Tag Archives: Argentina

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations just to mix things up a bit. The Invention of Morel (first published in 1940), was one such book. It’s an early novel by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose joint novella with his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate – a thoroughly entertaining take on the traditional detective story – made my end-of-year highlights in 2014. While I didn’t love Morel as much as the Casares-Ocampo co-production, I did enjoy it. It’s an intriguing story, one that keeps the reader guessing until certain revelations come to light.

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The story centres on the fate of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive who is hiding out on a supposedly uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere in the hope of evading the authorities following his conviction for a serious crime. It is said that the island is home to a mysterious, fatal disease, one that attacks the human body from outside in. Nevertheless, the narrator is prepared to take his chances; it’s either that or run the risk of recapture by the police.

When we join the story, the narrator has been on the island for a few months, typically taking shelter in a museum, one of two buildings constructed by the previous inhabitants. One day his peace is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a crowd of people – it is almost as if they have come out of nowhere.

When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad. (pp. 10-11)

Fearing for his safety, the narrator moves to the least habitable area of the island where he can observe the strangers from a suitable distance. As it turns out, the interlopers spend much of their time dancing to the same two records which they play on a phonograph, irrespective of the weather. The arrival of these figures raises various questions in the narrator’s mind (and in that of the reader). Is this a strange hallucination, the consequence of exposure to extreme heat perhaps or the after-effects of eating a poisonous plant? Is it all an elaborate a ruse by the authorities to lure the narrator into submission – and if so, why go to such lengths? Or are these images ghosts, no longer living but returned from the dead?

The narrator seems no nearer to solving the mystery when he tries to make contact with one of the strangers, a beautiful woman named Faustine who sits on a rock observing the sunset on a daily basis. The narrator is fascinated by Faustine and her gypsy-like sensuality; to him, she represents a kind of hope where before there was none. However, when the narrator tries to make contact with Faustine, all his dreams are dashed; either she cannot see his figure or she is ignoring him, defying his presence as she sits by his side.

It has been, again, as if she did not see me. This time I made the mistake of not speaking to her at all.

When the woman came down to the rocks, I was watching the sunset. She stood there for a moment without moving, looking for a place to spread out her blanket. Then she walked toward me. If I had put out my hand, I would have touched her. This possibility horrified me (as if I had almost touched a ghost). There was something frightening in her complete detachment. But when she sat down at my side it seemed she was defying me, trying to show that she no longer ignored my presence. (p. 29)

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There are also occasions during the story when the author ratchets up the tension, the narrator fearing for his safety and freedom in this strange, unfathomable environment.

I started to walk down the hall, feeling that a door would open suddenly and a pair of rough hands would reach out and grab me, a mocking voice would taunt me. The strange world I had been living in, my conjectures and anxieties, Faustine – they all seemed like an invisible path that was leading me straight to prison and death. (pp. 48-49)

Casares plants clues throughout the story as to what is happening on the island, but there comes a point when all is revealed. I don’t want to say a lot more about it here, other than it’s a very clever explanation with nods to both science and art. Morel is a novel which explores ideas around mortality, the pursuit of immortality, the nature of happiness and the enduring power of love. As long as the narrator can stay close to Faustine, in whatever form this may take, then there is hope for the future; but without this, what is there to live for?

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book as Richard and Stu hosted a readalong a couple of years ago. Here’s a link to Grant’s excellent review which I recall seeing in the past. I’m sure there are many others too.

The Invention of Morel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

First published in Spanish in 2005 with an English translation following in 2011, The Secret in Their Eyes was Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because the book was turned into an award-winning film. The original screen adaptation—which happens to feature one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darín—picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It’s been a while since I last watched the film, so the time felt right to pick up the book. I’m so glad I did. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

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As the novel opens, Benjamín Chaparro is retiring from his post as a deputy clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court, a position he has held for over thirty years. After two unsuccessful marriages, Chaparro is a little weary of life—in short, he is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. A little unsure as to what he is going to do with the rest of his life, Chaparro decides to write a book: an account of the fallout from a brutal crime that has occupied his thoughts for the past thirty years.

