Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: "Falsificaciones" by Marco Denevi

Falsificaciones [Falsifications] (1966) 

Marco Denevi (1922-98)

159 pages
Jonah and the Whale 

Jonah harassed the whale, insulted it, provoked it, told it that it fed on small fish but was incapable of devouring a man, called it a herring, a little bream and other offensive epithets. Eventually the whale, fed up with finding itself so vilified, or perhaps to shut-up this madman, swallowed Jonah without causing him the least injury. Once inside the belly of the whale, Jonah began running to and fro. He barked wildly, and punched and kicked the walls of the whale’s stomach. Within a few hours the whale, sick with nausea, vomited Jonah onto the bench. Jonah told everyone that he had spent a year inside the whale; he invented heroic adventures, and declared that the whale was afraid of him. Moral: if you are large and powerful like a whale, and some sort of Jonah defies you, don’t devour him, because you will vomit him transformed into a hero.

Marco Denevi turns the well-known parable of Jonah being swallowed by the whale on its head in his book Falsificaciones (in English: Falsifications), inventing a new version and moral for the ancient parable. In some seven dozen similar vignettes in the book --- running from a few lines to a few pages --- Denevi reaches back to mostly familiar scenes from mythology, literature and the Bible, and bends them to his will, creating idiosyncratic but enchanting alternative explanations for stories we assumed we knew and understood.

Falsifications has a similar structure and feel to Denevi’s book The Garden of Delights: Erotic Myths (in Spanish: El Jardín de las Delicias: Mitos Eróticos; find my review here). Whereas in The Garden of Delights Denevi focused on human struggles and whims in romance and loving, with Falsifications he takes on a broader scope, examining all manner of human foibles. Tales of eros of course have there place in these alternative narratives created by Denevi, but so too do stories of prideful vanity, grasping greed and blind hero-worship. In each case Denevi seems to humanize these old stories, introducing behaviors and motivations that make the original versions of the stories seem quaint and idealized.

In a brilliant several pages of imagination, for example, Denevi creates a story based on a famous old painting by Albrecht Dürer called The Horse, Death, and the Devil. Titled The Dog of Dürer, in reference to a hound that accompanies the knight in the painting, Denevi’s tale skewers jingoism and the supposed joy of battle, and lays bare the awful realities of war. He paints, in words, the future that lies before the returning warrior, forever changed from traumatic experiences incomprehensible to the society which awaits him. The story has a bit of the feel of Twain’s The War Prayer, but from the point of view after the fighting has, for that moment in history at least, concluded. I would argue that it represents as powerful an anti-war statement as can be made.

As with The Garden of Delights, I have unfortunately not found that there exists an English translation of Falsifications. But, if you know a little Spanish, and are willing to work through the book with a Spanish-English dictionary at your side, these stories are well worth the effort.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: "The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes"

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554)  

Translated by W.S. Merwin

118 pages

Historical fiction, at its best, can transport readers into a past era in a way that a history book generally can not. When the historical fiction was also written during the time in which it is set, the benefits can be multiplied --- just reading a story written in a distant age provides its own special window into that time.

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, first published in Spain in 1554 by an anonymous author, satisfies on both counts by taking us back to life in mid-16th century Spain through both the story itself, as well as its writing and presentation. The book is apparently considered to be one of the first picaresque novels. (In case you have to look that up, as I did, Merriam-Webster defines it as “a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist” --- think Huckleberry Finn; picaresque comes from the Spanish word pícaro, which can refer to a ‘crafty devil.’)

Lazaro de Tormes --- Lazarillo being a diminutive of Lazaro --- narrates the story, recounting his life as an itinerant worker in central Spain to someone he refers to as “Your Excellency,” who “has written to ask for a full account”(5) of his life. Lazaro states that he lost his father when he was eight years old, and his mother could eventually no longer support him and so gave him over into the keeping of a blind man who passed through their town. The blind man became Lazaro’s first master, and through his nasty and tight-fisted ways, taught Lazaro harsh lessons about the difficult life of the poor. Even as he suffered under the cruel treatment of the blind man, Lazaro watched him ply his myriad of tricks for defrauding people in town after town; as Lazaro says upon leaving him, “the blind sinner had taught me a great many things.”

After escaping the blind man’s control Lazaro wanders from place to place, finding jobs with masters each more miserly than the last, whether priest or squire, constable or seller of papal indulgences. Each of Lazaro’s masters represents an archetype of Spanish life in the 1500’s, and the anonymous author spares none of them his sharp pen. The novel stands as a scathing critique of clerics more worried about their own pleasure than the lives of their parishioner or the poor, and nobility more concerned about appearances and honor than in doing an honest day’s work.

