Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"The Telling Room," by Michael Paterniti


A year in Province and then some more... a lot more.

In the hands of a capable novelist, this story of a man's attempt to honor his father through the production of a local cheese and the friend that may or may not have betrayed him, might have been a better work than “The Telling Room.”

Michael Paterniti, a travel writer and freelance journalist, saw what he thought was a story, a cautionary tale, an echo of man's inhumanity to man, and took off in search of the truth. The problem with his venture seems to be that there was no truth, only ambiguity and a messy affair that didn't fit a journalistic template.

The author is frank about how often the book went cold on him, how many times he had to throw away a stack of papers and start all over again.

“The Telling Room,” is about many things, most of them having to do with Spain. At times it is quite interesting, and the opening salvos are certainly intriguing, but the author clearly got lost and ended up barely pulling out something serviceable that his publisher could accept for the advance paid.

“The Telling Room,” never truly coheres and never really gets anywhere but where we all get; a little older, a little fuzzier, and a little sadder. The writer spread himself thin trying to catch the essence of Castile and the wider expanse of Spain, but he could not weave this dream right.

“The Telling Room” is pocked throughout with footnotes parked in big spaces that often dwarf the writer's main text and take one off-track when they should have been worked into the story and enriched it, rather than served as distracting adjuncts.

Like countless writers before him, Paterniti is bewitched by Iberia and its people. He holds forth on what the ancient land and its wise, yet life-loving people, can teach us, but that did not prevent him from engaging the uniquely American predilection for prattling on endlessly about himself.

Whether it's the “Legend of El Cid,” the bullfight, the process of cheese making or Real Madrid soccer, the discussion always comes back to the author, his family, his thoughts and his personal progress. It shouldn't. It should be about Spain.

“The Telling Room,” represents a case of promise unrealized.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

“Ursúa” by William Ospina



Ursúa” abre las puertas del pasado sobre el mundo fantástico de colores y humanidad vencida que fue Sur America para los que llegaron de Europa y para quienes los recibieron.

Si el protagonista principal es el guerrero homónomo de pocos años y sangre de Aquitania, los indígenas de las tierras firme y caliente, o del istmu de Panama o de Mexico nunca ceden su lugar en el primer plano del Colombiano William Ospina.

De Ursúa el jamás identificado narrador nos cuenta: “Esas eran las aventuras con que soñaba: apartar los ramajes para descubrir un océano, ser el primero a las puertas de una ciudad incomprensible, destrenzar las serpientes enormes para llegar al tesoro escondido, ver los dragones o los gigantes de un mundo nuevo, someter pueblos feróces o dominar a los reyes del río del trueno.”

Viene con éstas inspiraciónes pero con el cargo oficial de imponer nuevas leyes del Imperio de Carlos V para proteger a los muy malparados indios.

El autor recupera, para los que no lo conocían, los jefes, los guerreros, princessas y peónes que sufrían la crueldad de unos hombres desalmados y ciegos por el oro. Cuenta las torturas y maltratos absorbidos por los indígenas.

Basta un ejémplo para dar idea del nivel de hostigamiento que sufrieron milliones de séres humanos reducidos a la esclavitud y la muerte: Cuando un capitán español es alcanzado por una flecha, el médico ordena que le trajen un indio y a éste se le abre el pecho con cuchillo, mientras esta consciente, para adivinar como remendar el conquistador herido, y luego dejarle morir desangrando.

Para Oramín, el assistente indigena de Ursúa: “Los poderosos enemigos habían llegado y ahora triunfaban; crueles dioses estaban con ellos; un bello mundo estaba declinando; una maldición indescifrable se cumplía contra estos reinos que gozaron por miles de soles y de lunas una felicidad irrepetible. No encontraba lugar para la esperanza. Podía ver que los invasores no estaban de paso, que habían venido para quedarse, y que en su mundo lejano quedaban todavía incontables guerreros esperando su turno para venir al incendio y a la rapiña, de modo que ya nadie podía, como Tusquesusa, y como los primeros testigos en las islas, alimentar la ilusión de que un dia se fueran.”

Poco tiene que prestar Ursúa al esfuerzo del la corte imperial para proteger los indios. “Ya empezaba a sentir en su propia conciencia la contradicción entre ser encargado de la justicia y ser un aspirante a las riquezas y los repartos de las Indias,” explica el narrador.

El nuevo mundo es un lugar de poca ley o justicia y Ursúa encuentra tierras donde los Españoles, en cuanto no andan desatando masácres sobre los muiscos o zapes, matan entre sí con mucho brío. Reinan aparte distintos conquistadores que, hasta entonces, mandaban un cuarto de las riquezas robadas de los tribus naturales al corte imperial para luego administrar las nuevas tierras a sus antojo.

Cuando el tío de Ursúa, Armendariz, manda un tal Robledo a relevar el conquistador Belalcázar de su cargo, éste lo toma como prisionero, lo despoja de sus bienes, y lo mata. Apelando al hombre fuerte del imperio en las Indias – La Gasca – Armendariz se entera de que no habra justicia para Robledo por que el emperador necesite el apoyo del cacíque renegado.

Pero Ursúa no viajo al nuevo mundo a matar ibericos y luego gana su renombre destripando a los nativos de la tierra invadida.

Por eso amaba tanto la guerra,” escribe Ospina, “porque sentía que en sus vórtices era posible ser brutal sin dejar de ser un caballero, y tal vez por eso lo tentaban más las guerras contra infieles, contra indios y esclavos, por que su dios lo autorizaba a toda crueldad mientras no estuviera atentando contra sus semejantes.”

Aprendemos que, contra Ursúa, el jefe Tayrona reunió pueblos que se unían “por el odio y miedo” y que, “Vinieron a su ejército los canoeros de Jate Teluaa, en las puertas del gran mar azul, la madre del oro, y hombres embijados, con lanzas talladas en fémures, que avanzaron desde Java Nakúmake, madre de los lechos de sal; y vinieron remeros de Lúdula, en el espejo inmóvil, la madre de los peces de muchos colores y formas, y de la desmbocadura del río Tucirina, en Java Katakaiwman, madre de todo lo que existe en el mundo; tropas empenachadas de plumas de Kwarewmun, la madre del barro, y guardianes del Ñui de Aracataca, que detienen co rezos a las fuerzas malignas, y mantienen con ofrendas el equilibrio.” 

Y así por todo el libro, el autor diestramente compaginando una lectura histórica con una prosa que embellece y hace más entrañable su recuperación detallada de pueblos desaparecidos.

Impresiona el esfuerzo, y la variedad de tacticas, hecho por los indígenas, tanto como la manera en que los españoles dominaron tanta tierra poblada con tan escasas tropas. Es una história de armas superiores.

Cuenta el narrador las dificultades que tienen los invasores en una contienda contra un guerrero con espada español hasta que viene alguién que le dispare desde atrás con su arcabuz, rompiendole la espalda y ¡Viva España!

Al final no triunfamos los humanos, al final sólo triunfa el relato, que nos recoge a todos y a todos nos levanta en su vuelo, para después brindarnos un pasto tan amargo, que recibimos como una limosna última la declinación y la muerte.”

Así concluye Ospina ésta divertida novela, con ese estilo entre lo fantástico y lo hiper-real, con esa voz mística que aplícan con tanta sensatez los escritores de su tierra.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"In the Night of Time," by Miguel Muñoz Molina


A revolutionary guardsman deems Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of Antonio Muñoz Molina's "In the Night of Time," a "gentleman with a union card."

Civil wars often divide countries. Spain's sliced Iberia into a series of mind states, intellectual positions and moral prerogatives that deposited a prismatic understanding of those traumatic events in history's hopper.

How you understand the conflict depends very much on who is telling the story, a devout Catholic or Falangist, a millenarian anarchist, a determined communist, a socialist intellectual with sympathies rooted in a class not their own.

Abel is a working class boy made good by studying hard in preparation, and marrying up to cement his drive for respectability.

His complacency, his thinly veiled boredom with bourgeois Spanish life, mark him as something other than the family he's married into, architectural brilliance and financial success notwithstanding.

As the country lurches toward civil war, circumstances in the family come to something of a boil as his socialist tendencies clash with their own Catholic and evolving fascistic allegiances.

The ebullient Republican milieu and the opening up of Spain in the 1930s, following years of dictatorship, led to outside influences and armies of curious visitors. One of these, Judith Biely, a student, revolutionizes his life, awakens the older man's sexuality and deepens his appreciation for Madrid, the city he grew up in yet has never truly seen.

About the time the affair comes to light in Abel's domestic life (not a spoiler) the civil war has broken out. They go together, this conflict at home and the larger one outside it, to the point where the same things that divide Abel's family, divide the country.

The story opens with the architect running from Spain and his family, floating through New York's Pennsylvania Station. Muñoz Molina's is a backward glance at Abel's family life, his professional milieu and colleagues, "the affair" and other relations with different strata of Spanish society.
Relations that define him.

Because he is shacking up with his lover when the fascist uprising launches, Abel ends up on the wrong side of the front from his family. Or, considering that they, good conservative Catholics, would not have been able to protect him from summary execution, on the right side of the new dividing line.

But his leftist sympathies are not enough to save him from being rousted up by an anarchist patrol and readied for the firing squad, only to be saved by an old friend of his father's.

Although a man of the left, the author's portrait of revolutionary Madrid has much in common with that rendered by right winger Agustin de Foxha in "Madrid: From Royal Court to Checka."

It's a dreary, unromantic and dangerous place where the violence comes from within and without alike. One of those places where death takes root so strongly that it no longer discriminates on the basis of guilt or ideology, but harvest what ever innocent stands in its way.

De Foxha's last-scene departure across the border into southern France is a welcome return to warm bourgeois normalcy, and Abel's arrival in New York's Hudson River valley is much the same.

The revolutionaries in control of Madrid are not the armed and noble yeoman of a certain strain of Spanish Civil War literature. Not for Abel, who has eaten from the tree of knowledge so that he sees things too well to act and lets fate pick his poison for him.

"They're intoxicated by words and anthems," he writes of the red and black hordes lording it over Madrid's streets, "as if they were breathing air too rich in oxygen and didn't know it. But perhaps it was he who was mistaken, his lack of fervor proof not of lucidity, but the mean-spirited hardening of age, favored by privilege and his fear of losing it."

Although they are ostensibly on his "side," the randomness and brutality of the violence the revolutionaries mete out is something the architect simply can not forgive and he grows disheartened with the political experiment in his homeland.

Being about Spain, the story can't help but be about the contrary demands of tradition and the yearnings of the individual heart.

So, sure, he feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but..."Only with [his lover] had he discovered and now regained what he'd never known could be so pleasurable, the habit of conversing, explaining himself to himself, confirming immediate affinities in what until then he'd thought of as solitary sensation and thoughts."

Judith Biely instructs him in that most American of indulgences, the self, while the country outside their lover's lair is enmeshed in an epic and all-inclusive struggle.

So "In the Night of Time," is about many things and as such, deals in ambiguity, ambivalence and irony.

Is Abel a coward to leave his family on the fascist side even though the marriage is shot and he is free? How can he make himself useful to the Republic when the "magnitude of the catastrophe" it faces is so evident, when it doesn't even want his support?

Muñoz Molina is a big prize guy in Spain, a prestige writer, who has earned the right to air out his thoughts. It is a long book and when Igacio Abel's children come up, they will come up for a good four pages minced with flashbacks, epiphanies and confession.

The publisher would have done well to furnish a few footnotes identifying certain of the historical figures Ignacio Abel engages as an architect on one of the nascent Republic's big projects, a new university city.

It helps to know his protector Juan Negrín would rise to the presidency, that Julian Besteiro was a socialist and president of the parliament under leftist coalitions, that Alejandro Lerroux was the long-time leader of the Radical Party.

Without some background, they are just names people are not likely to know much about, unless the Spanish Civil War is their "thing," which may in the end be where this book finds its audience.

Even those readers may find the author has managed to add a degree of freshness to a topic they are already familiar with.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"A Blanquito In El Barrio," By Gil Fagiani



"A Blanquito in El Barrio" is a parade of fringe urban characters tinged in tropical light (under soot), a borinquen carnival, sexy sometimes, baroque others, festive or nightmarish.

This collection of poems from 1966 through 1969 offers a view of Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem by a white guy (blanquito) from Connecticut, a survey of sixties New York and the drug scene that characterized it, as well as impressions of immigrant life, settled Nuyorica.


The clash of cultures spins sparks over most every page, as in “Reunion,” where an announcement in the doorway that “We are Catholics” contrasts starkly with the commission of adultery beyond its threshold.


The style in “Blanquito” is plainspoken, almost prosodic. There is little that is opaque or requiring contortions of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes this works in poetry, sometimes it doesn't. Here it does, the sparing, but forward-driving narrative possesses the preciousness of verse.


In “Fluteflirting,” the bond between music and sensuality coheres into erotica, without ever employing a hardcore vocabulary:


“He trills at the end of an arpeggio.
Her shoulders shake, nipples harden.

“He flutter-tongues high G.

Her legs tremble, eyes closed.”

The scene between dancer and flautist is literally choreographed through typography, the poet playing at puppeteer. The result is simple and on point, but open-ended rather than pat.


Riffing.

For all his clean lines, sometimes, like a musician who has kept with the beat too long, Fagiani breaks out in a redolent riff, as in “125th St.” where:

“...girls in straw hats wave at me
with mocha tans
and strawberry fingertips."

Music is very important to “Blanquito,” which generates its own and commemorates much of what was heard on El Barrio's streets in those times. It even comes with a discography, the names of bands and song titles themselves a kind of found art: “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango. “Boogaloo Blues,” Johnny Colón...


Not that Fagiani's is a candy-striped, timbale-splashed El Barrio. In “Blanquito,” The Spanish Harlem of the time is rendered in an earthy pallet, bruises and all, without repugnance or even detachment, rather with an intimation that what is ugly is also part of the beauty of the whole.


Fagiani is a founding member of the
Vito Marcantonio Forum and “A Blanquito in El Barrio” is dedicated to the unjustly forgotten East Harlem congressman.

Litany of San Vito.

San Vito of East Harlem                  Pray for us

San Vito bread of the poor               Pray for us
San Vito crucified by Wall Street    Pray for us
San Vito Martyr of McCarthyism    Pray for us

From the jail cell walls                    San Vito deliver us

From the backyard crap game         San Vito deliver us
From the loan shark's vig                San Vito deliver us
From the drunken stupor                 San Vito deliver us
From TB and asthma                       San Vito protect us
From the social worker's visit          San Vito protect us
From the immigration raids             San Vito protect us
From the landlord's greed                San Vito protect us”

Read on its own, the piece's rhythm links the people of El Barrio and their congressman, the kindness he showed them, his secular sanctification and their mutual victimization by the same unforgiving forces.


Seen as part of a larger canvas, the poem serves as a kind of reprise, linking Vito Marcantonio to characters come before in “Blanquito.


In “Cuchifrito,” the blanquito finds himself turned on by the salacious way a puertoriqueña he's casing slurps her greasy native treats.


“La Capitana” recounts a childhood social worker hauling her innocent charges to confront the bureaucrats who have cut their summer program funding.


“First Day in El Barrio” has an Italian cop born there, before it went Puerto Rican, mocking the blanquito and his crusading friends for being heavy on book learning and short on street smarts.


“when he began his barrio beat

he was young and idealistic too
and wanted to help people.
But in no time he learned
that except for a few residents
too scared to say a word
mostly he met backstabbers,
sneaks, junkies, welfare bums,
dope addicts and cutthroats.”

Dust Recuperated.

“La Loca,” depicts a straight-playing secretary and mother of three who gets her freak on by hitting some weed and dancing for multiple macho admirers at something called the Hunts Point Plaza.


And there are numerous junkies laying about the streets and alleys of Gil Fagiani's East Harlem, notable among them the “Fashionista” whose journey on junk takes him from dandy to dirtbag.


“Blanquito” dives into an unknown or, worse, ignored world, recuperates the lives of humans treated as something less than human. Without it, the junkies and petty thieves and desperate but honest ones who pass anonymously and without imprint on the collective memory, would be dust.



Much the same can be said for Marcantonio whose life's work was to improve their situation.


The book introduces us to the jail cell walls, the backyard crap game, to the druggy stupors so that, by the time San Vito makes his appearance, these are not single-shot sentences, but markers for full-blown characters.


The yarns in “Blanquito” are
woven from ecstatic party vibe, lowdown hangovers or overdoses, stories of people who try hard getting the same raw deal as those who don't do. There is fried food, swampy summers streets with the sewer smell rising up, the final goodbye to someone who had it coming, the whole flawed festival of urban immigrant life.

