Latin American, Spanish & Portuguese literature

THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

THE LONG VOYAGE BY JORGE SEMPRUN

Whenever something terrible happens – the Paris attacks, a school shooting, or whatever – people invariably express their shock and surprise, and I always feel slightly bewildered by this kind of reaction, because, although I could not possibly have foreseen these specific events, I am nevertheless profoundly not shocked nor surprised [although I am, of course, deeply saddened by them]. Human history, and my own experiences to a lesser extent, has taught me that we are capable of, that we actively and regularly engage in, every kind of baseness, brutality or infamy. In a way, I feel as though, at some unspecified point in my life, I have lost something precious, some necessary faith or belief in the inherent goodness of our species, because that is what it comes down to, my anguished shrug of the shoulders: I simply don’t believe that we are, or more specifically that we will consistently prove ourselves to be, better than this.

“She’s trying to make me believe that all suffering is the same, that all the dead weigh the same. As counterbalance for the weight of my dead friends, for all their ashes, she’s offering  the weight of her own suffering. But the dead don’t all weigh the same, of course.”

Jorge Semprun was a Spanish writer and politician, who spent most of his life in France. He lived through WW2, becoming a member of the French resistance, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote more than one book about his experiences, the most well-known of which is Le grand voyage [The Long Voyage, in English]. I have read many novels about the Holocaust, and of course each of them are different, and certainly each of them has moved me, but this is the first time that I have encountered a narrative voice that truly spoke to me. Now, obviously that isn’t necessary, it is not important to be able to find oneself in this kind of book, but when it does happen I want to acknowledge it, especially as it – the voice – is one of the most striking things about Semprun’s work. It is a voice characterised by a lack of disbelief, it is always logical or rational, tough but understanding. ‘I never imagined such a thing was possible’, says the guy from Semur. ‘Anything is possible’, the narrator replies.

Yes, anything is possible. Death camps. Incinerators. Lampshades made out of human skin. All possible. All, and more. Semprun’s narrator is not shocked, not by what is happening to him, nor by what happens to other people. How can you be shocked if you refuse to close your eyes? And that is what I got from The Long Voyage, a sense that here is an author who felt it important not to shy away from the truth. For example, the thing that the guy from Semur ‘never imagined’ was possible was that a man could be in a prison or camp and not share his provisions. The narrator explains that this isn’t, by any means, the most gratuitously selfish behaviour he has witnessed. Men will, he says, steal from someone their last piece of black bread, thereby choosing their own life, their own continued existence, over the life of someone else, who is, by virtue of that theft, being condemned to death.

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[Jewish prisoners being deported to concentration camps]

Having said all that, the camps are not the true focus of the story. The Long Voyage begins with the ‘cramming of the bodies’ into a boxcar, and with a ‘throbbing pain in the right knee.’ There are 120 men and women on a train bound for Weimar, bound for extermination. In Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate there is a passage in which a bunch of people are loaded onto trucks and driven to a concentration camp and straight into the showers. It is written with great sensitivity and empathy. Yet, while Semprun puts the reader in a similar situation, which is to say that he forces you to ride along with his characters, his approach is different. Indeed, the train sections of The Long Voyage have much in common with the work of Samuel Beckett, especially How It Is and The Unnameable.

In How it Is, for example, the narrator is lying in the mud murmuring to himself, and attempting to crawl along the ground. He is constrained, and haunted by voices. In Semprun’s novel, the narrator is trapped in a dark boxcar, squashed up against a large number of people who he cannot see but can, of course, hear. And what he frequently hears are screams and murmurs, complaints and threats. It is a nightmarish and absurd situation. To Semprun’s credit, he acknowledges the absurdity, he plays upon it, such that the book is, miraculously, at times [intentionally] very funny. ‘Breathing is the main thing’, the guy from Semur says, as he clears a path to the small window, which is covered in barbed wire. Ha. Well, of course. Breathing is vital, if you want to live. And these people, who are hurtling towards their death, would like to live, at least a little bit longer, thanks very much.

“Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use.”

