What I’ve been Reading: Javier Marías

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This was originally intended as a short little post on ello, but after I finished, it seemed long enough to post (slightly extended and modified) here, too.


I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Spanish author Javier Marías, my second one in the past month or so. The first collection was When I was Mortal, the second was While the Women are Sleeping. Marías was one of the authors featured in the anthology A Thousand Forests in one Acorn (which I reviewed here), and in that anthology, I noticed that one of his novels was described as a critic as “hybrid-genre” — which has overtones of “This has the plot of the sort of book I’d never admit to reading, but Marías writes well, and interestingly.” Whatever. If you read my blog, you probably don’t worry too much about the literary/genre fiction dichotomy.

Marías (at least in his short fiction) writes a lot of stories that I would classify as “crime fiction” — but often from a somewhat different perspective than you would expect from “typical” crime fiction. By this, I mean that the crime isn’t necessarily the focus of the story, but almost the excuse for the story, the frame on which to hang what Marías really wants to write about. His ghost stories also also usually not “typical” ghost stories, in that same sense. Often, his crime stories have a touch of the fantastic, the “weird” (not necessarily supernatural).

When I was Mortal was the more conventional collection overall; Marías notes that eleven of the twelve stories included were written on commission. But there’s still that “something else” about most of them. “Everything Bad comes Back” reminded me of Julio Cortázar’s “The Pursuer.” The title story, my favorite, is told by a ghost, who thought he had lived a good, contented life. But there was some darkness there he didn’t know about. And now he knows, because when you are dead, you know everything.

I not only remember what I saw and heard and knew when I was mortal, but I remember it in its entirety, this is including what I did not see or know or hear… but which affected me or those who were important to me….

In other words, the fact that it’s a ghost story is a choice about the style of storytelling, not a choice about the story’s genre.

A couple of the stories in When the Women were Sleeping were pale imitations of stories told better in When I was Mortal — but it still had some excellent, interesting tales. The title story was… interesting. It could be a crime tale, it could simply be a “literary” short story. Whatever one would call it, it’s worth reading. “Isaac’s Journey” felt a bit like something Borges would have written, and “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban” is a delightful almost-“straight” ghost story. I’ve already posted about “Lord Rendall’s Song”.

Marías was a good discovery. I will have to check out some of his novels, too.

Recommended.


Image: The Novel Reader, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Sourced from WikiArt.

Ghosts, Moments, and Miracles

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Somewhere else, I called Ghosts, by Argentinian writer César Aira, “a charming, meandering book of philosophical musings disguised as a novel.” That’s meant as a compliment. The story is nominally about the laborers, mostly Chilean immigrants, who are working on the construction of a luxury condominium high-rise in Buenos Aires. The construction site is haunted by ghosts, bawdy naked men covered in construction dust. The ghosts are invisible to the architects, designers, and project developers, as well as to the building’s wealthy future residents. They can only be seen by the workmen, who are about as visible to the project developers and future residents as the ghosts are. The Chilean foreman and his family live on the construction site as caretakers, and the ghosts take a special interest in the foreman’s thoughtful, dreamy, teenage stepdaughter Patri.

It’s a slim novel at 139 pages, and the plot itself is about enough for a short story. The rest of the book is filled with digressions, some by the omniscient narrator, some put in the thoughts of the characters. I picked up the novel expecting a regular ghost story, so at first the book seemed slow — it is slow — but after I adjusted to its reality, I enjoyed it. Aira rambles on about art, literature, architecture, how the arrangement of buildings in an African village reflect the expected modes of interaction among the villagers, homeopathy, marriage, the difference between the complacent Argentinian upper-middle-class and the immigrant Chileans…

This is a long-winded way of saying that arguing with the book while reading it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

What happened? Late in the book, the ghosts invite Patri to their New Year’s eve party. She has to think about it.

Invitations to a magic party with ghosts were obviously going to be very rare. There might be another chance, but for Patri that was beside the point. She was wondering how many such invitations there could be in eternity. That was a different question. Repetition in eternity was not a matter of probabilities, no matter how large the numbers. In eternity, as distinct from “in life” or “outside life,” this party was an absolutely unique occasion.

