Chile Posts

Tuesday Reads (Vol 1): 11 June 2019

Dear Reader,

There are so many exciting new books being published that sometimes it is a tad challenging writing about them as fast as one is reading them. I have truly enjoyed reading the following books. Each one has had something special to offer.

The Remainder by Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated by Sophie Hughes is a darkly comic road novel. It is about an unlikely trio in an empty hearse chasing a lost coffin across the Andes cordillera.  Felipe, Iquela and Paloma are the three friends who are in search of Paloma’s mother’s coffin. It was “misplaced” in the journey from Germany to Chile. Paloma’s mother passed away overseas but wanted to be buried in her homeland. It is a bizarre journey they embark upon, narrated by Felipe and Iquela. The three were young children and often refer to the referendum night of 5 October 1988 when the people voted to topple Pinochet. At one level the journey can be perceived as a bildungsroman but it is also a coming-to-terms moment for the three with their past. A dark past that cast a long shadow upon Chile. Alejandro Zambra has called such novels belonging to ‘the literature of the children’. It is probably pure coincidence but it oddly parallels a Bollywood film called Karwan in which too an unlikely trio go on a road trip to sort out a coffin mix-up that occured at the airport. The Remainder was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and was the winner of a PEN prize.  It is a remarkable book!

Another translation that I read but would possibly exist at the other end of the spectrum from the frenzied The Remainder is the quietly meditative The Forest of Wool and Steel by Japanese writer, Natsu Miyashita. It has been translated by Philip Gabriel who is better known for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Set in small-town Japan, it is about Tomura who is charmed by watching the piano tuner working on the school piano. He is convinced that this is the career he has to pursue. It is impossible to offer a gist of this beautiful novel. Suffice to say that a million Japanese readers who bought the book could not be wrong! Hitsuji to Hagane no Mori won the 2016 Booksellers novel and was also turned into a film. The English translation was published recently. It offers the confidence of one’s convictions to pursue a career that is out of the ordinary. The Forest of Wool and Steel is stunning for its peaceful stillness in an otherwise noisy world.

Saudade by Australian Suneeta Peres Da Costa is an equally gripping coming-of-age novella. It is set in Angola in the period leading up to its independence from Portugal. The young girl who narrates the story is of Indian origin. Her parents are Goans. Her father is a labour lawyer, working for the Ministry of Interior, preparing workers’ contracts. Her mother is a housewife. Saudade is a novel about domesticity and the impact the outside socio-political developments on the family. Saudade is also about the relationship between mother and daughter too. Caught between the different worlds of Portugal, Goa and Angola, the little girl, is finally packed off “home” to Goa by her mother. The little child experiences what her parents were never able to articulate — a sadness, a saudade, a lostness, a feeling of not having a place in the world. Saudade is a memorable story for it wraps the reader in its wistfulness, its sadness, its pain and it is not easy to extricate oneself from it for days after. Suneeta Peres Da Costa is a young writer worth watching out for. Hopefully one day she will write that that big inter-generational novel spread across continents. Let’s see.

More in the next edition of “Tuesday Reads”!

JAYA

11 June 2019

Alejandro Zambra’s “My Documents” and “Not to Read”, translated by Megan McDowell

It’s unhealthy to get stuck in the past. 

My Documents is a collection of short stories by Alejandro Zambra, the award-winning Chilean writer, that are constantly playing with the idea of memory, truth and fiction. Whereas the recently released Not to Read is a collection of his non-fiction writings that can be loosely termed to be a literary autobiography while sharing his theory of reading. Like the many who have written before him, he too is of the opinion that reading and reading is what matters the most. There is a lovely anecdote he recounts of being able to read to his heart’s content when he was unemployed and seeking a job. He would spend the morning distributing his resume but would hurry home by late morning, so that he could then have an entire day to himself to read at leisure. Later when he did get a job he was fortunate enough to be appointed a telephone operator at an insurance company which meant he worked nights and there were hardly any calls to attend to. Once more giving him ample time to read. The joy of uninterrupted time, solitude and silence — the perfect mix to allow one to sink into the book.

My Documents, published in 2015,  consists of short stories. A short story collection can become predictable and monotonous in tenor but this is certainly not true of My Documents where each story is unexpected. It is not just in tenor but also in the form. It is impossible to tell whether it was like this in the original language too but in the hands of an incredible translator like Megan McDowell, there is a gritty texture that comes through each story. It is also difficult to discern what is fiction and what is a memory being shared of living in Pinochet’s era. The reader who is unfamiliar with the local cultural landscape is immediately immersed into it, it is like being transported to Chile in real time and witnessing the action. The stories, the people, the peculiarities, the conversations etc. Alejandro Zambra achieves this without any longwinded descriptions. My favourite story is “I Smoked Very Well”, a meditation on trying to give up the habit of being a smoker but at the same time in his characteristic style meanders into the literary space, making excuses that his inability to get off his nicotine habit is also the root cause of his writer’s block!

Not to Read is a collection of short essays previously published in the newspaper. So these are really short reads of about 2-5 mins. And yet so opinionated and loads of fun to read. He creates a literary landscape that is so incredibly detailed if all the 60-odd essays are read together, it makes you yearn to have a library handy of all the books and authors Zamba mentions! It’s also rare to find an essayist like this nowadays who is so immersed in his work that that is all he wishes to talk about. He is not distracted by anything else. His writing style is simple and lucid and yet within it are embedded vast banks of knowledge and strong opinions. Take for instance his essay “In praise of the photocopy” where he talks about these “fake books” as he defines them, the photocopies he and his friends used to access literature.

