NEW VOICE, OLD WARS–short stories by Daniel Alarcon

In the best collection of short stories I’ve read in years, Daniel Alarcón has purchased himself a place among the leading young American authors. His well-reviewed new novel Lost City Radio may erase the word “young” from that phrase, though. I haven’t read it  yet.  I think the guy’s got it all and that we’re in for years of delicious reading.

Alarcon’s background is unique in that it is so unremarkable for a guy who writes about such exotic locations and subjects Yes, he was born in Lima (Peru, not Ohio), but he was raised in Birmingham (Alabama, not England.) His parents are both physicians, and he traveled an establishment educational process including Columbia University and an Iowa Writers’ Program masters. You can find insights into his thinking manner in an interview with Latina. Click here to check that out. But to the book.

From some of the stories, you’d think Alarcón was not a middle class university American, but a South American street kid cum revolutionary who was somehow smuggled into this country and learned his craft in night school after a full day of sweeping hallways in a middle school somewhere. Not all the stories are set in Peru, but those that are have the flavor of truth. Whether they would ring true to a Peruvian urchin, I can’t say, but there’s a solid reality here that seems authentic to this gringo.

Whether the characters are loose on the streets or fighting in the jungle, we’re right there, and we know why they are where they are. Alarcón makes us witness to some gruesome events, but he doesn’t judge his people. He just understands them and wants us to understand them as well. Whether the characters are directly part of the Peruvian civil wars or not, they’re all affected, all feeling the conflict’s reverberations all the time. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of both Iraq and Vietnam, though  the Peruvian edition was and is being fought on Peruvian soil. Alarcón treats the personal side of all this. There are no political speeches or  big rallies or posturing. There are just people trying to live out their lives and sometimes their convictions in the middle of forces they can’t seem to control whether they try or not.

But the book is not all war either. Not by a long shot. My favorite story, for example, “City of Clowns,” is a funny and wrenching   identity tale of a man trying to make peace with the death of his wayward father. “Third Avenue Suicide” is set in New York and involves a tortured interracial relationship complicated by the onset of the woman’s debilitating illness.

Alarcón’s prose is simple and clear. Take the beginning of “Third Avenue Suicide.”

    They’d been living in the apartment for ten days when David was first asked to disappear. This was the arrangement they’d agreed upon, and he would do so without complaint.

   Two uncomplicated sentences that state simple facts, raise a myriad of questions, and pull the reader right into the situation. He evokes scenes with simple details:

A breeze carried some candy wrappers toward the park at the top of the hill. Some older men stood on the corner, thumbing through a newspaper they’d laid out on the hood of a parked car. 

     He can get poetic from time to time, but lyricism is not his general mode. in the same story, the apartment that appears in the first sentence becomes almost a character.     Reena and David had rented the apartment on a sunny day when it appeared cheery. However

     It fooled them….Not once [did it approach] the bright golden light of the first day. “Indifferent to light” was how Reena described the apartment. 

   This darkness proves emblematic of the relationship and its circumstances. So Alarcón is a painter who uses simple line and form, not too much color or texture, but whose final product is rich, evocative, memorable. As memorable as some of his superb titles. “A Science for Being Alone.” “A Strong Dead Man.”

Read this book.

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ISABEL AND INES–ALLENDE’S LINES OF MY SOUL

Isabel Allende’s latest work is a bit of a disappointment for me, as her last couple of efforts have been–disappointing only because I have come to expect the awesome from her, and this doesn’t quite reach that standard .
Inés of My Soul is an historical novel, an interesting and well-crafted book, about the founding of Chile, told by and through the eyes of Inés Suárez, mistress of the country’s conqueror and ruler,Pedro Valdivia. Inés a strong and contradictory woman, scrabbles her way first out of her confining Spanish family, then out of Spain, then out of Peru, into prominence in early Santiago. She has Latin passions that make her a force wherever she lands and peasant skills to make her independent of those who would put her in thrall. She is healer, sex therapist, warrior, cook, and seamstress.
Allende tells the story skillfully and with great sympathy. Yet, there’s flatness to the tale.  Too much history and not enough novel, perhaps. She declares that the book is a work of the intuition rather than that of the historian, and I would have her use even more of that famed intuition. There are threads that shine enough to hint what that the book would be like if she did. The subplot of the poor Indian boy who appears mysteriously, then disappears years later, then reappears in an astounding form that brings huge surprise and crisis to the embryonic Spanish settlements is one of those. Inés’ imagined visitations by her husband toward the end of her life and of the book are another. Had Allende managed to exploit more of these kinds of surprises and fantasies and that kind of suspense, the work might have been utterly extraordinary. And there is no lack of such opportunities in the historical record. Pizzaro’s famed betrayal of the Incan ruler Atahualpa, the scheming among the Pizarro brothers as they rape and plunder their way through Peru and beyond, the fact that all these conquistadores (Cortez, too) came from Extremadura, the same tiny corner of Spain where Inés herself was born. All this cries for the kind of spiritual and imaginary connection that I love in Allende. As a result, this excellent novel fails to soar as it could and should given the subject matter and the skills of the author.
However, I carp too much, I think. This is a well-told tale about a fascinating, woman, neglected by history, in an era of history and geographical setting most Americans know almost nothing about. I learned a great deal and had a good time doing it. That, and a glass of good Chilean chardonnay—who could ask more of a book or of life?
sitting up clapping

