Saturday, January 27, 2007


Cumanda coverYes, Juan León Mera’s story takes as its title the name of its female protagonist, object of the white man’s desire. Yes, Cumandá is also without doubt the most interesting and most attractive character in this, Ecuador’s first novel. And yes, the book’s plot revolves around first the ill-fated love between Carlos and Cumandá, then the tug-of-war that sees her exchanged between indigenous tribes and demanded back from the white-founded settlement to which she flees, and finally the revelation that in fact she is Julia, Carlos’s younger sister missing since an indigenous uprising many years before.

But Cumandá is a distraction, or at best a pretext for the real interest here. As so often, the traffic in women is important only in so far as it enables and solidifies economic and political relations between men. In Doris Sommer's words, Cumandá becomes "the woman over whose dead body Spanish and Indian fathers can lover each other" (Foundational Fictions 240). For the key relationship in Mera’s novel is that between her father Tongana--who turns out to be the rebel formerly known as Tubón--and Tubón’s master, now missionary, Domingo Orozco, who is Carlos’s father and (we finally discover) also Cumandá’s.

After all, is not the book’s lesson that romantic love (or even sexual desire) fails to unite the two cultures, the indigenous and the creole or European? Not only do Cumandá and Carlos unable to consummate their passion--she has to keep herself untouched until after the festival of the canoes and then all too shortly thereafter is captured before subsequently dying--but even if they had, it would have been an illegitimate, incestuous union. In the end (Mera suggests) desire only brings us back to the same. The romance is doomed, but it would be even worse if it weren’t.

What counts therefore is the mutual forgiveness required of the two fathers. Father Domingo has to forgive Tubón for the uprising that deprived him of his wife and (for so long) of his daughter. Tubón has to forgive Domingo both his former colonial violence and his current neocolonial nation-building. Indeed, Domingo requires Tubón’s forgiveness in order to construct a fiction of brotherhood that will bind the two cultures affectively, if not ideologically.

For in the crucial scene in which Tubón offers up (or is read as offering up) his assent to creole domination, he is mortally wounded. Surly and undemonstrative at the best of times, this indigenous chief is now literally mute. While Carlos irritatedly calls upon his father to seek out and save Cumandá (failing three times, an unhappy inversion of the three occasions on which Cumandá has saved him), Domingo waves him off, concentrating on eliciting some sign of approval from the dying figure of the indigenous patriarch.

Domingo implores Tubón, revealing his dependence upon indigenous pardon for his own salvation: “If you pardon me, then we are both saved” (283). “My brother,” he begs him, “My soul brother!” as he seeks “a sigh, a tear, any sign of repentance” (283). So lo and behold when Tubón “wants to speak but cannot [and] two tears roll down his burning cheeks,” Domingo exclaims “He weeps! [. . .] Tears of salvation! Tears of benediction and proof of eternal health!” (284).

And the reader too is no doubt expected to weep at this scene of high (melo)drama in which the nation’s future health is cemented over a double death: of the white woman sacrificed for her troubling allure; and of the subaltern rebel whose mute affect is to be interpreted as consent within a narrative of reconciliation.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The AlchemistBy all rights, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist should have single-handedly delivered a knock-out blow to any popular conception that Latin American literature is "good" literature. The novel is, simply put, execrable tripe.

At the very least (as I commented earlier), Coelho should have changed our idea of what it is to be a Latin American author: his work is global in almost every sense of the term, from its international success (his website, itself available in sixteen languages, tells us that he "has sold a total of 85 million copies" of his books, 30 million copies of The Alchemist alone, and that he's been translated into 62 languages and published in more than 150 countries) to its settings and themes, which usually have very little to do with Coelho's native Brazil.

But perhaps this is precisely why The Alchemist seems so distinct from any specifically Latin American literary tradition. Though Coelho claims Borges (another global writer, if of another calibre) to be one of his inspirations, The Alchemist has more in common with, say, Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince or (even more so) Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull than with, say, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" let alone A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Moreover, I'd wager that the market for Coelho and the market for García Márquez, vast as they both are, are also almost entirely distinct: i.e. that those who read the former hardly ever read the latter, or vice versa.

