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:

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."

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

"La Gaviota," por Fernan Caballero

"La Gaviota" es una novela en cual la tierra pesa tanto como los personajes.

Es una novela "andalúza" desde las pies a la cabeza.

Las pies tomen lugar en Villamar, un pueblito Gaditano que perdurece en el olvido.

Su población esta hecho por unas cuantas personajes muy pintorescos y
que la autora Fernán Caballero -- nom de plum de la Alemana Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber -- quien pasó buen rato en las tierras moras de la península Iberica.
Llega a este lugar marinera un tal Stein; Aleman que ha venido a luchar en una guerra Española de la decada 1840. Malparado, los buenos y simples del pueblo le devuelven su salud.

Stein se queda en Villamar mientras la autora nos familiaríza con las maneras y charlas de la gente llana y andalúza de aquella epoca. Mientras tanto, Stein se enamora de una rapaza del sitio conocida por los vecinos como "La Gaviota" gracias a su carácter de arrogante y desairada.

Resulta ésta ser gran cantaora quien crece bajo la instrucción de Stein. Acaban casandose. Su madurez y el profundo cariño que Stein guarda para "La Gaviota" hace que se pasan buen y alégre rato en el campo.
Pero un aristócrata de Sevilla la escucha cantar y se enamora de la impertinente joven.

La cabeza de la historia se encuentra en la capital andalúza a donde el conde los lleva a Stein y su esposa. He aquí la novela se centra en las charlas que se desarollan en el salón de una condesa con sus tan-pintorescos-como-los-campesinos amigos de la alta sociedad hispalense.
En Sevilla la cantaora se enrede, como no, con un torero, cosa que la puede venir bien o mal, pero eso no se cuenta aquí.

"La Gaviota" es entrañable aunque lento a veces. La autora pasa much tiempo dejando sus personajes desplegar las ideas, dichos, y noticias de la epoca mientras la trama se desarolla con menos energía que la palabrarería empleado en los largos intercambios de ideas, noticias, insultas, cotilleo etc.

Tiene, o relata, Caballero un gran sentido de humor demostrado através de las bocas de sus tertuliantes.
Es decir que las piezas de "La Gaviota" valen mas que la enteridad pero, aun asi, merece la pena leerlo sobre todo para conocer las ideas y maneras de ser en tiempos y lugares lejanos pero no carecientes de interés.

De mérito especial son los tremendos retratos que hace Caballero de unas corridas de toros en tiempos cuando los caballos de los picadores se morían a rachas y la sangre y tortura excedían lo que se presencia en el espectaculo moderno.

"La Roja," by Jimmy Burns

Delving, as it does, into Spain, "La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World"has as much to do with politics as with that country's world champion national soccer team.

Jimmy Burns has written an amenable yet substantive story about how Spain went from a bullfighting nation to kings of international football.

He goes way back to the 1880s and an English-owned mine in Huelva where the first games of football were played exclusively by Brits. The journalistic knitting continues as Basque teams assert primacy and then Argentines come to enliven the game with a quick passing style.

"La Roja" is about the places where such trends were born and the people who sowed them on Spanish soil. Burns's chronicling of Barcelona F.C's role as an expression of Catalan culture and its rivalry with Real Madrid is deftly woven into discussion of the defeated Republic, the Monarchy, the Falange and, poignantly, the names of soccer players killed during the Spanish Civil War.

Noteworthy, too, is Burns's analysis of the Franco dictatorship's aggressive engagement with football as a tool to soothe tensions on the Iberian peninsula, as a propaganda weapon, and as diplomatic entry to worlds otherwise closed to the regime.

Burns suggests Franco made the Spanish national team a projection of homegrown fascism. A group possessing the "racial" qualities of true and pure Spaniards, and which brought to the playing field a particular "Spanish Fury." A sobriquet that stuck.

Like many people in Spain who had little time for the national selection over the years, Burns believes that the "The Spanish Fury" amounted to a whole lot of nothing, and that success in world-class tournaments would be elusive until a more modern and technical conception of Spanish soccer could be born.

Of course it happened. "La Roja" was released on the occasion of a repeat European Cup championship for the team of the same nickname. An unprecedented kind of success for such a national outfit.

Although his lead-up to the latest and most glorious chapter in Spanish soccer is first-rate, this reviewer did not find Burns very clear on why the ultimate transformation occurred. Was it a special generation of players who learned how to transcend the rivalries carried over from the club level? Ditching Raul? Was it David Beckham's impact as a media and celebrity item on future Spanish stars? The Argentines?

Maybe it's in there, but in any case, "La Roja" remains an always engaging look at a sudden dynasty. Its author understands soccer as culture and an expression of collective identities without forgetting that it is still sport.

"The Queen's Vow," by C.W. Gortner

In "The Queen's Vow," author C.W. Gortner fleshes out the dramatic timeline of Castilian monarch Isabella, who consolidated the Spanish cantons under one crown and then opened that nation up to the great unknown beyond its peninsular horizons.

"The Queen's Vow," is told in the first person, Isabella's person. The character fashioned here is of an even temperament, goosed hither and thither by Catholicism, to which she owes her place on the Castilian throne.

The story joins the young infanta's life in her teens. She is not the first in line of royal succession. That's an honor that falls to Isabella's younger brother, Alfonso. Meantime, the Kingdom of Castile is in decline, ruled by her decadent and indecisive half-sibling, Enrique.

Athough this story is one foretold, there's no point in spoiling it for those who don't know the deeper history, which we can assume are legion.

Suffice it to say, all's not well in the kingdom and through untimely death, murder, and palace intrigue, Isabella ends up atop the heap, together with her husband, Fernando, who is a prince out of neighboring Aragon.