No, no, NO! I wanted to shout at the book (I was in a restaurant, so I didn’t). In all eternity, this invitation is bound to happen again.

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Boy Meets Ghost

A young man meets a beautiful, noble-born widow who has a crush on him; the noblewoman’s servant girl helps the two of them orchestrate their trysts. But all is not what it seems…

There are many variations of this originally Chinese tale, some of which have been carried over to Japan too. My favorite is a version by Lafcadio Hearn, called “The Story of Ming-Y,” from his collection Some Chinese Ghosts. Hearn attributes the story to the thirteenth century collection Kin-Kou-Ki-Koan (which he translates as “The Marvelous Happenings of Ancient and of Recent Times”).

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Tang Dynasty Poet Xue Tao
Image: Wikipedia

Ming-Y and Sië-Thao

Ming-Y is a young scholar who as been hired as a tutor into the household of the high commissioner Tchang, who lives just outside the city where Ming-Y’s parents live. Ming-Y lives at his employer’s house, but one spring he gets permission to visit his parents in the city. It’s on his way back to Tchang’s house when he first encounters a mysterious woman:

The dreamy joy of the day entered into the heart of Ming-Y; and he sat him down among the young blossoms, under the branches swaying against the violet sky, to drink in the perfume and the light, and to enjoy the great sweet silence. Even while thus reposing, a sound caused him to turn his eyes toward a shady place where wild peach-trees were in bloom; and he beheld a young woman, beautiful as the pinkening blossoms themselves, trying to hide among them. Though he looked for a moment only, Ming-Y could not avoid discerning the loveliness of her face, the golden purity of her complexion, and the brightness of her long eyes, that sparkled under a pair of brows as daintily curved as the wings of the silkworm butterfly outspread. Ming-Y at once turned his gaze away, and, rising quickly, proceeded on his journey. But so much embarrassed did he feel at the idea of those charming eyes peeping at him through the leaves, that he suffered the money he had been carrying in his sleeve to fall, without being aware of it. A few moments later he heard the patter of light feet running behind him, and a woman’s voice calling him by name. Turning his face in great surprise, he saw a comely servant-maid, who said to him, “Sir, my mistress bade me pick up and return you this silver which you dropped upon the road.” Ming-Y thanked the girl gracefully, and requested her to convey his compliments to her mistress. Then he proceeded on his way through the perfumed silence, athwart the shadows that dreamed along the forgotten path, dreaming himself also, and feeling his heart beating with strange quickness at the thought of the beautiful being that he had seen.

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Footprints in the Sand, Messages in Bottles

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That’s how I think of my social media presence, and really about this blog, too. Will anyone follow the footprints that I leave along the beach? Will they pluck my bottles from the surf? It’s up to you, they’re there to find. It’s haphazard, to be sure, but there it is.

Folks in my circle have been wandering over to Ello, ever since the Facebook “real names” kerfluffle. I don’t know if it will stick (indications right now are that it won’t, with my set), but I was curious, and I wrangled myself an account. The various kinds of social media each have their strengths and shortcomings; I haven’t found one that fits me well, but maybe that’s more about me than anything else.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to update my “About” page with a more complete list of places to find me (places that have to do with Multo, that is). I’ll add it here, as well.

Twitter: (@MultoGhost) (this button is also on the side). Almost exclusively tweets about things that might be interesting to those who read this blog: new posts, posts from the archives, tweets about what I’ve been reading or watching that others might find interesting. The occasional video.

Google Plus: (Nina Zumel) Notifications about new blog posts to Multo or to my other blogs (ninazumel.com or win-vector.com/blog). I don’t use it for much else.

Ello: (@NinaZumel) Ello isn’t fully public yet, but I think you can see my profile (such as it is) by clicking on the link. I’m leaving this one open to any possible content: about my blogs, about my dancing, random photos and musings. There’s not much here yet; how it evolves depends on whether anyone follows me here, and who they are. I see it right now as “Twitter without the character limit”, and will probably use it accordingly. I would like a place to leave things for you (my readers) that are longer than a tweet, shorter than a blog post. We’ll see…

Yes, I’m on Facebook, too, but I haven’t enabled following on my account, and I don’t plan to.

