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16 March 2014

Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s greatest novel.  Can I prove such a thing?  Of course not, but then again, I can’t really prove any one novel is greater than another without extrapolating from a series of premises and theories which (arguably) have more place in academia than they do on this blog.  Even then, who’s to say?  De gustibus non est disputandum.  So, let me refine this statement: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is Jose Saramago’s most enjoyable me.  And I’m not entirely sure about even that.  Enough hemming and hawing?

In our story, poet Ricardo Reis has returned to Portugal from Brazil after his long self-imposed exile upon the death of the great writer Fernando Pessoa.  Of course, in real life, Ricardo Reis was a fictitious character, a heteronym, created by Pessoa himself.  I find it a fascinating premise to write a story where a character or made-up persona can mourn the death of his creator.  It reminds me of the claim made by Jacques Bonnet that literary characters are real while their creators are the fictions.  In the hands of a lesser writer, such a thing would devolve into little more than a literary game or slight of hand, a trifle.  But Saramago is able to create so much depth and vitality that these fictitious characters become far more real than Pessoa ever was, even though it was Pessoa who ever really drew breath and had blood pumping through his heart.  Reis and the rest are modern humans, with real concerns and feelings.  And even beyond the lives of these characters, Saramago makes the time and the setting come to life.  The sharp and heavy blade of history, especially the history of the fascism in place and to come, hangs over Lisbon and over the lives of everyone there.  Destiny is the protagonist of this book.  And Lisbon breathes.  It watches.  It conceals.

As far as plot goes, this one is pretty slight.  Then again, books like this aren’t about plot.  Sure, Reis sleeps with the help at the hotel at which he is staying.  He amuses himself in attending a meeting of fascists, he goes to carnival, he has conversations with the dead Fernando Pessoa and others, he eventually moves to a rental house.  He follows Pessoa to the grave in the end.  But really, he does nothing.  He is as still as the grey city of Lisbon, as unmoving and unchanged as the roofs and crooked streets.  Amusing then, all the talk of how he has changed when he has done no such thing.  The main feeling I took away from all of this is one of inevitability. Things change, but nothing changes.  There is emptiness, there is hope, there is despair, but it is all unmoving and unmoved.

Reis resembles that great Melville character Bartleby, who, though asked to do a great many things, responds, “I would prefer not to.”  Reis prefers not to, to remain neutral, to get by.

An excellent read.


The moon drags the waves away from shore
And out into the deep blue labyrinth
Before releasing them in reprieve once more
Like the discus flying toward Hyacinth.

A woman walks along the strand
Veil black and death’s black gown
Scrape behind her at the frigid sand
From weary eyes her tears pour down.

I’d like to speak to her a moment
To yell, to plead, to joke, to hear,
Perhaps to ask for some atonement
Or just for silence, to be near

And watch her as she makes her way
Her living presence, to wallow
In her departing life...O, stay!
But she goes where I cannot follow

The days and nights are longer.
The tide is out, the beach alone
And her phantom grows now stronger
I have her love, though she is gone

11 March 2014

The Spies

Brief Review: The Spies
 By Luis Fernando Verissimo

Beyond his literary talent, his perfect dialogue, even beyond his ability to make farce as compelling as any other genre, Luis Fernando Verissimo is funny.  It’s a dark funny, the kind earned by looking at the absurdity of the human condition and by knowing when to be reverent and when to bow to the absurd.

The Spies opens with a down-on-his luck, washed-up editor who spends his weekends arguing at a local bar with his comrades-in-failure over literature and grammar.  The reasons for such behavior are clear:

“On Saturday evenings, we would find ourselves back at the same table in the Bar Do Espanhol, where we would start getting drunk all over again and resume the same insane conversation.  It was a way of dramatizing our own inescapable mediocrity, a kind of unusual flagellation through banality.  Dubin called these endless arguments ‘Pavannes for the living dead.’”

Yet, a few pages later, Verissimo can wax almost poetic:
"It’s all over now, what the stars ordained would happen has happened, and we are innocents no longer.  Or, rather, we are not the same innocents.  Nothing can be done or undone, all that’s left is the story and our lingering guilt.  Curse us, please.  Be kind and curse us.”

The editor begins to send his companions to a far away town to investigate the source of a mysterious story being sent in to the editor in installments, and to find out if the writer of the story, a young woman of mystery, is creating a work of literature, or is seeking revenge before committing suicide.  With nods to the spy thriller and Sylvia Plath, among much else, Verissimo has written a wonderful little book, with a rushed ending redeemed by the quality of the writing.  It is translated from the Portuguese by the always amazing Margaret Jull Costa.  If fact, I would put forth that a person, supplied only with her translations, could spend day after wonderful day in literary nirvana.  


08 March 2014

2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list

It looks to be vigorous competition for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year.  I’ve personally read only two of the selections, but the others look very intriguing.  Here they are for 2014:

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker)

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli and translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Portobello Books)

Back to Back by Julia Franck and translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Harvill Secker)

Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine and translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press)

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon (Pushkin Press)

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon and translated from the Arabic by the author (Yale University Press)

The Dark Road by Ma Jian and translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Chatto & Windus)

Exposure by Sayed Kashua and translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsberg (Chatto & Windus)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías and translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Hamish Hamilton)

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim and translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press)

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke and translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (Peirene Press)

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson and translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (MacLehose Press)

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (Portobello Books)

Ten by Andrej Longo and translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis (Harvill Secker)

05 March 2014

coming back, but slowly

The Trees
by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.