Thursday, 25 June 2015

Computers and cigarettes

Full title: My Documents
Author: Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 244 pages, paperback
Publisher: McSweeney's (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Alejandro Zambra has always acted as a writer who writes about a writer's life (Hemingway updated, Roberto Bolaño’s re-embodied?). His latest volume, the collection My Documents, goes about peering again into things that make up the profession’s paraphernalia. For Zambra, the most important of these things are books and computers. Books have their special place, close to the Platonic ideal, so nothing’s changed in the library area; admiration, respect, veneration: all untouched, all good and (strange to say) ordinary. What is out of the everyday (narratively speaking) is the presence of computers. Still young in spite of their half-century of supremacy, PCs and their offspring seem to be slow in taking a place in literature. There’s a sense that they don’t have much to add to a story, that their presence is more likely to cause harm than charm.
But computers do have a role to play. For one thing, they provide memory, which is what writing has always been about, and which is what writing is always going to be about. In "Memories of a Personal Computer," the protagonist and his girlfriend experience the machine as a novelty with potential. They write up their poems on it, they love and hate each other under the PC’s gaze. When the computer works, their relationship works too. When the computer breaks, they too go each their separate way. What’s left of their adventure is a computer memory from which all data has been erased. The story ends with the PC in this state of purity: a blank hard drive deposited in an old carcass. The protagonist's son, an adolescent already over-versed in computer work, takes the object given to him as a gift to an underground location, symbolic setting for a work of disremembering.
"[He] went to the basement to find a place to store the computer, where it has been ever since, waiting, as they say, for better times to come."
With an ending like this, fairytale-style, the story reads like a fable about memory. It’s a story in which the computer too is a protagonist: we find it newly-born in the beginning, and we see it decrepit in the end, its narrative cycle gone full circle.

Alejandro Zambra. Source: Acabo de leer... Y me gusta
If computers are aids to memory, cigarettes are aids to other things that writers do. "I Smoked Very Well" reads like a praise to the vice in the title. The protagonist has just managed, via chemical intakes, to hinder his urge to smoke his lungs off. But what he finds at the end of the tunnel is not joy; it’s the opposite. If there was ever a connection between computers and cigarettes, it becomes clear when the protagonist (a writer with a smoker’s problem or a smoker with a writer’s problem) realizes that the chemicals in his medical treatment have made it impossible to enjoy at all his former love for smoking:
"I feel perplexed, and bruised. It's as though someone were gradually erasing all the information related to cigarettes from my memory. And that strikes me as sad.
I'm a very old computer. I'm an old but not entirely broken computer. Someone touches my face and keyboard with a kitchen rag. And it hurts."
Smoking-is-important-to-writers is the message conveyed throughout the story. The cigarette doesn't only serve as a prop; it isn't only something a writer holds in one hand while with the other hand he's writing. The cigarette marks a fundamental difference between a writer and the rest of the world (a question of status as much as a question of profession):
"What for a smoker is nonfiction, for a non-smoker is fiction. That majestic story by Julio Ramón Ribeyro, for example, about the smoker who desperately jumps out the window to rescue a pack of cigarettes, and who, years later, very ill, his wife keeping a vigilant watch over him, escapes to the beach every day to unearth, with the skill of an anxious puppy, the pack of cigarettes he had hidden in the sand. Non-smokers don't understand these stories. They think that they're exaggerated; they read them cavalierly. A smoker, on the other hand, treasures them."
The fear of losing memory, addressed at point blank in "Memories of a Personal Computer," reaches here the same traumatic height, but its weight is different, because it is made much more personal. Smoking, a vice that threatens the body, puts the soul in a greater impasse when it ceases to be near. Zambra writes up a credo to mitigate this loss, but one that feels sad rather than hopeful:
"I remember that brilliant and unequivocal phrase of Italo Svevo's: 'Reading a novel without smoking is impossible.'
But it's possible, it is. I don't remember anything I read, though. I read badly. I don't know if I've just read a good novel badly or a bad novel well. But I read, it's possible."
The protagonist, who has lost appetite for reading and writing, who has been thrust into this despair of growing sad when the body is cured, makes the cigarette part of the syntax of creation. He's grown wise enough by now (this is close to the end of the story) to see with clarity the link between smoking and composition:
"Cigarettes are the punctuation marks of life. Now I live without punctuation, without rhythm. My life is a stupid avant-garde poem.
I live without cigarettes to mark a question. Without cigarettes that end as we get happily or dangerously close to an answer. Or the absence of an answer. Exclamation cigarettes. Ellipsis cigarettes. I would like to smoke with the elegance of a semicolon."
And so poetry arises from despair, metaphors from lack of punctuation, a writer’s angst from running out of smokes. What’s left, then? As always, memory. Of how writing must be done, of what cigarettes taste like, of what computers are good at. Almost every story in Alejandro Zambra’s collection has a reason to reflect on the above, because at the end of the day being a writer makes one dependent on these props. No writer is free. They all must be set up/upset by some rituals.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Vargas Llosa’s two trilogies at one stroke

Full title: The Discreet Hero
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 326 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The novels of Mario Vargas Llosa should come with instruction manuals. Not because he indulges in obscure matters, but because his constant play with references is so intricate and so personalized that a new text, like The Discreet Hero, risks passing as a mere exercise in simplistic storytelling flavors with an exhibitive soap-opera character. Knowing the author’s penchant for narrative experimentations, a lot of this is likely to have been done on purpose. But confusion does look like a real possibility when it comes to readers.
The review in The Guardian, for instance, all but ignores the cross-referential nature of the novel, which brings together allusions to earlier novels by Vargas Llosa. Francisco Goldman’s account, in The New York Times, is much better informed and better situated critically in its balanced view of the Peruvian author’s literary and political views (paying attention to matters of plot significance, as well as following his ascending career, from the socialist devotee of the early works and convictions to the aristocratic conservative known, since 2011, under the hereditary title of 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa).
The Discreet Hero is an interesting case of double closure, a really curious and highly original hybrid. It stands as the third volume in two different trilogies: the one taking place in Lima and featuring Don Rigoberto and his immediate family (The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and In Praise of the Stepmother) and the other one set in Piura and featuring Sergeant Lituma (The Green House and Death in the Andes).
This hybrid is not at all surprising if one considers Vargas Llosa's distinctive attention to narrative interweaving and plotting, based precisely on shooting references across pages and across texts.
His favourite technique shows, at a local level, throughout The Discreet Hero: alternative chaptering. As in so many of his previous books, Vargas Llosa refuses, almost programmatically, to stick to a one-plot narrative. And for that reason his cast of characters is, as always, impressive. Every chapter has its own plot, with their respective subplots and parallel developments, each following the performance of specific characters. The most important of them are, of course, Don Rigoberto and Sergeant Lituma. They don’t know each other, and when they do meet (very late in the novel) there is no outstanding exchange between them. Only the reader is satisfied to see the convergence of the two lines of plot and to admire, perhaps, the author’s art of bringing them together. Otherwise, Rigoberto is the same aristocrat disgusted by the mundane flavor of life, who featured, with his strange rituals of ablution and sexual oddities, in The Notebooks and in The Stepmother. Lituma too remains true to his narrative destiny drawn in the previous novels: poor but honest, victim of coincidences and misunderstandings, the only policeman in town who has never taken a bribe and who, for precisely that reason, is, in his own words, “the only one that's still a poor beggar and will be a cop forever.” Both Lituma and Rigoberto, must be noted, are secondary characters in this novel. The chapters in which they feature are dedicated to Felícito Yanaqué and Don Ismael Carrera, respectively, business owners of different calibers but of similar providence, who find themselves the victims of their relatives’ rapacity.
But we know that Lituma and Rigoberto are the men to look for, because they are the ones who help finishing the trilogies.

