Fiction: March – April 2010

Roberto Bolaño 2666
Incredible, all-encompassing book. Horrific in its dull (by which I mean deadened, not boring) thudding repetition of grotesque violations, but also transcendental in its spatial and temporal ambition. I would thoroughly recommend it, but suggest reading The Savage Detectives first. The Savage Detectives is not the lesser work per se, nor necessarily lighter reading, but somehow works as an entry point (and is referred back to in 2666, though not to the extent that it’s a prerequisite). Images from this book are still slapping me round the face in moments of complacency six weeks after finishing it and I expect to be haunted by it for a long time. I’m now trying to tackle By Night in Chile (in Spanish).

Junot Diaz The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Also ambitious, though much more concise and centred, this book manages to be many things in its rapid-fire 300 pages. It is a modern history of the Dominican Republic, and a well-researched one if the copious footnotes are to be trusted. It is also the story of a family which is ripped apart and put back together on several occasions. It is a description of many types of power-relationship in patriarchal, sometimes militaristic societies. Finally, it is the story of Oscar Wao, a nerdish anti-hero who to me was charming in his introspection and repellence. Again, strongly recommended.

Aldous Huxley Crome Yellow
Short debut novel (I think) from Huxley, a satire on 1920s upper-middle-class young folk and their social mores. Lopes along at a gentle pace and has a few laughs, though it’s also surprisingly mordant and pessimistic. The highlight for me was the story-within-a-story of Crome, the country estate where much of the action takes place, including the woeful tale of the Lord of the Manor whose dwarfism causes him to employ (and marry) only those similarly afflicted, and even better, the efforts of Sir Ferdinando Lapith, whose obsession with correct placement and interior design of toilets outstrips even my own. Not what I would consider a must-read by any stretch, but it’s fun and short, and if you’re a fan of Huxley it is good as contextualisation for his later work. Also a better historical social satire than…

Evelyn Waugh Vile Bodies
I really wanted to like this. I loved Decline and Fall and Scoop, and Brideshead of course, but I just thought this was silly. I read it immediately after Crome Yellow and it seemed absurdly light, empty and petty. Naturally, with Waugh at the helm, it has its moments – there are some excellent passages of dialogue where the participants are speaking at cross-purposes to great comic effect, and the amazingly fluid on-off engagement of Adam and Nina is memorable. Overall though, I had to labour through it, which is a bit of an indictment for something so short.

Werner Herzog Conquest of the Useless
Another amazing book. This is a diary kept by Herzog during the making of his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo, covering the initial pre-production difficulties, the collapse of the first period of filming (with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger), the turning to Kinski to rescue the project and the Pandora’s Box which that opens, and most of all the great journey into his own character and mind that this clearly was for Herzog. I just can’t begin to explain this – it is absolutely packed (i.e. every single page) with bizarre, horrific or wonderful images, sometimes all three. Mick Jagger arriving in the middle of the jungle in a “tuxedo and tennis shoes”, immediately being roped into acting as chauffeur for other cast members; a logger, bitten by a snake and realising he has moments to act, sawing off his own foot to prevent the deadly poison moving further up his body; and of course the ship itself, moving up and over the hill; the blood from Kinski’s badly-beaten wife all over their wall; a tiny yellow bird chick that thinks Herzog is its mother. I couldn’t put it down, and it is a fantastic opportunity to see inside the mind of one of the great modern visionaries. So much self-doubt alongside so much resolve. Incredible.

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Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 4:33 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. Hey, just browsing your non-futbol blogs (I’ve also read the futbol ones, but I got tired of the World Cup and futbol in general; my last word(s) on it is/are: I fell asleep in every single game I tried to seriously watch) I came across your short reviews of Bolaños’s Los detectives (I know the review is about 2666, but you threw los detectives in there) and Oscar Wao. I appreciated both. I could not agree more with the statment about Diaz’s and the history of the Dominican Republic. Having read a couple of recent history books on the Dominican Republic (and one that I recommend is Allen Wells’s Tropical Zion), I really think that Diaz’s first or second footnote in Oscar Wao has more history of the DR than any other history book of that country (including Vargas Loosas’s Fiesta del Chivo). The rest of the book I also enjoyed a lot (although I have heard bad comments of the Spanish translation, which may be an interesting matter of the impossibility or the many difficulties of translating Spanglish into Spanish).

    • I’ll have a look for Tropical Zion, that sounds interesting. Any mention of the Dominican Republic takes me back to the tensions at my old workplace when we held events on Haiti; there would always be criticism of the role of the D.R. in undermining Haiti, and I think this probably gave leeway to the authoritarian regime as it was acting as a sort of proxy (corrupt) policeman for the whole island.

      Good point on the Spanglish. There is a whole website devoted to the Spanish bits in the English version here though a couple of the translations are questionable. You’re right though – it’s very hard to translate slang. It came up in the World Cup (sorry!) because the Mexican fans all shout “puto” when there is a goal-kick. That could be ‘bitch’, ‘rent-boy’, ‘chicken’; there are many alternatives. There’s also the problem (or delight if you are a linguist I suppose!) of the different meanings for words throughout Latin America. Doubly so when there are hybrid words across American English and Latin American Spanish!

      • Oh, Tropical Zion has nice references to Haiti. In a way it says that Trujillo’s regime was marked by two things: el corte (the massacre of Haitians in 1937) and the establishment of a Jewish colony in Sosúa, DR, in the early 1940s. And then it tells a nice story about how Trujillo was making FDR look bad, because he (Trujillo) was (in speeches, though not in reality) willing to accept more Jewish refugees than FDR.

    • I’m still getting used to this blog format, but one of the good things I’ve just found is those autogenerated links. I went and dug around a few and this one, which reviews both Oscar Wao and the Savage Detectives (though they didn’t like the latter too much), and this one, which is an ongoing commentary, seem interesting.


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