The novel tracks her personal development as well as the couple’s progress, the in-house debates on dealing with marauding Portuguese, shifty Moorish infidels, nettlesome grandees, and their grand plans for the fledgling kingdom, to which their marriage has annexed Aragon.

Gortner barely tips his hat to locality when it comes to the prose here. There’s no effort at a language play that captures Spanish speech patters, deepens the native ambience, or gives greater relief to time and place. Isabella talks and thinks like your college English professor, or better.

Of course, some kind of concocted literary voice generates a reader’s task of getting used to, or getting over, what is being proposed.

This way, done straight-up, we can get on with things and Gortner can attribute the most lucid of thoughts and reasons behind Isabella’s actions, without having to shoehorn them into an idiomatic straight-jacket.

History can hamstring an author. One of the liveliest characters at the outset is the infanta’s lady-at-court, Beatriz de Bobadilla. Unfortunately, in real life, Beatriz got married and left Isabella’s side for considerable periods.

In a confection, she’d be there by the Queen’s side, through thick and thin, developing as a person along with the story, which would have benefited. But that’s not what happened and Gortner must tow the historian’s line where Beatriz and others are concerned.

After Isabella and her husband, the strongest characters are those who alternately opposed or supported the young couple’s rise to power. Gortner’s crafting of the lamentable Enrique, the shifty archbishop Carrillo, the evil courtier Villena, and the ascetic inquisitionist Torquemada are his most forceful depictions.

The author appeared to take special pleasure in staging a first meeting between a certain “Genovese navigator,” with a plan to sail off the end of the earth, and the queen. It’s a scene that demonstrates how even cold, hard, battle-tempered rulers can be seduced by one’s confidence, carriage, and ability to flatter.

Gortner composed an “Author’s Afterward” in which he analyzes the queen’s good (ending corruption in Castile, hiring Columbus, opening universities to women) with her bad (ordering the conversion or expulsion of all Jews, a generally martial approach to governance) and attempts to justify the politics of a woman who lived, you know, six centuries ago.

No need.

His text handles, beautifully, the contradictions the queen wrestled with, the weight of being a woman in a very masculine world, the persecution of those who supported and financed her triumphs, and her blind acceptance of Spanish Catholicism’s dictates.

She is a woman who talks often about her clothes, (“my water broke, splashing a torrent over my embroidered red leather slippers“), and wrestles with the infidelities of her warrior husband.

She is human here and, one suspects, the queen herself would be pleased.

"Luis Buñuel: The Red Years," by Gubern and Hammond

Ah science! Could you not have revealed that Luis Buñuel was no 1930s Stalinist, but rather as he remembered, a whimsical surrealist who casually meandered into filmmaking history?

No, of course not.

Instead, "Luis Buñuel, "The Red Years," straightens out the timeline put forth in the Oscar-winning director's (Best Foreign Film) endearing autobiography, "My Last Sigh," dismissing anecdotes as impossible given the evidence, blowing holes in his very memory.

Which is kind of fun when one considers how "My Last Sigh," opens with a meditation on memory:

"You have to begin to lose your memory," says the director, "if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing."

Even with it, "The Red Years," implies, we may not be who we remember ourselves to be.

Authors Roman Gubern and Paul Hammond get excited when their investigation has marked a discrepancy between the story of his life, as Buñuel told it, and what some document they pulled out of the French Embassy or the checka files confirms to the contrary.

But they're not malicious about it, just doing their jobs, demythologizing the heck out of another romantic epoch.

The text begins as a typical filmography and this is because Buñuel's earliest years comprised his efforts as a surrealist and maker of films guided by the dictates of that artistic credo.

There is a detailing of the group's internal strife as it first rushed to embrace the French Communist Party, and then split when a goodly portion found the reds petty and obsessed with rules. It is an old story of factionalism over the finer points, personalism, resentment and political cannibalism that consumed the hopes of leftists the world over.

The High Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, broke in the name of intellectual independence. Buñuel, by contrast, joined the Spanish Communist Party and, well, enslaved himself, for a time at least, to the hard and cruel rules of Stalinism.

In "My Last Sigh," Buñuel portrays his time in '20s Hollywood as a kind of lark during which he disdained the big studio process and acted scandalously before being asked to leave.

But "The Red Years," proposes a more ambitious and careerist Buñuel picking up something of the industrial studio's techniques, because he returned to Madrid and became an all-purpose producer, set handyman, and anonymous director for Spain's first legitimate commercial enterprise, Filmófono.

In making that production house's few and popular folkloric melodramas (long tarried over here), Buñuel often pushed the director aside in order to meet his own strict deadlines and slim budgets.

The films made good money, and Buñuel kept his name out of the credits. He wanted to maintain his cachet as the "avant" creator of "Un Chien Andalou," and "L'Age D'or."

Upon the outset of the Spanish Civil War, the title "The Red Years," begins to impose itself and, while the book's latter third may clear up certain questions haunting Buñuel scholars, the turn towards a more turgid and technical read is undeniable.

Aligned with the ascendant communists in the war time Spanish Republic, the director enlisted in the espionage game while coordinating film propaganda from Paris.

The authors spend an inordinate amount of time disentangling oral and written accounts, receipts, records, letters etc., to determine the director's role in two propaganda films telling Republican Spain's story to the world, "España '36," and "España '37."

Why? Presumably because it's "The Red Years," and, once again, one can comprehend why Breton made his break, rather than get involved in this gray world of apparatchiks and quirky little dictators.

It is not without interest to see what Buñuel and his fellow travelers were thinking during tumultuous times that put the average European in harm's way.

Buñuel could have been killed at any time. The business of propaganda and serving as a conduit for money and documents in favor of the Republic was not so much a choice as an imposed duty.

Clearly, radical films purchased with the money of cosmopolitan French aristocrats were not the order of the day and so the actual Red years present thin pickings for filmophiles.

This is small-bore stuff that assumes prior reading on Eurocommunism and a deep interest in the director's political activities.

"Queen of America," by Luis Alberto Urrea

"She could not remember when she had last put her feet in free running water. She had not pulled a fruit off a tree or ridden a horse or prayed in a sacred spot. Were there sacred spots in New York? Wouldn't people just laugh at her if they found her talking to trees?Collecting seeds from plants with her old apron? Where was her apron? Huila's apron. Where was it?"

In the street, where a lazy, ne'er-do-well, drink-soppin', money-burning gringo dandy cowboy left it, that's where.

This clash between Yaqui mysticism and Anglo rationality is at the heart of Luis Alberto Urrea's "Queen of America."

The book is sequel to "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which this reviewer has not read, but would appear to have covered the true-to-life Saint Teresa of Cabora's days in Mexico, where she became the object of mass pilgrimages and inspiration for an ill-fated rebellion in Tomochic.

Having stoked the ire of The Porfiriato, a belle epoque Mexican dictatorship, Teresa, her father Tomas, and a loose tribe of characters Mexican, Indian and "yanqui" that follow the saint, take refuge north of the border.

A native naif, "Teresita" is still healing legions of believers in both the Mexican-American community and beyond. As the family moves from rural Arizona to El Paso, and back to Arizona, Teresa and her father, Don Tomas, struggle with their relationship.

Once a wealthy "hacendado" with cattle and an indigenous labor force, he resents Teresita's notoriety (importance?) for the exile and danger to which it has subjected him.

Don Tomas, his friends and acolytes such as Segundo and Don Lauro Aguirre, are men out to pasture with little to move them but liquor and a tepid revolutionary movement in their homeland. They are rendered here in buffa style, over-the-top, silly Mexican machos.

Teresa, pure of spirit, and held to a higher standard of conduct than your usual Indian girl, looks for a love to fill the hole her father's retreat as left in her life.

It doesn't work out too well, although we are treated to neither background or flashback for an explaining of why Guadalupe did what he did or what happened to him.

Urrea's a skilled writer, so it wasn't lack of it that may leave you dissatisfied. He's going in for whimsy, timelessness, and magic, but it can come off as unstructured and leave a reader feeling like they're floating in a bubble, directionless, things just happening to characters without us knowing why.

Yes, life is like that, but literature less so, because try as the latter might to reflect the former, they are inherently different.

When Teresita's bumpkin husband dubs her "Queen of America," he doesn't mean it nicely. He means that the commercialization of her life and powers - encouraged by him - have divested the saint of what Jack Kerouac would have called her "fellaheen" self, her spirit origin, her attachment to the earth beneath Manhattan's concrete, the buried Manahatta she ignores.

This process of deracination is promoted by more clownish characters, pin-striped American businessmen dealing in exploitation, thuggery, and bad manners.

They lodge Teresita in San Francisco and then St. Louis where she meets Geronimo and sees the World's Fair. Next is New York where she becomes an exotic to the Vanderbilts and others. Signposts of the time and places are served up to she and to us.

Because of how deeply engrained it is in the national psyche, it is unlikely Mexican literature will cease to remind itself, Mexicans, and those of us in el norte, about the ironic burden of coexistence with these "pinche" gringos; to need them yet loathe them, to eat their carrot, but feel their stick, etc. etc. etc.
And that familiar meme is a strong part of the message here: the identity-robbing realities of modernity, which are thrown into relief by a simple border crossing (northward).

Teresita goes home to complete a kind of universal circle and close a book that is a long road show, that loses in dramatic tension what it gains in ambient flavor.

This is an exile's journey through the late nineteenth century United States, with all that seeing it through a Mexican Indian's eyes might signify, a carnival show rolling before our eyes, some things related, foreseen or foreshadowed, others fragmented in the way scenes from a sojourn can be fragmented.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," Susana Fortes

Gerda Taro was a pearl with no oyster in which to enfold herself.

She's the one "Waiting for Robert Capa," a Hungarian photographer named Andre who she coddled, loved, and turned into an international artistic product.

Taro herself was one of those strong and independent women in a time when her gender was allowed no such prerogative and those who chose to exercise it were left on the vine to dry and die.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," is the story of their brief, youthful, and productive love affair. It is, in her case, a holocaust story because she is a displaced Polish Jew who does not survive the Nazis and Fascists of her time.

And it is mostly Gerda's story. That of a woman whom watching evoked, "an Angora cat hunt down a mouse with the street smarts of a stray," someone, author Susana Fortes tells us, who was "automatically loved. It's something you're born with, like the way you laugh as you tell a joke in a low voice."

The couple meet in Paris after being chased from their respective homelands. Fortes' strongest contribution may be her depiction of how suffocating and terrifying Fascism had become for the average person in the European street.

The portrayal suggests the couple were happier in a war zone, where they could be free, where utility outranked pedigree, and where they could confront the enemy earlier than most.

Fortes puts these characters into Spanish Civil War action at the places history knows they had been: the defense of Madrid, the refugees' flight from Malaga, the exiled government in Valencia, and the fateful battle of Brunete.

She peppers her text with the names of forgotten poets and International Brigadists in the style of Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska.

But mostly Fortes imagines the internal and emotional lives of her subjects, the lovers Gerda and Capa, although these inner personalities are not put into "play" very often. Rather the author tells us what they are thinking about themselves and one another, mixes said feelings with politics, Jewish identity, and their zest for life into an interesting, if low-volume literary affair.

