Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4


00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.


*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.


The Colonel: A Novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale)

June 1, 2012 § 5 Comments

A basic grasp of 20th Century Iranian history is advisable if you plan to read Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, published in English last month by Melville House Books.  Readers might be able to get by on the information provided by the publisher in footnotes and a glossary, but a little time spent on Wikipedia can’t hurt.  (I also recommend Lisa Hill’s excellent review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog).  The Colonel is both a political novel and a family drama – knowledge of the former is essential in understanding the latter.  To complicate matters further: it also functions as a Persian fable.

Two colonels are referenced in the title.  The first, “the colonel” (always in lowercase letters), is the novel’s protagonist and one of its two narrators.  He served in the military under the Shah.  After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted the colonel was arrested and sent to prison. (I’m fuzzy as to whether this was because of his politics or because he killed his wife in a drunken rage).  He has five children.  The eldest son, Amir, witnessed his mother’s murder.

Amir is the novel’s second narrator.  His life, in many ways, mirrors that of his father’s.  Both men have troubled pasts.  Both men supported different, fallen regimes (Amir supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who deposed, and was later deposed by, the Shah); both were imprisoned and tortured; both men played a part in their wives’ deaths. Their combined actions and choices – particularly their political choices – have led to the destruction of their family, contributing to the deaths of Amir’s two brothers and youngest sister.  A second sister is married to a brutal opportunist who holds both his wife and her family in contempt.   At the point where the story begins Amir and his married sister are the only children of the colonel still alive.  We meet the other three in flashbacks.  We learn the details of their deaths and, as the story unfolds, understand that they were sacrificed.

The catalyst which sets the story into motion is a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  The colonel is summoned to collect the body of his fourteen year old daughter, Parvaneh, from the police station.  She died in custody and he must bury her before dawn in an unmarked grave.  Two soldiers accompany him to assist with the burial, which turns into something of a farce… almost a comedy of errors (except it’s not funny).  There is no women to bathe the body, they have no shovels to dig the grave, the rain never stops, the ghost of the colonel’s dead wife makes a tragic appearance… as does the ghost of the second Colonel.

The second colonel of the title – The Colonel (always capitalized) is a historical figure.  The details of his life would be familiar to most Iranian school children.  Footnotes and the book’s glossary provide some detail.  To my mind, his importance is more as a symbol and less as a man.  The colonel keeps his picture in a place of prominence in his home.  As he loses each of his children he places their photographs in the frame at The Colonel’s feet.

Dowlatabadi moves back and forth between the colonel and Amir to tell the story.   The Colonel is non-linear, filled with flashbacks, memories and hallucinations – making the timeline of events sometimes difficult to follow.  I initially believed this was done on purpose to reflect the states of minds of the two narrators.  To demonstrate how their individual psyches and family are deteriorating apace with the nation.  But if Dowlatabadi meant for this novel to be taken as a fable then it’s possible that what I identified as hallucinations were meant to be visions or, even, actual occurrences.   This is just one instance among many where I fell short as a reader.  (Another being my failed attempts to grasp the amazingly complex political and cultural traditions depicted in the book).

Iran seems to be a country where lines are constantly blurred – with so many regime changes and each member of the colonel’s family aligning themselves with a different political cause –  friends and enemies are difficult to keep track of.   It wasn’t entirely shocking when Amir welcomed his former torturer, a man named Khezr Javid, into his father’s home as a guest and hid him from the revolutionary mobs crowding the streets.  Or for that same torturer to reappear later on dressed as a Mulla, now serving in the new government.  After telling Amir how he also served the Shah at one time, he explains his situation  –

“Listen, boy.  Political police are like a religion.  Has anyone ever heard of a religion being overthrown?… A new gang may take over, but they don’t go and overthrow the very basis of the old régime.  I grant you that some of us were strung up by a few of your hot-headed brethren, but that’s not the end of the story.  Not by any means.  We’re the very foundation of everything, we are the underpinning of the state, my engineer friend!”


