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Augusto Monterroso


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Monday, July 5th, 2010

Arrabales and tango

In two or three pieces in Alma del suburbio, Carriego approached the epic; others were closer to social commentary. In Canción del barrio he crossed from Almafuerte's "sacred cosmic rabble"* to the humble middle class. In this second and final step we will find his most famous (if not his greatest) works of poetry. This journey brought him to what we might without deprecation call a poetry of quotidian misery -- a poetry of sick-beds, of failure, of time running in its course, wearing us down and sapping our will to live; a poetry of the family, of affections, of daily habits, even of gossip. It is worthy of note that tango would evolve along the same lines.

-- Borges, foreword to Versos de Carriego

Here are Carlos Gavito and Marsela Duran, tangoing to Eduardo Rovira's "A Evaristo Carriego." The orchestra is the Boston Pops.

* (or "omnipresent sacred rabble" maybe? di Giovanni renders it "cosmic holy rabble".)

posted morning of July 5th, 2010: Respond
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Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Pampas and arrabales

At the opening of "Juan Muraña" (the fifth story in Brodie's Report), Borges refers back to a biography of Evaristo Carriego which he wrote in 1930 (and which I see was translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in 1984*) -- his old classmate Trápani mentions the book by way of asking what Borges knows of "malevos," a word which I am not finding in the dictionary but which Hurley translates as "fighters and thugs and underworld types." ("Gangsters" seems like it might work just as well...)

I took the opportunity to have a look at Borges' foreword to Versos de Carriego, a selection which he edited in 1964** -- it is giving me another bit of nuance about the Argentine literary tradition Borges is coming out of. Previously I had been thinking the knife fighting in his Argentine stories was a reference to gauchesca literature, the literature of the pampas; but in this foreword he writes,

Esteban Echeverría was the first chronicler of the pampas; Evaristo Carriego, it appears, was the first chronicler of the arrabales [suburban slums around Buenos Aires].
There is knife fighting in gauchesca literature, but the knife fighting in the stories in Brodie's Report all takes place in the slums around Buenos Aires; the reference here is not to gauchos but to malevos.

Below the fold, a little more from the foreword, which makes Carriego's work sound fairly important to the evolution of Argentine literature. Carriego's complete works are online at Proyecto Biblioteca Digital Argentina.

posted evening of July 4th, 2010: Respond
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Monday, May 10th, 2010

Monterroso on Borges on Kafka

In an essay in Perpetual Motion (the second piece down on the linked page), Monterroso talks about first reading Borges and about becoming slowly immersed in his thinking and his puzzles. It is a very nice introduction to Borges; I was surprised to see that the work which opened Monterroso's eyes was Borges' foreword to his translation (1938) of The Metamorphosis:

When I first found Borges, in 1945, I didn't understand him; he was frankly puzzling for me. Delving into Kafka, I found Borges' foreword to The Metamorphosis; and for the first time I saw before me his world of metaphysical labyrinths, of infinities, of eternities, of tragic trivialities, of quotidian relationships comparable to the worst hell imaginable. A new universe, gleaming, ferociously attractive. Crossing from that foreword to all the rest of Borges' work has been for me (and for many others) an activity as important as breathing, and at the same time as dangerous as walking too close to the edge of a chasm. Following him has meant discovering and descending into new circles: Chesterton, Melville, Bloy, Swedenborg, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf; taking up old friendships: Cervantes, Quevedo, Hernández; and at last returning to his illusory Paradise of the everyday: the barrio, the movie-house, the detective story.
I'm surprised because that foreword does not strike me as among Borges' finest work; it's principally just a capsule biography/chronology of Kafka and his work, and a cursory discussion of some themes in his work. (Obviously discovering Kafka in 1945 would be different from my experience of discovering Kafka in 1985 or thereabouts; but it would still be "discovering Kafka", not "discovering Borges".) There is one paragraph that seems to me to move to a different level:
Critics complain that in Kafka's three novels, there is a lack of linking material; but they recognize that this material is not essential. Myself, I maintain that this criticism indicates a fundamental unfamiliarity with the work of Kafka. The pathos of these "inconclusive" novels arises precisely from the infinite number of obstacles which block, again and again, the paths of his identical protagonists. Franz Kafka did not finish them: their basic property is that they are interminable. Do you remember the first, the most clear of Zeno's paradoxes? Motion is impossible, because before arriving at B we have to cross the intermediate point C, but before we arrive at C, we have to cross the intermediate point D, but before arriving at D... The Greek did not enumerate all of the points; Franz Kafka need not enumerate all the vicissitudes. It is enough for us to understand that they are infinite, like Hell.
(I hope I am understanding correctly how Borges is taking issue with critics of Kafka -- I don't really know whom or what arguments he is referring to.)

