Home

“You asked about the blood.” #Borges #Verissimo

28 Comments

After a run of wonderful books by women authors, I was casting around to decide what I wanted to read next, and struggling a bit tbh. Then I remembered Stu‘s Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, and had a quick dig in the stacks. I still have tons of Pessoa calling to me, and plenty of unread Borges; however, I spotted a slim volume which I thought might be just the thing to pick up next – and it was! The book is “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans” by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated by Margaret Jull Costa – and it’s a real hoot!!

The book is narrated by one Vogelstein, a loner who lives an isolated life surrounded by books. Obsessed with the great writer, Jorge Luis Borges, he even writes to the master in his younger years, sending him stories which receive no reply. However, by several twists of fate (including his cat, Aleph, dying), Vogelstein gets he chance to attend a conference on Edgar Allan Poe in Buenos Aires; and here, to his joy, he finally meets his idol. But the conference is riddled with academic discord and competing arcane theories; and when one of the attendees is murdered, Vogelstein, Borges and the criminologist Cuervo (which translates as Raven!) set out to solve the mystery.

The twists and turns of the plot will leave the participants (and the reader!) baffled; which of the three knives found killed the victim? does the beautiful Angela have anything to do with the plot, as she arranged to have Vogelstein housed in the same hotel as Borges and co? and what is the significance of the Japanese professor who is constantly being knocked over? The story will lead you through a fantastic and complex plot exploring hidden language, demons, the mysteries of the Kabbala and the strange tale of the occultist John Dee and his ‘eternal Orang-Utan’ which would supposedly be able to to write all the known books in the cosmos if left alone for long enough…

I have to say that this book was a delight from start to finish! Obviously riffing on Borges’ own writings (particularly the story “Death and the Compass”), as well as that of Poe’s (I won’t say why…), it manages to combine a locked-room mystery with an extremely metafictional narrative which kept me hooked from the very beginning. Although Vogelstein is relating his story to the reader, it is mostly addressed to Borges himself, as if setting everything out clearly so that the great writer can solve the mystery – assuming, of course, he’s a reliable narrator… And indeed, at several points in the tale it does seem as if Borges has found a working solution. Cuervo, however, struggles to accept most of the options proposed, and then something else will occur to change things – it’s all very entertaining!

Inevitably a solution is arrived at, and I was perhaps starting to suspect a little of it as the narrative went on. However, once you reach the end of the book, and Borges’ final words, it all seems so clear that you find yourself going back to the start to pick up all of the clues you missed – such fun, and a lovely homage to Borges himself, too!

As you might have guessed, I loved “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans”. It’s one of those books which has you questioning everything by the time you get to the end; from the various arcane mysteries to Dee and his Orang-Utans, I suspect that there’s very little which is actually grounded in fact. I even found myself questioning the biography of the author at the end of the book, as his name actually translates as “very true”, but a quick search online does seem to confirm he exists!! Nevertheless, this is a treat of a book; if you love quirky crime books or metafictional narratives, this is definitely one for you!

“I wasn’t the kind of woman to cry…” @FumdEstampa #spanishandportugueselitmonth

33 Comments

My second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month is a very different beast from my first; that was early in the month, with the intriguing but baffling “Two Stories” from Sublunary Editions. Today’s book also comes from an indie publisher – Fum D’Estampa – and is a wonderful account of life in Barcelona during the middle of the 20th century. “Forty Lost Years” by Rosa Maria Arquimbau is translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, and has won an English PEN Award; and in many ways it seems like a bit of a miracle that it’s made it into English at all.

Arquimbau is a somewhat obscure figure; a Catalan writer, journalist, feminist, and suffragist, she was regarded as a major novelist in the 1930s. A prolific journalist, she often wrote on what were controversial subjects for a woman in the Spain of the time; and she was also a prominent figure in left-wing politics. During the fascist dictatorship, which lasted a large part of her life, she was persecuted and outlawed, and it’s only recently that her work has been rediscovered in her home country; according to Fum D’Estampa, this is largely due to the efforts of journalist and writer, Julia Guillamon, and the latter provides a moving coda to the novel.

“Forty Lost Years”, first published in 1971, is narrated by Laura Vidal; we first encounter her in the 1930s when she’s in her early teens and starting to make her way in the world. She comes from a poor family; they live in a ‘concierge cubbyhole’ and her father makes furniture at a workshop; and Laura is quite naive, relying on her elder sister Esperanca, plus friends Herminia and Engracia, to guide her in the ways of the world. But the world she lives in is changing, and as Laura starts working as a seamstress, gradually working her way up in her trade, the Catalan Republic is created and then lost, the Spanish Civil War takes place, World War Two comes and goes, Franco’s dictatorship continues. The eyes of Laura see and reflect the changes; from the idealism of those wishing to make the world a better place to those only concerned with making money and having power; and Laura’s ideals are crushed as she struggles to keep pace with the changes and make sure she earns enough to support herself and her family. As she reaches middle age and onwards, she reflects back on her forty lost years, wondering if her struggles to stay free have been worth it – and what lies next for her is not clear.

…I realized that morality is elastic and that you can stretch it this way or that according to individual need and that the poor who can allow themselves to lead strict moral existences are the exception.

This is why I love translators and translated literature and indie publishers. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have had the chance to read this marvellous book, and it really has lodged in my heart. Arquimbau writes in deceptively economic prose, taking us through the years quickly, witnessing the changes around Laura and exploring the latter’s emotions. Vidal is a compelling character – strong, independent, determined to succeed on her own terms, she has no compunction about using men as necessary to get what she needs. But this is never portrayed as gratuitous as she has her own moral standards; and her refusal to marry for convenience and status sets her against most of her contemporaries. Yet as she finds out, she is capable of love – although perhaps not with the best timing.

Times had changed. A kind of hard-faced attitude dominated the world in which we lived, a blend of hypocrisy and fear.

As a backdrop to Laura’s tale there is the constantly changing political landscape. Cleverly, Arquimbau doesn’t allow this to dominate the story; instead, the events happening in Spain and the wider world affect Laura’s life, but she’s allowed to adapt to them and make her way onward as best she can. There’s a section of the narrative where Laura goes into exile, in the early part of WW2, and she ends up trying to escape Europe like so many did; being caught between the Germans moving through France and the fascist regime of her own country must have been hellish. As she moves around Oran, I was reminded very much of Victor Serge’s descriptions of his own flight from Europe to Mexico; and if Laura’s attempt to flee is based on Arquimbau’s own life then she might well have encountered him had she succeeded in getting away.

Disillusion had made me what I was, a woman who had seen the world and felt hollow inside and expected nothing from life. None of what makes living feel like what you would call ‘life’. Where had my youthful zest gone? Or my hopes of a better world? And my wish to fight? And my desire for justice? What had become of my ideals?

“Forty Lost Years” quite brilliantly captures the passing time, no mean feat in only 137 pages. As well as being a record of her times, the book is also the story of a woman’s life and the changes she undergoes, finding herself suddenly regarded as an old bag when she doesn’t feel like one. The feminist in Arquimbau/Vidal shines through as she refuses to take the easy path; although what the rest of Laura’s life will bring her, we’ll never know.

So my second read for Spanish and Portuguese Lit month turned out to be absolutely brilliant, and I really don’t know why this wonderful author hasn’t been translated before. The book comes with a poignant epilogue by Julia Guillamon, exploring Arquimbau’s life, and this includes some evocative photographs which really enhance the narrative of the book itself as well as giving some insight into what Arquimbau had to deal with. Engrossing, inspiring and unforgettable, “Forty Lost Years” is a powerful and often emotional read which takes you through the highs and lows of a woman living through dramatic times. The perfect read for Spanish and Porguguese Lit Month, and a book I highly recommend – kudos to Fum D’Estampa, Peter Bush, Julia Guillamon and all concerned!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

June reading, and the end of an up and down month…

35 Comments

June has been an odd month, really; reading-wise, I started well and read with enthusiasm. However, I was hit by a stinker of a cold/flu thingy midway through the month, which I can only think I picked up whilst attending the dentist – very annoying, to say the least, and it knocked me for six as I haven’t had one for yonks owing to isolating and masking. I struggled through, but my energy for reading dropped to almost nil as when I wasn’t working I just wanted to sleep. So I think I have done quite well with the reading, all things considered, and I have enjoyed some really wonderful books this month:

(Please note I didn’t read *all* of that chunky Orwell – only one essay!!!)