Mario Vargas Llosa. Source: The New York Times
The chapters woven into each other play the obvious role of keeping the reader’s attention in check. With the spirit borrowed, doubtlessly, from the popular telenovelas of South America and also, perhaps, from the Greek and Roman Menippean satire, this technique relies on the good old effect of well managed cliffhangers: tension builds up, a climax becomes possible, then very likely, then unavoidable, and suddenly the curtain falls and we move to the next chapter. Where the action starts anew and builds up towards the same resolution. And so on and so forth.
One wonders if this technique, now anything but new in Vargas Llosa's work, is a narrative strength of his or just a sign of weakness. I believe both options have equal chances to be the winner. I would not completely dismiss the view that this spectacular intermingling of narratives turns almost all of his novels into collections of short stories. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Nobody said novels must be monological. On the contrary. And in fact the novels of Maria Vargas Llosa always find subtle, surprising ways of connecting those stories and sub-plots in ways that give them a true novel feel. But still, that demon of doubt...
In The Discreet Hero, it's not only stories that are sewn together but also genres. From drama to tragicomedy and from 19th-century melodrama to 20th and 21st-century telenovelas, a broad spectrum of possibilities is activated every step of the way. At times the novel feels like the work of a debutant who is trying his hand at as much narrative material as possible.
A tad too much soap opera? Maybe. Albeit the message is clear: here’s life imitating art and art imitating life.
“My God, what stories ordinary life devised; not masterpieces to be sure, they were doubtless closer to Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexical soap operas that to Cervantes and Tolstoy. But again not too far from Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, or Benito Pérez Galdós.”
Until the moment of the reunion of the two narrative threads, though, almost everything has that cheap allure of unexpected encounters, events whose levels of likelihood would, under normal circumstances, be very low, situations and accidents that seem, well – too accidental to be taken seriously. Kind of like eighteenth-century novels. Something à la Tom Jones, if you like, or the pseudo-romances of Samuel Richardson, where characters run into trouble in the most artificial of ways, all in the name of a transparent spectacle.
But it’s clear that Vargas Llosa has planned, with this his latest novel, a take on genres as much as a take on his eternal concern with Peruvian life. And since we’re in the eternity department, let’s finish with another quote concerning telenovelas:
“The soap opera isn’t over, it goes on and on and gets harder to understand every day.”
That’s Don Rigoberto for you, the aristocrat who ends the novel in a plane, flying his family to Europe, where he has planned to disappear amidst bourgeois intellectual pursuits like a man who has been planning his withdrawal from a book.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The ingenious prose of Nic Low

Full title: Arms Race
Author: Nic Low
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 250 pages, paperback
Publisher: Text Publishing (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Being a character in Nic Low’s first collection of short stories would be nothing short of a great vacation. You’d be taken places you never imagined or never thought of visiting during your lifetime. India. Laos. Mongolia. The Australian desert. A New Zealand coast town. San Francisco. London. Melbourne. New Zealand again. And some more. Wouldn’t your character life look like a traveler’s map if you took the journeys advertised by the volume?
Pick and choose – Master Low will take you there in a few pages and give you the ride of your life.
Not only do the stories in Arms Race grow beautifully in such geographic amplitudes, you’d also be given the chance to travel multidimensionally. Like, for instance, getting to a London of a future where all you can consume to stay alive is megabytes. This is the case of “Data Furnace,” a story where Low shows the traces of a true master storyteller.
What is a master storyteller? Someone who leaves the reader wondering how the hell he’d come up with that or with that or with that.
Going into details would ruin the pleasure of reading, I know, I know. But unfortunately you can only talk about Nic Low’s stories if you commit, repeatedly, the crime of giving the show away. That’s how good you feel after having read, one after the other, the twelve stories in the volume, asking, at the last page, if there were any more of them on the way.
So beware: the following may contain spoilers.
To take “Data Furnace” as a model and give it a brief summary, what have we got? We’ve got the city of London caught up in an apocalyptic winter. First stop, take a look at how he describes the city:
“I leave the train line and cross the ice downriver of Tower Bridge. The wind-blasted shell of City Hall, the gutted apartments along the reach of the Thames, the abandoned spires of the City: they’re all so deformed by frost they look like they were designed by children. An evacuation plane struggles overhead. I choose not to watch. It feels like every last breath of heat has been sucked from the world.”
Good, isn’t it? Atmospheric to the point where you feel your bones penetrated by cold.
And this is just to give a taste of what all the texts in the volume read like: with aplomb, with wit, with clarity, with a baroque tendency of exaggerating the contours, but only lightly, with a candid touch not to make the landscapes too foreign. There is, indeed, a sense that, no matter where you are in these stories, no matter what the location or the situation or the purpose, you’re never in need of a compass: you can do it on your own; you can journey through these places like a pro.
If there’s one element that stands out in Nic Low’s stories, it’s got to be his associations. In descriptions, you’re always driven away from the ‘natural’ course. The “gutted apartments” – who would have thought of using that adjective to describe an empty habitation? It’s the adjectives that do the job, of course. Adjectives, those no-no’s of creative writing classes, are Low’s best allies. He knows how to deploy them and deploys them to get the best effect. Like in an arms race for the conquest of readership.

