Showing posts with label mexican. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mexican. Show all posts

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dear Diego - Elena Poniatowska | Review

Will I ever cease to be surprised by the power of such slim books? Dear Diego is an especially light novella, framed with a softness of prose that makes it seem even shorter, but it has a lasting impact. Two weeks since reading it, and my mind is still turning over its quiet characterization of Angelina Beloff.

Angelina's is the sole clean voice in Dear Diego (translated from Spanish into Hebrew by Michal Shalev), a fictionalized set of letters from a lonely, abandoned, forgotten, and still-loving wife to a man whose place in history is assured. These letters are based on the real correspondence between Angelina and Diego (after he left France for Mexico), yet there is something subtly ethereal in them.

Elena Poniatowska's writing places Angelina at the forefront, writing wistfully to a husband who simply doesn't respond and doesn't seem to care about his wife anymore. At first, Angelina's messages both acknowledge this abandonment and wait for it to end - she signs off with love, hopes to hear from him soon, is eager for return letters. But as the novella progresses, Angelina's expectations seem to fade (even as her declarations of love do not). She begins to address his lack of responses more bluntly. She references rumors she's heard from other friends. The gentle tone turns almost fragile, brittle.

It's always strange reading fiction based on real historical figures. The trick to Dear Diego's success lies in Angelina as narrator. Her stories - of her marriage with Diego, the loss of their son, her arrival in Paris as a Russian ex-pat and painter, her own artistic ambitions - turn her into a living, breathing woman. Whether all the facts align with history itself is unclear, but it almost doesn't matter.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the presentation of Rivera. While Angelina's tone is often loving and gentle, she (through Poniatowska's sharp eye) paints a portrait of a deeply selfish man, whose at-times cruelty is forgiven simply because he is a "great artist".

My edition of Dear Diego came paired with another Rivera-tangent story by Poniatowska - Diego, estoy sola, Diego ya no estoy sola: Frida Kahlo. This short-story is significantly less powerful than Dear Diego, fading rather quickly from my memory and leaving behind only a very strong sense of Frida Kahlo's physical struggles. The story is somewhat uneven, though this may be a result of its pairing with Dear Diego - I have rarely enjoyed reading short stories immediately after novellas. Even so, the book presents Poniatowska as a first-rate writer, one whose works wholeheartedly deserve a revival. I can't wait to read more.

Monday, August 10, 2015

WITMonth Day 10 - Classics Challenge - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was one of the first authors I was introduced to when I started to search for classic women writers in translation, and one of the easiest to track down in terms of actual printed works (thank you, Penguin Classics and translator Margaret Sayers Peden). It sat on my shelf quietly for most of the past year. WITMonth seemed like the most appropriate time to read her works: Poems, Protest, and a Dream.

I haven't read the entire collection yet (frankly the poetry gets a bit... rambly), but I've read and reread the "Protest" (encouragement to let women be educated and study), and find myself continuously in awe of its contradictory and revolutionary nature. Sor Juana is at times nothing less than a radical feminist, but she also repeatedly calls for the status quo and frankly supports many patriarchal misconceptions about both women and men. It makes for a wondrously complex and fascinating feminist text, if only through that lens. Unsurprisingly, the piece also incorporates many religious concepts (only a specific some of which I feel qualified to comment on...).

Sor Juana is blunt in her belief that women can - and should - be educated. Her effective rant in which she lists biblical women, classical figures and important women of history is a relevant reminder for our world today, since it is sadly not yet a universal fact that women are expected to learn in the same way as men and since many women are sadly still prohibited from any form of education. Sor Juana's list of women - some mythological, others distinctly real - is an inspiring reminder that women have always existed. Have always written, have always contributed to culture, have always inspired and have always sought to learn.

However in discussing women's right to learn, Sor Juana reveals herself to be quite classist: "[N]ot only women, who are held to be so inept, but also men, who merely for being men believe they are wise, should be prohibited from interpreting the Sacred Word if they are not learned and virtuous and of gentle and well-inclined natures." While her message is a positive one (citing sectarian violence and indeed violence in general as the result of improper reading of religious texts... goodness, does this sound familiar?) and while I adore her for pointing out what women have always known about men consistently thinking they're automatically wiser by virtue of being men (see: mansplaining), her cold approach to broad education is something I cannot believe she would believe in today. This separation is so anathema to modern feminism it almost hurts to read, but it's also an important reminder of how feminism - and the fight for equality of all kinds - has been waged through time: slowly, and largely for a privileged class within the oppressed group.

