Book Notes: Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness

This is Castellanos Moya’s most famous book (translated into a crapton of languages, by the way), and deservedly so. There is a million reviews, and they all say that the novel is about the genocide of Mayans committed by the Guatemalan military during the civil war.

What the reviews never mention, for some reason, is that the novel not only describes the outlandish horrors of that war but it’s also Castellanos Moya’s funniest book. A couple of times, a friend or a student would spot me at a coffee shop or in my office howling with laughter.

“What are you reading?” they’d ask.

“Ah, it’s a novel about the genocide of the indigenous in Guatemala,” I’d reply, wiping off tears of laughter, and people would give me weird looks. And I know it sounds like an impossible task to bring together, in such a short book, the atrocity of the war and some of the funniest pages Castellanos Moya has ever written. But that’s why he’s a genius, he can do that.

I’m thinking of assigning this book in my English-language Hispanic civ course. Sainz Borgo’s novel is going on the syllabus for sure, but what about Senselessness? I’d spend 30 minutes on the first day of class trigger-warning everybody away from the course (it tends to be overenrolled anyway). And I’d collect signatures under a document that they’ve been forewarned about graphic scenes of extreme violence, including of the sexual nature.

What do you, folks, think? I want to teach this novel. But it’s hardcore. Like in Hispanic hardcore, not US hardcore. Real hardcore. We read this kind of stuff routinely as undergrads but these days nobody does anything more challenging than some weepy Chicano Bildungsroman or other.

Book Notes: Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas

I woke up in the middle of the night because I couldn’t wait until morning to keep reading this novel. It’s that good.

Folks, this novel is the literary event of the year. There’s finally a female Latin American author who wrote a good novel. There hasn’t been one in a century. (And please don’t say Valenzuela and Eltit. Nobody who isn’t paid to do so reads Eltit.)

This is big. Sainz Borgo is a serious big writer who actually created a memorable, deep and utterly non-pathetic female character. I thought I’d never see the day.

And get this. The novel is a Bildungsroman. And I still loved it! It’s a miracle. This writer knows how to do a Bildungsroman in a way that isn’t stale.

Sainz Borgo could have chosen the easy route and written a weepy screed about Venezuela. There’s a huge audience for primitive political rants. But she’s a real writer, so she created a work of art. It has a fantastic story, a really interesting protagonist, but it’s not for the simple-minded. Which is why some simple-minded have attacked the novel. (See, for instance, the ridiculous NPR review that berates Sainz Borgo for not being into US-style identity politics).

The devastation of Venezuela that It Would Be Night in Caracas portrays is almost beyond words. If you aren’t shaken by this novel, check your pulse because you might already be dead. But the most important thing for me is that the novel isn’t about the destruction of Venezuela in general. It’s very specifically about what a civilizational collapse does to the intelligentsia, to people who can’t imagine life without books, paintings, and conversations about the meaning of life. These are usually the people who work their tails off to bring about said civilizational collapse, after which they realize they are the ones to suffer the most from it.

Sainz Borgo is only 38 years old, which is early infancy for a writer. I hope she’s a health nut because we need her writing for many decades. It’s wonderful that Latin America finally has a worthwhile female novelist (well, Spain actually has her because Venezuela isn’t in need of talented people. The lumpen has triumphed there).

I really think she can turn into a female Castellanos Moya with time and practice. I honestly don’t have a higher form of praise for a writer than that.

P.S. Just so we are clear. Spain has fantastic female novelists of the genius caliber, and has had them non-stop for 150 years. Latin America, however, has been stuck between the vulgarity of Allende and the cheap didacticism of Poniatowska. Great female poets, yes. Prose, not so much.

Movie Notes: Citizen Kane

I took a single class in film theory in college, and the professor droned on endlessly about Citizen Kane. One thing he kept repeating was that at the end of the movie it’s never revealed what the word “rosebud’ means. To the professor, this was the best thing about the film because “it opened it up to multiple interpretations.”

I’m a very primitive reader and movie watcher. I read for the plot. And I watch even more for the plot. I have no interest in a movie that doesn’t tell an interesting story. Everything else the professor (and the textbook) said made me hate the movie even more: fragmented, disjointed, never comes into a coherent story (which the professor loved). I avoided the movie for 20 years after that class.

Now that I have finally seen Citizen Kane, I’m thinking the professor was dotty. Both Rosebud and the snowglobe are explained very clearly. Yes, the movie brings together different strands but that doesn’t make it disjointed. Human life tends to be complicated like that.

I never thought I could hate that film theory class even more than I already did but now I truly detest it. It’s a great movie, and only a primitive mind can’t grasp the powerful idea it transmits.

Should I now try Gilda? This is another movie I detest without ever seeing it because of that class.

Book Notes: Javier Cercas’s Terra Alta

Hispanic literature is the best in the world, yet it hasn’t been able to produce a readable mystery / police procedural. I’ve read all sorts of mystery novels in Spanish starting from the ones published in the 1950s, and they all stank. Their main problem isn’t even the plot or the mystery itself. It’s the language. For some reason, nobody knows how to write a mystery in Spanish without sounding extremely pompous.

I don’t expect much from the genre. I’ll read any mystery novel if it makes me want to find out “whodunit.” But mysteries in Spanish didn’t meet even my extremely low expectations.

Until Javier Cercas’s Terra Alta.

Cercas had published a mega-bestseller in 2000 which gave rise to the boom of the Spanish Civil War novel that still hasn’t fully died out. Since then, Cercas tried himself in every genre and flopped dramatically every time.

I never gave up on him, though. If the guy can unleash a torrent of Civil War obsession, he can do a lot more. For 20 years, I read every excruciating word Cercas published. And this week I discovered that I’d been right to do so! Cercas has written the first readable mystery/police procedural in the Hispanic world. It’s sappy, and he sticks his Civil War obsession into it, but it works!