Yet The Alchemist must do something for someone--perhaps even for 85 million someones. Though the moral peddled by this fable of a shepherd boy's voyage to find a treasure he dreams awaits him (be true to your dream, listen to your heart) and even the story's dénouement (the treasure turns out to have been right where the boy started out from all along) are both trite and surely familiar, perhaps they help the book's readers make it through somehow. Coelho's blog invites us to become Warriors of Light as we Walk the Path with him in pursuit of our own "Personal Legends." And as with countless other New Age movements (and this is surely New Age however much it's inflected through Coelho's own Catholicism), such a sense of pilgrimage, both communal and highly individualistic, no doubt compensates for some generalized sense of social anomie.

Indeed, it's striking how much the "Reader's Guide" appended to the HarperCollins edition of the book encourages us to view The Alchemist almost as a devotional text: "questions for discussion" include "can you define your Personal Legend?" and "Having read The Alchemist do you know what inner resources you need to continue the journey?" (173, 174).

In short, we're enjoined to read the fable as "truth" rather than "fiction," perhaps even as anti-literature. And it's tempting to agree that Coelho's work is (in a rather different sense) indeed anti-literary, supremely non-literary. But surely the first premise of any critical account would be to insist on its literary quality: to emphasize that this is indeed literature; bad literature, no doubt, but literature none the less.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Mayan jungle sceneThis from Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, as quoted in Stephen Hart's "Cultural Hybridity, Magical Realism, and the Language of Magic in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist" (Romance Quarterly 51.4 [Fall 2004]: 304-312):
A quota system is to be introduced on fiction set in South America. The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, or surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing: ah the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. (104)
Hart wants to revindicate both magical realism and (surprisingly) Paulo Coelho. However, one would have thought that tying Coelho to the magical real would sound that style's death knell.

Still, it's interesting to see a continuity between (what I think Niall rightly identifies as) the kitsch Orientalism of Allende's Eva Luna with the still more portentious fable provided by The Alchemist.

Yet beyond the tired and derivative stylistic quirks that Barnes identifies in magical realism, perhaps at least Coelho has come up with a new way for Latin American literature to be bad.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Isabel AllendeIsabel Allende's Eva Luna is perhaps not a terrible book; but nor is it a very good one.

It particularly goes off the rails towards the end as the various narrative strands--the story of eponymous Eva's success as a writer; the long-awaited consummation of her romance with film-maker Rolf Carlé; and her abandonment of previous love interests guerrilla Huberto Naranjo and General Tomoleo Rodríguez--come to an end more or less abruptly and unconvincingly. In this light, Allende's decision to give us two possible conclusions, in one of which Eva and Rolf's love eventually dissipates whereas in the other they live happily ever after, is less a sign of metafictional play than a signal that the book itself has ground to an unceremonious halt.

All this in a book that sets out to celebrate the power of the word, and of story-telling in particular, yet in which (as our narrator tells us) "when all was said and done, everything came down to the elemental fact that I had found my man" (285). All the gestures towards politics, whether feminist or socialist, half-hearted at the best of times, are sacrificed for the sake of a romantic dénouement that even Eva Luna herself finds vaguely unsatisfying.

This sense of dissatisfaction permeates the novel, not least when it comes to the various stories within stories that it presents. Eva Luna gains an audience among her friends by reworking the stories provided her by mass culture: "They'd ask me to tell them what would happen next in the soap opera of the day, and I'd improvise a dramatic conclusion that never coincided with the way things turned out on the radio, but they didn't mind" (121). Yet it emerges that the book we are reading is itself the basis of Eva Luna's own soap opera, one which goes by the title of Bolero; perhaps she's challenging us to come up with a more fitting end to her characters' serial adventures and (mis)fortunes.

If Eva Luna is some kind of doppelganger for Allende herself, it's notable that she is a writer unashamedly oriented towards the market. Throughout, she offers her stories in exchange for some kind of benefit; and as she suggests in the self-reflexive terms of the only story told within the novel itself, "she traveled all over touting her merchandise, adventure stories, mysteries, tales of horror or vice, all at a reasonable price" (262). She makes no grand claims for her fiction, only that in the face of an unknowable and chaotic reality she tries "to put a bit of order to so much chaos, to makes existence more tolerable. When I write, I picture life the way I'd like it to be" (280).