Essays by Roland Barthes marked with fluorescent highlighters; poems by Carlos de Rokha or Enrique Lihn stapled together; ringbound or precariously fastened novels by Witold Gombrowicz or Clarice Lispector: it’s good to remember that we learned to read with these photocopies, which we waited for impatiently, smoking, on the other side of the copy-shop window. As citizens of a country where books are ridiculously expensive to buy and libraries are poorly equipped or non-existent, we got used to reading photocopies, and we even came to find it charming. In exchange for just a few pesos, some giant, tireless machines could bestow on us the literature we so desired. We read those warm bundles of paper and then stored them on shelves as if they were real books. Because that’s what they were to us: rare, beloved books. Important books. 

Later he argues for making books available at an effective price:

The discussion around digital books, incidentally, is at times overly elaborate: the defenders of conventional books appeal to romantic images of reading (to which I fully subscribe), and the electronic propagandist will insist on the comfort of carrying your library in your pocket, or the miracle of endlessly interlinking texts. But it’s not so much about habits as it is about costs. Can we really expect a student to spend twenty thousand pesos on a book? Isn’t it quite reasonable for them to just download it from the internet? … Editors, booksellers, distributors and authors unite occasionally to combat practices that ruin business, but books have become luxury items and absolutely nothing indicates that this will change. 

Alejandro Zamba’s last point is controversial since this is exactly what is at the core of the various legal battles in various book markets but he does make a strong argument. All his essays in the book are as simply written with a single idea shared pointedly. Whether you agree with his viewpoint or not is immaterial, reading the essays is pure joy.  Two extracts from the book can be read at Harpers on “Literary Customs” and on the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions website about “Obligatory Readings”.

Ideally one should read both the books in quick succession then it is perfect. The two volumes of fiction and non-fiction writing compliment each other beautifully. If you have not as yet discovered the rising literary star of Chile, Alejandro Zamba, then you have a treat awaiting you thanks to the wonderful translations by Megan McDowell.

Both the books mentioned are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. 

3 September 2018 

 

“Sexographies” by Gabriela Wiener

According to the  biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.

Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is  “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.

Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”

Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: nathan@restlessbooks.com )

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Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.

But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.

Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.

We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.

What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp. 

2 May 2018 

 

 

On the Marrakesh Treaty and DK Braille Books

cd0877026f8140d697c127619a68bea4On 30 June 2016 Canada became the 20th country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (Marrakesh Treaty). According to logothe fabulously informative online community Spicy IP “The significance of this 20th ratification, (almost exactly three years since the date of adoption) is due to Article 18 of the Treaty which provides that the Treaty shall come into force 3 months after the 20th country ratifies it – thus setting 30th September 2016 up for the Marrakesh Treaty to finally become a reality!” ( 3 July 2016, http://spicyip.com/2016/07/the-miracle-of-marrakesh-finally-to-be-realised.html )

Spicy IP continues: “this treaty provides exceptions to copyright in order to provide access to published materials to the blind, visually disabled, and otherwise print disabled persons. With the coming into force of this Treaty, countries that have ratified it will finally be able to exchange accessible format copies across their borders. This is especially good news for countries such as India, where accessible formats are very hard to get.

The 20 countries that have ratified the treaty are India, El Salvador, United Arab Emirates, Mali, Uruguay, Paraguay, Singapore, Argentina, Mexico, Mongolia, South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Peru, North Korea, Israel, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Canada. It is pertinent to note that the United States is not a part of this Treaty as yet.

India was the very first country to ratify this Treaty in 2014, and thanks to the efforts of Rahul Cherian and others, back in 2012 had already brought in domestic legislation amendments which were in line with the treaty would eventually go on to say.”a66314d2c14d49bba85591d532aa1595

Given that only 1% of the books published are available in Braille this is a huge market waiting to be tapped. In terms of publishing what is truly exciting is that DK earlier this year began experimenting with Braille books. With the happy coincidence of the Marrakesh Treaty becoming a reality on 30 September 2016 it puts DK in an enviable position since they have spent a good amount of time researching this market space. ( http://www.dk.com/uk/explore/education/an-intro-to-dk-braille-books/ )

Though this project was originally conceptualised in UK, the books are available across book markets including India. They are available at online stores such as Amazon. A few weeks ago I saw some of these books. They are magnificently produced. The aim is to produce a series of high-quality, custom books with braille and tactile images for blind and partially sighted children, or sighted children with blind parents. The emphasis is on making the braille books fully inclusive, books that could be shared with sighted friends and siblings, teachers and parents. According to one of the production team members, Charlotte, who developed this list, “Children that have a visual impairment are more likely to have nightmares and experience them for longer than sighted children. Books about the world can help to reduce or at least mitigate these nightly terrors. Also, being able to access books means that people with visual impairments feel less socially isolated and experience improved mental health.” With this series “visually impaired people around the world can put their hands down onto DK book pages and instead of feeling nothing, words and pictures will reach out to them and will inform them of some of the pretty amazing things about our planet. Sighted readers will be able to feel the images too, and it will be a more interesting, exciting, and immersive experience. Both audiences can learn the same things by reading and sharing the same book.” These braille books are meant to be affordable, globally accessible, and fully inclusive.

Here are some sample images of the books:

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5 July 2016