Source: Te Karaka
But to return to the story. Temperatures have gone so low and for such a long time that people have been leaving the streets, the houses, the whole urban space. All but a few; to be more precise: the narrator, his beautiful colleague Umi, and the opportunistic homeless figure known under the name of Old Man Canary. The first two work as IT specialists in a company that has just shut down its last server room. They refuse to leave the city when everyone else is running for the airports like crazy. They stay and they come up with a brilliant idea. Since there’s nothing else to burn to keep themselves warm (every single tree in London has been cut to pieces and consumed in domestic fires), they will use data. They will get the servers to heat up.
This is one of those situations where the reader goes, Oh, I see. Because we all know that computers do give off heat (that’s why they’re equipped with coolers!). But in order to generate enough heat in the servers, the two of them need traffic. They need to get the servers working like never before. Solution: shoot a YouTube video and wait for it to go viral. Easy to say, not so easy to do, since online audiences are best known for their volatility and unpredictability. But a new brilliant idea pops out of Umi’s head. She connects a terrarium to the servers. In the terrarium there’s a tropical frog. The frog needs warmth just like the humans. But there’s a trick to it. As we are told a little earlier (by way of a story that sounds like an urban myth), if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out; but if you put it in cold water and heat that water gradually, it will stay there, allowing itself to be cooked to death. This is where the ingenious idea resides. With a few videos and some hacking that brings traffic to a decent level, the terrarium starts getting warmer and warmer. The heat from the server is transferred to it. It grows hotter and hotter as the viewers turn the event into a share frenzy of epic proportions. Everything’s broadcast live and soon bets are placed on whether the frog will jump out or not. It’s this betting that gets the traffic flowing. The world is taken with the madness of this new form of entertainment. And behind all this – the logic of data flooding:
“We spam out the link, and people have got to be curious. They visit the page, they push up the server load, the temperature goes up too. Incrementalism, I call it: billions of tiny, innocent actions that add up to catastrophe. Just like the real world.”
I have to stop here, though. “Data Furnace” still has an ending that needs to be read, not overheard. But after all this effort to summarize, I think there's one thing that can be said about Nic Low with some degree of certainty: his stories are imaginative like you haven’t seen for a long time. The pleasure with which he tells these stories, the succulent texts full of images and metaphors that make your mouth froth as you read along, the pace of the narration – all these things make the collection impossible to ignore. As also impossible to ignore must be Nic Low’s current project, set to be launched in 2016.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The last novel of Philip Roth

Full title: Nemesis
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 304 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