Although the players in action took more work, and despite the fact "Waiting..." is situated in war time, the author favors the internal dialogues and, as such, this book is mostly a projected mapping of these two peoples' emotional souls.

This is a European romance of the old-fashioned kind that continues the ongoing effort to recuperate the memories of remarkable people forgotten, because they were losers in a chapter most critical to modern history.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Feeding on Dreams," by Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman's dissection of exile doubles as a portrait in unrequited love.

In Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile the Chilean playwright, novelist, and essayist -- exiled voice of the anti-Pinochet resistance throughout the 1980s and '90s -- blows long on the strange forces that subvert the expatriate's efforts to reconstruct a life.

But "Feeding on Dreams" is also a story of rejection. The Chile of revolutionary struggle and progressive experimentation Dorfman was forced to flee is gone once the dictatorship is lifted and he returns.

His adopted country's embrace of neo-liberal policies during the author's 20 years in the hinterlands changed Chile for good, structurally and spiritually. We learn from this account that the literal massacre of the left opposition is an act with permanent ramifications.

As Dorfman worked abroad to keep the dead and deposed president Salvador Allende's ideas alive, while exposing the Pinochet dictatorship's chronic addiction to murder, the country had moved on.

Written over a backdrop of big history, a U.S.-backed coup and narrow escape into exile, "Feeding on Dreams" is really a tale of subtler things. Dorfman lost a country and status and he writes of the slights and adjustments endured.

Trying to shield their children from the fear of capture or murder beclouding their lives, mother and father eventually learn they have done nothing of the kind. That they live in danger, insecurity, and their children are fully affected by them.

Dorfman is something of a relic: the engaged leftist intellectual who uses his art to further the working class cause, while actively pursuing goals in the political arena. They just don't make them like this anymore.

His time is one when the world was split into two large camps represented, more or less, by their choice of economic religion. Dorfman's crowd was typical of the post-war left, rainbow in aspect, but driven by communist discipline, numbers and money.

He survives exile thanks to the assistance of countless solidarity groups spawned by the socialist and communist parties around the world. Their tenacity and commitment are noteworthy and detailed.

The good and the bad.

Residing in Holland thanks to assistance from some local and left-wing outfit, the author runs afoul of a good friend and ally through some strange misappropriation of money he was given.

The help was firm, but the qualifying criteria stringent.

Dorfman made two returns to Chile, once during the dictatorship and then post-Pinochet. Neither went well. There was a nagging guilt at having escaped what became a rather expansive concentration camp. There is the change in once-idealistic allies' more cynical view of politics and its purposes.

Having not lived the fear, Dorfman stakes his claim to a rightful place in the Chilean intelligentsia by writing a play that gets up everybody's noses. Those who have lived the horror have agreed to not talk about the horror, to try and leave it behind.

Dorfman's play, successful in other places, fails miserably in Chile. They are not ready for his in-depth accusatory. He has no constituency there and ends up in North Carolina.

The author is humble, bemused, and possessing of aplomb throughout this difficult account of a man slipping, stubbing, and stumbling across the planet. He is frank about his self-assessment when it came to marketing his writings on Chile to the top newspapers in the U.S. and aware the value his personal tragedy gave that work.

He is a writer and given to metaphorical flight. Be prepared to know that a stick of a tree growing somewhere in Santiago actually signifies exile and return, a long-ago friend who has held the flame of continuity even as the spurned son floundered on foreign shores...

But we jest. The literary insight to the things Dorfman has seen open up broader vistas, engage the spiritual as much as the factual.

He writes lovingly of the place and longingly for the politics of solidarity that put him at the maelstrom of Chilean history. His pain is clear, because he confronts it in this book.

"Mexico: ¿Mañana o Pasado?" por Jorge Castaneda

Según Jorge Castaneda, México es como un niño olvidado quien ha desarollado ciertos mecanismos para sobrevivir, pero que ya no le valen en el mundo moderno.

Los Mexicanos, por ejemplo, resultan ser individuales que acuden muy pocas veces a los proyectos colectivos como puede ser construir un estado de derecho o una sociedad civil.

Es lo principal y aqui dicho por Castaneda, "La supuesta devoción mexicana por la democracia choca con el individualismo de los mexicanos, y con su rechazo categórico a cualquier red horizontal de solidaridad, asociación, trabajo voluntario o forma simple de organización. El país presenta altos grados de desconfianza hacia sus instituciónes; carece de un sentido de la representación política y muestra un sentimiento profundo de ineficiencia e intolerancia politíca, ademas de un desapego generalizado respecto a la ley y una concomitante propensión a la corrupción."

Mucha palabrería, pero traza bien las fronteras de la propuesta encontrado en "Mañana o pasado, el misterio de los mexicanos."

Este deseo solitario nace de muchas cosas, entre ellas una "completa desconfianza mexicana hacia el gobierno y las instituciónes" en un país donde "la posesión de una parcela de tierra sigue representando la mejor defensa frente a un mundo exterior predatorio," opina el autor, un ex-ministro de asuntos exteriores en la administración de Vicente Fox.

Pero México anda camino hace el nuevo mundo. Castaneda nos informa que, "Para al final del periodo de Felipe Calderon, la población del país será, más o menos, dos terceras partes de clase media con todo lo que ello impílica política, económica, y socialmente; pero tal vez no, desafortunadamente, en terminos culturales."

Otro imperfección, o sea cosa poca perfecta, es la tendencia de esquivar el enfrentamiento.

Para el mexicano, "El único benefício posible derivado del la confrontación directa es que alguien pierda y alguien gane, y casi siempre, el que pierde va a ser mas 'mexicano' o mas' 'popular' que el ganador."

O, dicho de otra manera, el mexicano piensa que "Es mejor decir aquí corrio, que aquí murio."

Se tropieza con este tendencia en los ambitos de la economia, la política, los sindicatos o los medios de communicación.

En lo que se refiere al la democracia, los mexicanos lo valúa como un instrumento para "permitir y promover la convergencia entre fuerzas políticas" en ver de guarantizár que las divergencias "permanezcan en el rango de las resoluciónes pacíficas," tal y como el autor lo prefiere.

El país también sufre de una concentración del poder, poca sana para el futuro de la sagrada clase media.

Sugiere el autor que estas actitudes son arraigadas en la historia indígena de Mexico, "un tanto distinta de las otras por que la víctima es rey, la derrota es glorificada y las influencias y agentes extranjeros son decisivos e implacable," dice Castaneda.

El autor utilíza tal cantidad de datos que casi se aburre al lector, salvo que estos ejercícios académicos son compaginados con otros pensamientos mas curiosos, si no tan empiricos, como puede ser lo significado del cantor Juan Gabriel, el arte de Cantinflas, o el por que la selección Mexicana de futbol no vale diez pesos.

Un tóque suave ejerce Castaneda aqui. No grita, no insiste, sino sugiere y hasta entretiene con sus propuestas para México que, si no resuelven las grandes cuestiones aquí enumerados, abren camino hacía posibles debates y respuestas.

Para los que se interesan, quieren o aman a México, merece la pena sorber algúno de los pensamientos aquí presentados.

"Conquistadora" by Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago's "Conquistadora" is many stories in one.

It is the story of the headstrong young Spanish girl, Ana, struggling to make it in the new world. It is the political story of a Puerto Rico running on slavery, though still in colonial shackles. It is the story of a sugar plantation that destroys a pair of families seduced by the promise of tropically tinged wealth.

The narrative covers 20 some odd years at the plantation, "Los Gemelos," with occasional visits to San Juan for an update on the temporal situation, in Puerto Rico and beyond, while recounting the progress of sundry relatives and lovers residing there.

The reader is treated to a systematic dissection of a sugar plantation's workings. Ample detail regarding slave life, and existence in Africa prior, is rendered. A thread covering the rebellious maneuvers of intellectuals with nationalist yearnings in the capital is also pulled through the fabric of "Conquistadora."

Overlaying its alternately brutal and luscious landscape is Ana's quest to make a go of the farm, which had defeated an illustrious ancestor. The plantation devours most everyone and everything around, save for Severo, a hybrid foreman and landowner who has much in common with Ana, save for social class, which favors her.

This reviewer is not familiar with Ms. Santiago's earlier works, which have achieved acclaim and significant circulation. And it is not easy to say that something with so much work put into it doesn't quite come out right.

In her efforts to provide a panoramic picture of the island and capture a historic moment, the author has peopled her landscape many characters fighting for the space to blossom.

Santiago's portraits of the slaves are most compelling, but they are not very well woven into the overall text. There are many slaves at "Los Gemelos" and it is not easy to keep track of them given their fragmented insertions into the narrative.

Ana is the primary focus, but for all the time spent on her, compared to the others, it seems she never truly wins anyone over, either in the story(characters), or outside of it (the reader).

She and Severo appear rather calculating people who will do anything, and use anyone, to keep their precious farm functioning.

In the midst of a perilous moment in their joint enterprise, Severo comforts his lover and partner by noting,

"Don't forget. Bad weeds don't die."

To which she responds, "If bad weeds don't die. We'll both live forever."

Yes, Santiago may be making a point about what it took to be a "conquistadora," in those rough and tumble days of early Puerto Rico. But authenticity and empathy don't always come in the same package.

Perhaps too much was tried here. Sometimes a novel with epic sweep can dwarf its own characters.

A story of a love gone awry over property in a strange land was enough to win with, but the author strains to fit all of Puerto Rico into the narrative of some rather starcrossed people.

Santiago resorts to description that often reads like a "National Geographic" article ("Horses, mules, pigs, goats milk cows, bulls, chickens ducks, guinea fowls, and doves to be tended...") and merely adds to the surfeit of information and slows the story's progress.

Her sentences and paragraphs often break down into listings of items, people, occurrences or actions that give the novel an unfinished feel.

Like this one from the very same page 123: "Slaves clean and improved the building where the cane was processed, repaired machinery, maintained the tracks from the canebrakes to the 'batey,' raised berm between fields, build and clear ditches. They staked new fences and mended deteriorated ones, dug trenches for drainage, built canals for irrigation."

Otherwise known as farm work.

But most of all, the conquistadora herself is a tough sell. Raised under the harsh yoke of Spanish Catholicism, she engages a lesbian lover, marries a man with a twin brother, beds down with each, and then barters an only son away, without ever losing her mind.

It's is dark stuff and Ana, young and sheltered as her upbringing has been, remains remarkably unaffected for someone steeped in the gothic influences of Seville.

In the end, it seems as if Santiago draped a new world archetype -- a pre-feminist heroine -- over an old world silhouette. It is tough purchase, the idea that this character's passion for books and a rebellious nature could so effectively inform a provincial girl in the ways of modern independence.

"Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America" by Robert Harvey

One country's demi-god can be another's historical relic.

Simon Bolivar's profile in the United States is not a prominent one. Years ago there was a chapter somewhere in the elementary or middle school textbooks, but beyond that this prominent figure has not been the subject of an HBO miniseries, a biopic starring Antonio Banderas, or any such pop culture effluvia.