As he closes his piece, Monterroso talks about what your encounter with Borges can do to you:

The great problem of reading Borges: the temptation to imitate him is almost irresistable; to imitate him, impossible. Some writers you can get away with imitating -- Conrad, Greene, Durrel -- not Joyce; not Borges. It will sound facile and obvious. The meeting with Borges never takes place without consequences. I've listed here a few of the things that can happen, for better and for the worse:
  1. Pass him by without noticing (for the worse).
  2. Pass him by; retrace one's steps and follow him for a little while to see what he's doing (for the better).
  3. Pass him by; retrace one's steps and follow him forever (for the worse).
  4. Find out that one is a simpleton, that until this moment one has never had an idea worth one's while (for the better).
  5. Find out that one is intelligent, because one enjoys reading Borges (for the better).
  6. Dazzle oneself with the fable of Achilles and the Tortoise; believe that one has figured it all out (for the worse).
  7. Discover the infinite and the eternal (for the better).
  8. Mull over the infinite and the eternal (for the better).
  9. Believe in the infinite and the eternal (for the worse).
  10. Leave off writing (for the better).
(Note on the translation: "for the better" is benéfica, "for the worse" is maléfica -- I think these are about right; it is too bad that the English phrases don't match up nicely to the title, as the Spanish words do -- the title is Beneficios y maleficios de Jorge Luis Borges, "Jorge Luis Borges: Blessings and Curses" -- I guess it could be translated as "Jorge Luis Borges for better or worse", but that would sound pretty hokey.)

posted evening of May 10th, 2010: Respond
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Monday, April 12th, 2010

Sartor Resartus

I knew nothing about this book or about this author, until I read Borges' foreword today. Now I want to seek it out and read it... This translation is fairly close to literal, it seems to work pretty well in this case.

From Parmenides of Elea until today, idealism -- the doctrine which affirms that the universe, including time and space and perhaps ourselves, is nothing more than an appearance or a chaos of appearances -- has been professed in diverse forms by many thinkers. Perhaps nobody has educed it with greater clarity than bishop Berkeley; nobody with greater conviction, desperation, and satiric force than the young Scot Thomas Carlyle in his intricate Sartor Resartus (1831). This Latin can be rendered as The Patched Tailor or Mended Tailor; the work is no less singular than its name.

Carlyle invokes the authority of an imaginary professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (Son of God Droppings of the Devil), who publishes in Germany a vast volume dealing with the philosophy of sand*, which is to say appearances. The Sartor Resartus, hardly more than two hundred pages, is a mere commentary and compendium of this gigantic work. Cervantes (whom Carlyle had read in Spanish) had attributed the Quixote to a Moorish author, Cide Hamete Benengeli. This book includes a pathetic biography of Teufelsdröckh, in reality a cryptic, secret autobiography, full of jokes. Nietzsche accused Richter of making Carlyle the worst writer in Britain. The influence of Richter is evident, but he was no more than a dreamer of tranquil dreams, not infrequently tedious, where Carlyle is a dreamer of nightmares. In his history of English literature, Saintsbury holds that the Sartor Resartus is the logical extension of a paradox of Swift's, in the profuse style of Sterne, master of Richter. Carlyle himself mentions the connection to Swift, who wrote in A Tale of a Tub that certain pieces of ermine hide and a wig, placed together in a certain fashion, make up what we call a judge, just as a particular combination of black satin and Cambray is called a bishop.