The reason why it works is that the language is very simple, basic even, and as a result Cercas avoids pomposity. Mind you, the novel is still very sentimental. But it’s eminently readable.

Javier Cercas has finally found his genre, and I hope he keeps writing in it. And I have found a mystery in Spanish that I didn’t hate.

Book Notes: Belén Gopegui’s Novel on Surveillance Capitalism

Belén Gopegui is a favorite among literary critics because her novels – while utterly devoid of any artistic merit – serve as a pretext to justify all kinds of really fun research.

Gopegui (a writer from Spain) creates novels that are political manifestos and not works of literature. Her writing is extremely pompous, the plots are mind-crushingly tedious, and the characters are like plastic figurines, boring and interchangeable.

But hey, it’s not all bad. Gopegui’s novel Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo is like a fictional rendering of Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism. It gives me the perfect excuse to write about this important topic while pretending to do literary analysis. I love literary analysis but it’s not my fault that there’s less literature in this novel than in a double cheeseburger at Red Robin.

Please do not read this writer because life is too short to suffer like I had to while plodding through her unreadable prose. Do, however, read Surveillance Capitalism and, better yet, come to my talk in Boston and read the article I will publish on its basis.

I hope I don’t read anything worse than this novel in 2020 because there’s a limit to how much suffering I can bear.

Zelensky on Impeachment

In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to the impeachment of President Donald Trump as a television series, specifically citing the soap operas “Santa Barbara” and “Dallas.” Throwing cold water on what Democrats alleged to be a pressure campaign on Zelensky and his government, the Ukrainian president also said he looks forward to his next conversation with Trump and hopes to visit the White House.

I’ve seen absolutely nothing but mockery and boredom from anybody in Ukraine concerning the impeachment. This is a welcome coincidence between how Ukrainians and most Americans felt about it.

Movie Notes: An Inspector Calls

N and I watch a lot of TV series together but never any movies. So we decided to do something unusual and watch one.

An Inspector Calls is based on a play by JB Priestley, and Soviet people loved their Priestley. The play had actually premiered in the USSR several months before it did in London.

The movie (as well as the play) is set in 1912, and it’s the perfect portrayal of the relationship between the recently emerged institutions of the nation-state and industrial capitalism.

What’s really fun about the movie is imagining the modern-day version. The inspector is gone, and as the vicious capitalists abuse the working-class girl they lecture her about her racism, white supremacy, and transphobia. The viewers are tricked into identifying completely with the capitalists and cheering on the working-class girl’s suicide. The capitalists aren’t afraid of the press finding out. To the contrary, they make the story of their victimization by the indigent, desperate worker as public as possible, monetizing the likes and the retweets. Everybody celebrates the worker’s death which “like literally prevented a genocide.”

We enjoyed the movie but we are now desperate to re-watch the Soviet version where actors actually acted instead of just standing around. It’s so sad that the actors here are so impotent that the poor director had to cast as the evil capitalist a really ugly actor with a huge paunch and a gigantic nose. There’s simply no way to transmit the evilness of the character other than through appearance if an actor can’t do any acting.

Book Notes: Robert Menasse’s The Capital

Here’s the deal, folks. This is a good book, an important book, a book with many valuable insights and attractive moments. But it was a painful slog of a read for me. I had to force myself to go back to it every single time.

Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe it’s just not my sort of a book. Many people suggest that the English translation is hideous, so it might be that.

I guess the problem for me is that the book is so logical, so obsessed with constructing an argument and making a set of very clear points that there’s just no love there.

This is a novel about the EU. There are so many characters and so many story lines that they never really come together. Logically, it makes sense. The author is trying to show that the EU is made of such disparate elements that they can never fully merge into a meaningful, functional whole. But it’s precisely the predictability of this argument that is so boring. The EU is ludicrously bureaucratic. Here is a trillion of examples. The EU bureaucrats are self-serving career-obsessed bastards. Germany is the center of the universe. Hungarians are anti-semitic. Poles are obsessively Catholic. Czechs smoke. Greeks grift. Brits are vapid. Ukrainians are shady. Italians are devious. Spaniards… aren’t anything because Spain doesn’t exist in this novel. Which is typical.

A larger failure of the novel is the author’s fear of the Muslim issue. It’s hinted at and sometimes even kind of sort of mentioned. But there’s definitely fidgeting around the topic. An even bigger problem is the complete absence of poverty, austerity, or precariousness. In Menasse’s world, money doesn’t exist. And 400 pages about bored, spoiled bureaucrats constantly eating at fancy restaurants get repetitive.

And the pig, gosh, that 🐖. The whole 🐖 part should be excised completely because it’s pretentious and I don’t even get it.

Now, there are also some very worthwhile parts. The ending is very strong. Few writers know how to do an ending any more but Menasse is really good at it.

Another definite win is that a book written in 2017 that has the word Auschwitz on every page is neither cheesy nor vulgar. I always say that if you have nothing radically new to say about the Holocaust, just leave the Holocaust alone. At this point, evoking the Holocaust and telling fictional Holocaust stories is simply exploitative, a way to make a quick buck.

Menasse, though, does have something new to say about Auschwitz. I’m super super prickly about fictional treatments of the Holocaust (I’m Jewish on my father’s side, if you don’t know) but I was not even a tiny bit annoyed by how Menasse writes about it. Which is really outstanding.

I’m not sorry I read the book because the last 10 pages make it worth the effort but it was a lot of work. If Menasse had at least cut out the story line about the 🐖 farmers. And the one about the French policeman. And the one about the murder. There would still be five million story lines left but the whole thing would feel less scattered.