Again, not a dud amongst them – even the difficult or whacky ones were interesting!! 😀

As for July plans, I must admit I’ll be very glad to get to the end of the school term and have a break. There are a couple of reading events this month I’d like to take part in, and the first is Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit month! He runs this event regularly and I always try to join in. Somehow, I often seem to end up reading more Portuguese language books than Spanish, but these are a few of the possible titles:

I’ve been intending to read Pessoa for years and years and years, but always get distracted. Maybe this year… And another Saramago – yay! I love the books of his I’ve read and tried to get to this one during Read Independent Publishers Month but ran out of time. We shall see…

Also up in July is the Paris in July event, held by Thyme for Tea; now, I love Paris and have pulled three possibles off the TBR:

All are titles I would be happy to pick up and dive into straight away. Oh, for more reading time…

Rose Macaulay pencil sketch (Jburlinson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m also planning to spend several days focusing on the marvellous author Rose Macaulay, with particular focus on some titles from lovely Handheld Press. Macaulay is one of those women authors who’s been unjustly neglected, though she’s made a return to the public eye at points over the years; and Handheld have been spearheading a series of reissues of books by and about her, several of which I’ve read and loved. I’m not doing anything like a formal Rose Macaulay Reading Week as such, but if you fancy following along and reading any of her excellent books, please do join in! I’m planning to post between 12th and 16th July, all being well…

Apart from this, there is basically the ginormous TBR which does stretch over a couple of rooms… Thinking about it, at least one of the review books on the pile would qualify for the Paris challenge but it’s a chunkster…

Anyway – whatever I read, you’ll hear about it on the Ramblings! How was your June reading, and are you taking part in any of these events (or any other ones??)

“Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things” #saramago #spanishlitmonth

34 Comments

All the Names by Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Why is it that reading Jose Saramago emotionally wrecks me?? I first encountered him back in 2018, when I read and raved about his “Death at Intervals“; I absolutely adored it, and the ending so floored me that I had to sit down and do some deep breathing… In fact, I may have gone back and re-read it several times! Since then, I’ve amassed several of his books but haven’t yet picked another up; I think possibly I was a little scared in case it didn’t live up to “Death…” However, I was impelled to pick up a copy of “All the Names” fairly recently when I read about it somewhere online; and I wish I could remember where, but anyway, it really sounded like it might have the same effect on me. And when Stu said that special dispensation could be given to reading Saramago during Spanish Lit Month, despite the fact he wrote in Portugese, this was definitely the book I was going to pick up!

Saramago was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and “All the Names” was his thirteenth novel, first published in 1997. It’s set in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths of an unspecified city; the Registry is a heirarchical, old fashioned establishment with, it’s impossible not to say, very Kafkaesque (or possibly Gormenghastian) features. Holding the archive of records for the city stretching back endlessly into the past, it’s run on a rigidly ordered structure, with status cascading down from the all powerful Registrar through the different strata of clerks. This kind of bureacracy will be quite familiar to anyone who’s worked in offices or government departments, I’m sure…

There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe…

Our protagonist is one Senhor José, a lowly general clerk on the bottom rung of the ladder; aged around 50 and timid, he’s also the only remaining clerk to live in a hovel attached to the Registry, the last one of a whole set where clerks used to live. His life is existence in the most basic sense, governed by the rules and regulations of the registry to whom he gives his all; and his only hobby is secretly collecting data on famous people. As Senhor José’s home is attached to the Registry and has the only other entrance to it, he’s able to sneak in after hours to collect the data cards on the celebrities. But one night, by pure chance, he picks up an extra record card with the bundle of celebrities, that of an unknown woman. This simple action sends his life off track, as he decides to investigate and track down the woman from the meagre information the Registry holds; and the investigation will cause our poor timid clerk to go off in some very odd directions!

