Category Archives: Excerpts

¡Viva la revolución!

villa bannerI’ve never been much of a graphic novel fan, mainly because I prefer to have an author’s words ignite my imagination. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new collaboration by Mexico’s most highly regarded crime novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the illustrator Eko.

Cover_Pancho_Villa_Takes_ZacatecasPancho Villa Takes Zacatecas (published by Restless Books in an English translation by Nina Arazoza) celebrates so many things Mexican. For one, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Zacatecas—the bloodiest engagement of the Mexican Revolution—which took place on June 23, 1914.

Under the leadership of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the insurgent División del Norte fought the federal troops of President Victoriano Huerta. By routing Huerta’s army and taking the city’s strategic railroad junction, the revolutionaries forced Huerta’s resignation. Afterward, the Division of the North proceeded to Mexico City to meet Emiliano Zapata’s troops coming from the south. Villa’s victory was soon memorialized in the Mexican corrido, “La toma de zacatecas” (listen here).

Paco Ignacio Taibo’s minimal text deploys a fictional character, Colonel Montejo, loosely based on a historical figure, to tell the story of Villa’s famous victory. In the U.S., Pancho Villa is remembered as the “bandit” who shot up and burned Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen people, which prompted President Wilson to send General John J. Pershing and 5000 troops into Chihuahua in pursuit. But in Mexico Villa is a revered revolutionary leader.

The illustrations by Eko are the most impressive aspect of this novel. I was unfamiliar with this Mexican artist, but it turns out he has done work for the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and other newspapers. Here, his inspiration comes from the great Mexican caricaturist, José Guadeloupe Posada. Posada used Day of the Dead calaveras to lampoon the political corruption at the height of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and during the chaos that followed in the days of the revolution.

posada-revolution

Posada’s depiction of the Mexican Revolution.

In an interview published by Restless Books, Eko says: “Posada to me is the first urban artist, a guerrilla for art. His work is made for the streets and the people. He uses the cheapest paper and makes his prints everyday with gossip, murders, and political criticism. Posada is the teacher of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and all those new artists. But Posada is different because he worked to the limit, in the middle of a war.”

In Eko’s style there is also a nod to the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution: Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, as can be seen in the page below.

A page from "Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas."

A page from “Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas.”

I was somewhat apprehensive buying a graphic novel as an eBook. On an old Kindle the illustrations are okay, but on an iPad they come through crisply, and the ability to enlarge them makes it even easier to admire their many fine details.

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A brief life, perpetual despair

In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.

“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”

High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).

Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.

4368456Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.

Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:

“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”

Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”

Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”

Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.

In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that people believe they’re condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives.”

As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul  is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.

In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.

Onetti-682x1024Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.

Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.

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A pot of tea and Malcolm Lowry

In Seattle the leaves are turning. The big-leaf maples blaze in fiery tones and the alders, parched from a long dry summer, blanch from the cooler nights. In the Cascades the huckleberries rage crimson and the larches glow golden. Leaves litter the trails and swish underfoot.

HUOLFHTDP

First edition, 1961.

This time of year I like to brew up a strong pot of tea and turn to one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Lowry. Specifically, to one of his finest works, the novella The Forest Path to the Spring. Published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s pastoral is full of lyrical language, classical allusions and keen observations on nature and self.

The plot is minimal, arising from Lowry’s life as a squatter in a shack on the Burrard Inlet, in Dollarton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Lowry and his wife spent fourteen years there while he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. For Lowry, Dollarton represented paradise on earth, a place of bliss and creativity. His love for it shines throughout this quiet, mature work.

If Under the Volcano is Lowry’s Inferno, The Forest Path to the Spring is his Paradiso. In fact, Lowry envisioned a series of six or seven novels titled The Voyage that Never Ends, and planned to use The Forest Path to the Spring as its coda. Except for this little gem and Under the Volcano, the grand opus remained a pile of rough drafts and loose notes at the time of his death in 1957.

Lowry describes a collection of Manx, Norwegian and Danish fisherman, Scottish boat builders and other odd fellows who lived independent and very private lives in their squatters’ shacks, yet who formed a close-knit community that shared its bounty and discreetly watched out for one another. Each day the novella’s first-person narrator goes to a spring in the woods for water. In Lowry’s hands, the walk and the spring become metaphorical; the novella is about overcoming fear, resisting the intrusion of the past, and tuning out the noise of civilization to achieve happiness.

Here is Lowry’s lovely opening:

At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.

The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.

Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.

Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.

Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.

He continues to layer image upon poetic image, with metaphors changing shape and meaning like the mist in the mountains.

Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and a book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

A happy Malcolm Lowry, bottle of gin and book in hand, in front of his shack at Dollarton.

More often than not, Lowry’s febrile imagination and unquenchable alcoholism fed a delirious paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, which he captured brilliantly in Under the Volcano. In that novel, as in this novella, Dollarton represented a safe harbor, an idyllic place that could not possibly survive except in dream or memory. The squatters’ eviction in 1954 to make way for a suburban park became for Lowry an eviction from Eden, and an obsession. Though eviction had always been a theme, his writing now took on a more strident ecological protest, unusual in its day, as civilization encroached upon his piece of wilderness. From the moment of his eviction to his premature death at the age of 47 in Ripe, England, he never felt at home again.

The Forest Path to the Spring is Lowry’s testament of longing for a place and a peace of mind that he lost. It is beautiful in its affirmations. It should have a greater stature in the English-language canon than it does, and it should be read by more people than it is. Ideally, in autumn, with a fresh pot of tea.

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The inconsolable Mr. Hugo

Poet Richard Hugo was a native of Seattle, or technically, White Center, an unincorporated neighborhood familiarly known as “Rat City.”  White Center is a tough, rundown area of immigrants and low-cost housing, a place feared by many Seattleites as a lawless no-man’s-land of bars and gaming parlors prowled by gangs and prone to random gunfire. In Richard Hugo’s youth, the 1930s, it wasn’t much different–a hardscrabble place where the poor lived.

White Center permeates Hugo’s poetry. It haunts his memory; it shapes his language; it colors his moods. Even when he escaped–first into the Army Air Corps as a bombardier, then to the University of Washington under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke, and finally to Montana, where he taught poetry at the university–Rat City was always with him.

A friend of mine compares Hugo to Raymond Carver, another Northwest icon. She sees in his plain, hard and hopeless poems fueled by alcohol and persistent depression something akin to Carver’s minimalist stories. But where Carver reveals an occasional ray of hope, an unwarranted grace that might redeem, Hugo’s outlook is grim.

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir is one of Hugo’s later books (1973). In one poem he describes a bar in Montana where ritual for the passed-out Indian is to be laid upon a table to sleep it off. In another he writes of coming across a map of Montana on an Italian bar’s wall, where patrons cheer at the violence of TV westerns. And in still another he describes a bar in Dixon, Montana, a dying town that is “Home. Home. I knew it entering.” Even touring in Europe, the great tradition of poetry cannot dim his darkness. In a graveyard in Somersby, England he sees the headstone of a child and writes:

Mercy Jesus Mercy
cries a stone
b 1586
d 1591
and Tennyson’s brook
drones on

Most of Hugo’s poems are narrative in style, vernacular and unadorned. His is not poetry you will recite lines from, but you will remember its emotional punch long after putting the book away. Though you might want to save reading it for a sunny day.

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Latest review of Under a False Flag

Here’s a link to the review on Amazon:

What’s wrong with this picture? – American presence in Chile in 1973

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