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Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Language as sound

Coincident with my interest in learning to read and understand Spanish, I find that I'm reading a little differently these past few weeks, more sensually and in a less plot-directed way. (This may also have a lot to do with What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?, which in its strangeness has sort of knocked me for a loop...) This is nice because it makes me able to listen to recordings of spoken and sung Spanish which I understand only in a very limited sense, and get the cadences and flow without knocking myself out about the meaning. And I'm finding that I can get a similar thing going with English, of course I understand the meaning of it much better, but I can focus on the sound of the text and the visual/sensual qualities of the scene, rather than on characters and plot, which have been my main focus over the last few years.

Today I started rereading Garcia Marquez' Of Love and Other Demons (tr. Edith Grossman), and this is a fantastic book for sensual reading. I'm taking it slow, reading it like poetry -- glad I picked it up. Take a look at the first paragraph for a sense of the story's lushness:

An ash-gray dog with a white blaze on its forehead burst onto the rough terrain of the market on the first Sunday in December, knocked down tables of fried food, overturned Indians' stalls and lottery kiosks, and bit four people who happened to cross its path. Three of them were black slaves. The fourth, Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, the only child of the Marquis de Casalduero, had come there with a mulatta servant to buy a string of bells for the celebration of her twelfth birthday.

A few notes about it: The epigraph is from the supplement to Part III of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Question 80: Article 2, which addresses whether hair and fingernails will be resurrected along with the rest of the human body. Huh, I thought as I read this, that's a strange subject -- Garcia Marquez explains in a note at the front of the text, how this book got started. In 1949, as a reporter for El Universal in Cartagena, he covered the destruction of the historic Convent of Santa Clara and the disinterment of the bodies in its graveyard. One of the bodies was a young girl's, and yards of red hair were growing from its skull -- the grave marker said "Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles," and he associated this name with a folk tale he had heard from his grandmother about a girl who died of rabies and was credited with miracles. So 45 years later, in 1994, Garcia Marquez wrote a novel about a red-haired girl of that name dying of rabies.

This is an interesting take on historical fiction -- mixing history and myth/folklore freely and without apology.

(Note that the author's note is part of the fiction, like the dedication of The White Castle -- I wonder though what part of it is true. I'm assuming with no proof that it is true except for the detail about the red hair.)

posted afternoon of January 17th, 2009: 2 responses
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Monday, January 19th, 2009


The excellent movie we watched yesterday evening was The Crime of Padre Amaro -- not much to say about it other than it was a great movie, I recommend it highly -- I am thinking about it right now while reading Of Love and Other Demons's description* of a highly religious (and seemingly to me, sincerely so) bishop, and contrasting this with the hideous portrait of the bishop who appoints and conspires with Amaro:

"Come in, Ygnacio," he said. "My house is yours."

The Marquis wiped his perspiring hands on his trousers, walked through the door, and found himself under a canopy of yellow bellflowers... The Bishop extended his soldier's hand in a meaningful way, and the Marquis kissed his ring. Asthma made his breathing heavy and stony, and his phrases were interrupted by inopportune sighs and a harsh, brief cough, but nothing could affect his elopuence. He established an immediate, easy exchange of trivial commonplaces. Sitting across from him, the Marquis was grateful for this consolatory preamble, so rich and protracted that they were taken aback when the bells tolled five. More than a sound, it was a vibration that made the afternoon light tremble and filled the sky with startled pigeons.

"It is horrible," said the Bishop. "Each hour resonates deep inside me like an earthquake. The phrase surprised the Marquis, for he had responded with the same thought at four o'clock. It seemed a natural coincidence to the Bishop. "Ideas do not belong to anyone," he said. With his index finger he sketched a series of continuous circles in the air and concluded:

"They fly around up there like angels."

So -- in a sense he seems detached in a monklike way (or a way that I think of in association with monks and ascetics) from ownership of the world around him -- and earlier he was described as "sincere in his poverty." My initial reaction to that is wait, but he's not poor, he lives in a mansion with his needs attended to, and to think about the Church in a villainous context. But then I find a very sympathetic portrait of the Bishop. (Initially at any rate -- the character has just been introduced. Who knows, what the story will bring -- and see update below.)

A line in the movie that gave me pause was when Padre Benito said to Amaro, in regards to its being unimaginable that the Vatican would ever drop the requirement of celibacy from the priesthood, that "there will sooner be a Mexican Pope." Huh! Well I can't offhand think of a non-European Pope and I reckon there probably has never been one from Mexico or Latin America. I would not have thought of it as a basis for comparison -- of course I am neither Latin American nor Catholic. Is this exclusion a common point of reference? Or is it being used as a common point of reference among Churchmen -- to emphasize that Benito and Amaro are priests and are concerned with Church politics? (Here is an article from Pacific News Service on the need for a non-European Pope, dated 2005.)