Binding the tales of misery together with a lighthearted filigree is the incessant push of the desperate, confused, or wronged characters to not just live, but to insist on joy. In amplifying their drive, Fagiani infuses his story-in-poems with that same joy.
 
Portrait of "San Vito" by Roman O'Cadiz 

Monday, September 30, 2013

"La Regenta," por Leopoldo Alas "Clarin"



Basta decir que “La Regenta” es mucho “La Regenta.”

Cuando se trata de cosa tan clasica como puede ser éste obra monumental de Leopoldo Alas, “Clarín,” poco sentido tiene el declararlo “bueno” o “malo.” Mas seguro es alistarse con los en “pro,” que tampoco cuesta tanto con un libro de valor tan indiscutible.

Mejor escarbar unas cuantas palabras acerca de cómo “Clarín” hacia su trabajo y de que va este enorme esfuerzo.

La historia se trata de una lucha entre dos hombres, rivales sociales, y enemigos espirituales, para seducir a una bellísima casada, Ana Ozores. Como está casada con hombre que fue “Regente” sobre la pequeña ciudad bajo escrutinio, Vetusta (que dicen que se trata de Oviedo), todo el pueblo la hayan puesto el mote de “La Regenta” y asi un señal del modernísmo utilizado por el autor, de su íntima relación con lo que se califica como lenguaje (y mentalidad) de la calle.

“La Regenta,” como libro, es una ópera epica, con un ejercito to personajes que representan lo mas barriobajero hasta las alcurnias mas altas. Lo peor de Clarin is su técnica de introducir los personajes todo de entrada, de sopetón, lo cual requiere del lector que se vuelve atrás para confirmar de quien esta hablando y como son.

Esto hace la lectura mas difícil, y menos placentera que una obra donde los temas y personajes estan mejor tejidos.

Através de su mege a trois, el libro es todo un comentario sobre los vaivienes de una sociedad cerrada y católica a fines del Siglo decimonico. Obviamente, La Regenta, casada como es con un viejo de la alta sociedad, no puede consumar la relación sexual que le brinda el seductor, Don Alvaro Mesías.

El Provisor de la catedral, prominente miembro del clero, tampoco puede ser honesto consigo, ni con los demás, sobre su deseo de pelar la bella confesante. En estos conflictos, y los de carácteres menores, se investíga de pies a la cabeza la iglesia católica Española, la socieded que rige, la política progresísta, y la mente proletario de la epoca.

Tampoco son del todo tejidos estas discusiónes del antiguo periodista Alas, pero cuenta con suficiente talento e ideas para enganchar un lector dispuesto a “estudiar” su obra mas que simplement leerlo.

Se siente este libro-de-sexo-casi-sin-sexo como se lo ha vivído el sexo en España durante siglos. Lento, sugeriente, descriptívo, espíritual, “La Regenta” calienta al lector baron y viríl hasta dejarle con ganas de saltar la página y cumplir lo que Mesías y El Provisor tarden tanto en iniciar.

Guiado por las mismas reglas que la sociedad retratada, Clarín no se nos pega con gran sorpresa al fín de su tragedia, pero aún asi queda sorprendente la resolución aquí en oferta.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Monipodio's House: A Consideration of Cervantes' Villain

Back in the early 1990s, highwayscribery lived in Spain where he'd gone to write his novel "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows."


When the book was finished and the money gone, the highway scribe moved to Seville from Malaga to start a newspaper with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón and Angel Delgado.


It was called "La Otra Orilla" and covered that part of Seville located on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. The district was made up of two barrios, Los Remedios and Triana.


The latter whimsically declared itself a republic independent of the bigger burg while claiming to be the cradle of flamenco and the bullfight arts alike.


There are other barrios in other Spanish cities making like claims. But that's not the point. If you're from Triana the truth there is that they started "los toros" and "el flamenco" in Triana. Case closed.


The barrio was nothing if not historic and many locations were posted with ceramic-tiled signs explaining a particularly noteworthy event that had occurred there, or a person who'd resided and made art in the space.


"La Otra Orilla" ran a series called "Triana by Plaque" (Triana por Placas) wherein a reporter would flesh out the person or event highlighted with more greater detail.


In the piece below highwayscribery, together with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón, set out to determine whether a location claiming to be the place where Miguel de Cervantes' "Rinconete and Cortadillo" was inspired, was in fact that place.



Specifically, the plaque (pictured here) claimed the Andalusian patio contained within served as headquarters for the den of thieves run by the novela's primary character, Monipodio.


We scribes turned to the actual text to determine the claim's veracity and have a little fun with literature in the process.


Monipodio's House

Obligated to Stay in Seville at the Service of Philip II, Cervantes Traveled to the Far Reaches of the Imagination

According to the plaque which concerns us this week, the house found at the corner of Betis and Troya served as redoubt for a brotherhood of thieves led by the infamous Monipodio of Miguel de Cervantes novela, "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

It is enough that a student of local cultural, such as our own staff writer Marco Severo, says that this is not the case for a brief investigation into the claim to be launched.


You'll see that this investigation did not permit us to reach a sure conclusion, but did invite an engaging comparison between the Triana and Seville of today with that of Don Quixote's creator.


Cervantes came to Seville against his wishes. His petition to King Phillip II for a post in the Indies having been rejected, the writer was sent to Seville with the charge of gathering provisions for "The Invincible Armada" that would suffer a famous route in the English Channel.


Requisitioning wheat and olive oil from an unwilling populace was apparently a disagreeable task. According to his biographer Professor Valverde, Cervantes was subject to such indignities as being thrown into wells and "other tiresome pranks."


In 1597, the bank where Cervantes kept his ducados went belly-up and he found himself, not for the first time, in jail. If his incarceration in Algeria did little to dim his passion for adventure, his majesty the king was no more successful in dampening his lust for life.


In jail, Cervantes did not travel to distant locations, rather to the boundaries of his own imagination. Perhaps it was in jail where he learned the peculiarities of Sevillan thievery so wonderfully detailed in the novela.


"Rinconete and Cortadillo" is written by an outsider with the understanding of a person who has lived their entire life in Seville. En these two lads, about whom we know, among other things, "that neither one or the other exceeded 16 years of age, both of good humor, but very raggedy, broken, and maltreated."


It is no surprise for anyone familiar with Seville that the boys' first lesson upon arrival in the Andalusian capital is that it is far from an open field. In fact, it is just the opposite. Even in the world of robbing and mugging there are customs and a tax, in this case the monopoly is Monopodio's (El monopólio de Monipodio).


Having just committed their first bit of pilfering, the pair are pinched by a youth under the command of the King of Thieves who recommends they go and "register" with Monipodio and if not, "that they avoid stealing without his blessing for otherwise it would cost them plenty."


Rincón and Cortado (whose names will later be refined by the very same Monipodio), decide to take the youth's advice and depart with him from Plaza de El Salvador toward a destination unidentified by characters and author alike.


Triana is not mentioned in the ensuing discussion, nor does the Guadalquivir River, which one must cross to get there, although Cervantes informs us that the walk lasted as long as the speech by Monipodio's pawn, Ganchuelo, "which was long."


The trip is one across the surface of the soul, eschewing descriptions of the actual landscape. Ganchuelo explains to them that he, too, is a thief, but "one who serves God and good people."


"It's news to me that there are thieves in the world to serve God and good people," responds Cortado and thus it would appear that in the 16th century, as much as today, those who come from beyond quickly learned the extent to which Seville is steeped in Catholic ways.


Finally, at Monipodio's retreat, Rincón and Cortado are left to wait "in a small brick courtyard, so white and scrubbed that it emitted the richest carmine scent. To one side was a bench three feet in height and the other a broken jar with a pitcher on top that was in no better condition. Elsewhere was some matting made of cat's tail and in the middle of it all, a flower pot with basil growing.


"The youths," Cervantes writes, "looked attentively at the treasures of the house as Monipodio came down. Marking his slow pace, Rincón dared to enter one of the lower apartments accessed from the courtyard and saw two fencing swords, two shields of cork hanging from four spikes, a giant chest with nothing covering it, and more Cat's tail mats laid about the floor. On the front wall was stuck an image of Our Lady, one of those low-grade reproductions. Lower still hung a wicker basket and encased in the wall was a basin. Rincón reasoned that the first was for charity and the second for holy water. And this was true.


It was Cervantes' intention through his first draft of "Don Quixote" to pen a simple novel during his stay in Seville. If "Quixote" is, in part, a parody of the wealthy society upon which artists of his time so desperately depended, it's not out of line to suggest we find a little bit of the same in "Rinconete and Cortadillo."


The epic tale about the Madman of La Mancha was dedicated to a Sevillan aristocrat in
an effort to curry favor, although it apparently did little to achieve the author's goal.


Rincón and Cortado find that the household of Monipodio is organized like that of a gentleman of the time, around a courtyard, mise en scéne and architectural symbol of the small aristocratic courts that marked the city.


In him they encounter a man who carries the contradictions of life itself.


Writes Cervantes, "The pair were in awe of the obedience and respect everyone in the house had for Monipodio, a man who was barbaric, rustic, and heartless."


Nonetheless, this Monipodio is capable of receiving guests "with much contentment and courtesy, because he was extremely well-bred."


And it is precisely with Monipodio that Triana possibly emerges for the first time in the story, because the man encompasses the same contradictions as the barrio that treasures both holy virgins and the flamenco ghost.


"And Escalanta, removing her clog, began to beat it like a tambourine. La Gananciosa took a palm broom laying about and began scratching it against the floor, making a sound that, although rough and grating, kept time with the clog. Monipodio broke a plate in two pieces which, placed between his fingers and clicked with grand dexterity, carried a counterpoint to the clog and broom."

"Vedette," by Stephen Siciliano

This is a review of my own novel, "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows" which has everything to do with Spain and Spanish literature. It ran in Margin, a review of magically real scripting:

A N A L Y S I S
DANCING FOR THE CONQUERED
AND THE SLAIN:
Vedette, a flamenco heroine for our times
b y t a m a r a k a y e s e l l m a n ~ m a r g i n



VEDETTE, by Stephen Siciliano and released by iUniverse, enters the realm of the epic novel from the vantage point of a young girl in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia in the days preceding World War II and the rise of the Franco regime. Her picaresque, Gitano-inspired adventures (and misadventures) are written against the politically transformative landscapes of both the Andalusian countryside and the city of Seville. Readers witness the growth of a young, independent flamenca who, born with an intrinsic sense of duende, defines revolution through her honesty, haunting charm, charismatic leadership and capacity for pure love.

From the publisher comes this summary of Vedette:


"Born to a Gothic social order, branded a haunter of men's dreams, Vedette is traumatized when her small town in the magical wetlands of southern Spain's Guadalquivir River is overrun by hashish-smoking anarchists promising free love and a life without sadness to those who would follow them. … Entranced by their flamenco music, their philosophy of revenge and the concrete ability to deliver political results, the young woman joins a movement destined to annihilation and becomes its sole survivor, burdened with the task of keeping its memory and project for a better world alive through conversations with their flamenco shadows. … Transcending political viewpoints, Mr. Siciliano opens a new chapter in the understanding of the Spanish Civil War, opting for a literary interpretation that looks beyond right and wrong to more universal lessons only the passage of decades and the healing effects of time can reveal."

WHAT IS A VEDETTE?
The term vedette (pronounced Beh-DET) isn't precisely defined in the story, but a basic dictionary definition gives us a couple of clues.

In military lingo, it's a kind of boat or person used as a sentinel. The word has its roots in the Latin "vigil," to watch, to keep vigil, to see, suggesting the work of a nighwatchman. Vedette in Old French means "watch tower." These are consistent with the character Vedette, for her role is one of vigilant witness to the injustices leveled against the poor underclass, and her life is spent in the lunar consciousness of the flamenco lifestyle; that is, she's up all night and perhaps at her most lucid then, even when drunk on manzanilla.

In more popular usage, a vedette might be thought of as a "Triple Threat"— a woman who can sing, dance and act; a showgirl. In Portuguese, vedete translates into the slang terms "star" and "big shot." This doesn't imply anything but a vocation risen to the level of celebrity.

However, it's in Siciliano's novel, right from the first page, that the term vedette is given its immoral connotations, which (unfairly?) define our heroine (whose real name is Gloriella) from the earliest years of her existence, in that a vedette is a title for a woman of loose morals. This usage first comes in the form of a lascivious chant from her incestuous and groping father, only to be legitimized by her other "father," Padre Olivares.


" 'It's an outrage of a name,' the priest would say. 'Not a name, but a title. A title given, in fact, only to the most immoral of women!' he pointed out to anyone in town who would listen. And there was plenty of them. Of course, he was a priest and the town of Marisalena was so Catholic that it made more gossip than olive oil and cotton."

By this proclamation, Olivares creates his own monster. Vedette's existence is a kind of torture because she possesses his dreams. She ends up being, ironically, both his greatest enemy and his raison d'etre. That is to say, he can't live in serenity while she's alive, but his life has no real purpose without her in it to define him.

My take on Vedette is a not a character with loose morals, however. There is a certain picaresque nature to her early womanhood that reminds me of Moll Flanders right off the bat. And to be sure, her early experiences as a tool for the sexual satisfaction of her father (and other men, eventually) casts her as fallen from grace (not unlike Dafoe's antiheroine). But, like Gabriel García Márquez's "innocent" Erendira, Vedette has her reasons for being that kind of girl.

Erendira soullessly services the men in her world in order to pay off a debt to her Grandmother. It is as if she is asleep or a ghost during her sessions. Her purpose is noble even if her actions aren't. However, Vedette understands early on that she is no puta; her sexuality exists as separate from her spirit. She is far more pragmatic about her role as a haunter of men's dreams; she uses her promiscuity as an art form, a tool for acquiring the most basic elements of survival: food, shelter, friendship. At the end of their stations in life, both women achieve a sense of spiritual purity by escaping the social and religious confinements that have ostracized them.

The difference between these two young women is one of power, however. While Erendira remains subservient to her Grandmother's crass greed throughout the story (and only in the end does she escape it), Vedette is owned by no one and, therefore, does not need to escape herself. Even the man she truly loves, the torero Paula, she refuses to marry, for she knows inherently that the only person she belongs to is herself.

THE LANDSCAPE OF VEDETTE
Andalusia
The whole of Spain is popularly known for its Inquisition(s), but what isn't focused upon with equal fervor are its multicultural roots. In Spain's earliest and perhaps most golden times, the communities which comprised its southern region, Andalusia, consisted of several culturally different groups living for a time in harmony: the Moors (Arabs), the Jews, the Gitanos ("gypsies") and the Christian Spaniards.

Geographically speaking, it makes sense. Andalusia connects Spain with Africa via Morocco. The trade routes meant commerce between people from all manner of sensibilities: Christian, Jew, Islamic. The nomadic Gitanos of Spain (who are presumed to have descended from Indian immigrants) shared in shaping the culture of the times as well simply by the fact of their transience between villages and cities as they sold their wares and performed their arts.

When the Catholics began cleansing the region of nonbelievers, it is believed that the different ethnic groups who were oppressed by this forced conversion unified culturally to protect each other. From this melding of cultures, a new expression, flamenco, a fusion of Gypsy song with Andalusian folk music, flared to life in the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera (so named for its frontierland between Moorish and Christian realms).

Flamenco
Flamenco figures prominently in the growth of Vedette as a charismatic force. She learns the dance and the cante (singing) from a band of revolutionary Gitanos she befriends after fleeing her monstrous father and the threat of convent life where her other "father," Padre Olivares, can't wait to "convert" her.

Flamenco is not simply a form of music, but a way of thinking. Similar examples in American pop culture might include the emergence of the blues or jazz, as well as the iconography and sensibilities of purist Grateful Dead fans, or "deadheads." It's as much a lifestyle and a mindset as it is a form of art.

The time that author Siciliano chooses to introduce Vedette to flamenco is an interesting one; flamenco was, by the 1930s, an extremely old tradition, so when Vedette takes on the task of dancing to palmas at the cafés cantates in Sevilla for payment in food and wine, she is actually entering the flamenco "scene" after its heyday. And she dances to the rich strumming of flamenco guitar, which only became part of the equation at the turn of the 20th century. Previously, instruments such as violins and tambourines accompanied the dancers, but they were optional and not the defining aspect of flamenco.

The spirit of flamenco has endured primarily as a combination of interactive clapping (palmas), vocalization of the woes of the underclass and a combined meditation in dance, where the upper body moves in graceful, sensual form while the feet pound out distinct, percussive patterns that aren't taught as much as felt.

Vedette was a barefoot flamenco dancer, which sets her apart from the modern interpreters of the dance, who use specially enhanced shoes to accentuate their rhythms. Vedette could only be the truly free person she was by dancing without shoes. Her barefoot lifestyle allowed her to be quick on her feet and closer to the earth she loved. Vedette lived as an authentic and sincere naturalist and pacifist who treasured animals, plants and the life force that fueled all that was good in the world. When she is forced into shoes later in the story as part of her internal exile, it comes as no surprise that she loses touch with her flamenco rhythms, or alegría.

Duende
Alegría might be defined as the positive expression of flamenco's duende—a spiritual experience characterized as dark beauty erupting from the core of the soul. Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca committed his life to the study of duende and gave the concept its timeless significance. Duende isn't something that can taught or measured in terms of skill; rather, duende is a life force that can only be experienced through the magica of a truly authentic practitioner in the arts.

Vedette is one such artist; in fact, she becomes famous throughout the region for being truly authentic, to the point of being an enchantress, a haunted dancer. Her unflappably positive personality, her natural beauty and her legendary ability to always tell the truth lend Vedette a larger-than-life reputation which she fulfills everywhere she goes while she is a free woman. It is only when she becomes neutered by fascism that the darker aspects of her duende return, such as at the very end, when she writes a final poem honoring her beloved guitarist and friend, the gitano Tomatito.

Las Marismas
One of the places she returns to, time and again, is the marshlands (las marismas) that surround the estuarine Guadalquivir River, or el rio. It's no mistake that someone as enchanted as Vedette baptizes herself in the waters of the nurturing Guadalquivir early in the story. The river is the most abundant source of life in the region, next to las marismas, where water moves in and out from the coast with the pull of the moon. The result is an expansive wetland region of brackish water that transforms into salt-crusted ponds in the summer. Animals and wild vegetation characterize both the river and this fertile delta, metaphorizing the wild fertility and longevity of Vedette's ideas. She frequently returns to the mysterious and everchanging landscape of the tidal flats to hide or to collect her thoughts. It's las marismas that ultimately hold for her the secrets of her duende, embodied by the "flamenco shadows" she consults there during desperate times.

THE MAGICAL REALISM IN VEDETTE
It's this commerce, with both the living and the dead, which comprises the magical realist aspects of Vedette.

Antonia, the Card Reader
Early into Vedette's life, she visits the French Gypsy Antonia of Carmona at the demand of her mother, who wants to learn whether assertions from Vedette's father—that she would haunt and curse every man in her life—were accurate. In the staunchly Catholic community of Marisalena, Vedette's mother makes the journey at considerable risk, explaining that, though the local padres may believe in the cards, the Pope does not. The tarot is read, predictions are made. Vedette learns that she is "from and part of the eternal other side." Her mother leaves the reading convinced her daughter is a witch.

This is the first of three encounters Vedette has with Antonia, and in every case, her predictions are accurate to the tiniest details. In the third visit, it is Antonia who proffers predictions based, not on the cards, but on accurate observations about the coming moral and political reforms within Spain, suggesting the intricate liaisons bridging the institutions of faith and politics at the time. One did not need the mystery of the occult to forsee that future. Its evidence could be found throughout the countryside where Vedette lived.

Fernando Villalon
While traveling the las marismas via Sevilla to Carmona, where she plans a second visit to the card reader Antonia, Vedette gets lost looking for the lights of the city. She comes upon a "lonely rider moving slow," who tells her in a deep voice that "you can rush all you want, but in las marismas you can never move faster than the speed of el rio taking the water to sea!"

Vedette's reaction: the man's words don't make sense and yet they explain everything. That should have been her first clue that this mysterious man might be special.

They travel together for a spell and she learns the man is Fernando Villalon, the "poet of las marismas" and a breeder of bulls. He rode a horse named Clavileño, the namesake of Don Quixote's steed (another tip off that Villalon is extra-ordinary).

Vedette is familiar with his story, having been told all about him by her friend, El Fariz the Moor. She discovers that Villalon, in fact, knows her friend. He gives her points for orienting herself in the marshes and bores her young and impetuous mind with other details about horses, Moorish poets and the salty landscape. Though her lack of attention bothers him, he expresses admiration for her honesty and invites her to visit him on his island in el rio. She mentions how she never sees his eyes under the brim of his hate (a third indicator of something otherworldly at play).

It isn't until Vedette arrives very late at the cortijo of the card reader that she learns from Antonia that Fernando Villalon and his horse have both been dead for some time.

This is not the last we hear or see Villalon. In fact, he and his horse appear several times throughout the course of Vedette's journey, delivering letters from real people, cleaning Vedette up after being raped by one of her captors, informing Vedette when she is desperate for wisdom.
He's a flamenco shadow, just one of many which inhabit the real world of Vedette, Gloriella. As other spirits of the flamenco pass through her life, she comes to converse with them at important moments in the story: the troublemaking Rufian, the sacrificed Pilar from Vedette's early years of rebellion. There is never a question in her mind whether these souls are real; she accepts them as kindred spirits, and they do, in fact, aid in her survival, even if only she can see them.

ANALYSIS
This is one of the most engaging epic works I've read in a long time, a story which deserves comparison to the great classics, One Hundred Years of Solitude (for the sincerity of its political message and for its marvelous humor) and Don Quixote (for its demands for justice and Vedette's innocent and pure idealism).

I would also compare this novel to another favorite contemporary epic, Texaco, written by French Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau. The timeless structure of the storyline (we are treated to the undeniable connection between past, present and future) is captured in Siciliano's ability to render, intimately and honestly, the harsh landscape of oppression reduced to its most personal level in a way that is universally meaningful.

Siciliano's personal love for Andalusia shows through prominently in Vedette. His use of the Spanish language to portray an authentic landscape is easily understood even by readers without fluency in the language. Siciliano builds characters who, through their own voices, reveal the kaleidoscopic cultural history of the region. I've learned more about Andalusia, and Spanish history in general, from this book than I've learned in any history class, as a result.

He incorporates little sketches in his book that add another level of understanding for the reader. The different images cast in tiles (azulejos) throughout the region, for instance, display the multicultural influences on Andalusia. Renderings of revolutionary icons used in flags (of moons and suns) support the underlying oppositions in the story: sun/moon, light/dark, "moral"/"immoral" and the like. And his drawings of lanterns in various villages express the underlying differences of each place and how they are made different by the geography and history of the region. Siciliano writes:"[These farolas] are simple trophies yielded by my, ultimately, very costly travels and hopefully reinforce [my] knowledge and affection for that distant land. Each town, no matter how poor, has its own design, yet they are always variations on the same flowery, wrought-iron theme. Some forays I made simply to collect my 'sample,' have a manzanilla and leave."

Perhaps most impressive to me was the way in which Siciliano drew for his readers the portrait of revolution through the lives and experiences of villagers. There is something of a grassroots nature to Siciliano's worldview, as expressed in his own real-life writings, which support liberal ideas, tolerance and peace. His motley crew in Vedette captures all that defines the formation of a political community at the most personal level. There is the cranky but sympathetic Santí, whose constant blasphemies and dour attitude yet inspire positive change. The noble leader Antonio Arleta, whose message of peace evolves over the years, comes too little and too late to their rescue. The valiant and famous torero, Espla de Paula, becomes a convert to Vedette's ways, not only out of love but of reason, after her federation usurps the village. His daughter, Acracia, aka Eva, comes into her own womanhood not as the French-educated princess she is expected to be, but as a pants-wearing militia leader with her eyes on undermining Catholicism's oppression of women. La Condesa is an aristocrat who comes to love Vedette's ideals even as she despises the lowborn ways of the masses. And El Fariz, the Arab complete with camel, the man who bathes himself in the tradition of the desert peoples by scrubbing down with dirt, is the resident keeper of Moorish history and perhaps the best living example from whom Vedette can acquire the Big Picture. These are all characters rendered completely believable because they are beautiful, yet flawed at once.

Finally, Vedette is a book to read as a way to measure our current global condition. The reflections of tolerance, freedom, feminism, idealism and creativity rendered as a political act may be paraded within the confines of this single moment in Spain's history, but their relevance for all of us is undeniably universal.

ACCESS TO VEDETTE
I must lament that this book was published using the print-on-demand services of iUniverse. My readers know me as a cheerleader for independent publishing, while being more tenuous about lending support to those who would self-publish their work or make it available only through electronic forms which require special technology for access.

I imagine the reason Siciliano took this route has much to do with the fact that his book may not be "sexy" in the eyes of New York publishing. He doesn't have the literary following of a García Márquez or an Allende, for one thing. He isn't writing around a trendy theme (writers of the diaspora, for instance); if anything, he may be criticized for being a white guy writing a story about a nonwhite girl, which I find one of the more irritating presumptions within the ranks of our contemporary literary community. It may be that the novel is simply too long, and that its accompanying timelines of real world events, pronunciation guide and bibliography might be conveyed as too offputting or demanding to average readers (a New-York-only misconception that I wish would disappear; people do have brains and they do like to use them).

For whatever reasons Siciliano holds for choosing the iUniverse route, I have to say I wish he would have found a "real" publisher, for these three reasons.

He could have used the talents of a real editor. There are far too many copyediting mistakes in this book. Please don't let this fact keep you from reading this book.

Siciliano could have benefited from extra promotion the publishing world could have offered his book. Now, while I know it's true that budgets for book tours and promotion have dwindled to hardly anything, and while I know it's become the domain of the writer to actively promote his book (which Siciliano, to his credit, did; it's how I got a copy of Vedette in the first place), there's still more promotional currency to access through traditional publishers than what iUniverse offers.

Finally, while I think it's a much better climate now than it has been in the past, self-published, print-on-demand books still possess the reputation for being amateurish, self-indulgent and of low quality. Despite the copyediting errors I highlight in my argument above, I have to say that this book is written with the deft hand of a real scribe; the craft within it brings layers of sophisticated texture which rule out any question as to its quality as a work of literature; and if there's anything self-indulgent about Vedette, it lingers in Siciliano's pure love for all things Andalusian. This book is not only a novel, but an artful devotion. It deserves respect.

The good news is this: in May 2005, Vedette was selected as one of thirteen "literary fiction" finalists in ForeWord Magazine's 2004 Book of the Year Awards, which focus on sparking the attention of librarians and booksellers by recognizing the literary achievement of independent publishers and their authors. This is one big leap toward validation and legitimacy that the print-on-demand press needs if it is going to bear itself out of the literary ghetto that the New York-centered publishing world has imposed upon it. With excellent novels like Vedette out there, I'm hopeful that alternative options for writers, like iUniverse, will continue to supply them with the recognition they have earned.

ABOUT STEPHEN SICILIANO
He's a certified blogger, penning the entertaining and thoughtful Highway Scribery beat. He's also a poet, a novelist, and a man of political conviction bold enough to put it out there in a politically conservative time when the voices of liberals and free thinkers are belittled or denigrated.

Siciliano wrote Vedette over the course of four years while living in Andalusia. While living there, he enjoyed reading Camilo José Cela's columns and used to see the famous author hanging around Madrid with his young wife. He describes himself, in the back jacket text for Vedette, as "a 19th century man writing his way through a 21st century nightmare. …haunted by this question: Where will the intelligence and kindess come from that can save us?"

Certainly, he grapples with this question through the depiction of La Vedette, Gloriella as she plays, as Siciliano illustrates in the use of this Whitman line from Song of Myself, "not a march for victors only…I play great marches for conquered and slain persons."