Thursday, 28 May 2015

They have to blow out candles or break saucers so people will believe they’re not lying, the sneaks: Alexander Theroux’s pretexts for delicious prose

When Three Wogs, his first novel, came out Alexander Theroux immediately got into the sort of foofaraw that continues to plague him to this day. First published in 1972, three years later the author added an essay to a second edition called “Theroux Metaphrastes,” wherein he defended himself from an ungenerous caitiff of a reviewer who castigated his complex syntax. The recalcitrant sentences was this: “The sky above was the color of pewter: toward it no one looked, for it no one cared. The utter impossibility of alteration, determined through centuries of unquizzical resignation and fortified by a trust in the fancy of a capable God, makes of the grey day in London an inexorability that translates into the accepted gratitude of a traditional pain known to an untraditional pleasure not.” Like Laocoön and His Sons, that magnificent Roman statue praised by Pliny the Elder, considered lost for centuries and rediscovered in 1506 at a vineyard excavation witnessed by Michelangelo himself, Theroux’s sentence is long, twisted and elegant. To the goop who failed to appreciate its beauty, Theroux provided a version more congenial to this withered dendrites – “The English can’t change their rainy weather, and so they accept it.” – but it wasn’t the same: it was too direct, too succinct, too journalistic. “An apologetics here can’t be out of order,” he wrote in the essay, “especially as I am repeatedly called upon to apologize for such elegances: highly inflected, whorled like mussel shells, pregnant with glosses and addenda. It was admired as a grace in the Middle Ages, a colophon of wit, to use as many words, artfully, to say as little as possible.” This, what he calls amplificatio, is at the heart of his style: extravagant, wordy, inventive, erudite and insubstantial.

These traits abound in the three novellas that constitute Three Wogs. Nothing but themes link them: a Chinese shopkeeper is driven mad with abuse by an intolerant woman; a British yob has a menacing encounter with an Indian Jain at a train station; and a homosexual British Reverend, infatuated with an African singer, tries to dissuade him from marrying his fiancée (this reverend, by the way, talks and thinks like a prototype of Dr. Crucifer). However I hesitate to diminish Theroux’s book by saying it’s about racial conflicts and stereotypes. Caricature replaces psychology, subtlety wanders sickly and despondent like the last member of a dying species. Analyses at the root of racism take a back seat to the overblown behavior of its cast of idiotic zealots. The plots march towards predictable conflicts, and their outcomes vary all but little. Ah, but these are novellas wherein each page defies you not to underline a gorgeous, outstanding bit. The Caucasian characters’ hatred for foreigners pale before Theroux’s contempt for the cliché and the familiar sentence.

Let’s have a look at “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers” and leave the others for another day. Thematically, narratively, it’s a very basic novella: Mrs. Proby, a widow, lives in the same building as a Chinese shopkeeper, Mr. Yunnum Fun, a modest, well-behaved “dot of a man.” She detests him and abuses him; he gets fed up and plots her murder. He kills her, and the novella ends. But book reviewing etiquette obliges me to mention that across its 49 pages important themes abound (according to the verso), no doubt as important as they’re easily reduced to simple maxims: treat others with respect; be tolerant; I think I even spotted a metaphor for neocolonialism. And yet, as so often happens, the book’s tone traduces whatever respectability the verso tries to give it. We open its covers and enter the zone of heavy satire. One glimpse at Mrs. Proby and know she’s not just racist, she’s implausibly racist – she breathes racism, speaks racism, thinks racism, reminisces racism every waking moment of her wog-hating existence. Her friends are racist, so are their conversations. She’s boldly racist in the face of non-white people. She’s that kind of racist who only exists in fiction, the kind who says things like “I don’t want to see yellows or browns or purples, I want mine” as if they were the most ordinary chitchat. She complains about the “immigration problem” and maintains that “Voluntary Repatriation was the answer. One had to be purblind not to see that.” And of course she’s a complete nincompoop. We know that because, besides her demented outbursts, she constantly relies on clichés. “A subtle Asiatic, she could never forget, was a horse of a different colour, a Greek bearing gifts, a fly in the ointment, and an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” In a novella like this clichés stand out like a volcanic eruption. But whereas in other books they’re merely laziness, here they’re character building. “Once burned, twice shy, they say. Mark me well, we know what you’re about, too, and you are not, you heard me just say not, pulling the wool over anybody’s sheep’s clothing.”  

No, with such a bombastic character this is definitely not the ideal vehicle for profound explorations of sensitive topics.

Obviously this makes Mrs Proby a hilarious and memorable character. The novella opens with her screaming at a Fu Manchu movie – film stereotypes, get it? –  leaving the cinema and returning to Brompton Road, a bulwark of whiteness were it not for the Chinese neighbor downstairs. Just moments later she’s chatting over tea with her equally racist friend, Mrs. Culliname. “The cinema today is different. So much is, isn’t?” she asks. “The picture I saw was about a garage mechanic and another git, excuse me, but git he was, in a plastic suit, who spent all their time taking drugs and forcing grammar-school youngsters to take baths with them. Now, really, I blame the Queen.” Too much change, too much promiscuity. “We never had any trouble, mind you, until America began to send over shipfuls of dirty books and whole potloads of those smouldering films with toreadors, enormous b-e-d-s (…) and girls in masks and open dust-coats down in Florida in the sunshine, winking at the plumber who came there just because and is supposedly fixing the dip-bulb in the w.c., but we know better, dear, and I wish we didn’t, I wish we did not,” says Mrs. Culliname. Oh, look, old people unable to get on with the times? How new and different! Never saw that situation in books before.

