What I’ve Been Reading – February 2019

Three books I’ve read in the last few weeks. Let’s do this.


 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

5

Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Country: Colombia

Where I Got It: Quarter Price Books- Houston, Texas

Premise: A ninety year old man decides to celebrate his birthday by giving himself “a night of wild love with a 14 year old virgin”. However, she awakens a tender side in him that he didn’t think he had. For the first time in his long life, he discovers love.

My Favorite Quote: “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

Review: Technically, this book can be counted as one of my celebrated banned book readings. In Iran the book was censored for seemingly promoting prostitution, before being released under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” which I think is hilarious, especially as the title had already been sanitized ever so slightly for the English version. The original Spanish title “Memoria de mis putas tristes” more accurately translates to “Memories of My Sad Whores”, which is a lot less sentimental. The publishers for the English editions decided to change “sad” to “melancholy” because they thought it was more poetic and less derogatory. “Sad Whores” sounds like an insult, whereas “Melancholy Whores” evokes sympathy. It should also be noted that in Spanish, “puta” can also translate to “bitch”, so it’s a lot more cutting and mean-spirited than the English word “whore”.

Anyway, when it was released as “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” in Iran, the book sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture shat out and pulled it from bookstores after receiving complaints from Islamic conservatives. The institution of religion is a recurring villain in the history of free speech, and therefore too the history of banned books. It’s one thing when American Christians complain about And Tango Makes Three for having two male penguins fall in love, because we can swat their homophobia back down with a rolled-up newspaper. But in Iran, religion has a stranglehold on the population, and you can’t risk standing up for free speech and rational thought in case you get executed. It makes me sad, because I think about all the people over there that have these wonderful books denied to them.

But what of the book itself? Overall I liked it. It’s my second Marquez novel, and I do get the sense when reading his work that I’m experiencing a rare kind of genius. In fact, I was more in love with the writing than the story itself. The main character is miserable and unlikable, but you do end up feeling sympathetic towards him because he undergoes a fascinating catharsis. This is best seen in the quote I included above, where he begins to look inward and be honest about his decisions and his behavior. He’s this bitter loner that prefers the company of literature and music to fellow human beings. He’s never slept with a woman he hasn’t paid for. He’s referred to throughout the novel for his horrifically ugly looks, a curse that he embraces to the point that his ugliness is reflected in his behavior too. I even wondered if he might have psychopathic traits, since he’s aware that he’s mean and pretentious and yet seems to do his utmost to own these qualities.

He falls in love with a 14 year old prostitute, but it’s not really a sexual or conventional love. He treats her like a work of art and idealizes her to the point that he goes out of his way to avoid knowing the real her. He doesn’t want to know her real name and he doesn’t like hearing her speak, because he fears that such knowledge would shatter this perfect, angelic image he has of her. So yes, in its own way this novel is a beautiful and touching love story- but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

If you’re looking for a better review, check out Brittany Reads’ video here.

 

 

The Beautiful Summer

4

Author: Cesare Pavese

Country: Italy

Where I Got It: Waterstones- Bristol, England

Premise: A curious yet prudish girl falls in with a group of painters and models whose Bohemian lifestyle challenges her innocent worldview.

My Favorite Quote: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Review: I bought this novel from a section of books being marketed as “Summer Reads”. This fact, in conjunction with the blurb and the beautiful cover, gave me the impression I was in for a passionate romance set against an atmospheric Mediterranean backdrop. However, this novel isn’t quite what it appears. There is a love story at work, but it’s no whirlwind romance. The plot itself is tissue-thin. For the most part, it’s about the protagonist Ginia and her feelings. This isn’t a book with an emphasis on its events- there are no real twists, there’s no suspense, no dramatic scenes. It can’t even be called a slow boil, because that assumes the events are building towards something important. Instead, everything feels hazy and vague; the book is mainly concerned with evoking a certain mindset- summer days drifting into each other- leaving you with an impression of a particular period of time in the characters’ lives. It’s an extremely sensual book, and it reminds me a lot of Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac. It’s all about the vivid sensations of that summer and what it means to our protagonist. A lot of very similar events repeat themselves- the characters go on endless walks, they go to the café, they go to the painter’s studio. And when I said that the book was sensual, I’m referring to the patchwork of emotions Ginia feels that are wrapped up in these places, objects, characters, and trivial events. It’s not a very atmospheric or descriptive book. Most of the scenes take place inside shabby apartments.