I’ve read only one other Iranian author.  The difference between Shahriar Mandapour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is palpable.  Both write about the political and social climate of Iran – but Censoring An Iranian Love Story is more indulgent in its tone.  Mandapour creates a metafiction narrative that acknowledges the reality of his main characters’ situations, but forces upon them unrealistically happy endings (while acknowledging the implausibility of these endings).  Whereas Dowlatabadi is the complete opposite. The Colonel has not been published in Iran due to censorship.  This poses a problem.   He is the quintessential Iranian author, as Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Dickens the British, even in his open criticism of the current government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  And so his novel is dependent on and assumes readers with a certain level of knowledge about his subject matter.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder, outside of Iran and it’s neighbors, how many people have that knowledge?  Dowlatabadi’s writing is more dramatic…grittier… then Mandapour.  His story takes place in damp basements, muddy streets, dark mortuaries and smokey, confined spaces.  He paints a dark and bitter picture of Iran and its politics – of a nation that sacrifices its young people.  While I don’t doubt the truth in what he says, is it an objective or a subjective truth?  Amir speaks of the events leading up to his sister’s, Parvaneh’s, death.

That was when people started talking: it was the duty of any respectable family to repudiate a girl like that and send her packing.  She was now mahdour ud-dam*, fair Islamic game.  It would be an honour killing.

A few pages later the colonel, that girl’s father, recalls speaking to a crowd at his matryed son’s funeral (the morning after burying Parvaneh in an un-marked grave).

…the memory of what he had said about Parvaneh over the unseen, echoing loudspeakers at Masoud’s funeral.  He could not believe that he would ever have been capable of uttering those words against a child who was not even fourteen, a girl to whom he was both a mother and a father.  Had it really been his own voice that had yelled:  ‘This girl is mahdour ud-dam… She must be killed.  She is impure, possessed by the devil and now lost to us all…’

Passages like these are incredibly disturbing to read.  Particularly for a reader without the experience to recognize concrete fact from what is being shaped by the author’s opinions and artistry.  Much like his character Amir,  Dolwatabadi’s writing portrays him as disenchanted with and disenfranchised from his homeland.  Reading these pages it’s difficult to find any redemption or hope for Iran.  I don’t dispute the book’s brilliance, even I recognize the genius behind it.  But for those readers (and I count myself among them) coming to these pages ignorant of the background material, The Colonel is an intense experience.

Note:  The Colonel was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is being whispered as a possible future Nobel Prize winner.

*deserving of death

Publisher:  Melville House, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 9132 4

Packing for the Revolution

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Like the rest of you I’ve been watching the Occupy Movement spread across America (and the world).  I’ve been listening to the U.S. media talk: how the movement has no direction and the protesters are inarticulate (I don’t buy it).  I’ve seen the news coverage of protestors being ousted by means of bureaucratic obfuscation and in violation of the First Amendment . But, politics aside, it had me thinking about the (now defunct) ad hoc library at Zuccotti Park and what the protestors were/are reading.

Which books would I want to see there?  Which books would you want to see there?  Most important of all: what book would you bring to the revolution?

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan – This National Book Award winner tells the flip side of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The Joad family traveled to California, but many of their neighbors stayed behind.  Egan tells their history and the history of the American prairie leading up and through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  A Great Depression, climate change, income inequality and class war… any of this sound familiar?

Mutual Aid:  A Factor of Evolution by Petr Kropotkin – Kropotkin was an anarchist with communist leanings.  Published in 1902, Mutual Aid provides a refreshing change to Darwin’s survival of the fittest. One based on the belief that “sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle”.  He pulls examples from nature – looking specifically at species that survive through cooperation – and ultimately makes a convincing case as to why it’s in man’s best interest to work together.  Take that Gordon Gekko!

Redeemers:  Ideas & Power in Latin America by Enrique Krauze – Does anyone do revolution quite like the Latin Americans?  Sure, they may not always be completely successful.  Eccentric dictators tend to come into power… human rights violations have been known to happen (dramatic understatement)… but there’s a certain flamboyant style they bring to the whole endeavor that cannot be denied.  Redeemers explores the history and philosophy behind the revolutionaries, their leaders, the wars fought and the literature created.  (I’ll be posting a full review of this book in December).

That’s my list… admittedly heavy on the non-fiction.  Now – what’s yours?

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