Together, they do all the boring things old British ladies do together, especially pestering innocent people. On a trip to a museum they see a foreigner, a Thai, whom they suspect is masturbating in front of an “elongated, sensual sculpture” and promptly run for the guard to inform him. Besides Mrs. Culliname, Mrs. Proby hangs around with a bunch of moronic middle-aged women. She and her friends meet “together in the pub for what they called a ‘hello’ but what was, in fact, a masterful if somewhat dirty coup de jarnac which squeaked out platitudes and shibboleths and made the day the day.” Like Mrs. Proby, they speak in clichés and stock phrases. Theroux’s merciless about ridiculing characters who speak in sentences not written by Theroux. “Mrs. Shoe finished her Babycham and looked at Mrs. Proby with chagrin. ‘No, I suppose you’re right. One can’t mix leaves with grass and come up with a forest.’ It was something she remembered she read, she thought, in Samuel Smile’s Self-Help or possibly Eliza Cook’s I’m Afloat.” Mrs. Shoe, by the way, also occasions the laugh-out-loud scene of the novella: “’Life,’ replied Mrs. Shoe thinking of the Middle Ages, ‘is different than before, it really is.’”

It’s extraordinary how difficult it is to say anything meaningful or interesting about a novel about prejudice and intolerance. The sheer effort to pretend there’s anything profound or important to say about this book just because it’s about racism. How many mediocre books get puffed up because of their topical topics? Its messages are so obvious they could be delivered via a 3-minute pop song. Ultimately what makes Three Wogs superb is the language, the way Theroux imbues the most ordinary thing with his vision. For instance a physical and mental description. “Mrs. Culliname had the pinched comic face of Houdon’s marble of Voltaire, a sort of thin, wide-mouthed suffragist who existed on an ounce of biscuits, the odd celery heart, and, as well, the persistent need to support and maintain ever fiscal sanity in Britain, a brave and full-time concern. She was the kind of woman who seemed to be always holding back a constant urge to knit, the type of person who believe that the statement, ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Gets Going,’ was an utterance of the highest magnitude, its speaker invariably the impresario of a dreamland that alone could reshape the world and which surpassed, making quite superfluous, every single volume of philosophy, law, science, theology, literature, and general humanity through the long history of mankind, down to the last.” Hell, this is the verve you want to put in every character description! It gets better: Mrs. Culliname’s character is “basically that of blotting paper: passive, receptive, and ready for the strangest of Rorschachs, notwithstanding those patterns of peculiarity soaked up by the thrust and imposition of Mrs. Proby’s iron will and irrevocable opinion.” But can Theroux compare to something even more random than blotting paper? Mrs. Proby has “[a] blocky, cuboid head, faced in pink and white and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry, surmounted a body that made Mrs. Prody lool like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus.” Books on racial conflict come and go, but this is one description for the ages!

Theroux’s talent can show itself just in the description of a daily ritual like the five o’clock tea: “It was high tea: the perfervid ritual in England which daily sweetens the ambiance of the discriminately invited and that nothing short of barratry, a provoked shaft of lightning, the King’s enemies, or an act of God could ever hope to bring to an end.” It can be the fears and fantasies of the characters: “I’m afraid to go out, Mrs. Culliname. Even with my Weenie. I mean, if he should stop to go doo-doo by a post, who’s to guarantee some big hairy thing in a mask won’t come flashing out of a doorway and do me god-knows-what kind of brain damage, bash me with a cosh he might, snatch me handbag, even tamper about down here and there in the you know.” It can be a simple sentence like this: “The ladies understood each other, in the careful way that ladies do once they understand each other.” Don’t we all understand exactly what this means?

Having read Darconville’s Cat before this, I knew Theroux wasn’t going to write something as vulgar as a book about intolerance; there are Pulitzer winners for that. I knew, and wasn’t disappointed, that I’d derive most of the pleasure from seeing how language-allegro he could go with the material, what absurd thing he’d next put in his character’s mouths and brains. And he works hard to constantly top himself:

“In those days, England had a voice in the world, people could understand the lyrics of songs, and there were no Chinese. Changes, however, had come about and had created in her a compulsion for the laudator temporis acti reminiscence, which excluded, perforce, the total existence of both a certain Chinaman and any capacity in him that might try to prove otherwise.”

“Mrs. Proby never could come to terms with the fact that Indians, Chinese, or Blacks even bothered to get on boats and travel thousands and thousands of miles to England – eating only peas and peppercorn or playing mah-jongg or jacks in steerage with all the chickens – when they should have known that the day would certainly come when people would be jumping off into the ocean for want of room, run screaming off into the Highlands for a gulp of air, or begin selling their hair just to keep alive. That was why Mrs. Proby always met Mrs. Culliname at the door saying, ‘Cor, good to see a human face.’”

