Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Pedro Páramo [1955]

Pedro Paramo was Mexican immigration clerk turned writer Juan Rulfo’s 1st novel, 2nd book and one of only 3 works published in his lifetime. It is, therefore, a matter of incredible astonishment that this slender, eerie and befuddling novella became a pioneering and seminal work in the quintessentially Latin American genre of magical realism, and a tremendous source of inspiration for, among others, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Dense yet fluid, structurally audacious yet surprisingly accessible, earthy yet hallucinatory, and harsh yet poignant, this bleak, brooding and modernist tango between past, present, life and death was a tour de force in form, style, mood and atmosphere. The book begins with its narrator, Juan Preciado, arriving at a small town called Comala to honour the promise he’d made to his mother at her deathbed, viz. to look for his eponymous father. Upon arriving he’s apprised that his father is long dead, and finds Comala a ghost town filled with apparitions and whispers of the dead and the buried. In this strange world alternating between the real and the surreal, Preciado gets to know about Pedro Paramo – a cruel, pungent, ruthless, devious, womanizing and self-serving megalomaniac who indulged in murder, rape and violence during his life as the most powerful person in the town. Yet, for all his antagonistic characteristics, he’s also portrayed as a lonely and misunderstood man in love with a grief-stricken and increasingly insane lady, and this melancholic air that he’s imbued with made him a complex and compelling person. As the narrative constantly switched between present and past, one finds a fascinating mélange of characters stuck in a desolate and inescapable afterlife, half-spoken words and shifting truths, memories both sad and grotesque, a pervading sense of guilt, Catholic faith and brewing Mexican Revolution, and a world that has literally collapsed under its own burden of brutality and madness forcing the living and the dead to mingle, co-exist and even switch places with one another.

Author: Juan Rulfo
Genre: Magic Realism/Drama/Black Comedy
Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Curfew [1986]

A death can never be just another death when it is that of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s widow Matilde, and a home-coming can never be just that when it is to a country like Chile besieged under Pinochet’s iron-fisted military dictatorship. These fascinating springboards – at once historically grand and intensely personal – formed the basis for Curfew, José Donoso’s absorbing and masterful display of political consciousness, moral courage and narrative vitality. Mañungo Vera, a protest singer turned pop-idol, lands in Santiago after having lived in Paris for the last 13 years, to learn of Matilde’s death. There, on one hand, he gets to experience the complex, and oftentimes self-serving, agendas that various individuals and groups (the right-wing establishment, Neruda’s inner-circle, the Communist rebels) are striving to extract from this historic moment, while on the other he gets re-acquainted with the beautiful and enigmatic Judit, with whom he’d shared a passionate affair during their college days and learns how her tumultuous life-long tryst with radical left-wing politics has irrevocably altered her existence subsequent to his departure. Set over a span of less than 24 hours, the novel has been powerfully structured into 3 chapters – ‘Evening’, in the form of a hyper-link ensemble piece and deadpan comedy-of-manners, chronicled the multiple characters who have assembled at Matilde’s home; ‘Night’, in the vein of a tense thriller, provided a nightmarish account of Mañungo being stuck with Judit on the streets with curfew in force, while she’s planning revenge against the man who’d sexually abused her and her fellow detainees in a prison; in ‘Morning’, Matilde’s funeral turns into a circus of one-upmanship, and becomes a precursor to a shocking human tragedy. Combining wry humour, political satire, paranoid suspense and tentative romantic elements, and veering between embittered ‘present’ and melancholic ‘past’, Donoso created a grimly elegiac tapestry and richly complex microcosm of life in the repressive regime. In what added to its tremendous artistic significance and bravery, he wrote this post his return to Chile after being in exile for 15 years, with Pinochet still in power.

Author: Jose Donoso
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Political Thriller/Political Satire/Roman-a-Clef

Language: Spanish
Country: Chile

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze [1935]

Having earlier read (and loved) James Thurber’s brilliant, satirical, parodic, irreverent, ingenious and hilarious quasi-autobiography on his formative years, My Life and Hard Times, how could I control my urge for long from reading the next set-piece in the beautiful Library of America anthology on the writings and drawings of this eccentric American humorist that I own? Particularly so given its absurdist and ironic title, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. Unlike the earlier ensemble, this collection of idiosyncratic episodes was more disjointed in nature – unpredictably swinging from deadpan memoirs and ludicrous reflections to nonsensical chronicling of his acquaintances and absolutely unrelated short-stories – and often displayed far darker shades of pain, melancholia, loneliness, human corruption and casual violence. The narration freely veered from first to third person and back, and made it darn difficult to gauge the blurring lines where gleefully exaggerated caricatures transitioned into complete figments of Thurber’s fecund imaginations. Though some of the pieces were weaker than others, the collection provided ample evidence of Thurber’s mad genius – a man trying hard to talk her bored wife into agreeing to let him murder her; a laughing-stock who boasts of his good lucks only to become a bigger laughing-stock upon his accidental demise; the author’s crazy school-days filled with adults in fifth standard; a man with the most outlandish sense of humour; an incorrigible intellectual who, despite his unwillingness to complete anything, is considered a master by everyone around him; and, in a scorching indictment on the crazy world order in which Thurber lived (as we do, too), and which may well be one of the greatest (and shortest) socio-political satires every written, Jack (“Pal”) Smurch, a seemingly phony person with a disreputable disposition and dishonorable past, becomes, much to the dismay of those in power, a full-blown American hero to the public, prompting the government (led by the sleazy President himself) to take certain sordid corrective actions for, well, “the greater good”.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Short Stories
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, January 2, 2017

Fear of Dying [2015]

Erica Jong continues to be known to this for her smashing debut novel Fear of Flying – a sensational bestseller upon its publication and a pop-cultural icon, and not just in the context of feminist literature, thereafter – for its bristling, humorous and infectious call to freedom and liberty from societal mores and patriarchal expectations. Elements of that free-spirited exuberance and coming-of-age, along with fictionalization of episodes and characters from her own life, are there in Fear of Dying as well – the third chapter in her so-called Fear Trilogy published four decades later – even if, as perhaps can be expected, it was also suffused with existential ironies, idiosyncrasies and crises emanating from and pertaining to denial and acceptance of ageing and death. The book begins with Vanessa, the tale’s 60-year old protagonist who was once a popular actor, placing an ad in a website on adultery and anonymous affairs called zipless.com (the title ripped-off from Isadora Wing, the unforgettable protagonist of Jong’s debut novel and, as it turns out, a close friend of Vanessa); however, contrary to what she’s been looking for, viz. to reverse her ageing process and make up for the fact that she’s married to a much older man, she ends up being contacted with men whose fetishes range from the bizarre to the ludicrous. Meanwhile, she’s grappling with questions of mortality of her aged parents under 24x7 palliative care, the near-death experience of her husband (who, like her, has journeyed through a series of marriages and divorces) with whom she shares a deeply loving relationship, anticipating grandparenthood when her daughter announces her pregnancy, hoping to stabilize her bonds with her sisters who are as emotionally dysfunctional as she is, and trying to come to grips with lost youth. Incidentally, the sections on zipless.com and Isadora felt tad superfluous and trite; however, for balance parts, Jong’s writing was filled with a delicious flourish of sharp wit, brittle humour, candid self-awareness, satirical observations, palpable tenderness, and understated poignancy.

p.s. This is my 100th Book Review at Biblioscope

Author: Erica Jong
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Marriage Drama/Feminist Novel
Language: English
Country: US