However, The Long Voyage is not all grim humour, there are beautiful moments too. While on the train the narrator spends some of his time looking out of the window, and at one stage he passes through the Moselle Valley. At this precise moment, he says, the world was reborn within him. What he means by this is that in the boxcar he has been cut off from the world, literally and spiritually. It is only when he passes through the Moselle Valley, when he recognises it, that he reconnects with the world, with what is outside, with a real place. The word ‘real’ is important here, because the situation in the boxcar is, of course, unreal. Indeed, the nature of reality, or unreality, plays a major role in the text.

In the boxcar, or in a death camp, one’s understanding of, or relationship with, reality changes. In other words, the unreal becomes real. You become accustomed to the bizarre, the grotesque, the appalling, such that a sudden revealing of the existence of, or a confrontation with, the normal is a kind of spiritual shock. On this, there is a wonderful scene in the book when the narrator leaves the camp and comes upon a group of women. Not women with shaved heads, starved to death, beaten and gassed, but women, real women, with stockings and lips and thigh-hugging skirts. And these creatures seem unreal to him, in the same way that the camp corpses, that he shows them, do to the women. I found this so engaging, for I had thought about our ability to adapt to horrendous circumstances, and our ability to normalise the not-normal, but I had never considered that it might work the other way around.

As always with these reviews, there is more that I want to discuss, but I fear writing too much and alienating the few people with the necessary patience to read my work. So I won’t talk about freedom, about how freedom is what people in prison have in common with each other. No, I will finish with something about memory. Structurally, The Long Voyage is essentially a kind of Proustian Arabian Nights, if you will allow me this ridiculous phrase, where, instead of stories-within-stories, we encounter memories-within-memories, memories, like bodies in a boxcar, stacked on top of each other. Yet instead of a madeleine, it is a taste of black bread, years after release, that ‘brought back, with shocking suddenness, the marvellous moments when we used to eat our rations of bread, when, with Indian-like stealth, we used to stretch it out, so that the tiny squares of wet, sandy bread which we cut out of our daily ration would last as long as possible.’

ON ELEGANCE WHILE SLEEPING BY VISCOUNT LASCANO TEGUI

April 1, 20-

I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.

April 2, 20-

I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.

Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.

April 3, 20-

I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.

April 4, 20-

It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.

I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.

April 5, 20-

As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.   

April 6, 20-

Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.

April 7, 20-

There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.

One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.

April 8, 20-

He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.

He feels closest of all to goats.

April 9, 20-

On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.

April 10, 20-

Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?

Must not write about Pessoa.

April 11, 20-

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April 12, 20-

In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror.  It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.

April 13, 20-

There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’

Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.

And so on.

April 14, 20

There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.

April 15, 20-

Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.

April 16, 20-

I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.

April 17, 20-

The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.

‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’

Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it? 

AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER BY CESAR AIRA

With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.

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While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.

LUCIO’S CONFESSION BY MARIO DE SA-CARNEIRO

About a week ago someone said to me that the reason I am not very nice to him [which is untrue actually; I’m merely apathetic, but that isn’t relevant] is because I am attracted to him. He was appealing to that old ‘pulling a girl’s pigtails in the school playground’ idea, which is fairly straightforward psychology I guess, that you act in an unpleasant manner towards someone in order to grab their attention, and because you feel incapable of appropriately articulating your real feelings. I’m not gay, or even bi-sexual, but this odd incident started me thinking about what it must be like if you are and you do like someone of the same sex who isn”t openly gay themselves. I actually spoke to a friend of mine about it, and she confirmed that it is difficult for her, because she always has to factor in the potential reaction; not everyone, she said, no matter how much you hope people are broadminded and tolerant these days, will take the news well, even if until that point they have been friendly towards you, or even flirtatious.

Of course, my friend isn’t representative of the entire gay community, and I’m not myself trying to speak for anyone or patronise anyone, but I thought it was interesting that, as a straight man, I hadn’t before realised that even when someone has come out, and that appears to have been accepted, the fear and uneasiness might not end there. To return to my friend, she said that she uses the internet for dating, primarily because she knows, as much as one can on the internet, that those online women are at least open to the idea of a lesbian relationship. This knowing, she said, removes some of her anxiety; moreover, there is a kind of safety in being behind a computer. I then asked her what she would do if she was attracted to a friend, someone at her work perhaps, who had not to her knowledge dated a women previously, and she replied: nothing.

It is one of those neat coincidences that a day or two after having had this discussion I picked up Lucio’s Confession by the ‘modernist’ Portuguese author and poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, because for all the noise in reviews, and the blurbs on the back of my copy, about madness and obsession, which certainly do play a part in the text, those things were, for me, only engaging, or worthwhile, in so much as they related to issues such as sexual repression and identity. However, before getting to that, I want to focus on one of the novel’s other dominant concerns, namely that of criticising and evaluating artists and the artistic process..

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[“Unless there occurs a miracle, next Monday, March (or even the day before), your friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro will take a strong dose of strychnine and disappear from this world.” – wrote Mario de Sa-Carneiro – above – to his friend Fernando Pessoa. He committed suicide aged 26.]

As the title suggests the book is narrated by a man, a successful writer, called Lucio, not necessarily as a confession, but, he claims, in order to prove his innocence, having spent ten years in prison for a crime – a murder – that he did not commit. In his youth, Lucio was, like me, a bit of a ‘drifter,’ who could not settle into a career, and, like me, he moved to a major European city, to Paris, and was drawn into those so-called artistic circles about which I know a thing or two. Indeed, it occurred to me while reading that my longtime aversion to novels about artists, specifically the bohemian sort, has perhaps been motivated, at least to some extent, by my own experiences.

If you have been following my reviews closely [and why wouldn’t you?], you will already be aware that I once spent quite some time in London, that I moved there to be closer to my then girlfriend, who was a fashion model and former art student, and because it is where I thought a young writer ought to be. But what I found, when I moved in those so-called artistic circles, was that I felt hopelessly out of place. I couldn’t, for example, schmooze, and that was absolutely necessary; you had to exuberantly, relentlessly praise everyone to their face, no matter how turgid their work. In fact, the praise that was flying around was so exaggerated that I genuinely questioned the sanity of those involved. Ever more outlandish outfits were also a requirement, which culminated in me once being at a party with a South African girl who was wearing an apron.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was an entirely miserable existence, as I thoroughly enjoyed myself for periods, but ultimately I lost my mind, I became disillusioned…I couldn’t cope…with the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the overall fakery and gut-wrenching pretentiousness. And I simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight; indeed, I didn’t even realise I was in a fight until I had lost. Maybe I’m just too northern, or working class. I don’t know. What I do know is that had come across Lucio’s Confession at that time I would have flung it away from myself in disgust. I would have seen too much of my acquaintances in it, and a little of myself also.

In Paris Lucio met Vila-Nova, an attractive, eye-catching, but essentially superficial man. The two became friends, although Lucio is keen to point that they were not alike, in temperament or personality; and, it is worth noting, he does openly denounce Vila-Nova for his pretentiousness. He was what we would call these days a ‘hipster’ [a phrase I dislike, by the way], but whom you might also describe as a sensualist or aesthete, somewhat similar to Huysman’s Jean des Esseintes. Amusingly, he always wore black, claimed to feel tenderness towards prostitutes and pederasts, and heaped praise on new literary movements, regardless of whether he knew the works associated with them or not; he believed, moreover, that artistry was to be found in one’s person, not in one’s art, that to create, to produce, was not necessary.

In contrast to Vila-Nova there was Ricardo, another Portuguese in Paris whom Lucio met, befriended and, in this instance, genuinely admired and valued. This man, we’re led to believe, was a true artist, even a genius. If Sá-Carneiro was in earnest, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, then it appears that, for the author, to be a ‘true artist and genius’ principally involved rambling on, in a self-obsessed, self-pitying manner, about the state of your soul [Ricardo would have liked his to sleep, apparently, and yet it remained awake! The bastard!], and about how unhappy you are, and how everything bores and sickens you. In any case, it is clear that the intention was to draw a distinction between substantial men and the flamboyant and frivolous; and it is equally clear that Lucio, and by extension Sá-Carneiro [there are important parallels between the narrator and author], saw himself as one of the former. Not long before his arrest Lucio allowed a director to stage one of his plays, only to decide at the last minute that he wanted to completely change the final Act; the director refused, and so Lucio retook possession of the play, and burnt it, blaming the ‘commercial side of art’ for the rejection of what he saw as an improved ending.

“I was a mass of doubts now. I believed in nothing, not even in my own obsession. I walked through the ruins of life, even fearing, in my more lucid moments, that I might go mad.”

You may see in all this something of the aforementioned madness and obsession, but it will not, of course, be clear what the relationship is between that and repression and identity. Well, first of all, it is difficult to discuss this without serious spoilers. What I will say is that one interpretation of the novel is that it is the desire to be with someone of the same sex, or at least the desire to let oneself go sexually, that causes Lucio’s insanity. There are frequent hints at this throughout, long before we reach the denouement, or ‘revelation.’ For example, there is a quite preposterous scene in the early stages, a party, during which a ‘transgressive’ woman performs and strips naked, and the narrator has some sort of intense, epiphanic [although most things are epiphanic for him] experience. Here, the phrase ‘golden vulva’ makes more than one appearance, which is not something I usually come across – nor, in all honesty, want – in my reading. Furthermore, Ricardo twice says to Lucio, in transparent attempts to hit on him, that he cannot be anyone’s friend without wanting to possess them, or some other such nonsense, that he wants to kiss, etc. anyone for whom he feels tenderness.

I hope this review has made it clear that I don’t take the pain caused by gender confusion, doubts about sexual orientation, or the difficulty of revealing your feelings for someone of the same sex lightly. I am not mocking any of that, at all; it is in exploring these themes that Lucio’s Confession acquires what little depth it has. But one cannot review this book, or certainly I can’t, what with my hang-ups about pretentiousness, without acknowledging how ridiculous, how over-wrought and melodramatic it is on a sentence-to-sentence basis, and, how, in fact, this dilutes the impact of its more important concerns. To illustrate my point I took a picture of a page from my copy, one relating to the party previously mentioned:

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If that strikes you as fine writing, then this is very much a book for you. I, however, cannot read it without simultaneously rolling my eyes and giggling. So, while I enjoyed Lucio’s Confession, I do wonder how much of my enjoyment was based on how many belly laughs it drew from me, laughs that I don’t believe the author was looking, or trying, for. However, I will credit Sá-Carneiro for delivering a complete vision, by which I mean that the jewel-encrusted prose style perfectly mirrors the personalities and behaviour of his characters.

LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

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[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

THE TIME OF THE DOVES BY MERCE RODOREDA

You should never ignore the signs. In a relationship, I mean. It is easy to tell yourself that you are overreacting, or imagining things, that your doubts are unreasonable or that what you see or feel is insignificant relative to the positives, but you ought to trust your instincts [or your counter-instincts, if your instincts are telling you that things will work out ok with someone who is giving you the impression of being a douche]. The reality is that, contrary to what we are repeatedly told, no one ever ‘suddenly flips’, no one’s personality completely changes for the worse with a snap of the fingers; the clues to someone’s future behaviour or attitudes are always there, sometimes subtly disguised perhaps, but there nevertheless.

I was once talking to a friend of mine and she told me about a guy she had been seeing and how he would get aroused when she cried. I’m not making this up. He got an erection…when she cried. And as I listened to this story I was sure that the conclusion would be that she had freaked out and ended the relationship, but no. She thought it was ‘a bit odd’, sure, but it never crossed her mind to stop seeing the man who was made horny by her unhappiness. No doubt some of you will dismiss my example as a one-off, as an extreme or unusual incident that is not representative of anything, that is not applicable to people-in-general. You might say ‘no right thinking person would have given him the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances’, and yet I have heard hundreds of similar anecdotes and stories, often with unpleasant outcomes.

All of which is to say that as I was reading Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del diamant [or The Time of the Doves in the best English translation] I was struck by how depressingly familiar, how predictable, the trajectory of Natalia’s and Quimet’s relationship is. In the early stages, one’s impression of Natalia, who narrates the novel, is that she is kind and gentle, but green or naïve, perhaps even weak. The book opens with the young woman attending a party, dressed all in white. I do not think that this is a coincidence. White is, of course, traditionally worn by brides, and in this way the dress is a hint at her forthcoming marriage, but it also says something about her character, in that the colour is representative of virginity, of purity, even innocence. Likewise, Quimet’s name for Natalia, ‘Colometa’ or dove, which he bestows upon her almost immediately, is obviously significant. Doves are regarded as an emblem of peace and love, which is ironic because Quimet delivers little of either of these two things.

“I covered my face with my arms to protect myself from i don’t know what and i let out a hellish scream. A scream I must have been carrying around inside me for many years, so thick it was hard for it to get through my throat, and with that scream a little bit of nothing trickled out of my mouth, like a cockroach made of spit…and that bit of nothing that had lived so long trapped inside me was my youth and it flew off with a scream of I don’t know what…letting go?”

It is worth noting that Quimet is sweating heavily when Natalia first meets him at the party in the plaça del diamant, for this suggests manliness, and, as the sweating is caused by him having been dancing, sensuality too. Moreover, Natalia compares his eyes to those of a monkey, indicating a brutish animality. From the very beginning Quimet dictates to Natalia, informing her that one day she will be his wife. Even giving her a nickname is an attempt to establish ownership; it is a way of making her his. As the couple continue to spend time together these negative signs, or indications, as to his character become more pronounced. He jealously accuses Natalia of taking a walk with her ex-boyfriend [and she, who is innocent, almost comes to believe that she had done so]; he attempts to make her quit her job; he grabs her around the throat. He is, then, quite clearly a possessive, self-centred bully; he is, as we in Yorkshire might say, a wrong ‘un, and Natalia ought to get rid, because life with him will not be happy, but she, of course, does not.

As a result of all this, one cannot help but read The Time of the Doves with a heavy heart, with frustration and a sense of helplessness. It is like watching, from a safe distance, a car skid off the road and into a ditch. However, although on the surface this appears to be a novel about family and responsibility, poverty and suffering, it struck me that it is ultimately about power and control. And, yes, this refers to Quimet’s desire to dominate his wife, to have her, as he himself says, like everything he likes [which results in the ridiculous situation with the doves], but it relates to Natalia also, and her efforts to wrest control of her life back, from her spouse and from the world-at-large. For example, when Quimet’s dove-mania reaches its apex, and he has them moved into the family apartment, Natalia sabotages them, and tries to murder the chicks. Then, later, when the family are starving, she makes the decision to kill her two children and herself.

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[La plaça del diamant in Barcelona]

It has been said that The Time of the Doves is a political novel, and, although the action takes place over thirty years, covering Franco’s ascension, the Spanish Civil War, and World War Two, and although all of these things are mentioned in the text, it may still strike one as a strange claim. That is because these events are kept in the background; they are never the primary focus. Natalia appears to do her best to not acknowledge politics, or at least not take a serious interest in it outside of the effect it has upon her day-to-day life; and she certainly does not choose a side, being, for example, neither obviously in favour of the republicans or the revolutionaries.

In order to understand the political nature of the story it is necessary to return to what I was discussing previously: power and control. First of all, to be an ordinary citizen in times of conflict or strife is to be at the mercy of a bunch of madmen who will decide the direction of your life, who are, specifically, fighting in order to have that level of control over you. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the novel is set in Barcelona, and that Natalia is Catalan, as was the author. Francisco Franco, who was Head of State from the 1930’s until his death in 1975, was a brutal dictator, and one of his policies was to make Spanish or Castilian the dominant language in Spain. In order to achieve this he made it the official language, and banned the public use of any others, including Catalan. I don’t want to speak for Catalans, but it seems reasonable to suggest that they would have felt as though they could not be themselves, as though they were being forced to be something other than who they were, as though they were being stripped of their identity, and this is similar to how Natalia is portrayed, as someone always constrained, but who is looking to be at ease, to be free like the doves.