Friday, August 28, 2009

OTC 7: "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" -- Peru

This is my 7th novel for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, originally published 1977, translation by Helen R. Lane from the Spanish, published 1982.

The novel, set in Peru in the early 1950s, focuses on a young law student named Marito who works part time drafting news reports for a local radio station but whose real ambition is to become a profession writer. His life is suddenly complicated by the arrival of two unusual individuals: his newly-divorced aunt-by-marriage Julia who is 14 years older than he is but with whom he develops a romantic (but largely chaste) relationship which has to be kept secret from his large family; and Pedro Camacho, a newly-hired writer of radio serials whose work attracts a large audience for the radio station and who accepts Marito as a kind of confidante even as his work becomes increasingly strange and downright bizarre as he begins to lose his grip on reality.

The novel consists of alternating sections of 1st person narration by Marito and 3rd person sections which recount the various stories Pedro is creating for his serials, stories which become increasingly intertwined, odd, and downright confusing as his control over his creations gradually slips away from him. Marito's own life is becoming strange, complicated, and confusing both because of his clandestine relationship with Julia as well as his attempts to help Pedro regain control of his life and creations. The book is richly comic but also at times, particularly with the character of Pedro, touching on the tragic, as well. It's decidedly an unusual novel but one worth reading by the writer who is considered Peru's most important contemporary novelist.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some Novels I've Enjoyed Recently

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder ( originally published 2003, translation published 2009)
This simple, elegant work tells the story of the relationship that develops between a young Japanese woman and her 10 year old son with an elderly mathematics professor for whom she is hired as a housekeeper. The professor had suffered a serious brain trauma in an automobile accident in 1975 and consequently can retain memories for only 80 minutes; for him, it's still 1975 rather than 20 or so years later, but he has at least developed a unique method to help him overcome his loss of memories of the present. There are no particularly dramatic fireworks in the novel; rather, it's simply the story of how these three people come to develop a close, emotionally important relationship despite the obstacles of age, background, and the professor's reiterated loss of the present. It's also, interestingly, a book about mathematics and baseball (no background in either is required, I should mention), two of my favorite subjects. I can sum up my feelings about this book very simply: it's the best novel I've read so far in 2009.

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940)
This novel was recognized as a classic not long after its original publication 69 years ago. It is, on the one hand, very much a typical Western novel featuring cowboys, poker games, barfights, ladies of ill repute, gunfights, stagecoaches, rustlers, and a posse; at the same time, it is a profound philosophical and ethical meditation on the interrelationships that do exist and should exist (those two definitely not necessarily being the same things) among the individual, society, justice, and the law. While it perhaps moves a bit slowly at times, it is always fascinating and suspenseful. I highly recommend it.

Desert by J. M G. Le Clezio, translated from the French by C. Dickson (originally published in French 1980, translation published 2009)
Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, and Desert was specifically mentioned as one of his most outstanding works by the Nobel Committee. The novel tells two interrelated stories in alternating fashion: the first set in 1910 deals with a tribe of North African desert nomads known as the Blue Men who are forced off their traditional lands by Europeans, their futile attempts to fight back against a technologically superior enemy, and their desperate flight in one final hope of finding safety and a home, as seen through the eyes of one young nomad Nour; the second story, set some 70 years or so later in the late 1970s deals with one young girl Lalla who is a descendent of Nour's family and her attempts to make a meaningful life for herself first in Morocco and then in France. Both stories illustrate clearly the devastating, degrading consequences of colonialism in North Africa on those who were and in many ways continue to be its victims, but -- particularly in the character of Lalla -- it also offers hope for a dignified, meaningful life in terms of those oppressed cultures despite the ravages inflicted on them earlier in the 20th century. This is not a comfortable book, but it is an important one I strongly recommend.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979)
This short novel won the Booker Prize when it was first published. The narrative deals with an oddly assorted group of individuals all of whom live in a small community of houseboats on the Thames in London. The main focus is on Nenna, a wife who has been abandoned by her husband, and her two young daughters and how they are going to deal with their abandonment; they are assisted by their neighbors and in turn assist those same neighbors with their problems, as well. The unfolding of the intertwined lives of the members of this community is by turns comic, serious, satiric, and touching; it is an extraordinarily well-written and insightful novel I recommend. [NOTE: I've also read two other of Fitzgerald's novels, The Gate of Angels (1990) and The Bookshop (1978), both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the years in which they were published, and both of which I recommend equally with Offshore. Fitzgerald is a remarkable novelist, and I'm delighted to have discovered her work.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New in "The Jackdaw's Nest"

Saturday, August 01, 2009

CRC 5: "The Dew Breaker" -- Edwidge Danticat

This is my fifth entry for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, published 2004.

This book is a collection of interrelated short stories dealing with Haitian immigrants to the U. S., whose lives are intertwined in various ways with that of one individual known as the "dew breaker," a term used to identify government torturers and executioners under the Duvalier regime. In the course of the work, we see the dew breaker's story from his point of view and why he fled Haiti to become a barber in New York, his wife's view of their lives together both before and after she learned that he was responsible for the torture and death of her brother, their adult daughter's learning of her father's real identity, and the lives of some of those who were his victims or the victims of other "dew breakers." Danticat's emphasis is less on historical detail or even assigning of guilt than on portraying the emotional, psychological, and personal consequences to all of those involved, because in a very real sense all of those portrayed are victims of the society of violence and oppression the Duvaliers created in Haiti.

I found this to be a powerful and affecting work, even more so than Danticat's previous work dealing with the similar society of Trujillo's Dominican Republic in The Farming of Bones. I highly recommend it.