Idealism affirms that the universe is appearance; Carlyle insists that it is a farce. He was an atheist and believed he had disavowed the faith of his parents; as Spencer observed, his conception of the world, of man and of behavior shows that he never ceased to be a rigid Calvinist. His gloomy pessimism, his ethics of iron and fire, are perhaps a Presbyterian heritage; his mastery of the art of the insult, his doctrine that history is a Sacred Scripture which we continually decipher and transcribe and in which we are also written, prefigures -- fairly precisely -- Leon Bloy. He prophecied, in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, that democracy is a chaos at the mercy of the electoral urns, and counseled the conversion of all the bronze statues into bathtubs. I know of no book more ardent, more volcanic, more weary with desolation, than Sartor Resartus.

(The literal translation falls down a bit in the final paragraph, I need to go over that a bit more...)

* (Maybe worth noting in this regard that 30 years later, Borges would title one of his last works of prose The Book of Sand. Or maybe just a coincidence... The first story in The Book of Sand does make a passing reference to Sartor Resartus FWIW.)

posted evening of April 12th, 2010: 3 responses
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Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Cronicas Marcianas

Opening up Borges' Prólogos, one of the first things that caught my eye was his foreword to the Spanish edition of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, first published in 1955. I don't think of Borges as a science-fiction author though some of his stories certainly fit in the genre. Have not read Martian Chronicles since I was 15 or something!-- but I remember reading it a couple of times as a young kid... Perhaps it's worth revisiting.

In the first Century of our era, Lucian composed a True History, which contained among other things, a description of the Selenites, who (according to the truthful historian) spin and card metals and glass, remove and replace their eyeballs, and drink juice of air or fresh-squeezed air; at the beginning of the 16th Century, Ludovico Ariosto imagined a knight discovering on the moon all that had been lost on earth: the tears and sighs of lovers, time wasted in play, unsuccessful projects, unsatisfied longings; in the 17th Century, Kepler published his Somnium Astronomicum, presented as the transcription of a book read in a dream, whose prolix pages reveal the forms and habits of the moon-dwelling serpents -- they shelter themselves from the heat of the day in deep caverns, and emerge at dusk. Between the first and second of these imaginary voyages, one thousand three hundred years elapse; between the second and the third, some hundred -- the first two are, essentially, free, irresponsible invention, while the third seems weighted down by an effort at verisimilitude. The reason is clear: for Lucian and for Ariosto, a journey to the moon is the symbol or archetype of the impossible; for Kepler, it is already a possibility, as it is for us. Wouldn't universal language inventor John Wilkins soon publish his Discovery of a World in the Moone: a discourse tending to prove that 'tis probable there may be another habitable world in that planet, with an appendix entitled, Discourse on the possibility of a voyage? In the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, one reads that Arquitas, the Pythagorean, built a wooden dove which could fly through the air; Wilkins predicted that a vehicle of analogous mechanism would carry us one day to the moon.

In its anticipation of a possible or probable future, the Somnium Astronomicum prefigures (though I would not confuse one for the other) the new narrative genre which the Americans of the north term science-fiction or scientifiction* and of which these Chronicles are an admirable example. They deal with the conquest and colonization of the planet. This arduous enterprise of future men seems meant for epic treatment; Ray Bradbury prefers (without enunciating this choice, perhaps; the secret inspiration of his genius) an elegiac tone. The Martians, who at the opening of the book are horrific, merit pity by the time we reach their extinction. Humanity wins; the author does not rejoice in this victory. He speaks with mourning and disappointment of the future expansion of the human lineage over the red planet -- which his prophecy reveals to us as a vast desert of blue sand, checkered with the ruins of cities and yellow sunsets and ancient ships which sailed over the sand.

Other authors choose a date in the future and we do not believe them, for we know we're dealing with a literary convention; Bradbury writes 2004 and we feel the weight of it, the fatigue, the vague, vast accumulation of the past -- the dark backward and abysm of Time of Shakespeare's verse. Already it was heard in the Renaissance, from the mouths of Giordano Bruno and of Bacon, that we are the true ancients, not the men of Genesis or of Homer.

What did this man from Illinois do, I'm wondering, as I close the pages of his book, that these episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with such terror and loneliness?