This is a book I'm glad to own. Glad to be reading. Glad that it exists and holds a fairly prominent place in the canon (that is, it has been moderately recognized as belonging there). While I don't think this is necessarily the best book for every reader (specifically, it's probably not so good for mostly fiction readers), I can certainly recommend it to readers interested in unraveling the notion of feminism. I personally found it enlightening.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

WITMonth Day 9 - Spotlight on Mexico

It's interesting to me how little Mexican literature is translated. Considering its proximity to the US (and its cultural impact...), you'd expect there to be a little more than minimal translations. And yet largely the Anglo world is less interested in Central American literature. However, whereas the literary community has largely ignored South American women writers (while touting male ones, of course...), the reverse seems to be happening for Mexico. Let's look at a few, shall we? Incomplete list time!

  • Valeria Luiselli
  • Sabina Berman
  • Carmen Boullosa
  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
  • Laura Esquivel
  • Elena Garro
  • Margo Glantz
  • Natalia Toledo (Zapotec as well as Spanish)
  • Cristina Rivera Garza
  • ...and as always many, many others who have not been translated
Reminder: These lists are not only grossly incomplete, they represent my own research flaws almost as much as they do my capabilities. Lists of this kind must continue to be fluid and growing, as both more titles are translated and as more are revealed from the backlog.

Monday, August 25, 2014

WITMonth Day 25 - Faces in the Crowd | Review

Though I wasn't aware of Valeria Luiselli before preparations began for WITMonth, the closer we got to August the more posts and reviews of her books began cropping up on my radar. The praise was overwhelming - recognition of her prose, her style and her clever writing. I knew that I'd have to read one of her books (both translated by Christina MacSweeney), and so I opted for the novel - Faces in the Crowd.

Here I must admit to being a little less enamored than most other reviewers. I appreciated a lot of what Luiselli tried to do in her slim little book and recognize the literary talent behind it, yet truthfully I found much of it a bit tedious and, despite its short length, long-winded. Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short blurbs (sometimes only a sentence) that cover alternating stories: a young translator in New York, a mother of two writing in Mexico, and a writer in the US in the early 20th century. These three narratives overlap (particularly near the end) in what can only be described as "fiction wrapped in fiction". Luiselli takes some level of pride in her unreliable narrative - the seeming "frame" story (of the mother) is often contradicted by her husband, yet her husband in each of these stories is himself a fictional character... contradicting his fictional aspects.

This turns the entire story into an extremely meta form of fiction. There is no objective truth, because everything is a fiction. There is no clear character, because none seem to exist. While certain figures remain as fixtures (the boy, for example, remains constant throughout the mother's story, as does his baby sister), others are built fluidly and vaguely. It's unclear who the narrator of the modern New York story is - it starts out as the mother, then merges with the 1920s. Meanwhile, the husband (perhaps the most fictional character of all) decries these stories as pure fantasy (lies), but in one segment he "shouts" this, and in the next asks why his wife wrote those words down, he never actually said them.

All of these fragments are interspersed with little notes on Gilberto Owen, a poet with whom the translator/mother is obsessed with. Owen himself only becomes a main character when his own narrative enters the story (relatively late in the book), and it was at this point that I found my attention slipping. His stories felt repetitive and looped, with lots of name dropping and fictional name dropping that didn't really further the story. His perspective of course casts a lot of doubt on the other story as it overlaps more and more, but I found it... less convincing. I felt that Owen's story could have been presented differently, and though it's obviously a brilliant piece of writing, it didn't really hold my interest so well.

When it comes to the writing though... this book reigns. Faces in the Crowd has some of the best styling of any book I've read in a long time, with some truly brilliant ideas and riffs and games. The writing is quick, deceptive, clever and extremely put-together, with a sense of control that is fairly rare in books of this sort. It's also deceptively simple: short sentences, sure, but they form to create a confusing, complex landscape. Plus, there's this brilliant riff that repeats itself throughout the book: "A horizontal novel, narrated vertically". Luiselli constantly references the shape and format of this novel (or is it the fictional novel...?) in beautiful phrases that I wanted to frame and mount on the wall.

It comes down to this: there were some major aspects that frustrated me with Faces in the Crowd, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a fairly brilliant book. I didn't like all of it and also find fault in some of its more ambitious attempts, but the writing is very, very good and the ideas - though flawed - create a narrative that is both interesting and distinct. And while it took me a long time to get through it, this is not a particularly heavy, difficult read, yet it is quite rewarding. Definitely worthwhile.