Showing posts with label Spanish. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spanish. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

WITMonth Day 21 | Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso

Listen up, Hollywood. Here is your next major blockbuster adventure film or miniseries. Are you listening? Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is your next summer hit, I promise, just don't mess up the casting. This story (translated by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto) is so utterly wild, it's impossible not to appreciate it (even if you're likely to spend half your time reading scratching your head and raising your eyebrows).

There are a few things I should point out right off the bat. First, yes, the title is a little... bad. The term "transvestite" rather clearly displays this edition's age (and it has not aged particularly well). Second is the questionable approach (in general) taken in attempt to contextualizing the author's gender/identity within (not so) modern definitions, that ultimately left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. The introduction (and again the title) attempts to define who Catalina de Erauso was, but I'm not certain that the conclusions are entirely apt (I'll get to this in a moment). This is certainly a shame, but that should not erase the content within the book itself. Which, again, absolutely ridiculous.

Because Lieutenant Nun is a memoir of sorts, but it's the sort of memoir that leaves you wondering whether the author is just having a good laugh. The story is chock-full of unbelievable coincidences, recurring characters (since when does that actually happen in real life...?), absurd adventures, suave romances, gender-bending apathy, and constant drama. Was the author really pretty much the coolest Spaniard roaming around Latin America in the 17th century? Or is this a case of epic trolling?

Of course I did not know any of this before I picked up the book. I purchased Lieutenant Nun (for a nice $1 at a used bookstore) precisely because of the gender question posed by my edition; I was intrigued by the contrast between the nun and the soldier. As I learned more about Erauso, I found myself drawn into scholarly debates about gender and sexual identity (a taste of this is available on Wikipedia, surprisingly!). This debate is, of course, heavily influenced by current cultural interpretations of gender and sexuality, and I personally have often been uncomfortable with attempts to define historical figures by modern categories of gender/sexuality. Even so, reading Lieutenant Nun, exploring Erauso's own casual dismissal of femininity (at times) and flirtations with women (frequent) and alternating identification, I think the characterization of Erauso as genderqueer or gender nonbinary is ultimately the most descriptive (especially since Erauso used both masculine and feminine pronouns).

Erauso begins the memoir by detailing the childhood of a young girl, destined for the convent. This is where the adventure begins, with Erauso quickly leaving the confines of cloistered life behind and embarking on a series of terrible exploits that ultimately lead to their arrival in the New World. Here, Erauso ends up involved in an almost endless stream of complications, ranging from "I basically made all the pretty noble girls fall in love with me" to "I lost a ton of money" to "I shot and killed my brother" to "I got out of murder charges six more times in a variety of ways". In a rather dry, thin style, Erauso tells of each adventure as though it's all perfectly normal. As I read their account, I couldn't help laughing aloud. It's all so ridiculous... yet so entertaining. Made for film, I tell you.

It's surprisingly difficult to actually summarize or review Lieutenant Nun. There's the narrative itself, of course, with the intense and dramatic adventures that is pretty much impossible to describe without doing its absurdity injustice. But then there's also the meta-commentary, the modern interpretation of Erauso's gender (and why is it that we're so obsessed with their gender/sexuality anyways...?) and the extensive discussions surrounding it. I'm not particularly qualified to get into that, nor into the more historical analyses of the veracity of Erauso's various stories. But they cast an interesting light on this short book, adding depth to a swashbuckling maybe-totally-trolling brief memoir. Even without getting into the meta conversations though, the book is definitely worth reading just for the wild ride you'll end up on... and again, Hollywood, your next hit is calling!

Friday, August 25, 2017

WITMonth Day 25 | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

You know what's always fun? Fantasy that isn't based on European medieval conventions!

This is a personal pet peeve of mine: I loathe the way almost all modern fantasy is not only English-language (including out in other countries, where it's predominantly translated from English) and rooted in British/European mythology and cultural norms. Often, the foreigners will be dark-skinned or have almond-eyes, will be either savage or vaguely wiser than the protagonists (depending on whether the book was written more than twenty years ago, or whether it's recent and progressive). The mythology will vaguely resemble Greek or maybe Norse or maybe even Celtic mythology. It's all very similar.

So whenever I encounter a book - whether Anglo in origin or not - that comes from a culture that is not European, I cheer. I am automatically in love with the book, just a little. And oh boy, does The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc (translated by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar) fulfill that wish, even if it doesn't always rise to its own ambitions.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Days of the Deer a lot, but I'm not sure that it always lives up to its own promise. Here is a fantasy novel that reimagines a land that is very clearly meant to be the Americas, before the European invasion. From the first moment, Bodoc reimagines the Americas and its diverse peoples as a variety of mostly separate tribes or creatures. In the far south, we have our protagonists, the Husihuilkes of the Ends of the Earth. We have the descendents of the Northmen, who have lighter skin and red hair (...Vikings. They're descendents of Vikings.). We have loud, jangling, bright culture in the center of the continent (Mexico?). And these exist alongside more magical creatures, like the Lukus and the Owl Clan.

A fleet of foreigners are crossing the sea. Are they invaders? Are they the Northmen, returned to reunite with their people? Are they the representation of pure evil that this fantasy world has? The book isn't especially subtle in framing this fleet as the European invasion of the Americas. Except in Bodoc's world, things play out a little differently. Here, a group of magical Astronomers are aware that the fleet is coming and have time to prepare - or at least, to figure out what to do. And this is where The Days of the Deer begins, with Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes summoned to represent his people in figuring out what's going to happen.