History books on Spanish describe the disintegration that began in Spain and its economy in the 1500’s after the initial boom time that came from the silver and gold discovered in the New World. Much of these riches from the colonies ended up squandered on religious wars throughout Europe, while a significant part of the rest often found its way into the coffers of the church in Spain. Many people followed that money, entering religious institutions instead of working to earn a living; the Spanish have a disparaging expression for this that translates as these people having entered the contemplative life. The gentlemen class too had little interest in getting their hands dirty working, too busy worrying about protecting their honor. The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes depicts these times in a novel form, and the accuracy of the representation can be judged by how quickly the Inquisition in Spain banned the book after publication.

The story is a short 118 pages, and split into roughly one chapter per master for whom Lazaro works. The author skips any detailed description of the countryside or towns through with Lazaro passes, and also avoids full character development in the story. He focuses instead on describing the basest characteristics associated with various vocations at that time in Spain by representing the selfishness, greed and laziness that Lazaro observes in his string of masters. Clearly meant as a critique of his fellow countrymen in 16th century Spain, the anonymous author brings to us, centuries later, a tiny window into the world of his time.

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The cover is a detail from the painting by Francisco de Goya, Pilgrimage to San Isidoro.

This book is part of a wonderful series published by NYRB: New York Review Books.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: "Dust" by Hugh Howey

Dust (2013)
Hugh Howey (1975)

458 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the earlier books, Wool and Shift.  So, if you haven't read the first book, Wool, I suggest you jump back to my review here; if you haven't read the second book, Shift, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]

In his science fiction novel Wool (my review here), Hugh Howey launched readers on a wild ride through a wonderfully imagined, if horribly deformed, world: a silo that, rather than rising up to the sky, lies instead buried in the earth. Extending deep underground, the silo houses a community the size of a large town. Afraid of the poisoned landscape they can see only through cameras mounted on the surface, the people of the silo live, work, give birth and die all within their concrete home, the only world they know; curiosity about the outside and the silo’s past have become this society’s most fundamental taboos. For some, however, the desire to understand what guides their existence and what remains hidden from their view overcomes these prohibitions, with dangerous consequences for themselves and the stability of their community’s world. Howey’s sequel, Shift (my review here), continues the story, reaching back into the past to events leading up to the creation of this dystopia, even as the struggles in the silo’s present spin out of control.

The third book in the series, Dust, has now been released. Bringing together the threads begun in the first two books, Howey continues the thrilling pace in this sequel, the tension building with every page. In Dust the struggles of the characters in the first two books evolve into an escalating fight for survival, as opposing viewpoints on how this artificially created world should move forward become locked in a life-or-death struggle; decisions about the community’s future quite literally become the ultimate ‘game of life’. Ironically, even as the tension rises over the course of the three books, the focus of events moves down the silo, deep into the earth. It is those in the community most distant and disconnected from the surface who must lead the way back there.

As in the first two novels, though we come to know some of the history and motivations of a few of the main characters, the trilogy is not built around deep character development. Howey’s focus in Dust remains on the broader psychological aspects of the situation and its effects on this community living underground in their circumscribed home. How have these people, so seemingly similar to us in how they go about their daily lives, managed to adapt to what would seem to be from our perspective an inhuman situation? And even more critically, how will they adjust to the sudden revelations about their world, revelations that will shake the foundations of their beliefs and understanding?

This third book provides a satisfying conclusion to the series, an entertaining resolution to the taut story line that was created for the reader from the first pages of Wool. And though Howey seems to point at Dust as being the conclusion of this story, giving it the subtitle “Every Beginning Has An End,” the final pages of Dust create a new kind of beginning --- so we may yet find that three books are not the upper limit of this trilogy.

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(Mild Spoiler Alert:)
It’s difficult, particularly in a science fiction novel, to have everything ‘add-up’, to seem completely logical, and Howey generally does a fine job of that in these stories. One thing surprised me however: at the end of Dust, when those who have escaped their silo gather outside, and beyond the dead zone round the silos, they discuss where to go next, and there is no mention of the sky scrapers (of Atlanta) that they have seen and wondered at through the cameras of the silos. Even if it’s clear they wouldn’t want to settle in a destroyed city, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t be intensely curious about it, and at least go for a look…

Howey has published a collection of short stories, Machine Learning (my review here), that includes a tryptic of stories collectively grouped as Silo Stories, and that span the period of the Silo Trilogy.  The three tales form a wonderful complement to the original trilogy.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf