Sunday, 24 February 2013

Translations, foreign languages and the reader's choices



The recognition of the right of freedom to choose and the desire for instant self-gratification are as active in readers’ consciousnesses as they are in other consumers. We all know what we want, and the books we want to read, for we want nothing else, we want to read them now. And we demand them in a language we understand, for books aren’t useful otherwise. Literature has an irritating in-built flaw that no one can iron out by sending it back to the drawing board: most books, numbers will prove, were written in languages readers don’t know. Unlike ice cream or a pair of pants, commodities that don’t require a special skill set to enjoy or use, books demand of the reader that he be familiar with the language it was written, or printed, in; but no matter how much one is proficient in polyglotism, mastering the 6000 languages of the world is an impossible feat. Translators have mitigated our linguistic ignorance over the centuries, and nothing we can do or say can ever fully repay them for their hard and unprofitable work. Buying their translations certainly demonstrates our appreciation, but there’s a radiance about the spiritual satisfaction of reading that one book we longed for that somehow doesn’t feel right to think it can be easily repaid with crude money. Those amongst us who take the pleasure of reading seriously know that the memories retained from reading a beloved book, fond memories that will accompany us for the rest of our lives, can’t be repaid.

Translators for me are as invisible but important as the fundamental forces of universe. These often anonymous men and women who know foreign languages are the lynchpin of our book-reading reality, but we don’t notice them any more than we tend to notice gravity around us, keeping things grounded and giving them weight. Without gravity objects would not coalesce or remain intact, planets wouldn’t stay in their orbits, planets wouldn’t exist at all. Without gravity life would be impossible, but when it works normally we don’t notice it. So it is with translators, who provide a far more valuable service to the universe than making life possible.

Translators are only noticed in two negative contexts: when the translation in our hands strikes us a bad or clumsy; and when we can’t acquire the translation we crave. In the first context we’re passing a judgment on the aesthetic quality of the text based on our preconceived notions of what a literary text sounds and reads like, not on the accuracy of the translation, because if we’re reading a translation in the first place it’s because we lack the skills to judge that. Few are the readers who can fairly ascertain whether the faults of the translation lie in the translator or are intrinsic to the original text. I’ve read translated books that I believed were bad, but I never laid the blame at the translator’s feet because I can’t be certain of his fault. But even assuming the faults of the book stem from the translation, I think it’s preferable to have a mediocre but readable translation than none at all.

The second context occurs when translations don’t exist: finding out that the book I want to read is not available is an upsetting feeling. We readers are consumers, no matter what we think, and we believe everything we want should be within our immediate reach, and scarcity of translations infringes on our capitalist-given rights as consumers. Few seldom stop to think that translations cost money, are poorly remunerated, require a lot of hard work and take a lot of time to achieve excellence, and even then readers will find something to nitpick.

Those who complain about how translations spoil the purity of the original texts have a simple solution. They can always read them in the original. Several online bookstores now make it possible to order books from just about any country in the world. As a reader, and from the moment I first learned to read in a foreign language, I’ve made use of these two options, translations and reading in the original. They don’t work at cross-purposes but complement each other in giving the reader freedom to read more richly. It is unwise to rely too strongly on just one. Knowing foreign languages opens an astonishing breadth of possibilities to readers. All the specialised presses working tirelessly couldn’t hope to translate everything I can order from Amazon.it. Nevertheless, the handful of languages I can read pale in comparison with the variety of a single publisher’s catalogue, like Pushkin Press or Twisted Spoon Press. Those are two qualities I look for, extensiveness and diversity.

Although the Anglo-American world has an infamous and in my opinion unfair reputation regarding translations, my experience of the Portuguese market is not too different, and I’d be greatly limited if I didn’t use both options, sometimes the two at the same time. Portuguese translations have helped me to discover Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Cossery, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Ismael Kadare, Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel García Márquez, Jules Verne, Mario Vargas Llosa, and a host of English writers before I learned English: Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie.

Then there’s a whole range of non-English writers I associate mainly with the English language, because that’s how I read them or read most of their work: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka’s greatest novels are known to me mainly, sometimes only, in English; Thomas Mann I’ve always only read in English. Some writers are more widely available in one language than another; some books I can get in English that I can’t in Portuguese, and vice versa. In Portugal, for instance, I have more translations of Horacio Quiroga, Selma Lagerlöf, Dino Buzzati, Max Aub, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Claudio Magris, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Enrique Vila-Matas; I can acquire all the novels of Albert Cossery. I actually have translations of Marcel Schwob, Giovanni Papini, Léon Bloy and lots of quirky, odd, obscure European writers that fill me with marvel and joy.

But there are frightful lacunas here. Every time I read people complaining that translations only make three percent of all published books in the United States, I think of this: there’s not a single book by Peter Nadas or László Krasznahorkai in Portuguese; there are less than four Carlos Fuentes books available, and none is Terra Nostra; Dario Fo only has one book in Portuguese, whereas in English there are six or seven; I once found a second-hand copy of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy, while in English I can buy up to eleven of his plays, almost his entire theatrical oeuvre, not to mention his letters and non-fiction; although I can read the most important of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels in Portuguese, I’m out of luck if I want to read his plays; Eugene Ionesco is nearly impossible to find in Portuguese; Mikhail Lermontov is not available; I can’t find Eugene Onegin in Portuguese; there’s no Magdalena Tulli yet; Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is currently out of print; there are more books of Leonardo Sciascia, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Alejo Carpentier and Halldór Laxness in English than in Portuguese. Last year I bought the Shocken edition of Franz Kafka’s diaries because they’re out of print in Portugal. Kafka out of print. Meditate on that, reader.

Portuguese collections of foreign poetry, I’m sad to say, are a disgrace. Portuguese poets are published in beautiful, painstakingly-organized hardbound editions, genuine labors of love and appropriately expensive. But everyone else? There’s a complete edition of Federico García Lorca that I know of. But I’ve had no luck finding one of Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, Odysseus Elytis, Eugenio Montale, Joseph Brodsky, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Vasko Popa: they’re all available in English. Most of them are in Portuguese too, just in pitiful selections. Or how about actual translations of Jaroslav Seifert, Adonis, Miroslav Holub and Adam Zagajewski, currently my favorite living poet, who I only know thanks to English translations? Last year we finally released a selection of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. The complete poems were available in English before he had even won the Nobel Prize.