The minimalist narrative is mostly concerned with Ginia’s feelings toward two characters: Amelia- a carefree model with an overactive libido, and Guido- a young and enigmatic painter. Amelia represents the Bohemian lifestyle that Ginia is curious about. I actually thought that Ginia’s relationship with her was the most interesting part of the book. Amelia is a few years older, is more street-smart, more confident. She’s unlike anyone Ginia has ever met. And Ginia herself has mixed feelings towards her friend. She both admonishes her reckless behavior and seems desperate to win her approval. I like that her feelings are confused and complicated and contradictory. There’s a subtle implication that Ginia might be bisexual, but not know it yet. Amelia on the other hand, is openly bisexual, and in her own free-spirited, polyamorous way, in love with Ginia. As for Guido, he represents Ginia’s experience of first love. I also think that this relationship is very interesting too; they enter a vague and noncommittal affair that, by its inevitable conclusion, has challenged and reshaped the protagonist’s concept of love.

So there’s some interesting stuff going on in this novel, even if it’s not a page-turner. However the excellent character development is hampered by the abysmal quality of the book’s translation. There are some sentences here that just flat-out don’t make sense. The very first paragraph begins in the first person and never returns to it; the paragraph ends in the third person and continues that way for the rest of the book. There are also several British colloquial terms that just don’t seem right given the 1930s Italian setting. This book has been described as “unreadable” by some readers. I do think there is something worthwhile in these pages though. In many ways it’s a fascinating look at first love, jealousy, sexuality, and art, and I’d love to see it get a modern translation. I also think the characters are intriguing enough that their struggles could easily be loosely adapted to some kind of stage or film production. Or perhaps an HBO miniseries? Something that captures the essence of what Pavese intended but fleshed out and expanded upon.

 

 

Seeing Red

2

Author: Lina Meruane

Country: Chile

Where I Got ItWorld of Books

Premise: A Chilean novelist in New York has to adjust to a new life after her eyes hemorrhage, leaving her all but completely blind.

My Favorite Quote: “My memory’s visual laws dictated the landscape to me. Screeching seagulls rose up over the esplanade, leaving a sedentary pelican run aground; they flew up along the sunset and then dove down, they drowned in eddies while the tide rose with the moon to cover the black beach. The moon was lost behind the trees; you could tell it was there, barely, from its shine.”

Review: I’ve been trying my darndest to read as many foreign writers as possible. It’s no problem finding the works of giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’ve found it difficult to find English translations of contemporary authors from non-English-speaking countries. I am especially interested in modern- that is to say, 21st century- writers from foreign countries. I want to know who is writing right now. I want authors whose careers are ongoing, whose portrait photos on the back cover aren’t in black and white. I’m also especially keen to read women writers that write about women’s issues through a youthful, contemporary lens. Kinda like Elena Ferrante I guess. Anyway, if you have any suggestions for female, non-English novelists younger than 40-ish, please let me know in the comments!

One resource that’s been great for discovering foreign authors is the website Culture Trip. They do these awesome power rankings. I found one that was like “Top 10 Chilean Novels You Should Read” or something like that. This book popped up by Lina Meruane. Seeing Red; the title evoked promises of violence and darkness. Rage, even. That was the vibe I got. Pure rage. A woman loses her eyesight and takes it out on the world. And that’s sort of how the book goes, although it’s a subtle kind of rage. Once her eyesight is doomed, a new woman emerges- one that shocks those that know her. She’s cynical, sardonic, jealous, sexual, angry, and above all- raw.

It’s a short book that’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own experience of blindness. In that sense, it can be seen as plotless. It follows the events after the hemorrhage and covers largely the narrator’s senses, how these remaining senses are used to relearn how she navigates the world, and how all of this informs her dark thoughts. It’s not a book full of twists and turns. It’s short at 157 pages, but it took me longer to read than I expected because there are no paragraphs, not even for dialogue. The entire novel is like one long block of text, without indentations, without any blank spaces with which to breathe. It made me think of it as being akin to a monologue. I wouldn’t say I was absolutely engrossed in what I was reading, but the writing itself left me breathless. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s a visceral and poetic weave of long sentences and sharp, abruptly-short declarative statements that manage to capture a sense of inner monologue with the sense of verisimilar everyday speech. It’s a rapturous blend where everything feels like it’s in the right place, where every sentence is in order, where each word has been given careful consideration for its lyrical and phonetic qualities. I have to say it’s an excellent translation by Megan McDowell, who’s made a career out of using her own talent to spotlight the talent of others.

If you like introspection, monologues, and the beauty of language, this is the book for you! If you’re squeamish about eyes, maybe give it a miss…

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