Rewinding to May 1968, a beautiful young woman, the recently-married Liliana Colotto, is raped and strangled in her home in Buenos Aires. As the deputy clerk on duty at the time, Chaparro is required to attend the scene of the murder where he meets the police officer in charge of investigating the case, Inspector Báez. The crime leaves Liliana’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, utterly devastated.  As Chaparro watches Morales, this quiet, unremarkable man seems completely lost.

It seemed to me most likely that he was taking a mental inventory of everything he’d just lost. (pg.50)

It was as if Morales—once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins on his life—could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing. (pg. 51)

As the case progresses, it gets under Chaparro’s skin. Three months down the line, there are no firm leads or pieces of evidence on which to proceed, but Chaparro keeps the case file open despite the wishes of his boss. As far as the investigative judge is concerned, the fewer the number of active cases the better. During this time Chaparro keeps in touch with Morales, meeting him in a bar to discuss the situation every now and again. He soon discovers that Morales is too detached and too intelligent to find solace in anything other than the truth. Something about the young bank clerk’s melancholy demeanour, the way he appears resigned to suffer the harshest of blows in life, prompts Chaparro to do everything in his power to help him.

I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or the “self” I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit or—worse yet—like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could. (pgs. 72-73)

As a result of his discussions with Morales, Chaparro uncovers a lead in the case and decides to do a little investigating himself. With the help of Inspector Báez, he identifies the murderer and so the case moves into a different phase. The police set off on the trail of Liliana’s killer, various developments happen, time passes. This is a slow burn story of a crime and corruption in the system, but it’s one that kept me gripped throughout.

Things are never straightforward, especially in Argentina in the 1970s, a time when the country’s Dirty War was rumbling away in the background. At one point, it becomes clear that Chaparro’s own life is in danger, a situation that prompts him to move away from Buenos Aires for a number of years until he can return safely. Our protagonist is also very open about his frustrations with the Argentine judicial system, an organisation that seems to favour assholes and imbeciles in equal measure.

During the previous three years in the court, few things had changed. We’d been able to get the wretched Clerk Pérez off our backs—he’d been promoted to public defender—but losing our boss that way had left a bitter taste, because it appeared to confirm our belief that a certain level of congenital stupidity, such as the kind he displayed like a flag, could auger a meteoric ascent in the juristic hierarchy. (pg. 192)

The chapters recounting the investigations into Liliana’s murder, the subsequent developments, and Chaparro’s relationship with Morales are interspersed with shorter passages in which our protagonist reflects on his own life. Or, more specifically, the questions he is grappling with while trying to write his book…not to mention his feelings for Irene Hornos, the current judge in the investigative court. Following his retirement, Chaparro remains in touch with Irene—the woman he has loved from afar for the last thirty years—visiting her at work during the twilight hours of the night.

With her lips, she’s asking him to explain why he’s blushing and squirming in his chair and looking up every twelve seconds at the tall pendulum clock that stands against the wall near the bookcases; but with her eyes, besides all that, she asking him something else. She’s asking him what’s wrong, what’s wrong with him, with him and her, with him and the two of them, and she seems interested in his answer,… (pg. 269)

The story also touches on Chaparro’s enduring friendship with his assistant, Sandoval, the very astute accomplice who plays a pivotal role in the investigation. At the end of the day, though, the core of Sacheri’s novel revolves around the inextricable bond between Chaparro and Ricardo Morales, a man who continues to radiate an unrelenting aura of loss.

When I saw Morales sitting there in front of me on that June afternoon in 1973, I understood that the brevity or longevity of a human being’s life depends most of all on the amount of grief that person is obliged to bear. Time passes more slowly for those who suffer, and pain and anguish leave definitive marks on their skin. (pg. 256)

The Secret in Their Eyes is an excellent novel, one that’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the film. As is often the case, the book is much subtler and more layered than the screen adaptation. There are differences in emphasis between the two forms as the novel allows more space for character development along with greater exploration of the connection between Chaparro and Morales. Certain aspects of the narrative differ as well, but I’ve kept discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum for fear of revealing any major spoilers. Ultimately, this is an intricate story from an author in complete control of his material. Highly recommended.

Interestingly, Sacheri worked as an office employee in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s. (In his introduction, the translator John Cullen explains that the Argentine judiciary at the time of the novel was divided into two jurisdictions: investigative courts and sentencing courts.) During his time in the sentencing court, Sacheri happened to hear an anecdote about an old case from the seventies. Even though the novel’s plot and all of its characters are entirely fictitious, Sacheri used the core of this anecdote as inspiration for a key element in his story. To say any more would take me into the realm of spoilers, but Sacheri’s own experience undoubtedly gives the novel an air of credibility.

Guy has also reviewed this book, which I read for Richard’s Argentine Literature of Doom event.

The Secret in Their Eyes is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel”  and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.

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Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.

Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.

I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)

This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.

The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.

There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)

Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.

In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.

Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.

In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.

“She should stand up,” the guests said.

An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”

“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”

Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)

The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.

I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric. (pg. 146-147)

Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”

This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:

  • The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
  • Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
  • The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
  • The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
  • Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:

They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.

At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)

Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.

Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.

I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.

Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to read a few books to fit with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom which has been running from September to December. The last of my choices is Ernesto Sábato’s existential classic, The Tunnel (tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden) – it’s a book I picked up in July after reading Bellezza’s review for Spanish Lit Month.

First published in Argentina in 1948 and translated into English in 1988, The Tunnel is narrated by Juan Pablo Castel, a painter imprisoned for the murder of a woman named María. Castel has documented the story of his crime and promises us a truthful and objective account. He hopes that someone will understand him, ‘even if it is only one person.’ Tragically, there was one person who could have understood Castel, and that was María, the very person he killed.

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And so Castel takes us back in time to the day when he first encountered María. Whilst attending an art exhibition, he spots a woman (who turns out to be María) gazing intently at a particular section of one of his own paintings: the image of a solitary woman staring at the sea, her figure framed in a tiny window. No one else appears to have noticed this crucial detail, only María, and consequently, Castel is immediately attracted to her. She disappears into the crowd before he can establish contact, but she continues to haunt his memories during the months that follow.

Castel dreams of a chance encounter with this mysterious woman, his head addled with thoughts of how to handle the situation should he meet her in the street. A nervous shy individual by nature, Castel is terrified by the prospect of striking up a conversation with an unknown woman so he rehearses various scenarios in his mind. And it is these thoughts which first alert us to the signs of paranoia in his narrative.

Eventually, he spots María in the street and follows her, and after a couple of excruciating (and somewhat terrifying) false starts, they begin an affair. In the belief that this woman is somehow essential to his existence, Castel quickly becomes obsessed with María pleading with her to stay with him. Shortly afterwards he discovers that she is married, and his mind goes into overdrive mode: if María is cheating on her husband while seeing Castel, what’s stopping her from seeing other lovers, too?

Then, what was the meaning of her comment ‘When I close the door they know I am not to be disturbed? Apparently it meant she often closed the door to talk on the telephone. But it was not likely she would close the door for trivial conversations with family friends: the reasonable deduction was that it was to have conversations like ours. But that meant there were others like myself in her life. How many? And who? (pg. 48, Penguin Classics)

As Castel experiences a growing desire to possess María exclusively, his behaviour becomes increasingly demented. He constantly questions María about her feelings for him, and signs of a deeper psychotic illness emerge as he accuses the woman of cruelly deceiving her husband for many years:

How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts? While one part of me strikes a pose of humaneness, the other part cries fraud, hypocrisy, false generosity. While one incites me to insult a fellow being, the other takes pity on him and accuses me of the very thing I am denouncing. While one urges me to see the beauty of the world, the other points out its sordidness and the absurdity of any feeling of happiness. It was too late, in any case, to heal the wound I had inflicted (this was assured with muffled, receding, smug malevolence by the other ‘I,’ who by now had been pushed back into his cave of filth); it was irreparably late. (pg. 78-79)

As the story progresses, Castel convinces himself that María is harbouring further dark secrets. He believes she is seeing another man, and as she repeatedly flees to her cousin Hunter’s country estate, Hunter becomes the prime suspect. With his suspicions mounting, Castel settles on the view that María has been lying to him, ‘feigning emotions and sensations’ and weaving a web of deceit.