And then there are gaps in both the English and Portuguese markets. Last year I had to read Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s La Saga/Fuga de J.B. in Spanish because I had no other options. In the English-speaking world no one has ever heard of him, and although he was once popular in Portugal, nowadays all his books are out of print. Likewise, spurred by my love for Kaputt, this month I preferred to anticipate NYRB’s release of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin and used my poor Italian skills to finally read La Pelle. In both instances the experience was very rewarding; the ability to read in these languages is one I haven’t yet made full use of yet, but it’s reassuring to know these options exist.

Not everyone will have these options; some will have others or none at all. I for instance am at the mercy of reading whatever Russian, Polish and German literature English and Portuguese publishers deem worthy. I accept that, like I accept most things I can’t control or affect. And frankly I have very little reason to worry. Imagining that I could master all the world’s languages, or that every book I want to read were translated in a language I can read, and in print, I would still have time against me. I’ll never read everything I want to read, and that will have very little to do with shortage of translations. Even Three Percent, with its alarmist speech, has to concede that "that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year." More likely enough translations to keep a reader busy a whole lifetime. I continue to be left with the usual difficult choices readers face: what to buy, what to read, why read it, how to find time. Every book we read is another book we won’t read somewhere in our lifetime. How do we know we’re making the right choices? Translations and knowledge of foreign languages don’t help solve this conundrum at all.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Blog of the Year 2012 Award!




Once more I’m deeply indebted to Brian of Babbling Books for his generosity. Last year he bestowed upon me the notable Liebster Award. This year he has chosen to distinguish me with the illustrious Blog of the Year 2012 award! I’m at a loss for words to express my gratitude.

Those who accept this award have a few rules to abide by:

1 Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award



2 Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.



3 Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award at The Thought Palette and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)



4 Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them



5 You can now also join our Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience



6 As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

After judicious deliberation, the recipients of the award are:

The Argumentative Old Git: Himadri runs a strongly-opinionated blog about literature and culture, and his commentary on the classics is always insightful and stimulating.

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat: Caroline’s blog is remarkable for its wide-ranging reviews of literature and for the many diverse literary events it hosts, encouraging readers to broaden their tastes.

Caravana de Recuerdos: Richard has a special interest in and enviable knowledge about Spanish-language literature, and he also has the courage to tackle those long classics most of us are terrified of reading.

In lieu of a field guide: This blog is worth the time of anyone wanting to read intelligent and well-argued commentaries about Filipino literature, Roberto Bolãno, and literature in general.

Seraillon: Provides reviews on a diverse range of works of fiction, always focusing on quality books.

The Sleepless Reader: Like me Alex is a Portuguese blogger who writes in English; she covers an eclectic mix of books: classics and contemporaries, poetry and non-fiction, always with friendly good disposition.

Wuthering Expectations: Tom’s blog remains an inspiration and benchmark for other bloggers, and is a constant source of intelligent and witty literary criticism about the classics.

Congratulations to all of you, and thank you for the many hours of joy you’ve given over the last year!

Friday, 22 February 2013

2013 Women Challenge




Valentina from Peek-a-Book! recently started the 2013 Women Challenge. The goal is to encourage readers to read more books written by women. Considering that of the fourteen books I’ve already read this year not one was written by a woman, I fear I’m very much in need of taking this challenge.

I’m feeling ambitious so I’m aiming at Level 4: that’s 16+ books. This is my tentative list for the time being; it may change throughout the year:

Isabel da Nóbrega: Os Anjos e os Homens
Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão: Poetry
Natália Correia: Poetry
Agustina Bessa-Luís: Longos Dias têm Cem Dias
Paulina Chiziane: Ventos do Apocalipse
Virginia Woolf: The Common Reader
Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains
Doris Lessing: Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Selma Lagerlof: The Miracles of the Antichrist
Elsa Morante: History: a novel
Wislawa Szymborska: Here
Clarice Lispector: The Passion According to H.
Kate Chopin: The Awakening
Vernon Lee: The Virgin of the Seven Daggers
Ithell Colquhon: Goose of Hermogenes
Edith Nesbit: The Magic World

I’m anxious to start reading and I’m sure I’ll have a great time. Thanks to Valentina for hosting this.

16/12/2013 Update:

I've read so far:

France Rame, Una Vita All'Improvvisa
Clarice Lispector, Stream of Life
Agustina Bessa-Luís, Kafkiana
Isabel da Nóbrega, Os Anjos e os Homens
Lídia Jorge, The Painter of Birds
Conceição Lima, O Útero da Casa

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Terra Nostra: Excerpts from a detestable novel



I read Terra Nostra in 2010 and I’ve been trying to write a review ever since, unsuccessfully. The vastness and ambition of its themes, erudition, and technique single it out from amongst all the novels I’ve ever read. Anything I tried to conjure seemed insignificant and inappropriate. In the meanwhile I’ve read another novel by him, A Change of Skin, which reinforced my impression that Carlos Fuentes is not a novelist I like very much, even if some of my favourite novelists vouch for him. The main reason I read Fuentes was because Milan Kundera wrote admiringly about him and particularly Terra Nostra in The Art of the Novel. José Saramago was another reputable writer who held this novel in high regard. “An extraordinary novel,” he wrote in his blog, “that tore open new perspectives for me.” Anyone who compares the construction of the Convent of Mafra in Baltasar and Blimunda to the construction of El Escorrial in Terra Nostra may reasonably believe Fuentes did more than just open new perspectives for him. I usually trust my favourite writers to direct me to new great books; but in this case I was disappointed.

Terra Nostra wasn’t written to be easily described; Fuentes is concerned with nothing less than the whole shared history and culture of Europe and the Americas. Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492 marked the beginning of a new age in the world: Europeans and natives came into contact, then clashed barbarically, and finally the natives were defeated and conquered thanks to Europe’s military prowess. Due to centuries of occupation and cultural interchanges, however, a new hybrid culture emerged, one with a foot on both worlds, the old and the new (and this reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges called Argentineans Europeans in exile). Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes is the offspring of this hybrid culture, and in Terra Nostra he retells the story of how this new world emerged. It’s not a historical novel, although Fuentes does not miss an opportunity to parade his historical erudition, and it details the past (including the age of Rome) as much as it points out to the future (published in 1975, the novel ends in 1999, incorrectly termed the end of the millennium). The novel doesn’t exist in historical time but in what Milan Kundera, in the afterword, calls ‘mythical time,’ a time free from the constraints of history and facts that allows Fuentes to use allegory, play with facts and use his imagination to better show the dynamics of the relationship between these the old and new worlds.

