Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé (translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden)

Navidad & MatanzaWhat kind of writer eviscerates his own novel?  What drives a person  to that extreme?  And – just so we’re clear – we’re not talking about paring down the prose or making a few surgical edits to tighten up the plot. Carlos Labbé rips out entire chapters of his book and leaves huge, gaping holes behind.  That takes guts. When it works it’s exciting and innovative.  And, yes, disturbing. When it doesn’t it’s frustrating and… well it’s frustrating.

There are two parallel narratives in Navidad & Matanza. The first, which opens and closes the book, is narrated by a journalist investigating the 1999 disappearance of the teenage son & daughter of a video game executive – Alicia & Bruno Vivar.  The Vivar family is fabulously wealthy.  And, if Domingo the journalist is to be believed, fabulously debauched. The youngest, fourteen year old Alicia, is the most jaded of the clan. Wise, as the saying goes, beyond her years.  Her education has been taken in hand by a much older “friend” of the family.  A Congolese theremin musician who goes by the name of Boris Real.  Domingo’s pet theory is that Real is linked to the siblings disappearance.  But it is only one of his many theories. He is constantly revisiting and re-imagining moments and scenarios; gathering first hand accounts from men and women who were witnesses to crucial events.

Domingo’s obsession with Alicia & Bruno’s disappearance is, perhaps, too personal.  His speculations on what could have happened – and on the daily lives of the brother & sister before they vanished – are exercises in voyeuristic fantasy.  Domingo displays all the tell-tale signs of an unreliable narrator. There’s obviously more going on here than the reader is privy to; Labbé manipulates us until we’re desperate to see those missing chapters. And yet the narrative remains solid despite their omission.

The man from the service station accompanied Alicia to the beach, walking two steps behind her for several kilometers through the night. She asked many questions and he answered them, aware all the time of the cash he’d make housing this strange group of people for a few days. Afterward everything would be calm and normal again. That’s what he believed, he said. But it wasn’t so. Every once in a while the girl would yell: Right? Left? And now, which way? It was like she was walking with her eyes closed, like she wanted to be guided in the darkness.  Then all of a sudden the sound of the sea was very near. When the sand and docas came into view, Alicia started to run.  Rising up from down below he heard a shrill, sharp sound. At first it seemed to him that a woman was screaming. The he though someone was doing something bad to the young girl. He quickened his pace across the beach. The night was moonless, and there were no streetlamps in the town, and so he was barely able to make out two distant silhouettes approaching the water. Little by little the shrill sound turned into a birdsong, into the gurgle of an immense stomach, and finally into a strange music. “A female robot, singing with her mouth shut in the shower,” that’s how Patrice Dounn’s theremin sounded to the man from the service station. The foreigner was standing on a dune, an open case beside him – a different case, not the one he’d opened in the kitchen – his left hand suspended above a strange gleaming, blue instrument. The other hand, the right hand, moved slowly toward and away from the object. The music was very beautiful.

The insertion of a second narrative complicates the story.   Domingo, we learn, is a test subject in an experiment.  He and six others are housed in an underground laboratory and administered a drug called hadon, making them fearful and prone to violence. They play the “novel-game” to pass the time;  writing and exchanging chapters, they all contribute to the plot of a single story.  They are writing the Vivar family history. Domingo is one of them.  Not only a character in the story; he is a writer.  Not just imagining scenarios as we suspected in the first narrative; but authoring them in the second.

Will Vanderhyden translation provides two separate styles for the two separate narratives in Navidad & Mantanza.  The portion set in the “real world’ is written in lush, sultry prose. In the emails that comprise the novel-game the prose is emptier, cleaner and more clinical. The missing chapters are even more keenly felt (is that possible?) because there is so little to go on – no landscapes, no physical descriptions or a sense of time.  Just excerpts from a correspondence, given without a context to place them in.

And yet the mind naturally reaches out to fill in the blanks left by those missing chapters, like water will fill crevices in rock. Not at first, but in the weeks afterwards I began to take ownership of Domingo’s and Labbé’s story, making my own assumptions on what was going on. Adding to and shaping the plot all on my own.  Until suddenly I realized I’d joined the game. That I’d become another player. A neat trick.

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 92 4

 

 

Europe In Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic (translated from the Croatian by David Williams)

Europe in SepiaDubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011.  Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book.  Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected.  A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.

To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice.  Direct, ironic and slightly irritated.  As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider.  And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation.   There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country.  Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next.  In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes  the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.

When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time,  I articulated it with conviction and clarity.

“Say what?!”

“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.

“Say whaaaat?!”

I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred.  That was twenty years ago.

“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”

To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.

“I always say Tito!” he fired.

“And?”

“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”

I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending.  In the end I chose a regular name.  At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.

There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence.  (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.

Great writing.  Wickedly entertaining.  Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.

Ugresic  covers all kinds of topics, from Zuccotti Park, to a sketch from the Muppet Show, to the need for a women’s literary canon.  She has a talent for handling serious subjects lightly without trivializing them. The essays on writing, literature and translation were my favorites, but that’s just where my tastes lie.  Europe in Sepia is organized into three sections, dishing out a little something for everyone.  The first section, the titular Europe In Sepia, focuses on the author’s Eastern European ties.  The second,  My Own Little Mission, is oriented more towards pop-culture and social criticism.   In the second section you’ll find an excellent essay Who Is Timmy Monster? (the theme of which is: we are our own worst enemies).  And another on preparing for food shortages -“Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table and luckily Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pink birds…” – which spurred me to re-read sections of Johnathan Swift’s infamous A Modest Proposal.  Endangered Species, the third and final section, is where the essays on literature are gathered.  Of course there is overlap – all the essays are told from and relate back to the unique Eastern European in exile perspective that is Ugresic’s trademark.  Even Who Is Timmy Monster? is a reference to a Muppet Show sketch that featured Zero Mostel, an American comedian of Eastern European Jewish descent. Europe in Sepia is also  firmly grounded in contemporary culture (something that has me wondering if it will feel dated ten years from now) – Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton and E.L. James all get a mention.  As does a former dictator.  And vampires. And (my personal favorite), she takes a dig at Quirk books classics* series.

You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books.  Don’t bother fighting it.  It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.

Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious).  This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to  get everyone thinking about the things that matter.

 

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4

 

*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen.