Friday, August 29, 2014

"Prayers for the Stolen," by Jennifer Clement

“Prayers for the Stolen” is a novel about innocence being violated with impunity, because it is innocence, and it is good, and it is weak.

If you are in the habit of shrugging off sanguinary stories of Mexican mass murder as the woes of people who probably got involved with things they should not have, Jennifer Clement's narrative will cure you of that habit.

“Prayers for the Stolen” depicts the lives of a dozen or so women, living on a hill in the jungles outside Acapulco, who are bereft of men and very vulnerable.

Says narrator Ladydi of the place where most of the yarn unwinds, “I thought of our angry piece of land that once held a real community, but was ruined by the criminal world of drug traffickers and the immigration to the United States. Our angry piece of land was a broken constellation and each little home was ash.”

The immigration is responsible for all the men leaving and never coming back, the drug traffickers are responsible for the “stealing” of pretty girls, without fathers to protect them, as merchandise in the sex trade.

That's the set up. Newborn baby girls are announced as boys, and little ladies are disguised as little men to throw off the drug lords' dragnets. When that no longer works, mothers strain to make the adolescent females ugly by blacking out their teeth and short-cropping their hair.

The girls and their mothers have dug deep holes on the mountainside. Their ears are attuned to the most distant rumbling of SUVs (the Narco's vehicle of choice), which triggers a run for the holes where the daughters will hide.

It's not much of a defense and the women are exposed to the most vicious kind of predators. Going any further along the narrative arc would be to drop spoilers, but it does not give too much away to say the story is also about the dissolution of traditional communities and the displacement of indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Says Ladydi of one acquaintance made along the way:

[Luna] was a small, dark brown Mayan Indian from Guatemala with straight black hair. I was a medium-sized, dark brown mix of Spanish and Aztec blood from Guerrero, Mexico, with frizzy, curly hair, which proved I also had some African slave blood. We were just two pages from the continent's history books. You could tear us out and roll us into a ball and throw us in the trash.”

Which is pretty much how their rights and plights are handled.

Clement keeps it simple, clean, yet colorful, and tells an engaging story that gives a human face to the femme fatalities in Mexico's war with its own dark soul and that of its neighbor to the North.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Victus" by Albert Sanchez Piñol

Martí Zuviría, the protagonist of “Victus,” has allowed the fates and furies to convince him of his own wickedness.

The nonagenarian military engineer's resume includes service on behalf of His Majesty Carlos III of Austria, the Confederate States of America, Prussia, the Turkish Empire, the Comanche, The Tsar of Russia, and the Creek, Oglala, and Ashanti Nations, to name a few.

“Victus,” nonetheless, engages his early years. First as a cadet at a French institute at Bazoches where military engineering is imbued with a strong dose of mysticism. Later, putting his theories into practice during an early 18th century European conflict.

There is something of Thackery's “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” to “Victus” (Lived).

For all of Zuviría's self-loathing, his profession has landed him in rough historical currents and he does little more than take up cudgel's on behalf of whatever side the waters have deposited him. In fact, during the war before us in “Victus,” he works for both.

That war is between an alliance of French and Spanish Bourbons hoping to install a Philip on the throne in Madrid and a “Grand Alliance” of England, the Dutch, and Catalonia, among others, to prevent this coronation and establish Austrian Archduke Karl as Spain's regent.

But Spaniards were cool to Karl (Carlos) and he returned to Vienna causing the English to pull out and the coalition to unravel, while leaving Catalonia exposed to Bourbon repression and control.

Victus” is about the siege of Barcelona and the massacre of its inhabitants at the hands of Bourbon troops led by one James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick. 

Author Albert Sánchez Piñol is a writer who employs the Catalan tongue. Whether or not his choosing to dramatize (romanticize?) the historical moment (1714) of Catalonia's absorption by Bourbon Spain has anything to do with the current push by those desiring independence from Spain to convene a referendum on the question, we cannot say.

Zuviría was apparently a rare talent of much use when it came to the business of digging trenches, establishing bastions, razing up ramparts and other things important to either mounting, or resisting, a siege.

Through him Piñol can introduce the reader to a gallery of significant, but largely forgotten historical figures. There is the Duke of Vauban, under whom Zuviría studied military engineering. The Duke of Berwick was apparently taken with the young man and they conducted an affair before and during the war. There is the hard-shelled, noble-hearted commander in charge of the Catalonian defense, Villaroel and the romantic “miquelet” guerrilla, Ballester, who carries the banner of the peasantry.

Zuviría's first-person accounting of the tragic events is told, or translated into, a nineteenth century novelistic voice, world weary, bawdy, slathered in black humor. History provided Piñol with the twists and turns to justify the narrator's beleaguered bitterness but at least at the outset of his long career, the young engineer's heart seemed to be in the right place.

Only the magnitude of the horror Barcelona endured could have knocked him off his axis.

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 harvests 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.


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.