(Update: Hm, well García Márquez' depiction of the Bishop very quickly takes on a negative cast -- a few pages after we meet him he is proposing exorcism of a rabies patient and implying it's all down to the Jews. This is at least a different failing from greed or hypocrisy...)

* And besides this: the number and frequency of points of similarity between the movie and the book are making me wonder if there was conscious imitation going on, either on the part of the movie makers or on García Márquez' part with reference to the novel that was source for the film, which dates from 1875.

posted afternoon of January 19th, 2009: Respond
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Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Free will in puppets

A warning at the top: this post is trying to tie together a couple of disparate strands of thought, and is going to read like a rough draft. I may rewrite it later.

I am finding it hard to praise or condemn any of the characters in Of Love and Other Demons, though their actions and thoughts are certainly ones I can find worthy of praise or condemnation. What I mean to get at here: this novel is written from a fatalistic viewpoint. The characters are acting without free will, because they have to perform their parts.

This sounds (when I read it) like a criticism of the novel -- like I am saying García Márquez cannot draw characters who I believe to be "fully human," since "fully human" includes "possessed of free will" -- characters who unchoosingly act out parts written for them, are puppets. That is not my intention however. The characters do read as fully human individuals, people I can sympathize with, can imagine myself as being. The Bishop's insistence that Sierva María is possessed -- based on acta written up by the Abbess which he knows to be worthless, and in the face of Father Cayetano Delaura's affirmation that she is sane -- is completely inexplicable to me except as malevolence; but instead of trying to explain it and calling it malevolent, I find that I'm accepting it as the way the world is in this book.

I'm wondering how strongly tied in this is to the sensual quality of García Márquez' prose that I identified earlier. Another author whose writing I would characterize as sensual is William Faulkner, and I do remember a similar feeling of fatalism in reading his novels. I don't want to go too far with this though because it can make me feel like a poseur -- I'm not a critic, my understanding of literary style is guesswork cobbled together with stray bits of memory -- and I've gotten the sense that using Faulkner as a point of comparison is easy and meaningless without further explication.

posted morning of January 24th, 2009: Respond


I've been using the adjective "sensual" to describe the style of writing in Of Love and Other Demons, and I find that I had earlier called a similar quality in Absalom, Absalom! "painterly." Hm: what if I called this quality "Baroque," would that work? I believe the term connotes a lot of what I am trying to communicate. Rich, lush, ornate detail; depiction of extravagant beauty. The shade of meaning I'm trying for is: gorgeous visual/sensory descriptions that point you* toward a feeling of fixed destiny, of an absence of free will. Is that too much work for such a little word to do? Feelin' like Humpty-Dumpty...

Note: I have recently seen the term "Baroque" used in a literary context, if memory serves by Chad Post,** to describe the long, syntactically ornate sentences used by e.g. Saramago or Castellanos Moya. This may be why I'm thinking of the term right now; it is not however the quality I'm seeking to describe. No reason the two qualities couldn't exist side-by-side in the same work; but they seem to me completely independent of one another.

Another thought, maybe the term to use is "Baroque tragedy" -- Baroque to betoken the gorgeousness of the descriptions, tragedy for the fatalism. This might work. I see however that this term is already in use.

* (Somehow: I'm still trying to figure out how this pointing works.)

** Nope: it was Edmond Caldwell. Curse you, memory!

posted morning of January 24th, 2009: 3 responses

Accent marks in Spanish

I checked out Cien Años de Soledad from the library today -- not sure how far I'm going to be able to get with it, but I'm having fun with it. So far I have gotten to where I can read the first two paragraphs (about 5 pages) pretty fluently; I've been going back over them to try and work the vocabulary into my brain before I move on. I was made very happy by the sentence, "El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo." -- "The world was so new, many things did not yet have a name, and in order to mention them, you had to point them out with your finger." I loved this sentence when I read the book in English but had forgotten it.

I am curious about what exactly accent marks do in written Spanish. Are they optional? In these first 5 pages there are several instances of aun and aún, which seem to be the same word and pronounced the same way. Maybe there's a subtle distinction I'm not picking up on. And I seem to recall seeing solo both with and without an accent over the first "o".

...Well this page solves at least one piece of the puzzle; accent marks are not optional, and "sólo" means something different from "solo" ("only" vs. "alone") -- it doesn't mention "aun," but I'm assuming there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two spellings. That distinction looks pretty synthetic to me; forcing different spellings for what is essentially a single word, according to how it is used in a sentence. Seems like it must be a pretty common mistake to leave the accent off of "sòlo" or put one onto "solo".

...Okay: this page says, "The word aún means todavía or still, while aun means incluso or even." So, problem solved, I guess.

posted evening of January 24th, 2009: 10 responses
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Binary thinking

Edmond Caldwell responds with some very thoughtful commentary to my post on Baroque fiction. I was happy, and a little surprised, to see that what I have in mind and am venturing to express as "Baroque" is broadly similar to what he was thinking about when he used the term last month.

The only place where I might depart from you've written is in the idea that this entails a canceling out individual "free-will" (if I'm even correct that that is what you're saying; forgive me if I've got it wrong), because I think that's still looking at the situation through the old humanist lens (in which it's an either/or question, one either has self-originating "free will" or one is subject to iron determinism, like a puppet). I think the baroque sentence is more dialectical than this; that human agency is deeply or even thoroughly conditioned means perhaps not that it doesn't exist but that it is more collective than we thought.

This is a good point and makes me realize that I wasn't thinking clearly this morning when I tried writing about the fatalism in Of Love and Other Demons. Of course there is not a binary distinction between "human actors possessed of free will" on the one hand and "pre-programmed robots" on the other -- there is a pretty broad spectrum of how self-directed a character's actions can seem. (And of course I am getting uncomfortable talking on and on about characters with or without free choice, without acknowldeging that there is an author behind them making the decisions...) I really liked Mr. Caldwell's idea (if I'm understanding him right) that the individual characters in this type of novel can be seen as being subsumed in a kind of collective consciousness which is directing their actions.

posted evening of January 24th, 2009: 2 responses

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Readings from Cien Años de Soledad

At there is a site dedicated to Cien Años de Soledad -- it is a Flash application so I can't link to pages inside it; but if you click "Entrar" and watch the lovely video of mariposas amarillas, and then click "Fragmentos", several recorded readings of passages from the book are available, along with the text being read. Following each reading is some discussion of the passage; I am not understanding Spanish well enough yet to follow that.

Another useful page is Macondo at The Modern Word -- a huge trove of links and information about the author and his works.

posted morning of January 25th, 2009: Respond

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009


I commented at The Great Whatsit today that I was not finding the second and third books of the His Dark Materials series quite as overwhelmingly great as I found the first. But as of the reading I did with Sylvia tonight -- chapter 2 of The Amber Spyglass -- I want to take that back, and just say the middle book is a lull between two masterpieces. The beauty of the narrative here is just enough to take my breath away.

I am realizing that these books could be made into a truly fantastic series of movies if only the studios were not so attached to live action and CGI -- I think they are a perfect match for anime (or maybe I mean "for Studio Ghibli", which is about the sum total of my exposure to anime). Reading about Will talking to Balthamos and Baruch, especially the fight against Metatron, was bringing visions of Spirited Away flickering across my mind. Metatron is even a perfect name for an anime bad guy!

I also noticed a couple of coincidences of imagery with Cien Años de Soledad, which I take as a very good sign -- I am absorbing enough of the book even without knowing the language well, for it to be on my mind when I'm not reading it. When the narrator noted that Will's knife could cut between worlds but could not "abolish distance within worlds," I immediately flashed on Melquíades' statement that "la ciencia ha eliminado las distancias"; and when Will's boots were sinking into the soft sand in the hot, humid new world, my mind jumped to "aquel paraíso de humedad y silencio,... donde las botas se hundían en pozos de aceite humeante..."

posted evening of January 28th, 2009: Respond
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Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Shaggy Dog Story

José Arcadio Buendía no logró descifrar el sueño de las casas con paredes de espejo hasta el día en que conoció el hielo.
This (in chapter 2 of Cien Años de Soledad) seems like the first really strong punchline of the book. There have been plenty of chuckles throughout the first chapter and the beginning of the second, but this one absolutely cracked me up. My memory of reading the translation suggests that there are a lot more to come.

posted evening of February 4th, 2009: 2 responses

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

After García Márquez

I find very interesting the idea (which I found at La Bloga's interview with Daniel Alarcón, on the occasion of Zoetrope: All-Story's publishing its new Latin American Issue) that Latin American literature has fallen captive (at least as it is seen from North America) to the legacy of García Márquez -- that diverse strands of work are "interpreted through the single, constricting and somewhat outdated lens of magical realism." This issue looks like it will do something to push back against that tendency; I'm looking forward to reading it and perhaps to looking at Diego Trelles Paz' anthology of new authors (authors under 40, those born after Cien años de soledad), El futuro no es nuestro.

Alarcón and Trelles Paz have more to say about the legacy of Cien años de soledad (which "we would describe -- without exaggeration -- as perfect") in the editor's note to the Latin American issue.

posted evening of March 25th, 2009: 4 responses
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