And if any much of you are on Google Plus, well, I can revive that, as well.

Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.

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Owwwww.

I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

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New Book Review up at The Mantle

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Just a quick note to let you know that my review of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-language Fiction is up at The Mantle. Didn’t you wonder where my sudden plunge into Latin American fiction came from? Well, maybe you didn’t, but this is where.

It’s an enormous volume, but it was well worth the read.

Enjoy.

I May Need an Intervention…

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We had some errands to run on Clement Street this noon, so my husband casually suggested that we stop in at Green Apple Books. For a quick browse, I thought — why not? But no, it was actually because he wanted to see if our book was still on the shelf there…

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It was. This was the first time I’d seen it on a bookstore shelf — one usually buys technical books online these days — so it was a treat. I admired it briefly, took a quick photo, and then turned for the stairs. Bookstores are a wee bit dangerous, for me. But just a quick browse; what could it hurt? I hoped to escape Green Apple unscathed, but nooooooo….

Jules Feiffer’s latest, the noir-tinged graphic novel Kill My Mother, has just come out. Green Apple had it. Into the shopping bag. I picked up several more enticing volumes, then put them down again, because the Feiffer was a bit extravagant. Just one, just one, I’ll be fine!

Then I saw The Book of Monelle by French symbolist Marcel Schwob, whom I’d recently been reading about at Weird Fiction Review — they’ve put translations of two of his stories online (here, and here). My fingers twitched. Into the shopping bag. Quick, close my eyes, to the register, pay — go!

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Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

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I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.

So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….

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Reading Pariah Missouri

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Pariah, Missouri – Book 1: Answering the Call
Decade Brothers Studios
Created and Written by Andres Salazar
Pencils by Jose Pescador
Finishes, Coloring, and Letters by Andres Salazar

Writer Andres Salazar contacted me not too long ago, about his new series Pariah, Missouri (Book 1: Answering the Call is due to hit comic book stores this Wednesday, August 28). I don’t normally do on-request reviews, but his supernatural western series sounded fun, and I had a little spare time, so here goes…

First off: this is a beautiful book. Artist Jose Pescador’s detailed yet uncluttered pencils and Salazar’s understated ink washes produce an old-timey, moody, almost noirish feel to the art that matches the story’s era and occult narrative quite well. I like the full-page splash of Marshal Kane, shown above, quite a lot — it’s almost like a woodcut. The use of isolated areas of contrasting colors in otherwise monochromatic panels (Kane’s yellow badge; the boys’ rust-colored trousers) is very effective.

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The narrative setup is fun, too: Pariah is a boom-town along the Missouri River run by a mysterious triad of “founders.” Hiram Buchanan is a young East-coast dandy and grifter who wanders into town, for no apparent reason. Why is he there? Are the sudden disappearances of the town’s Marshal and of two young boys related to a mysterious Punch & Judy show that arrives in town? Buchanan investigates, with the help of the fallen-on-hard-times orphaned daughter of one of the town’s late founders, and several loners with special magical talents…

It’s a good premise, and an interesting, suspenseful story. I like the cast of characters, there’s a lot of juicy drama simmering in the town, and the traveling Punch & Judy show was a nice creepy touch. My one complaint is that it all happens a bit too fast. I wouldn’t have minded if the story had been half again as long to give us more time getting to know the different characters and the town (and the monsters); there’s certainly enough meat here to justify that. For instance, there’s a lot of promise in the Kane character — and yet beyond the (kickass) scene where the splash page above comes from, we hardly see him at all, and he doesn’t really contribute to this episode’s denouement. Hopefully we get more of him in the next book.

And yes, there is a next book: the creators are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund Book 2 ; I’ve contributed, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

If you like westerns, supernatural horror, or occult detectives (or better yet, all of the above) — visit your local comic book store (and the Pariah, Missouri Kickstarter campaign) and check it out.