Much like Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (a superior novel, in my estimation), Terra Nostra operates on the logic of circular time, of repetition. But whereas García Márquez’ novel shows the follies of one family repeat themselves over a few generations, Fuentes’, encompassing the history of the world from the decadence of the Roman Empire to an apocalyptic future, reveals the patterns throughout history: violence, oppression, imperialism, social inequity, fanaticism, nationalism, money. The use of this circular time makes sense since the notion of time as an arrow is posterior to the main events of the novel, it’s the product of Enlightenment thinking that envisioned time and history as an upward progress to a discernible goal, namely the perfect, ideal human society. Of course this was contrary to the Christian mentality of Felipe, King of Spain and main character of the novel. If God made the world, then there’s nothing else to improve, nothing else to build or invent, or discover. The world is completed and perfect unto itself, the famous best of all possible worlds, there’s no point trying to perfect it down here when the goal is to prepare life to be accepted in heaven up there. Social mobility is practically non-existing, the sons of peasants will be peasants and the sons of kings will be kings, everyone knows their place in the social order, which is stratified and rigid. This time is static, with variations across the ages, following patterns instead of moving towards a goal. A novel that jumps from Europe to the Americas, from Medieval Spain to ancient Rome, and then concludes with an apocalypse is not a novel that can be easily described, but I’ll make an attempt.

In 1999 a one-armed man living in Paris waked up to an altered world, the news reporting ominous signs. One uncanny incident is the strange birth of children all over the city, children with six toes on each foot and a red cross on their shoulders. The one-armed man wanders through Paris and meets a woman called Celestina, who starts narrating to him a story that takes place in the 15th century.

Then the reader meets El Señor, a Spanish King who orders the construction of a necropolis, El Escorrial, to where he hopes to retire and terminate his royal dynasty because he wants the world to end but before he must make his soul ready to receive grace. Felipe, son of the former king also named Felipe, is tired of the world and dreams only of Paradise. He is a devout Christian who waged war against sinners, blasphemers, heretics, Moors and Jews. He continued his father’s work of persecuting the many Christian sects: the Waldensians, the Adamites, the Cathars, and anyone else who spoke against the official dogmas of the Holy Church. Having conducted this crusade for so long and having become traumatised by its horrors, because he realized it only resulted in more heresies, he orders that a huge Cathedral be erected to preserve the remains of his thirty ancestors and himself. This megalomaniacal project demands thousands of labourers, who are fetched from the fields, whose crops are left to rot, in order to hasten the construction of his monumental tomb. But unbeknownst to El Señor the world is changing. The power of the cities is increasing, people are organising themselves outside his authority, free trade is expanding, personal fortunes are growing and the merchant mentality is spreading, whereas the royal coffers grow empty. Capitalism is on the rise, free enterprise too: the world exists to be manipulated, explored, profited from. While El Señor is seeking death and stagnation, around him people are more active and busier than ever in history. He prepares for the endura, which is a “terminal fast at the end of life,” a ritual form of suicidal fasting in behalf of God. Merchants and businessmen, animated by wondrous news that there are unseen worlds beyond the Atlantic, prepare to conquer these new lands and its riches. El Señor’s world is irremediably lost even if he refuses to see it. El Escorrial does not insulate him from heterodoxy, from change.

The discovery of the New World is one of the most important episodes of the novel. One day three castaways, triplets, are sent to him: they all have six toes on each foot and a red cross on their shoulders; each castaway contains a green bottle with a manuscript inside, and one of the castaways tells Felipe a wondrous tale: he’s visited a new world beyond the ocean. News of the existence of this new world, full of gold, gives rise to dreams of fortune in many men’s minds. Not even Felipe, with his authority and who decrees that no such new world exists, can stop men from venturing to go there; and in spite of his attempts to curb the violence and degradation in the new world, he can’t stop it from becoming another copy of the injustices and cruelties of the old world. For although God is used as an excuse to go there, and even though Christianity’s presence is felt there preponderantly – every new town is named after a saint – it is greed and power that compels the adventurers, merchants and conquistadors to defy the ocean. Amongst the many men affected by the golden legends of the new world is Guzmán, Felipe’s servant and conspirator against him, a ruined nobleman who wants to regain his statute. The age of aristocracy is fading, now is the time of entrepreneurs.

This is the most simplified description of the plot that I can offer. But it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the vastness of the story Carlos Fuentes tells. Countless characters move in and out of the story, including painter Hieronymus Bosch and fictional characters like Don Quixote, Don Juan and La Celestina, characters from classic Spanish literature, and even Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Then there are the many historical counterparts, like the Felipes, Joanna the Mad, Isabel. I can’t say that these are actual historical figures because Fuentes compresses time and personalities here, he takes several figures and merges them in one personality. “One lifetime is not sufficient. One needs multiple existences in order to unify a personality. Every identity is nurtured from all the other identities,” a character says. “It takes several lives to make a man,” it is said somewhere else in the novel. Then there are the fictional characters like Ludovico and Celestina who show up in different generations, several people with the same name. The novel is intricate, dense, and it helps having a notepad to keep track of all the characters. At least it’s what I’d do if I had the stomach to re-read the novel.

And this is the part where I say I didn’t like it. Is Terra Nostra a great novel? It probably is, this novel is the spitting image of that age that consecrated Ulysses as the best of the best, and who am I to raise my voice against the consensus of my time? For my part I only regret Franz Kafka was given so little time to write and Fuentes so much. Another theme in this novel: the world is not fair. My main point of contention, being the lover of stories that I am, is that this novel is rather monotonous. The exquisite prose is all there to be admired, several times per page, under which weight a plot may actually exist, suffocating. The first 200 pages are a joy to read, then you hope something will happen in the next 100; 150 pages later you’re still in the same place; and the last 300 are a struggle to finish because there’s nothing really there to hold your attention anymore but it’s the longest novel of your life and you don’t want to admit to yourself that you threw away two weeks of your life for nothing, do you?