The Tunnel is a terrifically chilling account of obsessive love, an insight into the mind of a man cut adrift from reality by irrational levels of doubts and paranoia. Sábato’s prose is very precise and controlled giving Castel’s inner voice a rational and logical quality which provides a striking contrast to his manic behaviour. In fact, there are times when it becomes easy to forget that we are listening to the account of a murderer.

This novel isn’t all doom and gloom, mind. There are several passages of mordant humour, including an acerbically comic scene in which Castel attempts to retrieve from the post office a registered letter he dashed off to María in a fit of pique. And here’s Castel on his fellow artists and art critics, clearly the lowest of the low:

More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course, because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have greater reason to detest the things we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. (pg. 13)

We know from the novella’s opening sentence that Castel kills María, and yet the story remains highly compelling. We want to know why Castel commits this act, what thoughts or images run through his mind in the immediate run-up to the murder. We understand that is Castel trapped in a tunnel of loneliness, dark and solitary, the one in which he has spent his childhood, his youth, his whole life. His obsession with María leads him to believe that she is travelling in a parallel tunnel adjacent to his own and that their paths will meet at some point in time. But in the end, Castel realises María is living behind an impenetrable wall; she has become someone he ‘could see but not hear or touch.’

I’ll finish with a couple of favourite quotes from this haunting novella as they typify this sense of alienation:

And in one of those transparent sections of the stone wall I had seen this girl and had naïvely believed that she was moving in a tunnel parallel to mine, when in fact she belonged to the wide world, the unbound world of those who did not live in tunnels; and perhaps out of curiosity she had approached one of my strange windows, and had glimpsed the spectacle of my unredeemable solitude, or had been intrigued by the mute message, the key of my painting. And then, while I kept moving through my passageway, she lived her normal life outside, the exciting life of people who live outside, that curious and absurd life in which there are dances and parties and gaiety and frivolity. (pg. 133)

‘Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?’ (pg. 35)

ALOD 2014

The Tunnel is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

Ghosts by César Aira and a Zaha Malbec wine match

On Friday I read Ghosts, a novella by the acclaimed Argentine writer César Aira (first published in 1990 and translated in 2008). It’s a strange little book, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, something about it caught my eye. You’ll see why later, but first I should introduce Ghosts, albeit briefly.

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The novella is set on a construction site; more precisely, in a half-finished building of high-end apartments for the well-heeled inhabitants of Buenos Aires. As the building is still under construction, the only human inhabitants are Chilean night-watchman, Raul Viňas, his wife and children who run around the structure hiding in nooks and crannies – the children that is, not Raul and his wife. But there are other dwellers besides the Viňas family, and they are the ghosts of the title. Aira’s creations are not your typical ghosts though. They are like naked men, big, boisterous and raucous, and come covered in fine cement dust:

They were listening too, but only as a pretext for bursting continually into fierce, raucous laughter. Or not so much laughter as vehement, theatrically sarcastic howling. […] The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small fee, and rough hands. Their toes were spread widely, like wild men’s toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. (pgs. 9-10)

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure what to make of the story as a whole, but there’s a dry humour to it which I enjoyed, especially in the first half of the book. My difficulty came at the halfway point where I got more than a bit lost as Aira slipped more deeply into philosophical territory.

What I loved about the story though was the following passage about wine, and I couldn’t resist posting it here. The Viňas family are living without the benefit of a fridge, but Raul (a ‘prodigious drinker’) has discovered an inventive method for keeping his wines cool – it’s desperately hot in their part of the building:

It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold. There were two things he hadn’t noticed, however. The first was that, during the cooling process, the wine came out of the bottles and flowed like lymph all through the bodies of the ghosts. The second was that this distillation transmuted ordinary cheap wine, fermented in cement vats, into an exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon, which not even captains of industry could afford to drink every day. But an undiscriminating drinker like Viňas, who chilled his red wine in summer just because of the heat, wasn’t going to notice the change. Besides, he was accustomed to the wonderful wines of his country, so it seemed perfectly natural to him. And, indeed, what could be more natural than to drink the best wine, always and only the best? (pg. 29-30)

What indeed. And how fortunate to have that kind of ghost nearby…

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Well, I didn’t have any Argentine (or Chilean) Cabernet Sauvignon to hand on Friday, but I did manage to find a bottle of Zaha Malbec in the cupboard by the stairs. That’ll do nicely, I thought. The Zaha (which stems from the word ‘heart’) comes from the Altamira district of Mendoza, a cool-climate area where the grapes are grown at high altitude. Inky purple in colour, with a whiff of eucalyptus and a flavour profile of blackberries and liquorice, it’s unmistakably a New World wine. The grapes are mostly Malbec (90%), but I think there’s a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the blend for additional interest and complexity. Not a bad match for the Aira, and a very good wine without the need for any interventions from ghosts.

ALOD 2014

I read Ghosts to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom. All comments are welcome here, whether they’re about Aira, Ghosts or wine. And if you’ve read any of Aira’s books, I’d love to hear from you…

Ghosts is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, tr. by Chris Andrews. Source: personal copy. I bought the Zaha Malbec, 2011 vintage, from The Wine Society (no longer in stock).

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Back in July, I read a few books to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month. All well and good except I ended up with several other books on my shopping list on the back of other bloggers’ reviews. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate was near the top of that list thanks to Grant’s review, and when I spotted it in the new Foyles, I couldn’t resist.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, first published in 1946, is the only known work of fiction by Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo and her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and what a little gem it is.

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The novella is narrated by Dr. Humberto Huberman, a physician who also happens to be a writer. As the story opens, Huberman is travelling to the Hotel Central in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar with the intention of working on his latest screenplay, an adaptation of Petronius. The hotel – owned by the doctor’s cousin, Andrea and her husband, Esteban – is marooned on a bed of sand ‘like a ship on the sea’, and at first sight the good doctor believes he has discovered the ‘literati’s paradise,’ the perfect setting in which to finish his play.

A number of other guests are staying at the hotel, most notably two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel and Dr. Cornejo, another gentleman known to the group. It’s not long though before our narrator senses tensions within this party. Firstly, he overhears a disagreement between Mary and Emilia’s fiancé at the beach. Mary is determined to go swimming, but Atuel seems overly concerned for her safety in light of the currents. Cornejo, on the other hand, sees no little danger in the situation and encourages the girl to take to the waters. A little later, as Huberman returns to his room, he hears the two sisters insulting one another furiously, and as night descends, the atmosphere at the hotel takes a rather sinister turn:

Suddenly, the howling of the dogs was drowned out by an immense moan; it was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.

“A windstorm. We must close the doors and windows,” declared my cousin.

A drumming sound, like rain, beat against walls.

“Here it rains sand,” noted my cousin. Then she added: “Just as long as we don’t end up buried…”

Nimbly, the rotund typist closed the windows. She looked at us, smiling, and said: “Something is going to happen tonight! Something is going to happen tonight!” (pg. 32, Melville House)

And she’s right. When Emilia discovers Mary’s body the following morning, Huberman swiftly inserts himself into the proceedings by declaring that the young woman has been poisoned. By now we’ve gathered that our narrator is a somewhat supercilious and pedantic busybody, one who feels compelled to involve himself in the investigation, at least until the police arrive.

Bioy Casares and Ocampo have much fun with this set-up, and Huberman’s character in particular. The narrator’s observations on Atuel, whom he considers a prime suspect, are deliciously sharp and barbed:

“Don’t touch anything!” I shouted. “You are going to muddle the fingerprints.”