Robert Harvey has set out to change that in "Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America."

He writes of his subject, "Yet as soldier, statesman and man of common humanity he stands head and shoulders above any other figure that Latin America has ever produced and amongst the greatest men in global history."

Given South America's status as perennial political delinquent and woeful economic laggard, the first half of his proposition is neither hard to argue with, nor much of a claim.

It is in support of the second that Harvey, a one-time scribe for the "Daily Telegraph" and "The Economist," sets out to make a case.

The task is a challenging one, not because of Bolivar's accomplishments, which were myriad and impressive, rather due to the staggering size and complexity of the continent in question, and the subject's disappointing lapses in judgment or, worse, humanity.

Harvey's recounting is an A to Z affair, tarrying long on the young Bolivar's development as a dissolute young man privileged enough to steep in the thought of Rousseau and the Europe where his writings were all the contemporary rage.

It's a portrait of another time and a disappeared class of person groomed with patience for whatever great feats might be in the offing.

Here is the budding Liberator loping through the old country, from romance to romance, landmark to landmark, musing upon his destiny, brimming with a proprietary sense of the glory that is his due.

Early on, Harvey takes an unorthodox detour into the biography of Francisco de Miranda, a revolutionary forerunner to Bolivar, and the victim of a fatal betrayal at the younger man's hands.

Yes, the two men's destinies were intertwined. And no discussion of the continent's revolutionary period would be complete without covering Miranda's career trajectory, but this section runs so long one forgets that Bolivar is the subject at hand.

Nonetheless, Miranda's life, his jaunt through 19th century Europe in particular, was so interesting and extraordinary, it is easy to see how Harvey could not help himself.

As they say in the sporting world, "No harm, no foul."

The narrative, which conveys the scope and workings of Spain's empire, the complex social and racial components of the continent's far-ranging regions, and the endless rivalries of the warlords driving the epoch, are rendered breezily.

Mr. Harvey does not hide his admiration for Simon Bolivar, nor does he make an effort at concealing his many flaws.

A former member of British Parliament, Mr. Harvey knows well the cracked armor of any beloved public figure. He seems to understand that, for the great and ambitious man, most success is seen through a rearview mirror, while the life itself is a torturous swim from shipwreck to shipwreck.

Bolivar did not rise up, whole, to save the struggling masses of Ibero-America.

He had a strong sense that the Spanish should be booted from their colonial holdings, but his first attempt found him on the side of Venezuela's privileged "criollo" classes and at odds with a rather ferocious hodgepodge of Indians, slaves, poor whites, and any admixture of the three.

It seems that the coalition he assembled to oust the Spaniards through military violence was one of convenience that required a constant re-cobbling.

Bolivar delivered Miranda into Spanish hands and imprisonment at Cadiz, Spain, where he died. He ordered the slaughter of 800 political prisoners under his command, slept with an unseemly number of women, and subjected his armies to terrible suffering and staggering losses with mad, never-say-die, strategies.

Harvey does not whitewash or reason these excesses away, rather attempts to place them within the context of the times in which they occurred. Whether he succeeds or not will depend upon the politics and sensibility of each reader.

The first third of the book, concerned as it is with Miranda's and Bolivar's development in the hothouse of European political thought, makes for great storytelling. The second part, covering the military effort, might have fallen into the familiar memes of war reporting (feints, out-flankings, charges, and counterattacks) were it not for the staggering topography Bolivar alternately battled and turned to his advantage, and which Harvey renders with color and passion.

The final part details Bolivar's attempt at the consolidation of those places from which the Spaniards had been chased into something governable -- the Liberator as statesman and politician -- and is marked by the melancholy his lack of success wrought.

The failures signify personal shortcomings only to the extent Bolivar could not be the best in every arena he proactively strode into.

Harvey's portrait is that of a true Renaissance man who excelled as a general, but was also a fair hand at writing political tracts, wooing the ladies, dancing, and envisioning a framework for the coexistence of disparate peoples across a sprawling landmass.

It is the portrait of an interesting man living a rather breathtaking story.

"The Wrong Blood" by Manuel de Lope

Manuel de Lope's The Wrong Blood is tough to review without giving up the ghost, literally.

It is the story of three people bound by a series of shared spawned by the Fascists deathly advance through the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War.

Situated for a few passages at the front, the novel mostly broods in the enclosed worlds of two houses on the coast: "Los Sauces" and "Las Cruces."

In one of them live two victims of the conflict, in the other a lame doctor, whose affliction allows him to escape the generalized carnage, yet still be affected by its perversions

The young lawyer Goitia, looking for a place to study, returns to his childhood home at "Las Cruces" whic his deceased mother has left to her life-long house servant, Maria Antonia.

The biggest secret is revealed to the reader at the three-quarter mark, though not necessarily to the young lawyer.

But his rare visit, coupled with the advancing age of the doctor and the house-servant, provide a last chance to rewrite a small history, and the tension to keep from, or unleash upon him the truths they know, form the crux of the conflict.

"Between them," De Lope notes, "the doctor and the old woman could awaken the inexistent memory of young Goitia, assuming that young Goitia had any interest in the stories the old woman and the doctor could tell him."

The path toward that resolution is dominated by an unnamed narrator with no dog in the fight being covered. The action and exchanges between principal characters are employed to sparing effect.

Most of the narrative progress is unspoken, but latent in the air each character is sharing; air rife with narrator's presentiments and ornate musings.

"The Wrong Blood," is mostly back-story, the young man's arrival provoking "the powerful flood of memories" that had "overflowed the sluice gates."