BAD WEATHER IN TURKEY–ORHAN PAMUK’S SNOW

One of the jacket blurbs on the paperback edition of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow declares that the book heralds the return of the political novel. I don’t know that the political novel ever went away or, indeed, what a political novel is, exactly, but I do know that the phrase cannot contain this first-drawer  work of literature.
Snow’s themes and ideas are complex enough to absorb seminars by themselves. Isolation–political, psychological, romantic, artistic–is but one of the concepts that is intertwined in the interior and exterior lives of the characters as well as the overall action of the novel. The concept of authority–where it rests and how it is exercised in government, families, friendships–moves the plot through the streets of the storm-isolated town of Kars where the novel is set. Kars itself is at once the place where nearly all the action occurs and a metaphor for Turkey and even for the emotional lives of the characters. The analyst who diagrammed the travels of protagonist Ka through its streets might be rewarded with meaning kin to Leopold Bloom’s meanderings through Dublin. And these don’t begin to exhaust what all could be termed main themes. The book is resplendent with them.
Literature itself is a main character. The protagonist Ka is a writer who has come to Kars ostensibly to report as a journalist (though he is primarily a poet) on the upcoming elections. He has endured a long creative dry spell, but his return to the town of his youth sparks new inspiration, and he writes a number of poems. The reader gets to see very little of their content, but the occasions for their composition are all integral to the movement of the action. And, once again, a study of their order and the circumstances under which they were written could consume a considerable course of study.
Important also, arguably the most important, is the title metaphor. Snow isolates Kars for most of the time the novel spends there. It controls the actions and thoughts of many of the characters. The pivotal events would be impossible without it.  Artistically and psychologically, the structure of the snowflake becomes not only a figure for Ka’s interior life, but a diagram for universal system of thought, artistry, and psychology. Exploring its ramifications would reward a great deal study. Ka places his Kars poems, for example, in various locations on the diagram of the snowflakes six poles according to a system of concepts and emotions he has devised. And that system is meant to reflect no less than a structure of the universe. A cliche idea, I thought, to see the universe in a snowflake, no two of which are alike as we’ve been told and told and told. But Pamuk renders the whole idea marvelous.
Adding still another dimension to all this complexity is the narrator, who we think at first is the omniscient author, but who soon turns out to be someone who knows or has known the protagonist in the past, then turns out to be someone who is a bit of detective trying to sort out . . . but I’m giving too much away. The novel is in one sense a mystery along with all its other senses.
Finally, on the political/cultural level, westerners seldom get a chance at insight into the mind of the Muslim world. I’m not talking here about political posturing or slaughter of innocents or quaint costumes. I’m talking about a first-rate artist showing us what it means to live constantly with the idea that your culture is inferior, playing catchup with a world that has passed you by and judges you while glancing over its shoulder as it speeds far down the road ahead. It’s not an idea you necessarily accept or live by, but it permeates your world like a bad smell you can’t get rid of. Snow gave me some insight into why cultural understanding is so difficult to achieve, and it didn’t give me a great deal of hope that it was going to happen in the near future.
However, Snow did reinforce  my conviction that art can transcend–at least for the space of a book or ballet or play or symphony–all the bombs and hatred-spewing presidents and Ayatollahs. And to anyone who cares to take the trouble the exploration of just this one work of Pamuk’s could last for years. I’m not going to dive in to that extent, but I am going to read more of this Nobel guy. Come back later and see what I come up with.

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ROAD TRIP–ON THE ROAD WITH CORMAC MCCARTHY

It’s different this time, Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel. We’re not in the far or near past, the old west or West Virginia. We’re not treated to long, super-vocabularied philosophical discourses. No, The Road places us in a post-apocalyptic world with language and circumstances as elemental as the dilemma of where to find your next meal.
Nothing new about post-apocalyptic novels, of course. They’ve been the mother’s milk of science fiction for a long time, and they’re usually the occasion for object lessons about the dangers of powerful weaponry or the horrors of such weapons in the wrong hands. “The idiot child with a machine gun” is one image I remember from a long-ago read. Or they try to examine just how humans and their societies will behave when the social superstructure disappears, as, they assume, it must.  The Earth Abides by George Stewart postulates a patriarchal/tribal society being established after the bomb and includes a road trip of its own. However, in that book, the clan is fairly well-established and the road trip is an exploratory reaching out to see if and how the larger society might be bound back together. It’s also fairly specific about the technological elements both of destruction and survival. The Road, on the other hand, takes place in a world of chaos  and violence, and McCarthy makes no attempt to explain what happened or how. We know the event was devastating and sudden, that it seared and polluted the environment and incinerated nearly everybody.
The book sets us down in this world with a man and his boy (unnamed, and thus, I suppose archetypal). The man is sick–a respiratory infection or injury of some sort. The boy around ten. They’re trying to go south. To get warm. Beyond that, we know nothing of where they are and where they’re headed. Not do we need to. Their conversations are simple, yet extraordinarily deep. Deeper than many of the lengthy expostulations of McCarthy’s other novels:

He stopped and looked back at the boy. The boy stopped and waited.
You think you’re going to die, don’t you?
I don’t know.
We’re not going to die.
Okay.
But you dont believe me.
I don’t know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
I dont know.
Stop saying I dont know.
Okay. . . .
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
He studied him. Standing there with his hands in the pockets of the outsized pinstriped suitcoat.
Do you think I lie to to you?
No.
But you think I might lie to you about dying.
Yes.
Okay. I might. But we’re not dying.
Okay.

The man and his boy encounter some of the same perils along the road  one encounters in other such novels. This is a road warrior environment, so there are gangs of brutes and murderers about. The pair also have occasional good luck just when they need it, when you think there’s little or no hope. And some bad luck just when you think they’ve finally got something going for them. The important thing about the action, though, is that there is no real goal. They cannot rest. A safe haven will be safe only so long, and sometimes it’s not safe at all. There is nothing and no one to trust because circumstances have turned everyone into wretched savages and every refuge into a trap. The Road is in the end about the struggle to identify and hold on to moral essentials and still survive. To be, as the man and boy so succinctly, simply, and appropriately (for this book) put it “the good guys.”
When I heard Oprah had chosen this book, I was amazed at the idea of McCarthy and her in the same literary universe. But this one is different. And since most of her books deal with the treatment of children, it’s absolutely fitting that she make this strange pairing. For McCarthy, he’s like a desert mountain here, stripped bare of vegetation so you can see the stark framework of the foundations of his literary earth. It’s quite a sight, and The Road is a welcome addition to his rich legacy.

sitting up clapping

J.M. AND ELIZABETH–ELIZABETH COSTELLO BY J.M. COETZEE

J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is one of the more unlikely books I’ve read in some time. You wouldn’t expect–even in the hands of a master like Coetzee–that a book about an aging, not so likable, writer, a book consisting largely of lectures concerning Kafka and animal rights, to have the chance of spit on a hot griddle of being successful. Yet, of course, it is more than that. It’s stunning (if not particularly entertaining) and, to this reader, baffling.
Margaret Atwood said somewhere that E.C. is a book about the futility of writing. That could be true. I found it less that than a book about the futility of living in self-absorbed isolation. Reading the book is like living under constant overcast with an occasional splash of sunlight just to remind you that there is such a thing as blue sky. It could also be true that the book is about the futility of living a life of the mind to the exclusion of the heart. Unless one counts the protagonist’s concern for humans’ slaughter of animals for food a matter of the heart.
Characters and relationships come and go in Elizabeth’s life without continuity or permanence. That goes for lovers, her husband, even her children and grandchildren. The latter she meets as a peripheral visitor passing through their lives on her way around the lecture circuit. The lecture offers fall into Costello’s lap mainly, it seems, on the strength of a novel about Molly Bloom published some years earlier in her career. She’s written nothing memorable lately, and her lectures stir up so much antagonism and indifference among her audiences that one wonders why she gets invited anywhere. So the reader follows her around, listens to her ideas, wonders if she will ever do anything interesting, have a substantial relationship. And that somehow kept the book moving for me, albeit slowly. That and the pure, distilled, clarity of the writing. These words from the mind of her son:
His mother does not have a good delivery. Even as a reader of her own stories she lacks animation. It always puzzled him, when he was a child, that a woman who wrote books for a living should be so bad at telling bedtime stories.
And it puzzles this reader that one could build a book around such a woman. How does Coetzee do it? By keeping the reader wondering how he does it, I suppose.
There’s a great deal more to this book, though, than the creation of an interesting novel around a seemingly weak protagonist. To truly enter the world of Elizabeth Costello, you need a solid background in philosophy and theology. I suspect a solid knowledge of Ulysses would help, too. Perhaps a bit of Dante wouldn’t hurt. Coetzee does not choose Molly Bloom, the subject of Elizabeth’s most successful claim to writing fame, at random, and he mentions the book often. Since I am weak in both subjects, I am certain that I simply didn’t understand a great deal of what Elizabeth Costello is about. And then there’s the last section, a spinabout of enormous proportions verging on science fiction. The more I read it, the less I understood it. I admire this book and think it’s probably a major piece of literature. But don’t ask me to prove it. ‘Tis too hard a knot for me to untie.
Sitting up