In terms of intricateness and carefully-woven structure, the only book I’ve read in recent times that matches Terra Nostra is Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s La Saga/Fuga de J.B., a Spanish novel that bears more than a striking resemblance with it. It’s equally long, equally divided in three parts, and deals with the same themes of patterns in history. But there’s something Rabelaisian about it that makes it more endearing and digestible. Terra Nostra builds up to something monumental, a powerful revelation, and then just fizzles out, and the journey doesn’t really make up for the disappointment. To this day I’m still trying to figure out what the apocalypse of 1999 (and in spite of his frightening erudition, Fuentes’ editor should have told him that the millennium ended in 2000) has to do with anything. La Saga/Fuga de J.B. is also meandering, and the anti-climax leaves something to be desired, but it is a far more enjoyable journey, and in the company of better characters. Felipe is the only one I cared about. This is all just to say that there are better choices for big, sprawling, ambitious Spanish-language books out there.

None of this invalidates the fact that Terra Nostra has some of the best passages of prose I’ve ever read in my life. It’s beyond my abilities to write a coherent review of this novel; so I’ll just provide brief commentary on some passages:

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

This is the opening paragraph, and it can be interpreted as an ironic prelude of the action itself. This is the novel in a nutshell. The first animal that dreams another animal are no doubt the Europeans who imagine that other worlds exist, specifically a castaway called Ludovico who dreams about tawny-skinned men on the other side of the ocean. The vertebrates that stand up are also the Europeans, who conquer the new world with their military prowess and scientific advancements, enslaving the natives living closer to Nature. The final line is a list of inventions and technical progresses that doesn’t follow any order or hierarchy: a song (art) is as astonishing as a telephone call (science), a relatively crude form of progress (loincloth, clothes) and the more demanding science that produced the telephone. But there’s there a hint of sarcasm here, as if nothing of this really matters, because no matter how advanced people will be, ultimately they’ll be human. This is another important theme of the novel.

The bands of pilgrims are advancing at a rate that can be explained by only one fact: the aid of the Devil. Terror reigns from Toledo do Orléans. They’ve burned the lands, the harvest, and the granaries. They’re assaulting and destroying the monasteries, churches, and palaces. They are terrible: they kill anyone who refuses to join their crusade: they sow hunger in their wake. And they are magnificent! The poor, the vagabonds, the adventurers, and the lovers are joining them. They have promised that sins will no longer be punished, that poverty will erase all guilt. They say the only crimes are corrupting greed, false progress, and individual vanity; they say the only salvation is to rid oneself of everything one possesses, even one’s name. They proclaim that each of us is divine and therefore everything belongs to all of us. They announce the coming of a new kingdom and they say they live in perfect joy. They are awaiting the millennium that will begin this winter, not as a date, but as an opportunity to remake the world.

This is a scene from the first pages, the apocalypse in 1999. Again this scene foreshadows events in the past: these bands of marauding pilgrims are like the Cathars that Felipe exterminated because they threatened the dogmas of the Holy Church. Their goal is the creation of a new, perfect world, another strong theme in the novel. Whether they will build it or not is a mystery, but the bulk of the novel will show that history’s odds are against them.

You cannot prevail against the ecstasy that is ours when we enjoy the sexual act as it was practiced by our parents Adam and Eve. Sex as it was before sin; that is our secret. We realize fully our human destiny so that we may free ourselves eternally from our burdens, so we may become souls in a heaven that ignores earth; and in so doing we also realize our celestial destinies. Your mercenary legions will not prevail against us; you represent the principle of death, and we the principle of procreation; you engender corpses, and we, souls; let us see which multiplies more swiftly from this time on: your dead or our living.

These words are uttered by one of the Ludovicos to Felipe the father, inside a church during a massacre of Cathars. His words foresee the end of the Christian era, which Felipe the son tries to impede. The irony is that its passing does not herald the promised utopia; Felipe’s power is replaced by the power of the money, of merchants and businessmen.

Later he walked to the stream bed that drained the quarry, where several day labourers were cutting stone from the vein and carting it out in hand barrows. Although it was not his work, Martín helped them load the rough-hewn blocks he would later chisel and polish. He nodded to Jerónimo, who was in charge of the quarry forge; better than anyone, this bearded man knew how to sharpen iron tools, how to set the wedges and sheath the iron tools with steel edges to protect them from the ruinous blast furnace. Even so, only yesterday he had been accused of oversharpening the tools. That meant the loss of a day’s wages; it doesn’t matter, Jerónimo told Martín; we just do our jobs the best we can; the supervisors do theirs by finding defects where there aren’t any; they’re parasites, that’s their condition, and if from time to time they don’t criticize some error, soon they themselves would be criticised for not doing anything.

I include this passage only to reinforce my claim that José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda has a considerable debt to this novel. Many are the scenes about the labourers working on the construction of the necropolis, their dreams and philosophies of life, and they remind me of Saramago’s propensity to never forget to write history from the perspective of the downtrodden, voiceless and anonymous.

“El Señor has united the dispersed kingdoms; he has put down the heretical rebellions of his youth; stopped the Moors and persecuted the Hebrew; constructed this fortress that combines the symbols of faith and dominion. The usury of the cities that destroyed so many small seigniories renders homage to his authority and accepts the necessity for central power. The shepherds and labourers of these lands today are workers at the palace; El Señor has left them with no sustenance but their daily wage. And it is easier to take money from a wage than to collect bushels from a harvest, for the harvest can be seen in measureable fields, while wages are manipulated invisibly. Other great undertakings await El Señor, no doubt; he will not find them behind him, but ahead.”
“If one could begin again… if one could begin better…”
“Begin what, sire?”
“A city. The city. The places we inhabit, Guzmán.”
“El Señor would have to employ the same arms and the same materials. These workers and these stones.”
“But the idea could be different.”
“The idea, Señor?”
“The intent.”
“However good it was, men would always make of it something different from what El Señor had intended.”

Felipe has done monstrous things, and yet he’s not an unlikeable character. He inherited from his father the duty of slaughtering the many sects that threatened the authority of the Church, but he’s traumatised by the horrors caused by his persecutions and massacres. In this passage we can appreciate one of his strongest desires, to create a perfect world. He knows fully well that God’s finite world is detestable, and that’s also why he wants to abandon it as quickly as possible to Paradise. At the same time, Guzmán has a more realistic view of things and suggests that utopia may be ultimately an impossible aspiration for men.

They all sat very close together, contended after their completed tasks, and the savoury food. Pedro said he envisioned a world where there were no rich or poor, a world where neither man nor beast would be governed by arbitrary powers. He spoke brusquely but with the voice of a dreamer who sees a community where every being would be free to ask and to receive from others the things he needed most, where his only obligation would be to give to others what they asked of him. Each man would be free to do what most pleased him, because every job would be natural and useful.

This if from one of my favourite segments of the novel: young Felipe, terrified with the massacres of heretics, runs away from his father’s castle one night and ends up joining Pedro, a sailor, Simón, a priest, Ludovico and Celestina. All five sit around a campfire sharing their dreams and discussing a new world, a perfect world, that may exist beyond the ocean, and their plans to arrive there. It is a crucial scene because then they all break up and go in separate directions: Pedro and Ludovico get on a boat and set out to the new world; Celestina disappears only to reappear years later, as Ludovico does; Simón resumes his preaching and tries to dissuade men from finding the new world; and Felipe accepts his heritage and turns against the ideals of his former comrades.

El Señor screamed; he stretched out his hand and taking a penitential whip began to lash his back, his hand, his face, while the statues of his ancestors stared at him with blank eyes and inviolable marble skin. El Señor was bleeding now. Then he muttered between clenched teeth: “I do not want the world to change. I do not want my body to die, to disintegrate, to be transformed and reborn in animal form. I do not want to be reborn to be hunted in my own lands by own descendants. I want the world to stop and to release my resurrected body in the eternity of Paradise, by the side of God. When I die, I do not want – please, have mercy – I do not want to return again to the world. I want the eternal promise: to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven and there forget the unchanging world and lose for all time the memory of the life I led, forget that there is life on earth. But in order to reach Heaven, in order for Heaven actually to exist, this, my world, must not change, for only of its infinite horror, from that contrast, may be born the infinite goodness of Heaven. And it was for that reason that as a youth, darkly, not completely aware of what I was doing, I murdered those who dared offer me Heaven on earth (…)”

Felipe is a tragic figure, thrown into a world he doesn’t like, incredibly powerful and yet powerless to do what he most desires. His only desire is to die and even that is forbidden to him because his court wants him to give them an heir, which doesn’t want to create since he wishes all history to end with him.

El Señor wished to complete his palace of death? You have seen that he had to come to me for a loan. Does he wish to send an expedition to ascertain the existence or non-existence of a new world? He will have to come to us, the outfitters, the dealers in commodities, the manufacturers of arms. Does he wish to colonize new lands? He will have to come to men like you, Don Guzmán, and to every last ordinary man in his palace, and to the rogues in the cities, and to the impoverished nobles; the new world will belong to us, we will win it with our arms and our brains, and we shall be repaid for our efforts with the gold and pearls that will flow from the hands of the natives into ours, though we will take care to reserve the royal fifth part for El Señor, and to collect payment for his debts in advance, and to make him content, and deceive him. Oh, yes!

Guzmán and a businessman talk, and it’s a scene that illustrate the change in the dynamic of power. Monarchs will become more and more irrelevant in order for businessmen, merchants and usurers to become the pillars of society. Guzmán is a character with a foot on both worlds, since he’s of noble stock but has lost his fortune; he wants to become rich again, even if he has to conspire against his master.

This I fear above all, Brother Toribio, that the new world will not in truth be new, but rather a terrible extension of the old world we are living here, did you see El Señor?, did you see how he trembled every time that pilgrim pointed out the similarities between the crimes of that place and our own, the oppressions there and the oppressions here?, I tremble, too, Brother, although for reasons different from those that shake our sovereign; El Señor wishes that his life, his world, his experience, be unique and final, a definitive page written for eternity, unrepeatable; he fears anything that opens outward and divests him of his sense of culmination, the final and unquestionable end; the life he lived was to be the last, forever; not only for him, no, but for the species itself; so great is his arrogant will for extinction; on the other hand, I tremble because I fear that in conquering the tyranny of the new world those of the old world will grow in strength and dimension, ally themselves with greed and cruelty, and all this in the name of our sacred Faith; the powers of Mars and Mercury are waxing; they mask themselves with the face of Christ; war, gold, evangelization: we shall lose the opportunity to transfer to the new world that new world you and I, Brother, had so quickly begun to create with our telescopes and paint-brushes, protected here in the sheltering and indifferent shadows of this palace; fear, Brother, we shall be watched; we shall be persecuted, all I have warned you of is certain: we shall be accused, and in the most innocuous of our preoccupations will be discovered error, heresy, traces of the Jew (…)

An interesting scene for several reasons: first because it acknowledges that the new world was not one without violence, murder and destruction. Indeed when Pedro arrives there he’s immediately murdered by the natives, and Ludovico is taken prisoner and made to witness the human sacrifices practiced by the Mexicans. I think this is important to acknowledge because there’s a terrible tendency to imagine the pre-Columbian Americas as beautiful paradises of grace, and not as places with human beings who did what human beings do. This harks back to Guzmán’s words to Felipe that any idea, no matter how well-intentioned, would always run into the problem of man’s inherent imperfection. Another interesting point is the concern of the priest about religion being used as a façade for profit and imperialism. Thirdly, the speaker worries that the new age that is coming will have little interest in knowledge and art, which is debatable. I think either age had little interest in art, although the important role knowledge has in modern society can’t be ignored.

“Minutiae, minutiae, I visit nothing today, I am ensconced in my villa in Capri, content, imagining, imagining the sublime: how to make my death coincide with the death of my Empire. I cannot bear the thought that someone might succeed me, it would be as if our beautiful Cynthia, instead of offering me her buttocks white as animated marble, had begun in this instant to feel the pangs of childbirth, and had lain upon my sigma to give birth, imagine such horror; the same horror I feel when imagine that anyone could succeed me, lie down in my places, touch Lesbia’s breast, pluck a pubic hair from Fabianus, no, no, they must all die first, I die only with my Empire; Theodorus, there must be alerts, executions at the least pretext, let no one remain, I want to die but I want to die the last death, execute, Theodorus, execute, ejaculate, execute and let the corpses be thrown down the mournful steps of the Forum and dragged on gaff hooks to the Tiber…”

One the green bottles the triplets give to Felipe contains a manuscript about Roman emperor Tiberius. This novel is about how history repeats itself, and to drive the point home it turns out Tiberius’ life had many similarities with Felipe’s. Again this makes the point that there’s something fundamentally flawed about human nature, no matter the place, the era, and the culture; murder, tyranny, perversion exist wherever humans do.