It is a running commentary on what the trio have endured, what they are thinking at any given moment in the history; a history not presented chronologically, rather leapfrogging back and forth along the line of time.

The author's focus is trained mostly on ambience, on environment, on the oppressive realities that precede each character's birth. There are not very many choices available to these people, and still less offering a dignified path.

The liner notes for this Other Press addition quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez deeming De Lope's work, "a celebration of our language."

Since that language is Spanish, the consumer of the English-language effort must take the master at his word. Or at least the word of translator John Cullen who teases a wide vocabulary, a rich thicket of words, and somber palette out of whatever De Lope intended.

In the opening passages, the author depicts the roses of 1936 to be "plump as wet nurses breast."

Later, in a passage more characteristic of, than exception to, "The Wrong Blood, De Lope writes that, "The curtains of rain in the distant, dull-gray clouds bursting over the sea filled her with nostalgia, because, for her, the weeping of the heavens was the ultimate poetical sensation, and nothing compared with the lyrical emotions of abandonment and dispossession that the rain promised.'

In this fashion does the omnipresent narrator mostly hold forth on details and objects surrounding, giving them prior lives, symbolic charges; casting them as witnesses to both a tragedy and a forced permutation in an otherwise natural order by class and the war's outcome.

These can be historical details, the product of fine research, such as the "strange straw wraps used in those days to cover champagne bottles with a kind of cape or hood that protected the glass," or much broader and social in aspect.

Describing how the ill-fated Captain Herraiz and his bride Isabel made it work, the writer observes, "It was said that certain in those years were happy, cautious, and dissolute, and those terms included everything that a judicious and seductive mixture of good breeding and carnality entailed."

If this novel is back-story, it is also a tale of the rearguard, of noncombatants flailing about in a great and sudden disruption. Del Lope conjures it as a place no less harrowing than the front.

For more than power and money, the meaning of each being upended by the times, it is the war which forces the hope-killing obligation to compromise one highest aspirations.

The doctor, by way of example, settles for "the peace of the weak and the just, and it granted him the tranquility of opening the gate and limping back to his house to pour himself of cognac. There was no sadder peace than that."

"Servants and Their Masters," by Fergus Reid Buckley

highwayscribery knows first-hand how falling in love with that magnificent state of place and mind known as Spain comes at a price.

Had he fallen in love with England, author Fergus Reid Buckley's "Servants and their Masters," might have become a text of reference in matters related to that country's mid-20th century aristocracy.

Perhaps the BBC might have picked it up and sorted out a new "Forsythe Saga" series, or an "Upstairs Downstairs."

In penning his nine-book, many-hundred-paged epic, Buckley learned that, "I don't think you can sell novels chock full of Spanish names to American readers."


But clearly, writing "Servants and Their Masters," brought joys to an author who immersed himself in all things Spanish, learned to dance flamenco, and clap the various compas that mark the form's musical time, as preparation.

There are books aplenty about the Spanish Civil War. The horrors, or relative peace, of the Franco era are documented in fiction and nonfiction alike. The vaunted democratic transition is still being written about by those who forged it.

But "Servants and Their Masters," stands practically alone in its English-language rendering of 1960s Spain. A period when the country slouched toward prosperity and into the community of Western democracies in spite of the dictator's longevity.

The tale begins with the unflattering portrait of a softened aristocracy eating, drinking and whoring away its dwindling influence in a Madrid exploding with recent wealth and a newfound rich to exploit it.

Supporting this decadent class are a cast of brigands, victims, guttersnipes, schemers, sex predators, and bordello types rendered ever-so-faithfully, by a gentleman who has seen much in his days.

Says Buckley, "I have never been able to comprehend a character unless I had some fix on that person's parents and kin and the society that person descended from. I view almost everything from a perspective of three generations, when, and only then, the person begins to make sense to me."

As such, "Servants," bounds from the death-rattle of the noble clan under its microscope, to the centuries-old warfare they engaged in their northern homeland of Sacedon, while weaving in the progress of a recent Basque peasant for fine measure.

Almost every character gets (at least) one chapter about themselves, their background, urges and vices, without the exposition ever getting in the way because, given its obvious size, the reader is aware of their commitment to something large and worthwhile. And also because Buckley's scenario grabs from the start while establishing a fever for illumination.

The author is a rambunctious prosodic force, in command of English and possessing a vocabulary both extensive and colorful. Moods change throughout the yarn's meticulous unspooling, sometimes macabre, others satirical, alternately noir-like, journalistic, philosophic, or comical.

In a favorite moment, Buckley resorts to thick and somber strokes in conjuring a poem of the coastal Basque country:

"On clear days, especially in the autumn, when the air seems to have been distilled in crystal goblets, their highest crags are sculpted against the horizon. More often, the crags are shut out; and clouds rolling, rumbling herds press down and nearly snag themselves on the belltower of the church, and often blot out entirely the ruins of the castle. The whole northwestern flank of Spain heaves down to the Cantabrian in a front scalloped by coves and tidal lagoons, great bluffs, studding the coast and forming amphitheatres connected to each and within vast sand beaches stretch like ligaments."

Highlighting that passage exalts the writer, but misrepresents the larger work wherein Buckley's rapier pen renders mordant portraiture of rotten people both high and low on the social ladder.

There are good people, too, but they're for contrast and respite from the psychic and physical slaughter the ugly ones unleash.

"Servants" links the lower class with the highest until a reader begins to forget who hails from which side.

Which is somewhat the point Buckley is trying to make through the glib and insightful narrative recounted by the American businessman C.O. Jones in an ambience that effectively blurs which way is up and which way down.

"Anarchism and the City," by Chris Ealham

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937decodes Barcelona's urban landscape for reasons behind the unlikely rise to power of anarchist elements in those years preceding the Spanish Republic and the civil war that consumed it.

Chris Ealham brings an urbanist's tools to this interesting proposition, positing sometimes insightful, other times idealistic, explanations to questions about the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo's (CNT) season of sway over Europe's then-most productive city.

Academic in style, "City," serves up enough good stuff to offset the loss of momentum resulting from the historian's job of stringing evidence from various sources and affixing them to each other with footnote glue.

Ealham documents the geographic reordering of Barcelona as undesirable immigrants from the south of Spain swelled its working class in an era when the city was considered "Europe's factory."

Viewed as something "other" (the author proposes), as fomenters of vice and carriers of disease, this surging class of workers was subjected to a bourgeois reordering of the urban terrain that isolated and marginalized.

Ealham's view is that, left unto themselves, the working class folk of Barcelona wove themselves into a collection of tight units clear on what the issues facing them were and how to address them.

For a while, the anarchist policy guys showed real prowess in organizing neighborhoods, winning their loyalty to the CNT unions' causes, and channeling a universal resentment against the existing order.

Then they put that existing order to work for them:

"Making full use of improvements in the transport system and the growing availability of bicycles, and backed by the Barcelona CNT's paper, Solidaridad Obrera, which played an essential auxiliary role, advertising union meetings, talks and social activities across the city, the local federation would receive feedback from, and send instructions to, the comites with the great speed. This enabled the CNT to respond swiftly to events on the ground and generally mount a more sustained and coordinated opposition to capitalism."

A big policy winner for the CNT was embracing the despised Andalusian and Murcian migrant laborers, and other groups not found on the industrial shop floor.

"Ever ready to mobilize beyond the factory proletariat," Ealham writes, "the radicals applauded street gangs as a vanguard force in the fight against the police."

Harassed ambulant street vendors and the unemployed alike also responded when the
CNT called for action; action that transcended the workplace and transformed the streets.

The union and its minions expanded public space, cultivating working class interaction that produced a dense web of community relations only a civil war sunder.

As its title suggests, this is about the CNT in Barcelona, even though the union's influence stretched well-beyond Catalonia's borders. There the organization thrived under the conditions so painstakingly detailed by Ealham, and did so in its own way.

Resorting to violence didn't hurt.

The author quotes one source as saying, "This was an original type of criminality that was typically Barcelonese. The anarchist robbers of Barcelona are nothing less than the Catalan equivalents of Al Capone...Today it is the fashion among all thieves, pickpockets and swindlers to pass themselves off as anarchists."

"Anarchism and The City" was published by AK Press, an anarchist imprint, and Ealham, while maintaining a balanced tone throughout, is okay with the idea that, at some point, a people being exploited have the right, are obligated by the dictates of survival, to kill the guy who is killing them.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg quandary. For Ealham, the question of whether the anarchists and their constituency had any choice in the matter of violence is worthy of a deeper consideration.

In his examination of how the loosely structured union federation interacted with the working class barris, the relation to and impact of the Federacion Anarquista de Iberia (FAI) upon the CNT, and how shadowy associate groups used the gun to "appropriate" banks and erase political enemies, Ealham's efforts are first-class.

It's fascinating stuff that renders Spanish anarchism more understandable, if not completely dispelling the notion the rank-and-filers were a little nutty, or appear so thanks to their disparate ideas for reorganizing society.

Noting that the anarchist revolution was the first of its kind in the automotive era, the author observes how workers were seized by an "irrationality" after appropriating the cars of the merchant and capital classes.

"But revolutionary motoring possessed its own logic," Ealham writes. "In the first instance, the destruction of cars reflected a desire to usher in a new set of spatial relations as well as resistance to the attempts by the local and central Republican authorities to impose a new urban order of controlled consumption, consisting of new rules of circulation and traffic lights designed to improve the flow of capital and goods."

Or not.

Rather than ushering in new spatial relations the armed workers may have just been having a crazy time in cars. It happens, you know.

He observes that, "On the day after the birth of the Republic, as a gesture of solidarity, the Barcelona CNT declared a general strike that affected all branches of industry apart from the essential food and transport services."

The Republic/Spanish Civil War epoch is akin to a family fight and the multi-sided affair can tug at one's loyalties depending upon which side's version is being aired.

Read the well-written diaries of Republican leader Miguel Azana and savor the portrait of a rational, intelligent and literate man burdened with allies and governing copartners bent on overthrowing the enterprise he's been elected to lead.

It's hard to imagine Azana viewing the general strike as a gesture in solidarity.

While sympathetic, Ealham is not so blind as to ignore the fact that, as anarchists and their allies launched a revolution in red Asturias they hoped would throughout the Iberian peninsula, "Francisco Ascaso, 'Nosotros' member [an anarchist affinity group] and secretary of the Catalan CRT, issued a call to the Barcelona proletariat to return to work from a radio station controlled by the Spanish army."

My revolution, not yours, you see.

The anarchists thrived for a season as the CNT, FAI and related groupings were wonderful at forging a cohesive culture and strategy for the beleaguered barris residents. But Ealham lifts the lid on the corner committee meeting and details the inner-workings, the feuds, and fault lines that hampered the movement.

Ealham spends less time on the CNT's temporary reign over the streets of Barcelona after fascist generals rose up to destroy the Republic. And he does well in eschewing too detailed a rendering of those events, because that is much-tilled terrain.

The real triumph of "Anarchism and The City" is its fulfilling the title's pledge. Showing how a metropolis's geographical configuration, industrial bent, and raw social arrangements made a bed comfortable enough for some very unique individuals to sleep in.