecado mortal," since I thought it was such a great hook.

The symbols of purity and mysticism are sometimes more of an aphrodisiac than pornographic stories or pictures, and it is because of this--what sacrilege!--that the days before your first communion, with the promise of the white dress, lace gloves, and pearl rosary were perhaps the only truly impure ones of your life.

I can't say the story that follows quite lives up to the opening, but somehow I'm not sure I mind so much.

"La pluma magica" reminded me a great deal of Ramsey Campbell's horror story "Next Time You'll Know Me," in that these are both stories of artistic anxiety narrated by the artist himself. In fact, both stories involve the artist writing to the person(s) who he believes has robbed him. Campbell's story is unsurprisingly the darker of the two, while "pluma" is sadder. The narrator of "pluma" is an author who has had to give up writing because everything he writes turns out to have already been written. The narrator finds a solution in a magical quill which allows him to write absolutely original material. The narrator is then betrayed by a protege (possible lover?) who steals the quill. When certain books begin to be published in a style the narrator recognizes as the quill's, he considers it a confirmation of his suspicion.

Denevi: Gaspar de la noche

"Gaspar de la noche" is one of Denevi's "epiphanies" and concerns a piano instructor who is auditioning a potential student. There's an intriguing mix of elements here, which make the term epiphany seem particularly appropraite.

There's a touch of the strange in the young boy sitting on the couch, looking to all the world like a miniature adult down to the horrible suit, the boy who has been brought in by his parents in order to nurture his gift. The parents are too poor to pay for a proper teacher but recognize the child's gift. The teacher's reluctance is compounded by the strangeness, especially when the child offers to play "Gaspar de la nuit," a difficult piece which happens to be the teacher's favorite.

I didn't quite get into this story so much, with its mix of realistically sad and sort of kilter elements, but it probably hazards a reread.

BDT: Jacinto y Cambalache

Two stories, one word titles. Jacinto is a curious little story about a German deaf mute who has been orphaned and is adopted by his aunt and uncle, who are Uruguayan. Their German is poor as is his Spanish, so communication is difficult. One day they take him to a hypnotist to cure him. The hypnotism session allows him to say one word--"Jacinto"--and the hypnotist assures the family that from that one word will come a second, then a third and so on. But the second word never arrives, that is until other forces at work inspire it in him.

Cambalache is a brief story about a rioplatense soccer team. Before a European tournament, one of the players sings the words to "Cambalache" (a tango with some very cynical lyrics) in place of the words to the national anthem. The rest of the team insults and yells at him for being unpatriotic. The game turns out to be close fought, with neither team able to score a goal, until the disgraced player manages to score a goal in the last few seconds of the game. At the next game, all of the players sing "Cambalache" instead of the national anthem, for which they are denounced in the national press as unpatriotic.

07 June 2009

Review: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food is the latest from Michael Pollan, whose previous The Omnivore's Dilemma examined the environmental impact of modern food production. In Defense, Pollan sets his sights on the modern Western diet, including some of the thinking that has gone into producing and justifying it. As Pollan lays it out, the modern diet has been shaped too much by the profit motives of large food producers and too little by the needs of human beings. While traditional diets were a product of a culture's trials and errors over centuries, the attempt to apply scientific methods to modern food production has resulted in food that is less healthy.

Pollan has a name for the allegedly scientific framework which has come to dominate the way that we think about food: nutritionism. Nutritionism, as distinct from nutrition, is a quasi-scientific set of ideologies about food which reflect little about the real impact of diet on health. Nutritionsim creates the illusion of being a scientific perspective on eating. And though it would seem that the scientific method, powerful as it is, should be able to determine what foods are or aren't healthy, it has failed for several reasons. In part, this is due to the sheer complexity of any diet, which renders it nearly impossible to look at x nutrient or y food item in isolation.

Additionally, the nutritionist impulse to view foods as collections of nutrients instead of whole units can result in bad conclusions. If a study finds that a diet high in red meat and low in fruit lead to higher rates of cancer and heart disease, what would be the logical conclusion? Through the nutritionist lens, that means that the goal should be to cut saturated fats (and cholesterol) and increase fiber (or antioxidant) intake. But switching to leaner meat and ramping up on oat muffins (and antioxidant supplements) does not appear to yield the same benefits as the high-fruit diet.

What then is the solution to the complicated thicket of competing health claims that present themselves in the marketplace? Pollan's recommendations are elegant in their simplicity: Eat food (as opposed to food-like stuffs). Not too much. Mostly plants. He also recommends a return to more traditional forms of eating, especially preparing food from scratch and eating with people instead of in isolation (and on the run).

It seems there is a growing number of people questioning the effect of the modern diet, a trend that Pollan has both helped fuel and benefited from. I would recommend the book to anyone considering a new look at the way we eat now and how much harm it might be doing. Pollan's non-dogmatic approach to the subject makes it an enjoyable read. His thesis about nutritionism may be stark, but his presentation and advice are not.

Ocampo: La cara en la palma & Los amantes

At this point, I'm trying to double up when I can in order to get through the remaining stories quickly. I would not normally link these two stories, though now that I have done so, I can say that they both serve as parables of romantic passion.

"La cara en la palma" translates to "The hand in the palm," and if you're mind immediately flits to Vampire Hunter D, you're on the right track. The writer of the letter always wears a glove on her left hand while in public, because she says she has a face on the palm of that hand. The hand often whispers dark things to the narrator, undermining her relationship with other people, especially her lover. (It is him that the letter that makes up this narrative is addressed.) They have broken up, but she may return to him. He'll know if she's decided to come back to him if the next time he sees her, she's happy but with her left hand gone before the elbow. Sort of a morbid reflection on relationships and psychic self-mutilation. It's left somewhat ambiguous. Would cutting off the hand be a good thing?

"Los amantes" is a more upbeat but perhaps more demented parable about relationships. A couple go out to a picnic and consume several delectable desserts. What stands out for this story is the sensual power with which Ocampo describes the consumption of the tasty treats in question, leaving little doubt as to what the feasting is a stand in for. Intimate, sensual, a little perverted even--what an odd little story.

BDT: Conciliar el sueño & Soñó que estaba preso

Though not sequential, the two stories are similar enough that I thought they merited being included on the same post. Both stories are centered on dreams and the permiability of the realm between the dreaming world and this one.

The first is about a man describing his dreams to a doctor (possibly a psychiatrist). The dreams come in thematic cycles. For a long time he dreamed of plane flights. Then he dreamed of sons, his sons but only in dream, as he has no children in real life. At the end, the narrator has begun to dream of beautiful women, movie stars, sex idols--all from his youth. The story finishes with the narrator asking the doctor if he thinks the condoms they sell in drug stores are effective in dreams. The generative power of dreams reminded me somewhat of Borges' "The Circular Ruins."

Soñó que estaba preso is like the mirror image of the former. This one is about a man in prison. Every night he dreams about being in prison, only the dreams transfigure the prison, changing its shabby or cruel elements into comforting or aesthetic ones. He is even visited by shadows from his past--his dead mother, the woman who abandoned him--in vivid form through these dreams. When he is finally released, he takes the few remaining items of his former life and takes the train to his sister's house. That night he dreams of being back in prison.

04 June 2009

Buzon de tiempo: Fin de semana

Due to the recent news of the death of Mario Benedetti, I decided to explore his works. Although his poetic works appear to be what he is best known for, I thought I would approach him through a form that I am a little more comfortable with: the short story. This work is from my local library, chosen due to its intriguing name and its availability.

The first story is "Fin de semana" ("Weekend") told from the point of view of a boy whose parents are divorced. He spends the week with his mom and weekends with his dad. Here we see what must be a fairly typical weekend, with his dad picking him up from school as the start of their time together. Not much seemingly happens. They talk some. The boy describes his mom as being alone. The dad introduces his son to a woman, which I understood, though it is not made explicit, to be his current girlfriend. When the boy returns home, his mom asks how his dad is. He tells her that he is alone.

Although it is a brief story, my brief summary leaves out a whole lot. Of course, it is the boy's two statements about his parents' solitude that mark the most dramatic sign that not everything is as it seems, serving as the prime riddle of the piece.