I gave Cornejo and Atuel a severe look. The latter seemed to be smiling with veiled slyness. (pg. 41)

“The manner makes the man,” I thought. Atuel’s manner, like that of an overly debonair tango crooner, was beginning to exasperate me. (pg. 42)

And while Humberto waits for the arrival of the police, he seems equally concerned with the impact of events on the hotel’s schedule for meals and afternoon tea:

My plan was precise: take tea; visit Emilia before the police arrived; receive the police. Yet I feared that my cousin’s inexplicable delay in preparing, recipe in hand, some scones that aspired to equal Aunt Carlota’s justifiable famous ones, might perhaps signal the downfall of this most reasonable plan. (pg. 50)

Naturally, once Commissioner Aubrey and Doctor Montes (the police physician) arrive, our narrator could step aside and leave the investigation to the authorities. Huberman, however, continues to believe that the case will benefit from his observational skills and powers of reasoning, especially since Montes appears to have arrived in a state of inebriation:

The doctor was drunk; he had arrived drunk.

Cecilio Montes was a man of medium height and fragile build. He had dark wavy hair, large eyes, extremely pale skin, a finely boned face and a straight nose. He was dressed in a greenish cheviot hunting- suit, quite well cut, that, once upon a time, had been of high quality. His silk shirt was dirty. The hallmarks of his general aspect were slovenliness, neglect, ruin – a ruin that yet allowed glimpses of a former glory. I asked myself how this character, an escapee from a Russian novel, had appeared in our midst; (pg. 53)

What follows is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect, even Huberman initially. There are twists and turns aplenty, and a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. It’s all tremendous fun.

On the surface, the novella reads like a traditional murder mystery; look a little closer, however, and we can see how the writers are gently poking fun at the genre. Once the heat is off and he can align himself with the police team, our narrator draws upon his knowledge of crime fiction to aid and abet the investigation. For instance, when the Commissioner relays his initial hypothesis on the murder, Huberman goes a little too far in trying to challenge a logical argument with an emotional response:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focus entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would endure…” (pg. 67)

I thoroughly enjoyed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. It’s atmospheric, too; at one point, our narrator gets lost in a sandstorm, swept up in a labyrinth of sand, mud and marine life. The hotel seems to be sinking into the sand, almost as if it is being subsumed by its surroundings. As Andrea warns Huberman soon after his arrival at the hotel: ‘If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.’

In many ways this book reminds me of Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, which I reviewed a few months ago, another delightful novella involving a mysterious death. I can recommend both.

I read this book to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine and Uruguayan lit.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell) is published in the UK by Melville House Publishing. Source: Personal copy.

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor and L Garcia)

A year or so ago I read Andrés Neuman’s epic novel Traveller of the Century and its ideas coupled with an abundance of grace, charm, wit and intelligence just blew me away. And then came Talking to Ourselves, a shorter but no less compelling novel; it’s a meditation on the proximity of death and grief, a kind of literary collage comprising three distinct voices each adding different tones to the narrative. So, imagine my excitement when I received a copy of The Things We Don’t Do, Andrés’ collection of short stories. Early versions of a few of these stories, in different translations and often under another title, have appeared in literary magazines (such as Granta), but all the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are newly translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.

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The thirty-five stories in this collection are divided into five groups entitled The Things We Don’t Do, Relatives and Strangers, The Last Minute, The Innocence Test and End and Beginning of Lexis. While I can see connections between some of the stories in each section, the collection as a whole touches on a number of different ideas. One of Neuman’s main themes is how a closeness to death gives us a growing sense of our own mortality, and several (although not all) of the stories in the Relatives and Strangers and Last Minute sections deal with this aspect, or with death itself. In A Mother Ago, a man accompanies his mother to the hospital, her illness is advanced and he knows the outcome depends ‘on the toss of a coin’:

I offered my arm to my mother, who had so often given me hers when the world was very big and my legs very short. Is it possible to shrink overnight? Can someone’s body turn into a sponge which, impregnated with fears, gains in density while losing volume? My mother seemed smaller, thinner, and yet more weighed down than before, as though prone on the floor. Her porous hand closed around mine. I imagined a little boy in a bathtub, naked, expectant, clutching a sponge. And I wanted to say something to my mother, and I didn’t know how to speak.

The proximity of death squeezes us in such a way that we might be capable of losing our convictions, of letting them ooze out like a liquid. Is that necessarily a weakness? Perhaps it is a final strength; to arrive somewhere we never expected to arrive. Death multiplies our attention. It wakes us twice. (pgs. 43-44, Pushkin Press)

Other stories touch on the subject of our identity. In one of the most playful stories in the book, Juan, José, we meet a man undergoing counselling following the death of his parents; unable to move on, he believes and behaves as if his parents are still alive. As this tale progresses, the boundaries between the identities of the two characters begin to blur, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which of the two is the patient and which is the counsellor. Interestingly, another therapist – a different one this time – crops up again in a darkly humorous story, Outside No Birds Were Singing, played out as a frantic telephone conversation between a counsellor and her seemingly suicidal patient.

Another clutch of stories explore the relationship between guilt and innocence. A man tells of his presence at the scene of John Lennon’s murder at the Dakota; we see how feelings of guilt stealthily corrode the relationship between two friends after they are mugged in the street one night. And in After Elena (one of the highlights of this collection for me), Neuman explores the theme of forgiveness; following the death of his wife, a man decides to forgive each of his enemies, and we see the differences in the source of their animosity and reactions to this gesture.

Perhaps my favourite stories in The Things We Don’t Do focus on relationships. A Terribly Perfect Couple tells of the pitfalls of having too much in common with your partner, the dangers of ‘an excess of symmetry’. In A Line in the Sand (another highlight) the dynamics in a relationship tilt as we are left considering how to understand a partner’s feelings, territories and boundaries. And in Second-Hand, a woman s discovery of a coat in a thrift shop leads to a re-examination of her relationship with her husband. The coat looks suspiciously like the one she gave her husband the Christmas before last, the one he insisted looked ‘really great’ :

She studied the coat once more, then put it back. It was that one. It wasn’t that one. She didn’t know if it was that one. She felt the dagger twisting in her stomach again, and a pain encircling her head and pressing down on her vertebrae. She had spent all day – all her life – on her feet. When had they last gone on a trip? A real trip, just the two of them? They hadn’t had enough money. Or, above all, any reason to go. But that dark suede coat, where on earth had it come from? She searched the inside pockets, hoping to find some evidence to confirm her suspicions. They were empty. (pg. 23)

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent collection of stories, one that illustrate Neuman’s considerable range and skill as a writer. These stories vary in tone, mood, style and length; some are playful, others more sombre in tone; some include metafictional elements while others are more conventional (but never ordinary) in terms of style. One of the things I love about these stories is their ability to surprise – one never quite knows what might be coming next.

On the whole, I would say these short stories are closer in style to Talking to Ourselves than the richness and generosity of Traveller of the Century. That said, I recognise the writer of Traveller in some of the stories, especially those in the final section: Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem, The End of Reading and The Poem-Translating Machine. The latter story focuses on another of Neuman’s favourite themes, that of translation; not simply the need to translate language, but the idea that we are constantly translating and interpreting feelings and gestures in our communications with others.

The collection ends with a series of Neuman’s reflections on the short-form narrative; not a set of rules as such, but a ‘playful way of approaching the essay,’ and they make interesting reading.

I’ll finish with a quote from the title story The Things We Don’t Do, which reads like a prose poem:

I like that we don’t do the things we don’t do. I like our plans on waking, when morning slinks onto our bed like a cat of light, plans we never accomplish because we get up late from imagining them so much.

[…]

I like all the proposals, spoken or secretive, which we both fail to carry out. That is what I most like about sharing our lives. The wonder opened up elsewhere. The things we don’t do. (pg 31)

This is my first review for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian (and Uruguayan) lit which starts today.

The Things We Don’t Do is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.