Is it too severe to characterize such sentimental escapism as "bad" literature? Perhaps, though it's notable how deficient it is when Allende (or Eva) comes to account for violence or any other unpleasantness: describing a torture scene, for instance, our narrator tells us "The officer lifted his hand, brought his arm back, and punched me. I don't remember anything else. I awoke in the same room, tied to the chair, alone, they'd taken my dress off. [. . .] I tried to move, but my entire body hurt, above all the cigarette burns on my legs" (183). No wonder Luna's response to another character's bloody suicide has been to clean things up and tell her corpse a story as though (almost) nothing had happened.

And it's an irony if Allende's readership comes to her work looking either for creative imagination or for some kind of political commitment, when all they get are these gestures.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


There's quite a lot you can judge a book by its cover. A book's cover is a very visible means by which publishers seek to sell their product to readers: indicating what kind of book they're selling, establishing associations to point to a particular market niche.

Isabel Allende's own website has a page featuring all her covers, at least of English translations. There are a variety of designs, though most of them feature cover art that bleeds to the edges. The design for Paula is the simplest, with prominent text imitating handwriting either side of a very small central image. Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia have covers more suitable to a classic: subdued, neither too busy nor too colourful.

Eva Luna, on the other hand, has a cover dominated by a quasi-modernist painting of a woman's head in close up, in warm but also slightly menacing orange (in which the forehead and background merge), over which the book's title is superimposed in rather clashing green. There seems to be no other text and the overall effect is decidedly garish.

Eva Luna, SpanishHarperCollins (via its Spanish-language imprint Rayo) sells the book in Spanish in the US and Canada with an early twentieth-century sepia photograph and a crescent moon set against a dark brown ground and with a prominent recommendation from the Village Voice right alongside the title itself. Allende's name is more prominent than the title, but only marginally so; beneath is the reminder that she is also the author of La casa de los espíritus This cover is simpler and more tasteful, right down to the use of a lower case sans serif font.

Eva Luna, EnglishIt's Bantam (a mass market division of Random House) that sells the current North American English translation, whose cover depicts a woman writing against a colourful floral background. The type face is more elaborate, reminiscent of art deco, while the artwork itself is fairly interesting: faces lurk in the background; and on the desk at which a woman is writing (though she's looking straight at the viewer) can be found both a sepia photograph of what seems to be an Edwardian woman with parasol, and also a hand grenade. Again, there's something menacing about this cover, especially the woman's somewhat odd gaze, but here perhaps this disconcerting effect is deliberate, rather than accidental.

The Penguin (UK) cover picks up on the military theme, but takes it to some extreme: no longer the romantic image or woman's portrait, but an abstract study in camouflage, with a blurb from the Evening Standard placed aslant between title and author's name. I can't but think this is a strange and possibly counter-productive way to sell Allende's work. Maybe the idea is to position her more as an avant-gardist, and to remove all traces of femininity from her image.

Perhaps this is a tension for her publishers: whether to sell her as Virginia Woolf or as Gabriel García Márquez. Likewise, if on a different axis, there seems to be a tension between positioning her as a modernist, experimental writer or as an author of romances (albeit romances with an exotic and politicized edge). Where exactly does she lie on the scale that leads from Barbara Cartland to James Joyce? The truth is, as in so many other things, she's quite squarely in the middle.

Meanwhile, here is the book in some other languages: Dutch, Czech, and Italian. The Dutch have gone for a fairly plain cover, with a childlike drawing; the Czechs have decided that sultriness is what will sell the story for them. It's not clear what exactly the Italians were thinking.

Eva, DutchEva, CzechEva, Italian

Again, Allende's own website has a page dedicated to covers of translations in a still wider range of languages, from Turkish to Japanese.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Here's material for a meme, no doubt: what was the worst book you ever read, and why?

A quick search around the web, however, turns up several lists of notoriously bad films (e.g. Wikipedia's "Films considered the worst ever"), and indeed there's an annual award for bad films, the Razzies, but I can't immediately find anything similar for fiction.