To those curious to read Terra Nostra, I wish a better, more rewarding experience.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

An Angolan in Mongolia



In 2009 Pepetela wrote a short novel called O Planato e a Estepe (The Plain and the Steppe), a clever way of invoking the countries of Angola and Mongolia, from where its two main characters come. Pepetela is, I’m firmly convinced, one of the best novelists of our age. This novel revisits several of his usual themes: the Independence War, Angola’s Marxist regime, discrimination against white Angolans. For the first time since I’m reading Pepetela, the novel also tells a love story. The novel is based on real events, although whether they happened to the author or to someone he knew, is something we never know and it’s irrelevant.

The novel is narrated by the son of Portuguese settlers, although the protagonist himself is born in the Angolan region of Huíla. Although he’s white he’s not a racist like his sister, Olga, or a defender of segregation like his parents. From childhood onwards he has normal relationships with black children, making him critical of imperialism once he grows up. He’s also sensitive to the deep divisions white whites in Angolan society.

The whites were the ones with the money. That was the truth. We were situated at the bottom of the social scale amongst the whites, chicoronhos, which was non-malicious lingo for colonials. Now the term mapundeiros was an insult used by other whites against us, because our area was Mapunda, where the most miserable of whites took refuge. However we were rich if compared with the blacks, our servants. In hindsight, there were blacks who had herds of oxen, but they lived in their eumbo and didn’t mix with the white. They lived their lives, it was the church that went to them to derail them from their magical practices. So said the priests. If we counted the oxen, the owners of the herds were a lot richer than my father.

This is a fascinating, revealing passage. It shows Pepetela using ordinary Portuguese with unique vocabulary from Angolan Portuguese and indigenous words. It describes the country’s complicated social hierarchies, and the discrimination even within the whites. It also shows the protagonist’s ability to reflect about what he sees around him. Growing up black children, playing with them, has made him see many of the sharp contradictions in society. This in turn impels him to join the liberation of Angola.

His childhood in Huíla is happy, filled with ordinary experiences. He starts noticing more social and racial divisions when he goes to high school, although he continues to maintain relationships with his black friends. Things sour when he wins a scholarship and travels to Portugal, to study medicine in the University of Coimbra. This is a miserable, lonely period in his life because he’s under the surveillance of his father’s relatives, and because he has few friends in Coimbra. To make matters worse he has no interest in medicine and is only studying to make his father happy, who wants to have a son with a college degree because of the prestige (it’s worth remembering that Portugal was a predominantly rural country in the 1960s and just having a degree was a matter of social status – sadly this mentality lives on). Instead of studying he becomes more interested in the political conversations within the students’ circles, secretly held since censorship didn’t allow their public discussions nor gatherings. Little by little he becomes part of a group interested in the war between Portugal and Angola.

I ended up rebuilding a group of friends, amongst the ones who had studied in the same high school in Lubango and others, in Luanda. A Mozambican and a Cape Verdean in the middle. With more or less loose connections with companions in Lisbon, the main centre. People with similar ideas, especially on colonialism, a group then. Subversive books started circulating, with them poems by people who were or were about to be arrested, or had already fled to abroad. There was energy in the air, you could notice it. I changed republic, moved to one constituted solely by people from the group of friends. My father mustn’t have liked it, but he said nothing. I kept a distance from his family of Trás-os-Montes. I endured classes without positive results and dreamed of fights. Of liberation, of course. Like the one of the Algerians, who had made the French go preach other places, in their land they didn’t want more foreign masters. The French didn’t respect those desires, tried to keep the empire, and the war went on. I read the famous book by Frantz Fanon, an Antillean doctor who fought alongside the Algerians and theorized the struggle of liberation. I not always understood the contradictory ideas inside the books, for I realized Fanon differed from Marx or Sartre, being close nevertheless. I read all the propaganda considered clandestine which reached my hands, I discussed matters in hushed tones, dreamed with my eyes wide. I obviously didn’t have time for the Anatomy door-stoppers.

The narrator loses his scholarship but he doesn’t worry because he doesn’t believe his future is in high education anymore: he wants to join the fight in Angola, liberate his country and help create its future. For that end he and some friends travel to Russia to become volunteers in the international movement to spread global socialism. He learns to speak Russian and enrols in Economics. He’s denied proper fighting because there aren’t ‘subjective conditions’ for it. What this means is that he’s not completely trusted because of his skin colour. This is just one of the first signs that tells him that socialism is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not until their courses end and they prepare to join the fight abroad that they start learning how disenchanting socialism really is:

   When we finished the Economics course, Jean-Michel returned to Brazzaville, anxious to participate in the ongoing revolution in his country. Socialism had been instated as the regime’s official doctrine. The letters he wrote me spoke of his dreams and his hopes. He got a job a ministry’s office, rose up quickly in the Youth wing of the Party in power. And I realized, as time went and he rose in the Youth, until he became the top leader of the organization, that he had lost his old convictions. His letters demonstrated despair for collaborating with a farce, socialism my ass, they only thought about women and cars, since getting rich is hard in such a poor land. The sudden news didn’t surprise me. Jean-Michel got involved in a revolution attempt that went wrong, they shot him in the corner nearby the football stadium. Together with a singer of revolutionary songs.
   Poor Africa.

The protagonist has a different experience, however. In Russia he falls in love with a Mongolian student called Sarangerel. There’s nothing more banal than two young people being in love, the problem is that he’s a white Angolan and she’s the daughter of a high-ranking Mongolian officer. Their relationship is not well received by Russian and Mongolian authorities; the Russians fear antagonizing the Mongolians because of their own stressful relationships with China; and the Mongolians don’t want Sarangerel mingling with a white man; she’s reserved for a better marriage with someone approved by the Party.

Many are the tribulations the two lovers face and many the means the authorities employ to keep them away; not even when they marry and have a daughter they’re shown pity; instead Sarangerel and her baby girl are taken out of Russian in a hurry and the protagonist is sent to Angola to finally hold a place in the rebuilding of his country as a Marxist state. Amidst his rise in the party and his growing disenchantment with politics and the expectations he had for his country as a young student, the protagonist continues to try, over decades and overwhelming red tape, to reunite with the family that was stolen away from him. His travails expose the contradictions of communism as practiced in the former Soviet republics, which pledged to stand up for the international proletariat, tolerance and world peace, but internally continued to be torn apart by social and racial discrimination.

I found this novel delicious form start to finish, and it’s a very easy read, particularly because Pepetela is a funny storyteller. But what I found most interesting about it was the criticism of communism from the unique perspective of its attack on love. It’s terrifying to imagine how such an innocuous situation as two people in love could make two nations launch such an attack on two individuals, and the way communism had so little respect for people’s private sphere. After reading this novel, one is well convinced of the protagonist’s thesis that this ideology was totally inhuman.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lewis Carroll: Phantasmagoria



Phantasmagoria, a collection of poems Lewis Carroll published in 1869, is a nice reminder that there’s more to this author than just his ‘Alice’ novels. It’s also a worthwhile reading for those who like his weird, nonsensical poems like “Jabberwocky.” The book showcases Carroll’s topsy-turvy view of the world, his love for world puns, and his absurdist humour.

The book opens with the longest and best poem in the collection, “Phantasmagoria,” a ghost story divided in cantos, in mockery of epic poetry; there’s nothing epic about the poem, though, which is comical in natural. The narrator, the owner of a haunted house, meets a frightened little ghost in charge of haunting it, and the two initiate a conversation about the secret world of ghosts. The ghost expounds on the lives of ghosts, the hierarchies of haunted houses, the ranking of supernatural creatures  (Elves, Spectres, Goblins, etc.), their preference for ruins, and their rules of etiquette. Silly puns abound like the Inn-Spectre, a ghost who haunts inns, and the Knight Mayor (speak their names out loud).

The poem “A Sea Dirge” is an anti-ode to the sea:

There are certain things - as, a spider, a ghost,
The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three -
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the Sea.

The poem lists many reasonable reasons for anyone to hate the sea. It’s hilarious because it goes against the normal preconception of the sea as a beautiful theme, as an inspiration for lyrical poetry (poor Pablo Neruda):

Beat a dog till it howls outright -
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the Sea.

In “Hiawatha’s Photographing,” Carroll, who was a consummate photographer himself, shows everything that can go wrong with just taking a photograph. Here’s the description of the photographer putting the camera together:

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

Only Carroll’s exceptional mind could make a connection between Euclid and a camera. As the photographer, a family patriarch, tries to take pictures of his relatives, the poem manages to make fun of perfectionism, concepts of beauty and even Ruskin’s aesthetic theories:

First the Governor, the Father:
He suggested velvet curtains
Looped about a massy pillar;
And the corner of a table,
Of a rosewood dining-table.
He would hold a scroll of something,
Hold it firmly in his left-hand;
He would keep his right-hand buried
(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;
He would contemplate the distance
With a look of pensive meaning,
As of ducks that die ill tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:
Yet the picture failed entirely:
Failed, because he moved a little,
Moved, because he couldn’t help it.

I read “Melancholetta” as a parody of Romanticism, not of the genial type that gave us Wordsworth and Keats, but of the latter-day pathetic type overflowing with sappy sentiments and vulgar depressions. A narrator laments that nothing can cheer up his sister, lost in woes and sighs of deep melancholia. To save her from her gloom he recruits three young men to take her out to theatre and entertain her. The despair of their failure is summed up by the narrator in my favourite stanza:

I need not tell of soup and fish
In solemn silence swallowed,
The sobs that ushered in each dish,
And its departure followed,
Nor yet my suicidal wish
To be the cheese I hollowed.

“A Valentine” is a poem about friendship, with a unique take. According to Carroll, the poem was “[s]ent to a friend who had complained that I was glad enough to see him when he came, but didn’t seem to miss him if he stayed away:”

And cannot pleasures, while they last,
Be actual unless, when past,
They leave us shuddering and aghast,
With anguish smarting?
And cannot friends be firm and fast,
And yet bear parting?

“A Game of Fives” is a very sad poem although I can’t quite understand why:

Five little girls, of Five, Four, Three, Two, One:
Rolling on the hearthrug, full of tricks and fun.

Five rosy girls, in years from Ten to Six:
Sitting down to lessons - no more time for tricks.

Five growing girls, from Fifteen to Eleven:
Music, Drawing, Languages, and food enough for seven!

Five winsome girls, from Twenty to Sixteen:
Each young man that calls, I say “Now tell me which you mean!”

Five dashing girls, the youngest Twenty-one:
But, if nobody proposes, what is there to be done?

Five showy girls - but Thirty is an age
When girls may be engaging, but they somehow don’t engage.

Five dressy girls, of Thirty-one or more:
So gracious to the shy young men they snubbed so much before!

* * * *

Five passé girls - Their age?  Well, never mind!
We jog along together, like the rest of human kind:
But the quondam “careless bachelor” begins to think he knows
The answer to that ancient problem “how the money goes”!

In “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (I don’t know Latin, but I believe it means something like “poet made, not born”), a wise poet gives advice to a younger one on how to become a successful poet:

And would you be a poet
Before you’ve been to school?
Ah, well!  I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic -
A very simple rule.

He also recommends poets to “learn to look at all things/With a sort of mental squint,” which I think is one of the best advices on writing I’ve ever read. In the process he also invents the cut-up technique:

For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.

If this isn’t where the dada artists and Brion Gysin got their ideas from, then it’s an uncanny coincidence. Even the word chance, which was so dear a concept to the Dadaists, is found in the poem.

A poem, the poet explains, must also be ambiguous and hard to understand:

Therefore, to test his patience -
How much he can endure -
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
Consistently obscure.

And this is how contemporary poetry was invented. It’s amazing how in an unpretentious, humorous poem making fun of the poetic creation, Carroll predicted the next 140 years of poetry.

The final poem, “Fame’s Penny-Trumpet,” attacks those who seek recognition and fame before achieving anything worthy:

Fill all the air with hungry wails -
“Reward us, ere we think or write!
Without your Gold mere Knowledge fails
To sate the swinish appetite!”

Carroll also remembers the great thinkers who died penniless and whose posthumous fame has become their only reward:

Be yours the pay: be theirs the praise:
We will not rob them of their due,
Nor vex the ghosts of other days
By naming them along with you.

There are other poems in the book but I’ll leave their discovery to anyone interested in reading it. Phantasmagoria is not as amazing as the ‘Alice’ novels but shouldn’t be neglected. Lewis Carroll wrote so little that everything seems indispensable. This book has everything one should expect from him: humour, light-heartedness, intelligence and a unique way of looking at ordinary things. Lewis Carroll could turn the mundane into something magical and almost every poem here is a testament to this reality-warping gift.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Philip Roth: The Dying Animal



The David Kepesh of The Dying Animal is a divorced professor of literature, father to an estranged son, and a cultural critic on television for the past fifteen years, a position that makes him popular on campus, especially with his female students, attracted to his celebrity status. Kepesh knows better than to have sexual relationships with students, particularly because of subtle accusations of sexual harassment in the past. He’s smart enough to wait until the end of the year and then host a party at his flat, and wait for someone to spring into his trap. Usually there’s always a student willing to spring it.

No, this Kepesh isn’t very different from the other two, even if he seems different in some details. Above all he’s still animated by lust and a need to sate it, and he continues to get into predicaments because of his desires. Still this is a Kepesh at the end of his erotic odyssey, as the title implies. One thing I must give Philip Roth credit for is that he keeps coming up with new ways of addressing the never-ending and perhaps insurmountable problem between man and sex. In The Breast, Kapesh is at war with his own body when it turns into a gigantic erogenous zone of uncontrollable libido. This fantastic allegory gives way to a more realistic bildungsroman in The Professor of Desire, where Kepesh’s young, exciting, boundless expectations of sex collide with the grim and dreary realities he experiences in adulthood. In the final book of the trilogy Kepesh is fighting against old age, in two ways: one through reminiscence and nostalgia; and the other through continuing to seduce young women. He’s sixty-two when he starts a relationship with twenty-four-year-old Consuela Castillo, the daughter of prosperous Cuban expatriates living in Jersey.

Consuela is a beautiful, charming young woman who likes literature and art and worships culture. She’s not so much attracted to Kepesh’s physique as to his cultural authority and his acting as her gateway to a new world of aesthetic experiences in books, painting and music. Kepesh obliges her and becomes a sort of mentor for her, all the while aware of and commenting on the social rituals that dictate relationships:

I show her Kafka, Velázquez… why does one do this? Well, you have to do something. These are the veils of the dance. Don’t confuse it with seduction. This is not seduction. What you are disguising is the thing that got you there, the pure lust. The veils veil the blind drive. Talking this talk, you have a misguided sense, as does she, that you know what you’re dealing with.

Experience and disillusionment have made Kepesh a cynical observer of sex and relationships. He’s been with too many women, suffered too many heartbreaks and failed too many times to find the happiness of the fabled soul mate, to not have an unglamorous opinion of it: “Sex is all the enchantment required. Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken out? Does anyone find anyone of any sex that enchanting unless they have sexual business with them? Who else are you that enchanted by? Nobody.”

He’s less interested in the emotional aspects of sex than in the power that underlies it. For him sex is a struggle between submission and control, with the woman always triumphing no matter what the man thinks:

A boy submitting to her power, what does that amount to in a creature so patently desirable? But to have this man of the world submitting solely because of the force of her youth and her beauty? To have gained the total interest, to have become the consuming passion of a man inaccessible in every other arena, to enter a life she admires that would otherwise be closed to her – that’s power, and it’s the power she wants.

Besides Kepesh’s thoughts about his relationship with Consuela, the reader is also taken on a trip back in time to the 1960s, one of Kepesh’s favourite decades. Having come out of age in the 1940s he’s too late to be an active propeller of the sexual revolution, but his gaze is always alert when big changes are occurring in society. And Kepesh dissects the sixties for all the wondrous freedom they brought to young people in America and the fall of the last redoubt of Puritanism. “Age-old American story: save the young from sex. Yet it’s always too late. Too late because they’ve already been born,” he muses as he thinks of all the students, men and women, who started challenging fashion codes, sexual mores and being more open to a plurality of lifestyles. From this era Kepesh, however, didn’t learn just the finer aspects: he also absorbed the irresponsibility and selfishness of the time, which caused his marriage to derail when his wife got tired of his frequent cheating. The result is a son, now grown-up, who hates Kepesh for the anguish he allegedly caused his mother.

Kepesh sees sex as a force that is beyond man’s control and that ultimately makes him behave irrationally and even callously, part of human nature that can’t be reasoned with or subdued. “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.” This goes against the values of his son, Kenny, who has absorbed instead all the conventional rules of behaviour. When Kenny impregnates a woman he feels like his world is going to end because that wasn’t in his plans. Kepesh reminds him that one of the fundamental tenets of American history is individual freedom and that no one can force him to marry her, to ruin his life because of her. But Kenny, who grew up hating everything his father stood for, is almost neo-Victorian regarding morals and is prepared to burden himself with an unhappy, unplanned marriage because it’s the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do.

And yet Kepesh too starts wrestling with his view of sexual relationships. After not seeing Consuela for several years, after they abruptly broke off their relationship, she contacts him to help her cope with her breast cancer: faced with the horror of disfigurement, she wants to be close to him again, the man who loved her body when it was perfect before it’s irremediably ruined forever. Against his instincts he starts getting deeply involved in her life again, finally showing a trace of vulnerability. Is this what makes him a dying animal, this signal that he’s softening? Although it’s tempting to hope that David Kepesh can meet some closure and happiness, it’s important to remember that many times happiness seemed to be right in front of him throughout the trilogy: with Birgitta in London, with Helen, his first wife, then with gentle Claire. Every time there were signs he could never be fully happy with either of them. Of course this is also the first time Kepesh is old so maybe that changes his perspective.

The David Kepesh trilogy is a curious, unbalanced, sometimes astute set of books. They’re Roth’s clearest statement on man/woman relationships, sex and the pursuit, or even existence, of happiness. They contain some of his best and worst writing. But more interesting is how they record Roth’s own evolution as a writer. The first Kepesh is very close to the ribald Alex Portnoy, perhaps his most famous character, whereas the second Kepesh mirrors the funny but tinged in melancholy observations of Nathan Zuckerman, whereas the third Kepesh seems to prefigure the decadence of Zuckerman from Exit Ghost and also exemplify Roth’s more restrained type of writing he acquired during the nineties. As a Roth fan, all Roth is essential Roth, but David Kepesh is not essential writing, in my humble, rather he helps clarify some aspects of his work.