“Islanders had to know what to eat, because at any minute the Communists, those hoof-footed dongs from the primeval wastes who live only on smudgy black aerated bread and complaints, would be swimming around the whole nation with corking and nets in their mouths, sealing Great Britain off from the rest of the world, and forcing everyone into a diet of cowpats, the lesser sage, and ounces of mastic.”

“They eat queer dishes, write upside down, and whatnot. Peddler’s French on the one hand, St. Giles’s Greek on the other. They say they can’t even swear an oath on the Good Lord’s Bible in the courts; they have to blow out candles or break saucers so people will believe they’re not lying, the sneaks. Now, you see, who gains?”

Almost entirely quotable, this novel!

Obviously Mr. Yunnum Fun is better treated, as befits the tropes of the genre. He arrives from China as a boy, sent by his father to escape civil war and poverty. “Once in Hong Kong, Yunnum Fun’s father walked his son to the crowded dock, handed him a yellow felt sack of coins and a letter, and pointed off toward a rusty steamship, towards the sea, toward England the West.” He boards the boat and never sees his father and China again. In England he lives a low-key existence. “As the years passed, he saved his money, avoided ridicule, dodged flung objects, and watched. Yunnum Fun always watched. But, as has been pointed out, the situation which finds the human race incommodiously jammed cheek-to-jowl, shack-to-shingle, bothered no one less than the small ageless merchant, émigré, exile.” Silently he endures abuse. “Often, couples and customers would come into the store and, to amuse each other,  would intentionally confuse, muffling a giggle, the letters L and R. And others would pass him in the street, mime a shuffle and toss off a remark or two, so that after a period of years Yunnum Fun found that he was easily able to combine and permute a series of about two laundry jokes, none of which he found comic, all of which he heard.” But after an altercation in the shop, he decides to kill Mrs. Proby. “Mrs. Proby had tired Yunnum Fun for three long years now. And because of her, for three long years, Yunnum Fun often found himself bumping around his shop in the dark late at night, drooling, shouting, and almost blind fro the powerful bottles of samshoo he had drunk as a refuge from his tribulations.” So he follows her to a cinema, where she resumes watching the Fu Manchu movie, and kills her with a blowgun, because that’s what three-dimensional, psychologically complex characters do in Serious Literature.

If my review didn’t make it clear, this novel is a masterpiece. Seldom do I read literature that is so unapologetically literary. An even-handed, sober tone would have ruined what makes this novel so special. Like the best of writers, Theroux uses theme as excuse for language. Whatever message this book could have to say, it can be said in three or four sentences. The real motive is the freedom it allows Theroux to go bonkers, to be excessive, to be unpredictable. In each deranged diatribe you could sense him thinking to himself, “How can I make this even kookier?” Three Wogs is a great comical novel, in the honorable tradition of laughing at a problem until it goes away. Except it won’t, because people are stupid and it’s probably pointless trying to look for reasons for behavior that is as ancient as mankind itself. A sensible, meditative, well-balanced treatment of racism, intolerance and atavism will not be found here, and that’s a blessing; there’s non-fiction for that. Here there’s mostly pretext for a verbal Grand Guignol. It’s a masterpiece of excess, a baroque comedy, the type of novel that only shows up once in a decade. Last time it showed up was in 1997. But that this novel has been out of print ever since shouldn’t depress readers: I hear Knausgard’s 4th volume of My Struggle has come out in English at last, Knausgard, that genial wordsmith, that juggler of words who picks up an ordinary, stale thing like the sea, you know, that blue, vast, smooth thing like a plain, and knocks out a unique, completely marvelous simile by comparing it to a “vast blue plain,” forever changing the way we look at the sea. Go buy that, it’d win the Pulitzer if it were American. We logophiles are living in the best of times, so long as Alibris, Amazon and Abe Books continue in the business of selling used books.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Torrente Ballester

Nowadays a search at brings up lots of titles on Gonzalo Torrent Ballester. But it was not always so.

“Our writer is famous, he’s granted considerable importance, he’s a member of the Academy, has an undisputed place in Spanish Letters, loyal readers, unconditional admirers, awards, cathedrae; nevertheless in spite of all this he’s a poorly known, badly studied, summarily analyzed writer. When one tries to compile data or consult a solid bibliography on his artistic production, one finds a haunting void: short chapters on his work with a general feel where his most recent books aren’t even mentioned, poorly nuanced judgment calls that repeat themselves over and over from one manual to another, casual articles in specialized reviews that gloss some of his concrete novels. Nothing definite that could be considered an authentic documentation, like a rigorous analysis of his literary figure.”

So averred Alicia Giménez, who in 1981 wrote Torrente Ballester, a “small work of incitement, of provocation,” in the hopes that more scholars would start studying this magnificent novelist’s oeuvre. Me, I read it because I wanted to learn a bit more about GTB and this struck me as a decent introduction.

This book, by the way, is out of print and I got my copy, of all places, from Birkbeck College, University of London. Why was it there? I don’t know. The inner side of the back cover informs me that a whopping two people withdrew the book before the librarians, I suppose, gave it away to a charity shop that put it on sale online: on January 31, 1983, and October 3, 1986. Something tells me the studies Giménez clamored for won’t be found in the Birkbeck College archives. Assuming these library members didn’t end up like my former classmates, who simply gave up on reading after their graduation (they still talk about the books they read a decade ago…) I keep imagining that they visit blogs, will visit mine, read this post in particular and think, hey, I read that on 31.1.83! Perhaps someone will talk about this in Facebook and word will spread around: someone who knows someone who knows someone who read this book on -3 OCT. 1986. I hear the social networks work for that too. And then I’ll find out why they withdrew this book from the Birkbeck College library.

But while I wait for the rendezvous I’ll just share some tidbits from Giménez’ little book.

GTB was born in El Ferrol, Galicia, in 1910. “He had a childhood rich in imaginative experiences, without traumas or painful family events,” Giménez assures me. Ah, damn it! “In his teens he awakened to a great interest in culture and art.” Oh, so he’s one of those, I should have known. No abusive relatives, no kidnapping, no honour killings in the family, no starvation, no forced emigration, not even a snake bite that left him in a coma or at least delirious and talking to angels and demons; zilch, zero, nada, a blind spot right there in his biography, the next interesting date is his going to college to study Law in Oviedo seventeen years later. That’s in 1927. He’s like Jesus Christ, when they make his movie they’re gonna have to make stuff up about his childhood. This isn’t a page turner, no wonder it only had two withdrawals from Birkbeck College library. I mean just read him in his own words: “My parents took me to the theatre from an early age (according to my father the theatre thought us about life) and while we waited for the show to begin my ears listened to the orchestra and my eyes gazed on Harlequin, on Pierrot, on Columbine, on the set and ornaments because everything exerted a hardly explainable attraction on me. The room in that theatre was one of the few places where I was entirely happy, where I felt the plenitude of life.” Phooey!

So what did he do in Oviedo’s Law School? Got in brawls? Stage student revolts? Kill others in duels? Join illegal organizations? “He got in touch with vanguard writers thanks to works that reached his hands from that city’s Athenaeum, works which compelled in him an interest for new tendencies.” Oh, OK. Let me just adjust my expectations and we can continue without further monkey business. In Oviedo he also started writing for a periodical called El Carbayón, the first of many newspaper collaborations that would become integral to his supporting himself and staying in touch with the public.

But then his family moved to Vigo, a town whose cultural dead end made him travel regularly to Madrid where he mingled, without participating intensely, in circles that include the poets Rafael Alberti and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the novelist Valle-Inclán. In 1931 his family made another move to a small village called Bueu, whose circle of intellectuals he’d later portray in his Galdosian trilogy Los Gozos y las Sombras. “He reads a lot. He debates. He writes diaries heavily influenced by Unamuno,” informs Giménez. Next year he married; after a honeymoon in Valencia he returned to Galicia to work as a private teacher (14 hours a day), a career he frequently later transposed to his novels. Badly paid and overworked, those were not happy times for him. “He considers himself exploited,” Giménez writes (whispers) somberly.

In 1935, after completing a History degree, he become an Ancient History teacher at the University of Santiago, a beautiful place I recommend to all tourists. The cathedral is not bad, either. Around this time he also received the opportunity to travel to Paris to compile material for a doctoral thesis. Parisian cultural life charmed him, but the deflagration of the Civil War put a damper on his joy. Returning to Galicia, he resumed his teaching and joined the Nationalists. “The situation of his native land, Galicia, in Nationalist hands, makes him side with the reactionaries. He signs up as a falangista. Throughout most of the war he’ll remain in the rear teaching at the Instituto de Enseñanza Media,” Giménez indicates. But his relationship with the falangistas was never smooth. In the beginning, during the war, he even managed to publish his first book of essays, Razón y Ser de la dramática futura (1937). He also started writing for a magazine called Escorial, as if foreshadowing his future situation (escorial means heap of refuse. It’s also the name of a famous 16th century monument). At first GTB supported the Nationalists, believing that the country needed stability; so he adopted its values and ideas, hoping that the sooner things returned back to normal the sooner he could continue to pursue the life of the mind. Apparently he tried to remain apart from the conflict as much as possible, devoting himself solely to intellectual matters; around this time he joined a group called Jerarquía, which believed Franco’s Spain would help revitalize Spanish culture and art. In time, though, their positions started clashing with the establishment, leading to GTB’s disillusionment with the victors and the realization that Franco heralded many things but certainly not a haven for intellectuals. Problems began in 1938 when he published his first play, El Viaje del joven Tobias; It was denounced as heretical by the Archbishop of Toledo and almost faced censorship, not because of politics, but because “it was a poetical decontextualized interpretation of a Biblical theme.” There was an upswing in 1939 with him receiving a prize for a second play, El casamiento engañoso, but from here on it’d all go downhill.

After the war ended he continued teaching but started facing problems with the regime’s censorship. In 1943, living in El Ferrol again, he published his first novel, Javier Mariño, which the regime censored and later forbid from circulating in bookstores, remaining on sale for only 20 days. Apropos of censorship, GTB later told in an interview that he had his mind “deformed by self-censorship,” a situation he claimed was shared by many other Spanish writers of his era. Although in his case, thinking about the amazing imagination, vitality, humour and transgression of his works, he never gives the impression he’s holding anything back. Ironically, from Giménez’ description the novel seemed to contain very little that the regime would find objectionable. “The plot of his first novel, Javier Mariño,” she explains since I never read it, “is not far from his personal reality: a Galician young man contemplates from Paris with intellectual alienation and a certain cynicism the turn that the early events of the civil war take. Little by little he finds a personal conviction of what his duties are and he returns to Spain ready to fight for those ideals which end up becoming his. Torrente was not a Galician young man and did not contemplate the war with cynicism but with concerned weariness: the war, the division of intellectuals, the disruption of cultural life, the need to adopt a political posture will stop him from doing with normalcy what he desires the most, what he needs the most, what he only cares about passionately: work, read, write, insert himself totally in the intellectual world.” According to her, the novel is execrable and heavy-handed with the Nationalists portrayed as angelical and the communists as vicious. “Its ideological content carries a clearly partisan and reactionary message,” she asserts, implying also that GTB has pretty much disowned it. “The few scholars who have studied Javier Mariño have been more indulgent with it than the author himself, who thinks it’s bad and that he wouldn’t have printed it for his complete works if it hadn’t been necessary for their totalizing purpose.” The curse of complete works! Why do people have to be so fussy about the meaning of words?

In 1944 GTB helped (or was helped) translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and the following year he came back with a second novel, El Golpe de Estado de Guadalupe Limón. Giménez cottons more to this novel, which I have also not yet read. Noticing similarities with Valle-Inclán’s esperpento, she calls it “a story of love and intrigue, told in a farcical vein and located in a South American country” that demonstrates the folly of political utopias and the chasm between idealism and the actual facts of a revolution. And she adds that “the book is a satire” without a rigid worldview, marking the birth of GTB with the ironical and comical traits that will become his trademark.

New books continued to come out: El retorno de Ulisses (1946) and Iphigenia (1949), without enthusiastic reviews or strong sales; print runs were small and were not reprinted for years. As you can also surmise from the titles, GTB was rather fascinated by ancient myths. In fact in 1947, after a stint teaching Ancient History, which is impressive already, he upgraded to something called Universal History in Madrid’s Naval War School. In 1949 he also published a non-fiction book, Literatura española contemporánea, a survey of then-contemporary Spanish fiction where, it seems, he dragged many famous names through red-hot coals. Years later this is what he had to say about the book: “At last it was written and published the first edition of Literatura española contemporánea, which had three main effects: irritating many people, pleasing no one and isolating me immediately amongst the critics. My situation in the Spanish literary world had never been comfortable. Without increasing in wit, it became even more uncomfortable.”

Ostracized from Spanish intellectual circles, and also resenting the country’s cultural isolationism and backwardness, during these years he made periodical trips to Paris and London to buy contemporary fiction and to stay up to date on new literary trends. Unable to make a living from fiction, he continued teaching and also got an extra gig writing theatrical reviews (“a role for which he’ll be famous and much admired,” Giménez writes) for Arriba magazine and the National Radio. After a long hiatus, in 1957 he published the first volume of a Galdosian/Naturalist trilogy called Los gozos y las sombras: El señor llega. Like its predecessors, the book was not a success; and to make matters worse, his wife passed away a year later.

With his personal life and literary career in shambles, he was just about ready to give up writing. In 2 years El señor llega had only sold 700 copies. “I considered myself definitely dead as a writer,” he later stated. Regarding his insecurity as an author, Giménez adds: “Torrente was late in believing in himself, and unlike many Spanish writers he never had an inflexibly good opinion of his past works; he always performed a severe self-criticism which sometimes struck us as too excessive. Even now he publicly thanks his editor for his confidence in him (a rather unusual phenomenon), and even stated more than once that his successes ‘surprised him’ as if he had never truly deserved them.”

But then in 1959 he received a major award with a monetary value attached to it. This allowed him to go on sabbatical and devote himself to the second volume of the trilogy: Donde da la vuelta el aire. It was like holidays, he even took a trip to Mallorca (hey, if you can afford a sunny paradise, why not?). In 1960 he married again, and honeymooned in France and Germany. Upon his return he wrote the trilogy’s finale, La Pascua Triste, published in 1962 and duly censored for political reasons. In the same year Asturian miners held strikes and organized uprisings that the regime quickly quelled, furthermore imposing a silence on the matter. This prompted a group of intellectuals, GTB included, to issue a document requesting more information about the occurrence; they not only distributed their text inside Spain but also managed to get it published abroad, embarrassing the regime’s image. In order to punish one of the co-signers as an example, they stripped GTB of all his jobs: teaching, theatrical reviewer, etc. Don’t forget that at the time he didn’t yet live off his writing.

To get by he made translations, and in the meantime wrote his next novel. Moving away from Naturalism, in 1963 he published Don Juan, another critical and commercial failure. Here’s what Giménez makes of it: “Torrente Ballester had the horrible audacity of creating a fictional book, made of imagination from start to finish, a book where fantasy, the confusing game of reality-unreality was a constant, the sole raison d’être. Amidst rural dramas, unbridled passions, dark psychological portraits, emotional conflicts and characters plucked from life itself, that unheard-of recreation of the Don Juan myth was an island, an oxymoron, something that had come out no one knew where from nor for what.” These circumstances no doubt made it easier for him to accept a teaching position at the University of Albany. In 1966 he moved to the USA.“Torrente Ballester moves on because he’s a victim of injustice, but of the injustice that has turned Spain into a country where indifference, neglect, censorship and the cultural deformation are the only prizes that the man of thought receives.”

Unfortunately she doesn’t discuss the American years with the detail I’d like; I’m very curious to know what books he read, what writers he met, if any at all, what he thought of US literature. I think his trip to America was of the utmost importance for his future novels, considering their similarities with the type of novels John Barth and Thomas Pynchon were writing at the time. In the USA he only published one novel, the 1968 Off-Side, a long novel which Giménez describes as one of raw realism, investigating for-the-time taboo subjects like homosexuality, and curious about the society’s seedier aspects like crime and fraud. Again the novel received no acclaim and did not captive the public.

Returning to Spain because of his mother’s declining health, he stayed and started teaching History of Literature in Madrid. Then in 1972 he published his masterpiece, La Saga/Fuga de J.B. This is the start of the GTB I know; the novel is a major success, he receives awards for it and it puts him on the map forever. It was a huge surprise for him, who before publication had written to his long-suffering editor: “It is the most difficult and the most intellectual of my novels. I don’t think many will like it. If you agree with me return it to me without problem, because I don’t want to be responsible for an economic failure like Don Juan and Off-Side.” But reviews were stellar and the success unexpected and tremendous.

La Saga… arrives at a moment of crisis in our Letters,” writes Giménez as she explains what made this unexpected success so important. “Known writers have cocooned themselves in their styles, writing works that although possessing intrinsic quality, do not manage at any time to move beyond their horizon-frontier, nor do they succeed in changing the national panorama that remains static. Each one does exactly what he’s expected to do, sometimes better, sometimes not. Younger talents don’t show up: whenever they exist they’re refused entrance through the editorial door which is going through an economic crunch and which refuses to take chances based on personal trust. On the other hand, the South American boom continues strong, although more moderate, and the works of Latin American writers continue to meet the readers’ favour.” Then GTB, in his sixties, showed up with a gigantic novel that, in my meager knowledge of Spanish-Language South American literature, only has equals with One Hundre Years of Solitude and Terra Nuestra. “This novel,” she continues, “imposed imagination without ever forgetting an erudite backbone, decreed humour from satire to the absurd as a narrative golden rule and, taken in conjunction, resulted in an authentic explosion of entertainment, ideas, poetry and new formal possibilities.”

As it is, the La Saga/Fuga de J.B was just the beginning of a fantastic trilogy; and although the following volumes did not reach the heights of their predecessor, they were nevertheless intelligent bestsellers that confirmed GTB’s position in Spanish Letters and that constitute fine novels in their own right. For Giménez, the fantastic in his oeuvre means “the interchange and the interrelationship of levels of reality and imagination in a diffused location, usually invented, where a weakly painted plot fuses myths, legends, true history, human peculiarities, thoughts and personal experiences with pure inventions and dreams.” After a brief return to the USA, by 1973 he was back living in Vigo. The seventies were a productive decade that saw him publish a book-essay on Don Quixote, one of his favorite novels, El Quijote como juego (1975), where he explores Cervantes’ novel as an intellectual game. Indeed, GTB once asked, “Is it really that hard to admit that this writing stuff is nothing but a game?” This is one of my favourite writing quotes, by the way. Then in 1977 he published Fragmentos de Apocalipsis, a remarkable meta-fictional novel for which I have a special predilection. That same year he received membership for the Royal Spanish Academy, giving a lecture entitled “On the Novel and its Art.” Joining the establishment did not diminish his skills and he continued to write many interesting novels until he passed away in 1999. Giménez’ book stops in 1981, with La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, concluding the fantastic trilogy. My review can be found here. As for what he wrote afterwards, well you’re going to have to wait for my future reviews. But I hope this gives you a new appreciation for an extraordinary novelist who must be translated into English.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Announcing the Eça de Queiroz Month

This quick post is just to let my readers know that next month starts my Eça de Queiroz Month. That's the whole month of June devoted to Portugal's greatest novelist. St. Orberose's recent ghost town tranquility is about to suffer an upheaval. Expect oodles of biographical data, reviews of books not available in English, and countless excerpts from his letters and journalism. By the end of next month you'll be knowing Eça better than all the high school kids who never made it past page 324 of The Maias. It's going to be fun.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Times change and the mobs become civilized: reading Hélia Correia

In a 2014 interview António Lobo Antunes explained why his novels revolutionized Portuguese fiction in the 1970s. “At the time the plots were distant things, countries from Antiquity, imaginary, pure fiction all of it.” Those acquainted with his animosity towards José Saramago (his rival’s death hasn’t abated his viciousness when the name comes up) cannot but see a jab at his writing. Indeed his early post-1974 fiction had an allegorical setting (O Ano de 1993) or took place in the past (Raised from the Ground, Baltasar and Blimunda) so much so that critics branded the future Nobel Laureate a historical novelist, much to his annoyance. Even so Lobo Antunes’ words speak the truth: at the time novelists like Dinis Machado, Lídia Jorge, João de Melo, Vergílio Ferreira, Fernando Assis Pacheco and Mário de Carvalho did write in a language over which the shadow of censorship loomed still, a language of vagueness, whispers, circumlocution, modesty, parables and allegories, a language that used the past to speak about the present, diluting frontal attacks with distance and hoping the astute reader would notice the parallels, a language descended from a policed poetry that used “dawn” for “freedom” and “vampire” for “fascist” or “capitalist” (as if the distinction existed). When Lobo Antunes emerged in 1979, his novels with all the “fucks” and “shits” in their proper places, overt sexual imagery, cynicism over traditional lyricism, and refusal to mediate the trauma of the colonial war via dippy symbolism, heralded a new era of Portuguese literature full of for-the-time taboo subjects like divorce, homosexuality, (male and child) prostitution, incest, teenage pregnancy, urban violence, abortion, rape, racism and mental illness. With his irate, blunt novels he not so much announced that the Modern Era had irrevocably arrived in Portugal, but that he had exclusive rights in chronicling the spread of its most gruesome aspects through society.

And so it seemed for some time. Although the dictatorship fell in 1974, by 1983 Portuguese novelists still had an aversion to dealing with the contemporary age in an open manner. Other factors besides deep-rooted habits involve the brief influence of the nouveau roman and the popularity of magical realism, which showed up around that time. So when Lobo Antunes published his exploitative masterpiece Fado Alexandrino, it shared bookstore’s shelf space with a bewitching novella called Montedemo, by Hélia Correia (b. 1949).

Last year, curious about the history of magical realism in Portuguese letters, my research took me to this writer.  Coeval with the authors who pioneered the genre here (Jorge, Melo, Saramago), her novella takes me to a nameless country, to a small village actually, time-stilled, backward, rural, isolated (a mini-Portugal in other words), honouring still its ancient traditions, going all the way back to paganism, but foretelling clashes with modernity.

Told by an omniscient narrator in an oral register, it relates certain supernatural facts in an ambiguous, distorted manner; it’s not so much chronologically fragmented as it simply refuses to assume any certainties and to assert. It’s full of expressions like “Some swear” and “Nowadays” and “Even now”. Verbs like “told” and “rumoured” abound. As a device, I liked it very much in how it gave the text that small town gossip feel.

Indeed the novella begins precisely by putting into question the memory of the villagers “Later a few remembered that it all began on that dry Sunday when the earth shook,” so goes the opening sentence. “A thing without importance, one moment felt the other moment quieted down.” Just a “light trembling in the loosening of the night, time for the moribund and the drunk, everybody thinking they were balancing in maternal, warm, protective liquids.” But bizarre phenomena, subtle at first, accompany this earthquake, even if the priest “confessed that he found it very strange that the bells tolled just on account of that small shake,” and that “the morning arose radiant and frozen, and the sea itself so weightless, so dancer-like and clean of sin, that the matter passed into oblivion.” Of course it does not get forgotten. Confounded, people “bloated with science and serenity” in search for rational, scientific explanations. But “tired of prodigies,” people ignore the signs and go back to their lives, more worried about the  St. George Day festivities.

Originally a pagan festival that a friar (whose name has been forgotten) rechristened after the dragon-slaying saint to direct the people to God’s way, it involves a trip to a hill called Montedemo (Monte Demo = Devil’s Hill), bearer of special properties. “Every sort of plant species thrived there, a seed coming by air, or in the fox’s fur, or in the snake’s back, a thicket thrown by a child, everything sent roots onto the ground to live and fruit and flowers into the sky, its way of loving. Heathers, honeysuckle, arbutus, germander, eucalyptuses, wild roses, orange trees and wild blackberries, jimson weed and so many more mixes of mountain flora and desert flora entwined, fighting against the rock, devouring that humus and into humus turning. In a frenzy of sap and senses, such was its hunger that every Spring one noticed the hill bloat and shrink, as if gasping, like a man crazed by desire.” Now a Christian ritual, on February’s second Sunday the villagers perform a procession to its base. “People call it Montedemo and nowadays it’s still told that couples about to marry went there, covered by night and hooded. Against church laws, against the rules of prudency they went. And they rested their mouths and bellies against the earth, asking pleasure and harmony for the bodies and for the blood healthy and male children.”

But something happens on this particular procession. “Over the sky thick, furled tides of clouds grew, as if made of oil. Suddenly it seemed as if the musical band played inside cascading water, amidst the dolphins’ ouches and the medusas’ laughter, and there it was the abyss: ‘Virgin Mary, what is this?’ Coral nervures, rock gleams. The green and the black, the saving nacre.” After deliberately flowery and imprecise descriptions, the text has a good reason to ask: “What delirium was that? No one knows.” The festivities come to an end: “The night is preparing itself, it leaves its burrow, silent and astute in its blackness, with its smooth puma jump leaping over the distance, guzzling Montedemo. And in front of it the partiers run towards a village in a nameless hurry, in dread.” So what happened? Thanks to bits here and there, we can surmise that a mass orgy occurred, something that brings shame to the villagers, that no one wants to talk about and everyone tries to forget.

The plot switches from the general to the particular when a semblance of a protagonist appears in the figure of Milena, a young woman who doesn’t come home after the festival. This elicits fear and suspicions from Dona Ercília Silveira, her aunt. “A decent girl: no fashions, no dates, no make-up. ‘Perhaps just a bit too decent,’ said a voice going through Dona Ercília’s brain who got up frightened by the bad direction of her own thoughts.” Dona Ercília is a pious, spiteful, rancorous woman in the grand tradition of Eça’s Auntie (The Relic). Devoted to Christ, living in seclusion for decades, without ever going out, she still remembers with contempt and disgust the one day in her youth when she succumbed to love and shared a kiss with a man, a lottery ticket seller:

   While she caressed her rosary beads, she wished the death of the lottery ticket seller, who in a devil-inspired craze she had hugged and kissed like a lost woman. Never but never would she suffer to meet him in a street corner. She made the sign of the cross and decided that she’d only go out into the street again after they brought news of his burial.
    Which until now hasn’t happened.

Shortly after Milena returns she starts showing a pregnant belly. “She was frightened and made the sign of the cross, thinking that the battles of God and the Devil took place so close to men that sometimes they appeared in clear sight,” says the narrator about Dona Ercília. Then the novella progresses in quick, short chapters heavy on imagery and supernatural-soaked lyricism. Milena takes up with Irene, the village’s fool. They share a hut with her animals. Months later the local pharmacist is called to deliver the child. “He sighted the hut when the sun rolled itself up in a heatless grey circle. From the waters came a frozen air, dotted with matterless glows that absorbed color and light. On drawing aside the entrance’s cloth he recognized the seasoned and bitted air of animal beds. And even before spotting Milena a great peace, like a spell, had ameliorated his vibrating nerves.” Of father unknown, a black boy is born, which in the Autumn months gives rise to nervous gossip and violent resolutions. “The birth of the black boy once again aroused hatreds, fears. The great convulsion caused by almost a whole year of strangeness burst the dams of consciousness and transformed men into scared beasts.” Later we read: “That the girl had dared to have a son without the priest’s or the notary’s blessing, that the village could forgive. Times change and the mobs become civilized. That she ran away to the fool, that’s a sign of nothing but madness and would only cause compassion. Now all that and having a mulatto child…”

So obviously a mob marches to kill Milena and the profane child; but supernatural events intervene and Milena disappears. Rumors have it she lives somewhere in Montedemo. Some claim to have spotted her amidst rocks and rivulets. A character suggests: If outsiders suspect they’ll get in there with dogs and gasses. Which is no way of deciphering an enigma. There are no limits for what’s human.”

And so this small, low-key novella ends without making a lot of sense. I think I can almost see a meaning to it. I see in it the birth of some pagan Christ. And perhaps also a symbol for rejuvenation of a country that had recently put behind a Catholic Church-backed dictatorship. I can see a critique of modernity’s unfulfilled hopes: “Times change and the mobs become civilized.” Do they? For all Lobo Antunes’ sensationalist reveling in filth, this unknown, isolated village is still quite real. Lobo Antunes of course is an urban (that is, Lisbon) writer; but Correia’s villagers with their mixture of wholesomeness, bigotry, gossip, and fear of the strange remain a fixture amongst a nation that still has strong rural roots. Her villagers who abandon Portugal to make a fortune abroad and then return to their village to build a mansion with their savings and spend the rest of their lives tending a garden, is still a reality in a country that never solved its massive unemployment problems. And in her oblique way she also chronicles the way the modern world has swept through these forgotten places. Although as I see it she’s more concerned with the way people lose roots with tradition and myth and replace them with empty rituals. “There was never St. George’s festival again. They’ve replaced it with barbecues on a deserted beach, higher up North. Of Montedemo little is said, little is known.”

Correia’s novella also has similarities with a 1923 novel by Aquilino Ribeiro, Andam Faunos Pelos Bosques (There Are Fauns In The Woods). Aquilino’s bewildering novel is about an entity, we never find out if human or supernatural, that goes about sexually assaulting women in the woods surrounding a small village. The consequence being that these women are ostracized, much in the way Milena absconds from human society.

I liked Correia’s novella. For one thing its imagery is superb; any book that describes a hill as a “man crazed by lov”e or the night as a leaping puma gets my respect. A sky made of “tides of clouds,” that’s always good in my book. She also reminds me of Aquilino in her beautiful descriptions of nature.

Like Montedemo, little is said, little is known about the book. Correia is not a prolific writer with a vast oeuvre, and although good reviews never failed her she’s not a writer whose name has imposed itself on readers. This book has been out of print for more than a decade and I had to buy a used copy. It was in fact the first time I read her. I’m quite glad I did; it’s not in Fado Alexandrino’s league, but few books are. Nevertheless it’s still a well-written, enchanting work of fiction.