There is the Bad Sex in Fiction Award; and also the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, "wretched writers welcome." But nothing for entire books, so far as I can see.

[Update: I now see that The Observer started such a discussion a couple of years ago, though even in starting the debate Stephanie Merrick (who picks Wuthering Heights) notes that "if favourite books are subjective, nominating the 'worst' books is even more so". The ensuing comments, over 1100 of them, can be found here.]

Of course, a document such as the Vatican's Index librorum prohibitorum tried to establish some theologically-validated consensus on what makes a bad book. But not only is the question of moral danger rather different (if not altogether so) than the issue of aesthetic failure; also even the Vatican eventually gave up any attempt to distinguish between bad and good when it comes to literature.

Perhaps that's because there are just so many more books--and therefore so many more bad books than bad films. There are too many contenders. But perhaps it's because there's much less unanimity on what makes for a bad book than on what makes for a bad film.

Here's my contender for at least one of the worst books I've ever read... and what makes it even worse is that it's a trilogy.

Many years ago a co-worker and friend lent me Robertson Davies's The Cornish Trilogy (which consists of The Rebel Angels, What's Bred In The Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus), telling me I must read them. And read them, I did; every word. Perhaps my effort to continue through these three thick tomes indicates some kind of masochism. Because almost every sentence I found ponderous, overwrought, and yet strangely banal.

I'm really not sure why I persevered in the effort. Maybe I thought that at some point Davies simply must turn the corner, that things had to improve. But no: the oh so slow trainwreck of language and plot continued inexorably, each sentence and each page as poor as the previous one. The trilogy was long; it was tedious; it was pretentious. And it gave no pay-off whatsoever.

Fortunately, I have repressed almost all memory of the books themselves. I only have the memory of the execrable experience I spent reading them. An experience I would be loath to repeat.

Meanwhile, I now find myself in a land in which Robertson Davies is a literary hero. The Canadian Encyclopedia declares that he is "acknowledged as an outstanding essayist and brilliant novelist". And I should admit that a couple of my other contenders for worst books also emanate from the Great White North--not least Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though that at least has the benefit of a decent title and a commendable brevity.

But I should assure my Canuck hosts that there's no Canada-bashing here: I love the novels of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, for instance. But Robertson Davies? Forget about it.

Crossposted to Long Sunday.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Literature and the family are intimately connected.

No doubt this is in part because the family is such a fertile source of narrative: stories are handed down from parents and grandparents to children and grandchildren; and also we tell ourselves and each other stories about the family in an effort, perhaps, to understand who we are and where we come from. These familial and familiar stories, for which we now draw on the narratives provided for us by psychoanalysis and culture at large, help to place us, to give us a sense of place. There's something reassuring even (or especially) about a story of troubled family origins. Perhaps it gives us a way out, but at the least a way to cope with and come to terms with ourselves.

There's also something about troubled families in particular that seems to demand a story. Perhaps it's the inherent interest of the "unhappy family," as Tolstoy's famous first line to Anna Karenina suggests. The family serves as something like a primordial site of speculation and gossip, as looks or words or anecdotes are exchanged about more distant relations: uncles and great-aunts, cousins and great-grandfathers.

But in the novel (at least) the family is not only context or source: it is also traditionally motivation or prospective future. Think of Austen's heroines and their search for a fit husband (and so another famous opening line, that of Pride and Prejudice). They're not just about coming to terms with origins, but also about leaving one family and starting up another, and the anxious moments of transition in between, the fear that in leaving the frying pan we are simply jumping into the fire.

So typically novels in end death, birth, or marriage: the end of a lineage, the beginning of another, or the establishment of a tie between lineages.

But the family is also a social metaphor for other sites within which identity is constructed, contested, or even broken down. For Latin America this is perhaps especially the case: Doris Sommer has famously argued that the region's foundational fictions are "family romances" in which the fate of the nation is allegorized through the vicissitudes of family plots. No wonder that this heritage should bear also on the literature of the twentieth century, that so many of the great books by which Latin America made its literary name should carry with them family trees, as though the novels themselves were merely commentary on such diagrams of familial interconnection.