October 21, 2014 Leave a comment
This was the… fourth? worst post title I had for “the resurrection.” Recent trends and events have inspired me to take an interest in Latin American literature, and the farcically tenuous nature of the linkage in this post probably warrants an apology, which is available on request.
Clorinda Matto de Turner, Birds Without A Nest (1889)
Learning of Clorinda de Matto Turner was an inspiration for two reasons: her life and works, at least partly dedicated to improving indigenous rights and conditions in nineteenth-century Peru, and the fact that I’d never heard of her at all. Having conducted myself in the imagined temples of cultural literacy with the decorum and respect of a kid under a Christmas tree, and consequently amassing a jackdaw avalanche of knowledge both useless and no, it’s always a pleasure to find how much I still have to learn. Turner was one of early post-colonial South America’s most famous and influential writers, equally at home in poetry, drama and fiction, and she was one of the earliest writers at all whose fame and influence crossed national lines in the days when borders south of the Usmacinta were so tempestuously fluid. A fierce champion of indigenous rights and critic of the Peruvian government (the general tendencies of Latin American governments during this period usefully described and analyzed in John Charles Chasteen’s alternately fascinating and tedious Born in Blood and Fire), she lived in exile in Argentina for the last years of her life, continuing to write and inspire. Birds Without A Nest was one of her most famous works, a plea for tolerance, understanding and justice in the vein of gringa equivalents such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona that still holds up relatively well today, if through veils of privilege and distance and its being nowhere near as engrossing or involving as its successors in this post (which, of course, is hardly her or its fault).
Don Fernando Marin and his wife Lucia are “foreigners” (i.e. from out of town) in the Peruvian village of Killac in the 1870s. As in the rest of Peru, society is more or less split between wealthy or well-to-do criollos and the mass of peasantry and laborers, most of them Indian. Fernando, a well-meaning, progressive mining engineer, and Lucia come to the aid of native farmers Marcela and Juan Yupanqui after the latter is cheated by the local governor, Don Sebastian, and the priest, Don Pascual. Their intervention proves successful but tragic after the latter provoke a riot in which Marcela and Juan are killed, leaving their beautiful daughter Margarita in the Marins’ charge. Don Sebastian’s noble, upstanding son Manuel falls in love with Margarita as he and the Marins try to get some kind of posthumous justice for the Yupanquis and safeguard Margarita’s future (and their own). Political upheaval in Lima complicates matters as Fernando and Lucia adopt Margarita as their ow, only to find that the sins of earlier generations, as always, cast a long, dismal shadow over their progeny.
Birds Without A Nest has a reputation, it seems, for greater value as a historical artifact and the first of the indigenista novels (i.e. dealing with native relations) than for is actual quality as literature. Indeed, Naomi Lindstrom, in her introduction to the reprint of the classic 1904 English translation gets downright snippy about it (partly for political reasons?). Admittedly, some of the prose is flowery even for a Victorian novel, but, well, I enjoyed it (there are apparently a whole host, too, of technical flaws and structural irregularities). The basic story’s gripping, moving, and one learns a good deal about nineteenth-century Peruvian (and South American, for that matter) society (a good deal that should admittedly be cross-checked against proper sources, if you, like me, know little as yet about the history and social conditions). Turner manages to relate Killac to wider themes and worldwide currents (it may have been an accident of time, but the Marins reminded me a little, in their bourgeois good intentions, of the transplanted Yankee couple in Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales). The sudden irruption of national politics may prove illusory, but the political realities of Killac itself are depressingly familiar, with the have easily manipulating the have-nots and ensuring a cyclical renewal of drudgery and oppression (Isidro and Martina, another Indian couple, mournfully evoke the fates of Juan and Marcela). Even the villains are caught up in the web; one of Birds’ most controversial features at the time, an implicit plea for (the restoration of) clerical marriage in the Catholic Church, remains pretty controversial, if not invisible, today. Even with all its flaws, Birds Without A Nest deserves substantially better than its present reputation.
Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart (1943)
I knew the name “Lispector” more for the quirky French hiphop artist who sang on the Go!Team’s last (and sadly final) album, Rolling Blackouts (2011), with the lovely “Ready To Go Steady” than for the cult Brazilian novelist. Curious, I thought I’d learned that she’d named herself after the latter, only to find the article where I’d first read this mysteriously vanish from the Internet, if it had existed at all. The mystery is fitting, in my own desperate way, for the elusive beauty of Lispector’s life and writing. Her work came highly recommended, especially her first novel, and it felt like more of a gamble than I’d recently taken on a personally unread writer. Born in the war-torn Ukraine of the Russian Civil War, her family emigrated to Brazil amid unsurprisingly traumatic circumstances. Her mother died paralyzed, and her father struggled to establish the family in the strange new society of Brazil. Lispector herself lived a somewhat enigmatic life. A media darling from the getgo, she married a diplomat after the publication of Near to the Wild Heart and lived a peripatetic life for the next few decades full of excitement, boredom, love and pain. Not least among her irritations were the bizarre attacks on her, before and since, for being a literary lightweight who got by on beauty and cultivated mystique (her childhood and intricate prose apparently having been a fucking cakewalk). Her introspection apparently baffled national contemporaries, who accused her of writing non-specifically-Brazilian literature. After reading Near to the Wild Heart, the attacks feel even more insane (if a depressingly prophetic forecast of Internet culture).
Joana grows up the child of a widowed and distracted father, and is then orphaned herself and sent to live with her aunt. Curiosity, then bewilderment, mark her school years, as the various blandishments of teachers, administrators and family fail to convince, and Joana grows into an unconventional young woman whose ways entice and then repel her husband Otavio, who quickly turns to his childhood friend Lidia for consolation, sex, and an accidental child. She’s frequently described as “amoral” by the novel’s critics and commentators, but much of this seems to cite the reactions of others, as well as the childhood incident where she throws a book at an old man’s head. Kids can suck, folks, and we must all learn to deal with it.* Nobody in Near to the Wild Heart does, and their failure casts a shadow over Joana’s life, but not a long one, as she responds to everyone’s averted glances by just being more herself, from obsessing over the writing and philosophy of Spinoza (and good on her, there) to countering Otavio’s infidelity with her own belated hookup. Her reaction to Otavio’s admission of infidelity is one of the funniest things in the whole (often darkly funny) novel, and her subsequent discussion with the drippy Lidia possibly even more so. I’m still not entirely sure how it ends, and that feels true to this thing in a way I never imagined.
Reading Lispector would have been a fascinating experience in any time or at any age (and you’d better believe I’ll be reading more), but I read Near to the Wild Heart under circumstances that made it pack a lot more punch than it might otherwise: the iron fist in the velvet glove. Joana’s failure to pick up on social cues, strained relationships with parents (or parental figures like her smothering aunt), and self-absorbed behavior that makes perfect sense to her but which baffle everyone else around (she’s even compared to a snake early on in the book by one of many authority figures)… for someone in the throes of deep if marginally hilarious personal anguish, it was alarming how many buttons Near to the Wild Heart pushed, and quite unexpectedly. The title comes from a line in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it was believed for some time that she had been inspired by Joyce, but she apparently hadn’t read a word of the man before writing her superb debut. The sensibility is all her own, and even in the midst of my present madness, it’s nonetheless inspiring, even to the point of hope, that the travails of a put-upon woman in early twentieth century Brazil can speak so hard to a put-upon man nearing middle age in twenty-first century Michigan. There’s a weird universality here, in the way the prose slides so easily from Joana’s musings to Otavio’s frustrations and Lidia’s longing (it cracked me up later to realize that the mistress was the “normal” one and the wife the “weird,” in a funny inversion of the usual classic pattern anticipating in some ways Iris Owens’ glorious After Claude thirty years later). Otavio in particular is something of a buffoon, but a cleverly portrayed one (that hit home pretty hard, too, especially in the last week), and his relationship, such as it is, with Lidia forms a bewildered counterweight to Joana’s fierce individuality and determination to do it her own way. Joana’s fondness for Spinoza, too, struck a chord, as I’d read the Ethics earlier this year, even if she came away differently than I. Finding herself at odds with the world through no fault of her own (and yet who the fuck does the world think it is?), she holds her own and then some. Inspiration is inspiration, however dark, troubled or glittering.
Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives (1998)
Ah, Roberto. Beware a book recommended to you over the course of several years by, among others, dazzling bookslingers made of wildfire and inspiringly rumpled local music honchos (even if the latter were actually reading 2666). Or don’t, because it really ought to be read. Bolano was a Mexican-Chilean wunderkind who led, if anything, a more nomadic life than Clarice Lispector, and left behind far more questions in the course thereof, none of which look close to an answer. The Savage Detectives was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, a worthy successor to the “Latin American boom” (i.e. Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa) and (according to one) “the novel Borges would have written.” It’s unlikely Borges (an acquired taste on which I’m still stuck halfway) would have approved of the characters’ preoccupations or actions, but the stick up his ass, despite his mindblowing visionary genius, is well-documented. Bolano has other fish to fry, among them the state of Latin American literature, politics, love, and existence. The world’s, too; this might actually take one a few hours to read. Say, three hundred.
In 1975, well-to-do young poet Juan Garcia Madero falls in with the extreme groups surrounding the not-all-that-charismatic Joaquim Font and the hangers-on who soon reveal their true colors as literary necromancers. Inspired by the mysterious Cesarea Tinajero, a poet of the revolutionary era who disappeared around 1930, they aim to bring back the ways of “visceral realism,” a poetic movement whose precise character is left hilariously unefined, save for its being in opposition to just about everything anyone’s ever known about Latin American literature, politics, etc. etc…. that and Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, essayist and diplomat who plays the role of an entertainingly mild-mannered bete noire for much of the book (and who died the year it was published, which was probably coincidental). Two of the visceral realists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, get in trouble with rougher types–possibly government-connected–and flee Mexico City with Font’s car and Garcia Madero hopping along on what he’s sure will be a wild, life-defining adventure. For the next two decades, a multitude of characters run into Belano and Lima throughout Latin America, Europe and even Africa as the two talk, fuck, connive and brood through the shadows of their radical sunlight (and the world’, for that matter, though both sunlight and shadow are seen to be darker and lighter than they appear). And what happened to Garcia Madero? One must brave a bold, burgeoning, brilliant, bewildering book to find out. One might, anyway; still beats the shit out of me.
The Savage Detectives saw me approach with little sense of any difficult reputation. What seems like a fairly typical roman a clef of a young literary type morphs–well before the weird shit truly begins–into a glorious protean mess of different consciousnesses and existences. Garcia Madero’s world, reminiscent at times of Michael Chabon’s awful Mysteries of Pittsburgh in its privileged narrator slumming in the name of art, turns out not to be its own universe entire but a tiny moon knocked into a cometary path, one of so many lives that crazily interact with the twin axes of Belano’s and Lima’s existence. Just as eccentrically concentric are the impressions and associations that rise almost unbidden from the story, at least for this reader. The visceral realists’ obsessive quest for purity and truth still speaks to the writer in me that’s convinced it’s in many ways futile. Their perpetual exile–partly a result of Belano’s Chilean citizenship, a dangerous thing for a left-wing writer during the Pinochet regime–found a melancholy echo in so many progressive dreams and ideals have fallen by the wayside since their phantom heyday. Their desperate need for fellowship and community? Enough said, really; even more so their fundamental urge to write what they want and need, publication be damned. Again, this is really a novel about everything, and it’s so painfully this that it’s sometimes a relief to take refuge among the often repetitive and labyrinthine remembrances of the various interviewees. These run the gamut from decaying literary lions like “Quim” Font to formidable American expats like Barbara Patterson, all of whom share varying degrees of frustration with and longing for our “heroes,” or indeed their disciples. Some may find themselves wondering what they would say when asked for their own memories, had they been inspired, irritated, loved, or ripped off by Arturo or Ulises. I will find myself wondering what you’ll think of them, and anything else, when you read this book.
*It’s impossible (okay, not “impossible,” but it would feel bad) not to cite here the musings of “Dr. J” on a recent A.V. Club review of the Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage that was unsurprisingly filmed mostly at my hometown’s depressing airport. The subject was not roses, but the apparent evangelical belief that when the Rapture comes, all kids under thirteen will “get in free,” as it were. A brief paraphrase: “Kids are horrible. They’re repulsive little monsters. They dropped a rock on Piggy. Shit, they called him Piggy. Kids suck. What was the question again?“