How can these fantasies touch me, and in such a close, intimate manner? All literature (I will dare to venture) is symbolic: there are a few fundamental experiences, and it makes little difference whether an author, in communicating them, chooses the "fantastic" or the "real," chooses Macbeth or Raskolnikov, chooses the invasion of Belgium in 1914 or the invasion of Mars. What is important about the novel, the novelty, of science-fiction? On this book, this apparent phantasmagoria, Bradbury has stamped his long, empty Sundays, his American tedium, his solitude, just as Sinclair Lewis stamped his on Main Street.

Perhaps The Third Expedition is the most troubling story in this volume. Its horror (I suspect) is metaphysical; the uncertainty over the identity of Captain John Black's hosts insinuates -- uncomfortably -- that we can know neither who we are nor how God sees us. I would like also to point out the episode entitled The Martian, which contains a pathetic variation on the myth of Proteus.

Around 1909 I read, with fascination and fear, in the darkness of an old house which is no longer standing, The First Men in the Moon, by Wells. These Chronicles, though very different in conception and in execution, have given me the opportunity to relive, in the last days of autumn of 1954, those delicious terrors.

* Scientifiction is a monstrous word in which the adjective scientific and the substantive fiction are amalgamated. Jocosely, the Spanish idiom generates analogous formations; Marcelo del Mazo speaks of gríngaro orchestras (gringos + zíngaros), and Paul Groussac of the japonecedades which obstruct the museum of the Goncourts.

(I'm noticing as I work my way through this piece, my reluctance to divide a sentence where the original has a single sentence. I'm happy to change punctuation -- it seems to me like Spanish frequently reads better in English with stronger punctuation, semicolon where there is a comma or "and" in the original, dash where there is a semicolon -- but I am averse to putting in extra periods. Similarly -- even moreso -- with paragraph divisions.)

posted afternoon of April 11th, 2010: Respond
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Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Reading material

We're back from vacation! Pictures soon. I have a whole lot of new reading material on hand...

While we were in Modesto I visited my childhood hangout Yesterday's Books (it seemed so much smaller...) and got a cheap copy of Paradise Lost, which Mark (on Good Friday!) convinced me I ought to read. It certainly is easy to read -- not sure how much I am getting out of it, but it rolls in through my eyes quite easily.

In San Francisco we visited Ellen's old friend Maryam, who gave us copies of her new book Returning to Iran -- a look at events there from an expatriate's eye. Reading the first few pieces I am interested and looking forward to the rest.

Also in SF, I visited Libros Latinos on Mission and 17th, and picked up a bunch of books. They are a used book store specializing in Spanish and Portuguese lit with (seemingly) an academic target market. Definitely worth dropping in if you are in the area, a beautiful selection. I got:

  • Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos by Borges -- forewords that he has written for a wide variety of books, published in 1974. Cervantes, Whitman, Swedenborg, Martín Fierro, Ray Bradbury(!), his own translation of Kafka...
  • Martín Fierro -- no idea if I will ever actually get to the point of understanding this, it seemed like a nice book to have on hand while I'm trying to understand Borges.
  • Putas asesinos by Bolaño
  • The black sheep and other fables by Augusto Monterroso (who will be the first author Bolaño has hipped me to) -- these are pleasant little fables about (mainly) animals. The blurbs on the back, from García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Isaac Asimov(!), might be the most compelling pull-quotes I've ever seen.
  • I did not buy, because of the price, Borges Laberintos Dručmelić, which is "The Immortal" and "The Circular Ruins" illustrated with stunning color plates of the paintings of Zdravko Dručmelić -- if you're looking to buy me a present, look no further.
  • The steep markdown which Libros Latinos offers on cash transactions meant I still had enough money in my pocket to stop at Nueva Librería México down the street and get a copy of Don Quixote.

...Arrived home lugging a big bag of books (Ellen and Sylvia also did some book shopping on the trip), and found on my doorstep a book I had ordered a while back from a used-book seller, Raul Galvez' From the Ashen Land of the Virgin: conversations with Bioy Casares, Borges, Denevi, Etchecopar, Ocampo, Orozco, Sabato. My shelves are full!

posted evening of April 10th, 2010: 2 responses
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