Curiously, The Days of the Deer follows a very different story from what I was expecting. Its opening suggests a longer type of quest than what plays out, as well as a predictable climax that didn't end up happening. Instead, The Days of the Deer contains some genuine plot twists and unusual stylistic conventions. Bodoc never seems to go for the easy route, and indeed there are plot threads that open and close at all points of the novel. It's so different from most fantasy books, that while it might seem a bit jarring, it's also remarkably refreshing. It's not always perfect pacing, but it somehow works nicely to create a solid flow. It just doesn't always seem to take advantage of the world that it's built. Bodoc's focus is so strongly on plot developments, that she doesn't stop to enjoy the surprisingly rich treasure chest of culture, history, and myth that is available to her.

I have one main critique of the book: the writing. I always struggle to critique writing in translation, since I hate to pin blame on translators. Yet with The Days of the Deer, there was always a sense of aloofness in the writing that didn't quite vibe with the genre. Different genres have very different writing conventions for what is aloof, casual, or appropriate, and The Days of the Deer felt like it wasn't quite aware of these conventions within English. This, I imagine, is something that can stumble in translation, particularly if the translators are more used to strictly literary (or Literary) texts, as appears to be the case. This means that the story always felt like it was just slightly out of sync, though this is not so severe that it hinders the story altogether.

The second main problem I had is one unrelated to the book itself, but rather to the publishers... While The Days of the Deer has an internally closed ending (no cliffhangers, thank goodness!), it does leave quite a few loose threads that are, I imagine, meant to be picked up in the sequels. However... while The Days of the Deer was translated in 2013, there does not appear to be any intention of translating and publishing its sequels in English. Alas.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WITMonth Day 17 | Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi

To be perfectly honest, I was mostly drawn to Liliana Colanzi's Our Dead World (tr. Jessica Sequeira) because of Colanzi origins. As I was compiling my Reading the World list, I struggled to find any titles for Bolivia. Helpful Twitter readers instantly pointed me towards this (then-forthcoming) title, and I immediately added it to my reading lists.

I had a gut feeling before reading this slim short story collection, however, that it wouldn't be entirely to my taste. The summary on the back highlighted the oddness of the stories, but I have found in recent months that I'm less interested in "weird" stories. Or rather, if the stories need to stray off the beaten track, I like to have a sense of cohesion within them and a strong sense of character. Some books do rather well at casting that "weird" spell while remaining grounded in an emotional connection... Our Dead World a little less so, and I left the book feeling generally empty. Not disappointed, exactly, nor especially frustrated. Just feeling like the book hadn't managed to leave any mark on me.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps I simply read the book at the wrong time, over a weekend in which most of my time was spent stressing out about my future and things far beyond my control. Perhaps I simply didn't give the book the space that it deserved. Even so, now as I flip through the stories, I find that only one out of the eight has managed to linger in my memory, less than a week after reading the entire collection. Most of the stories in Our Dead World felt like clever little exercises: curious premises that twisted and spun around, but didn't spend too long on their characters.

But longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm rarely impressed by books of this sort. In fact, this has colored my impression of almost all single-author short story collections that I've read in the past few years. I love short stories as a form, but I often find myself bored or disappointed by collections from the same author. Here, the problem was less an author's uniform style (the "variations on a theme" problem, as I like to call it), but a uniform lack of opportunities for the reader to form emotional connections with the characters. The stories instead are brief, cool, and detached - something I am sure appeals to many readers, but not to me.

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A prologue to a non-existent book | In Her Absence

I wouldn't even call Antonio Muñoz Molina's In Her Absence a novella. It's a short story, or even more accurately, a prologue - the entirety of the story takes up so little space and covers so little time, it feels like a grand setup for a different, larger novel. A novel that never comes to fruition.

This has been happening to me quite a bit recently - I'll read a book, it'll be moderately worthwhile but generally disappointing, to the point that I finish it and wonder what I'm supposed to say and do now. What can I possibly say about In Her Absence, other than the fact that it's an introduction more than it's its own story? How long can I discuss the writing (good, but not particularly noteworthy or remarkable)? The clearly drawn characters who ultimately go nowhere? The utter lack of plot that leads to a bizarre and thoroughly open-ending conclusion?

Essentially, yes: I was disappointed by In Her Absence. As a stylistic exercise, I can understand the appeal of this short story - it builds two characters from scratch, presents readers with their lives and backgrounds and flashes of their personalities, all developed between the rather mysterious and inconclusive concept that opens and closes the story. The writing is definitely solid and there are no glaring issues. It's the lack of resolution that made me feel like it's a prologue. I could easily imagine a four-hundred paged novel that uses the entirety of In Her Absence as Part 1, a backdrop to a larger story, the introduction to the characters, the various mysterious plot threads, and a general mood setter. It would work wonderfully as such. By itself, it felt rather empty.

Normally I don't say things like this. Normally I tell longer novels that they need to be shorter. Normally I'll recommend threads of a story be cut down into a slim novella rather than a bloated five-hundred paged mess. I never even knew that I could want a short story to be more broadly developed. I never thought I'd ever hope for less minimalism. What a contradictory feeling...