When Philip Roth declared, in 2012, that he had given up writing, Nemesis had been the last novel published under his name (2010). So far, he has kept his promise, and by the looks of it he’s just as determined to shut his creativity shop as he was, in the past, determined to write like there was no tomorrow. So now, knowing that this is his last novel, Nemesis has the aura of a closure. But truth being said, there is nothing in it that suggests some end-of-the-road proclamation. So I believe we need to get back to where it all started, i.e. back to the novel itself, and read it as it should be: as a novel with only itself to stand by.
Nemesis is a book of hostilities. Set in 1944, when Europe and the Pacific were being blown to small pieces by WW2, it follows closely the brief career of Bucky Cantor, a teacher and playground director in a Newark Jewish community. What’s singular about Bucky Cantor is that he has the ill luck of being contemporary with an epidemic of polio. Roth follows at a painstakingly slow pace the evolution of the illness, which makes the account all the more appalling. Kids disfigured, reduced to having to breathe through machines, with their limbs twisted and paralyzed, the children under Bucky Cantor’s care enter the stage and leave it as if they had never existed, casualties in a war without weapons. We get a quick glimpse of them and then they’re no more.
Several characters in the novel make the obvious connection between the Jewish origins of this community and the historical destiny of the Jews at large, especially at the time of the then-unfolding WW2, when the concentration camps in Europe were still running. As Dr. Steinberg, one of the prominent figures in the community, declares, the destiny of those children killed by polio was equal to the greater destiny of the Jews in the world, and that in its turn was equal to the destiny of humanity in general:
”I’m against the frightening of Jewish kids. I’m against the frightening of Jews, period. That was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us.”
Bucky is conscious of the weight of this destiny and the power of this fear. He sees, around him, parents growing paranoid, impatient, and unfair. Some get as far as screaming out, with the power of a slogan: “Disinfect everything!” Others, confronted with this implacable destiny that seems to be unwilling to take any prisoners, find consolation in the pathetic illusion that salvation can come from signs:
“Where is the quarantine sign? People have been coming and going from upstairs, in and out, in and out, and why isn’t there a quarantine sign? I have small children. Why isn’t there a quarantine sign protecting my children?”
The panic grows continuously, and Bucky Cantor is a hopeless witness of the growing devastation. Caught in the centre of the epidemic, he finds it his duty to stay and fight the right fight to the end. But there’s a fiancé as well; she is in a holiday camp away from the polio catastrophe, and she insists that he join her. Bucky gives in and he leaves the city at a time when the epidemic had already reached biblical proportions. But once in the safe haven of the Pocono Mountains, where everything is bucolic and out of harm’s way, he starts having second thoughts. He is in a constant strife with himself: a man overcome by his own morality, a teacher with the constitution of a hero but the fortune of an apostate. He comes out of all this scarred for life, a victim with a story to tell.

Philip Roth. Source: The Reader's Room
Bucky’s tragedy is that everything for him works the other way round. He is not like the others. He is an orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. His father, a thief, disappeared from his life when he was too young to even notice him. He is athletic by nature, fully prepared to face the world, but because of his poor eyesight he is not accepted in the army, and so, fails to enlist in America’s wars against Germany and Japan. While others his age are fighting in a real war, he is caught up in this fake, humiliating, war against polio, which is far crueller, more unfair, and less glorious than any other war he can imagine. And while those who have fought the honourable fights come home, he finds himself on a hospital bed, ridden with polio, more wounded in his soul and more maimed in his body than those who had seen Normandy or Pearl Harbor.
Bucky’s tragedy is the tragedy of someone who’s never been given the chance to become a hero.
He is engaged in very many battles, but each of them seem to be the wrong one. He battles polio when everyone else is battling the Germans or the Japanese. He battles god when everyone else is battling destiny. He battles his own demons when everyone else has an external cause to fight for. Bucky is always misplaced, always at the mercy of an incoherent fate:
“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance – the tyranny of contingency – is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.”
Because God, indeed, is an uncomfortable notion for Bucky: the entity he blames for the entire disaster, for the polio as well as for for everything else. God, a fixation that hurts, an obsession that insists on meaning nothing reasonable:
“His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two – a sick fuck and an evil genius.”
This gives the novel an air of revenge. If anything, Philip Roth's last novel is a book about the unfairness of the world, about heroism that just doesn't happen, and also about the failure of an ideology based on patriotism and duty. America at its most vulnerable: this is the working topic of Nemesis.