Reading in Tongues

Brueghel-tower-of-babel

Right now I’m reading a truly astonishing novel that will be reviewed here in the near future. As far as I know, it’s only available in Spanish and French. No English translation. Not even in the offing. Which raises the perennial question of the ability to read  in foreign languages –  a daunting task, as most of the visitors of this blog are likely to confirm. We’re not talking about being able to understand a Wikipedia page or a letter from a foreign business partner, but the cherished ability to read and, what is crucial, to enjoy quality literature written in a foreign language. The most tantalising for us, of course, remains a literary piece not translated into any of the languages we can read, but, which, as we have heard from a reliable source, like this one, is fascinating, so we know that we’re missing out. Those who have an intermediate reading level of a language and wish to push through to the stage at which they could tackle the classics, might find Alexander Arguelles’ lecture on the subject useful. He shares different methods field-tested by himself while learning and trying to maintain dozens of languages. If you have read Michael Erard’s relatively recent study of polyglots Babel No More, you will recognize him as one of the main characters in it.

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Zero Issue (Numero Zero): a New Novel by Umberto Eco

Here goes the main publishing event of 2015. Those who follow the various titbits around the Italian writer’s literary output might remember that after finishing The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco began writing a novel about a group of journalists who start a daily newspaper. In search of popularity and influence, the editors of the rag concoct false sensations not unlike the bored intellectuals from Foucault’s Pendulum who spawn a monstrous fictional plan of the world domination. After two years of work, Eco abandoned the novel to write Baudolino, which also dealt with lies, mythmaking and forgeries, albeit in the medieval setting.

As it turns out, Eco did manage to finish Numero Zero, and it is going to be published by Bompiani this January.  Although the main setting of the novel is Milan in 1992, the book will also touch upon the mysteries and tragedies of the 1970s: the clandestine NATO operation Gladio, the notorious Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, the failed neo-fascist coup  Golpe Borghese, the terror of Red Brigades, and the death of Pope John Paul I. On top of that, Eco’s new book will tell about “corrupt secret services, massacres and red herrings” as well as “a shocking plan”. The novel will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair with the English title That’s the Press, Baby..., referring to the famous last words of  Humphrey Bogart’s character in Deadline – U.S.A. I do hope it will be eventually changed into a different one.

Update: More information is available now on the Bompiani Frankfurt 2014 Rights List, including the first glimpse of the cover and the description cited below. As a major disappointment comes the page count: just 180, which does not look like a typical Umberto Eco novel. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for this being a mistake. 

NumeroZero

A mish-mash of journalists who cobble together a daily paper concerned not so much with information, but blackmail, mudslinging, and cheap stories. A paranoid staff writer who, roaming round a hallucinatory Milan (or hallucinating in a normal Milan), reconstructs fifty years of history in the light of a sulphurous plot built around the putrefying corpse of a pseudo Mussolini. In the shadows lurk the secret right-wing organization known as Gladio, the P2 Masonic lodge, the supposed murder of Pope John Paul I, the coup d’état planned by Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, the CIA, red terrorists manoeuvred by the secret services, and twenty years of slaughter and smoke screens. A set of inexplicable events that seem pure fantasy until a BBC programme proves they are true, or at least that the perpetrators have confessed to them by now. A corpse that suddenly shows up in Milan’s narrowest and most disreputable street. A tenuous love story between two born losers, a failed ghost writer and a disturbing girl who in order to help her family has dropped out of university to specialize in gossip about romantic attachments, but who still cries when she listens to Beethoven’s Seventh. A perfect manual of bad journalism in which the reader gradually begins to wonder whether it is all make believe or simply true to life. A story that unfolds in 1992, a year that foreshadowed many mysteries and follies of the successive twenty years, just as the two protagonists think that the nightmare is over. A bitter and grotesque episode that takes place in Europe in the period spanning the end of the war and the present day – and one that will leave the reader feeling every bit as much of a loser as the two protagonists.

 

 

 

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Adam Buenosayres: The Translation which Nobody Noticed

AdamBuenosayresToday I opened my heavily annotated edition of Leopoldo Marechal’s great modernist epic Adán Buenosayres with a view to finally reading it and possibly writing a review later on just to find out later that this novel had recently been translated into English as Adam Buenosayres. I’ve read quite a few previews of important fiction coming out this year and nowhere was this mentioned. You must be joking! This is the publishing event of the year that can be matched only by the forthcoming translation of Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae. All the aficionados of the encyclopedic novel should start celebrating right now! Dubbed “the Argentine Ulysses” in Joshua Cohen’s Bloomsday article, this novel indeed carries the influence of Joyce’s masterpiece. Still, if it was just a piece of crass epigonism, as some of the early negative reviews attempted to present the novel, it would not have become an acclaimed classic of Argentine letters. This erudite exploration of Buenos Aires and its cultural and artistic milieu promises more than mere rehashing of Joyce’s themes and methods. One of the earliest champions of the novel was Julio Cortázar, whose positive review contributed to the subsequent rescue of the work from critical oblivion. Enjoy this unexpected gift from  McGill-Queen’s University Press, and I will have to think of some other novel for my next review.

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The Absolute Marshal (Le Maréchal absolu) by Pierre Jourde

LeMarechalAbsoluCorrect me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Pierre Jourde’s doorstopper went largely unnoticed in the English language media discussing the rentrée of 2012. The more interesting it appeared to me, since I am wildly excited by the recent spate of big novels in French, the point of departure being the publication of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) in 2006. Mind you, I regard The Absolute Marshal as a seriously flawed novel, a noble failure of sorts, but its grand ambition could not leave me indifferent. Evoking the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, Pierre Jourde created a kind of summa of the dictator novel in which Borgesian conundrums are intertwined with large-scale geopolitical surrealism reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day. Very indicative of the overall tone of the novel are the six epigraphs taken from Valère Novarina, Shakespeare, Saddam Hussein, José Gaspar de Francia, Lawrence Durrell, and, of course, Jorge Luis Borges.

Marshal Alessandro Y is a monstrous crossbreed between Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin with the intertextual pedigree reaching  back to the fictionalised Doctor Francia of Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme and the giants in Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. We first encounter him in the midst of a civil war, besieged  by rebels in the capital of the imaginary country Hyrcasia. Most of the dictator’s bloviation is addressed to his elderly servant Manfred-Célestin. The story of the marshal unfolds as he berates, derides and belittles his faithful  factotum. Although invested in absolute power, the marshal does not hold absolute control over  the story-telling. The novel is divided into four parts narrated by four different characters: the marshal, one of the marshal’s doubles, Schlangenfeld (a woman serving in the Secret Service of the dictator), and the said  humble servant Manfred-Célestin disguised as “a granny”.  In the course of each of the four narrations, fractal by fractal, the psychedelic picture of the marshal’s reign is assembled before our eyes.

For his novel Jourde has created a hybrid geography in which imaginary countries with such names as Araxia and Novopotamia co-exist with real states. Hyrcasia is one such make-believe entity with a desert climate. Its supreme leader is a grotesque caricature of a dictator who seeks to expand and multiply his power by any means available. All the boxes are ticked with an audacious brio. Alessandro Y embarks on a military career while still a child, serving in a special unit composed of minors. He quickly ascends the career ladder to become the chief of the Presidential Guard, takes part in a military coup, and, after eliminating his competitors, becomes the supreme leader of the country. A pretty well-known scenario at this time and age. What dictator doesn’t want to conquer a piece of land? The marshal is no exception here. His military campaign is satyric and outright ludicrous to such a degree that at a certain point I stopped even trying to catch some not-so-obvious hints at historical events, and simply kept reading it as a grotesque and wildly entertaining set piece. The conquest starts with Araxia, a small country not unlike Kuwait, invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990. From this humble beginning, the dictator’s conquest spreads across most of Eurasia owing to the military genius of Field Marshal Ghore, the commander of the Hyrcasian troops. In its wake, the rapidly advancing army leaves a constellation of puppet governments, sowing the seeds of the potential internecine conflicts and insurgency that will break out as soon as the imperial grasp loosens on the occupied territories expanded to unmanageable proportions. The great campaign begins and ends like a computer game, which corresponds to the zeitgeist of most of the recent warfare.

Besides being cruel, a dictator should be a crank. Alessandro Y possesses both features in spades. His major passions are dinosaurs and the taxidermy of political enemies. Receptions usually take place in a great paleontology hall exhibiting dozens of skeletons of pre-historic monsters: everything from the indispensable tyrannosauruses to species less known by the general public, like gorgonopsids and deinonychuses. However, the dictator seems to be even more passionate about the basement of his palace where he can admire the “dolls”. Those are numerous opponents of the regime, either genuine or alleged, skilfully treated and stuffed under the supervision of Colonel Gris, the head of the Secret Service . One can imagine something right of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, but there arise more sinister connotations when we learn that not all the corpses remained intact:

There Gris exercised his art on the conspirators. You wouldn’t recognise them: their bones serving as radiator caps, their hollowed-out members turned into umbrella stands, their thoraxes into liquor cabinets, their skulls transformed into cigarette lighters with eyes that light up; somebody’s skin covering somebody else’s body like a slightly wrinkled slipcase. He grafted a stool on an old minister. There is a colonel with a double door that you can open. Inside, you can see a small general, carefully boned and folded. Many heads share the same body, and there are bodies lined up in iron wardrobes, one behind another, like overcoats on coat-hangers.

 Gris (the French for “grey”)  is a shadowy presence throughout the book. We never “see” or “hear” him, but always learn about his activities through other characters. Thus, to him is addressed most of the testimony of the former secret agent Schlangenfeld who is interviewed by an anonymous researcher about her work for the Service. As we learn more about Gris, a Himmler-like figure emerges out of the mist with the Green Guard (a military unit under the Secret Service) being an analogue of SS. One of the subplots features  horrible crimes committed by the Green Guard in the breakaway republic of Balkaria. The atrocities are captured on film by an American journalist. The discovery of the concentration camps later on make this parallel more than justified. Schlangenfeld is in thrall of Gris’ power and intelligence. She is the perfect agent for him, ready to do anything for the reinforcement of the system of terror and control he represents. Her main duties involve intelligence collection while sleeping with the high-rank officers of the Defence Ministry. Her story overwhelms with the intricacy of the intrigue and power struggle within the state apparatus. One has to read her narration at least twice to get most of the details concerning the rivalries, alliances and treacheries proliferating under the dictatorial rule. The fact that Alessandro Y is increasingly more often substituted by his numerous doubles renders things even more complicated.

There are quite a few Borgesian tropes employed in the novel, the most conspicuous being the maze, bifurcation and doubles. For example, the palatial basement housing the grisly collection is, in a fact, a labyrinth.

It is a disconcerting geography, Manfred-Célestin. There are passages in the walls and doors that are taken for screens. One has to enter through wardrobes or freezers, to gyrate infinitely, to ascend in order to descend. The Marshal managed everything in secret, year after year, making sure that the workers and the engineers disappeared after each extension. The memory about the configuration of his labyrinth was lost, devoured by the erosion of the past and the false plans that he left lying around just for the fun of it.

The obvious allusion to another favourite subject of Borges sneaks in when the dictator proclaims “you are just inhabitants of a branching-out of possible futures that will never get realised”. But the real fun ensues when Alessandro Y, in fear of assassination launches the production of his doubles on an almost industrial scale. Scores of men more or less similar in their appearance  to the Marshal become an army of clones after ingenious cosmetic surgeries.  At a certain point everybody, except perhaps the dictator himself, is in doubt whether this particular marshal is real or fake. Moreover, since some of the doubles have a more privileged status being “original” ones, they in their turn are provided with their own doubles to substitute them during less important activities. Gradually the situation comes to such a state, that there is a double on the permanent basis ruling semi-autonomously in the presidential palace, while the original marshal is hiding in some secret residence, and the Secret Service is making efforts to hunt down some runaway doubles roaming the lands of Hyrcasia and causing quite a stir among the inhabitants. No need for a better illustration of absolute power based on fiction and simulation.

The old servant, tottering on the verge of senility, tells us about the inevitable decline of the dictator in the fourth part. Again, there is nothing new in this development: the country is torn apart by the rebels, the separatists, the troops supporting the interim government and the diminishing forces still faithful to the Marshal. The butt of the dictator’s mockery at the beginning of the novel now becomes the chronicler of his later days. That’s the ironic outcome of the long and tortuous journey undertaken by Alessandro Y in search of absolute power. Pierre Jourde does not really attempt to say anything new about dictatorship, as if it were possible anyway, and here lies the main weakness of the novel. Many episodes are fascinating; one has fun stumbling on allusions to Italo Calvino and Edgar Alan Poe, but there is a lingering sense of the superfluousness of this dictator novel project that I couldn’t get rid of. I liked the execution, but the main idea regarding the fictitious foundations of absolute power and the reliance on continuous simulation in order to sustain it left me pretty much indifferent. The attempt to summarise most of the negative aspects of dictatorship does not really justify the complex architecture of the narrative Jourde had been building for seventeen years. It had been done before with more success by Latin American writers. There could have been more than this synthetic portrayal of an ogre in power and his milieu. That being said, the novel is in many aspects extraordinary, especially with regard to its language. The range of vocabulary employed by Jourde is astounding; he is a true virtuoso when it comes to juggling different registers. I don’t remember any other French novel that I’ve read recently which would mine the French language for its riches with such creative abandon. There is no doubt that The Absolute Marshal will be enjoyed by many English-speaking readers once it gets translated.

 

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Forthcoming: Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges

FragmentsLuckily for many, Dalkey Archive is going to publish this autumn the English translation of Fragments of Lichtenberg, the bulky encyclopedic novel about the 18th century German scientist  Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and his literary heritage. The playful premise of the novel is the belief that Lichtenberg’s aphorisms are not just disparate observations but rather snippets of an enormous roman-fleuve. Senge’s work is dedicated to the obsessive attempt by literary scholars to reconstruct the lost great novel.  A French review promises the re-writing of Ovid, Robinson Crusoe, and  Snow White as well as the appearance of Polichinelle and Goethe. The novel is a frolicsome and erudite mishmash of various genres with the indispensable marginal notes and embedded narratives. The reviewer describes it as  “un gros machin tortueux à la Joyce” (a big tortuous Joycean thingamajig). It does sound promising, doesn’t it?

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La rentrée 2014: what to look forward to

I am reading this huge French novel with echoes of Pynchon, Borges and Augusto Roa Bastos that I hope to review for this blog in the near future. While I’m at it, let’s take a look at some of the books to be published during the coming rentrée.

Antoine Volodine returns with Terminus Radieux. The novel is a set in a dystopian Siberia devastated by radiation and inhabited for the most part by the living dead and phantom soldiers. The title refers to the name of a  kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm) ruled by President Solovieï (the Russian for a nightingale), a man who invokes supernatural powers in search of omnipotence. In other words, 624 pages of pure madness.

Emmanuel Carrère’s Le royaume deals with the inception of Christianity in the 1st century. Among the characters figure  St. Paul and St. Luke. The novel mixes history and the author’s personal reflections.

Pascal Quignard continues his Dernier Royaume series with the ninth volume called Mourir de penser. According to the brief description available on Amazon, the novel examines three issues: 1. In which way thought and death come into contact. 2. The affinity of thought to melancholy. 3. How thought protects itself against trauma.

Jean-Hubert Gailliot had been working on Le Soleil for eight years. The novel is about a  certain Alexander Varlop’s quest to retrieve a stolen manuscript. The investigation proceeds from the Greek island of Mykonos, where the theft has taken place, to Palermo in Italy, and from there to Formentera in Spain. In the course of his inquiry, the protagonist finds out that the manuscript used to be owned by such luminaries of modernism as Ezra Pound and Man Ray as well as comes to the realization that he might be just a pawn in a game pursued by higher powers. The full description in French is available here.

These are the four novels that sound interesting to me.  If something else draws your attention, let me know.

 

 

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Forthcoming: Prae by Miklós Szentkuthy

Contra Mundum Press is publishing this year the first volume of Szentkuthy’s erudite debut novel Prae. Something to look forward to. The towering figure of Hungarian letters remained virtually unknown in the English speaking world until the publication of Marginalia on Casanova, the first installment of  his intellectual  epic  St. Orpheus Breviary, and the collection of critical thoughts and observations Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Dubbed by some as the Hungarian Joyce (partly because of his translation of Ulysses) Szentkuthy is in fact a distinct and original writer whose contribution to the 2oth-century culture is still to be fully assessed. This concise and alluring description of Prae at HLO should definitely infuse you with the yearning for its publication:

“Prae” is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward controlling and ordering constructs of every  description.

But there is more. A Szentkuthy issue of the journal Hyperion is available from Contra Mundum Press. A lot of interesting information there, including the biographical essay and some excerpts from his work.

 

 

 

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