That simple description belies the complexity and sheer genius of “All the Names”, which is just as frankly brilliant as “Death at Intervals”. Saramago’s unique, ostensibly meandering, sinuous sentence structure is well to the fore, and he does, of course, do without most conventional punctuation. I don’t find this makes him at all difficult to read; on the contrary, I think the way he writes has much to do with the impact of his stories, as the cumulative effect of the narrative building up means that his endings are quietly devastating. I also find it a joy to read.

… a cloud that passes without leaving behind it any trace…

Then there’s his description, and the way he builds up the world in which his story takes place. Here, much is obviously set in the vast labyrinthine structure of the Registry, which is wonderfully conjured and almost a character in its own right. The records are divided into two parts, and of course the section for the dead *will* keep increasing; hence the back wall is constantly having to be demolished (so that the area can be extended) and then rebuilt. This has resulted in a maze-like setting of old papers which is so warren-like that no archivist sets out to explore it without an Ariadne’s thread in the form of a ball of string attached to the ankle so they can find their way back… The regulations are strict, often petty, and work is done with pen and ink, despite progress.

Intriguingly, as we follow Senhor Jos̩ on his investigations, we see more of the city. He tries to build up a picture of the women, visiting her godmother, breaking into her old school (and having to explore more dusty archives!) and eventually discovering that the Registry has a twin in the city Рthe Cemetery, which is subject to similar hierarchies to the Registry, and also struggles with a similar problem of expansion, so that its walls have simply been removed and it spreads where it needs to. Here, Senhor Jos̩ will encounter the physical records of the dead as well as encountering a very singular shepherd in the morning mist and what are probably metaphorical sheep!

It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victims according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the innumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their very natural fear of dying.

I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the book, because I’ve found that much the joy of reading Saramago comes from having no idea where he will take you, or how he’ll end his story – both of the books I’ve read have had unexpected conclusions which took my breath away. And yet, once you’ve got there, the ending is the right one, and the only possible one.

... the one certainty we have, that we were, are and will be dust, and that we will be lost in another night as dark as that first night.

“All the Names” is, of course, very allegorical; and like “Death…” is more that just an entertaining tale. The whole concept of naming things is very human, and in fact is often equated with an act of creation. It’s also a way of humanising and therefore personalising people, things, places; and remembering names of those missing or lost under totalitarian regimes is a powerful way of keeping them alive in our memories. This, of course, gives the Registry considerable power; and presiding over the various clerks is the unusual and compelling figure of the current Registrar. He’s an intriging figure in his own right; about as far away and out of reach of Senhor José as you would think is possible, nevertheless at points in the book he breaks protocol and addresses our hero directly. It seems he may have an unexpected effect on events. It’s worth noting, too, that name-wise, Senhor José is the only character in the book to have one. Everyone else either has a title, such as the Registrar, or a description, like the lady in the ground-floor apartment, which certainly serves to give our José prominence!

Jose Saramago c. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Once more, I was completely seduced by Saramago’s writing, and I think I’ll have a book hangover for ages now. “All the Names” is such a multilayered book, one with so many hidden depths and which I think is really not about what it initially seems to be. Why *should* a meek clerk develop such an obsession with a woman he’s never seen? One character calls it love, and certainly that emotion seemed me to be at the heart of “Death at Intervals”, much as it is here. I love Saramago’s way of building in deeper issues in a quirky way; for example, in the sections where Senhor José has philosophical conversations with his ceiling! It’s one of those books which you could spend so much time on, trying to pick up every little nuance and reference (now there’s a retirement project for me); but briefly it seemed to me to be an entertaining yet profound exploration of the boundaries between the living and the dead (which become blurred not only in the Registry but also in the Cemetery…) “All the Names” was the perfect read for Spanish Lit Month, and I’m so glad Stu decided to allow Portugese books, because I loved this and it will join “Death at Intervals” on my desert island books list! 😀

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth

24 Comments

August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

%d bloggers like this: