Book Notes: Rafael Chirbes’s Mimoun

Mimoun, the first novel of the great Spanish writer Chirbes, has been, in  my opinion, completely misunderstood by critics. In the novel, a depressive Spanish novelist moves to Morocco and dedicates himself to getting drunk, drugged and having sex with every Muslim man and woman, as well as every colleague, neighbor, and crossing sweeper he meets there. He gets drunk and has sex with them individually, collectively, inside, outside, in a car, in a brothel, and everywhere else he can think of. The novel is short because the endless cycle of alcohol, drugs, sex, depression doesn’t make for a very rich plot.

The whole thing is completely hilarious, and I’m convinced it’s a parody on the novels by the ultra-famous Juan Goytisolo. Everybody seems to have taken Chirbes’s first novel very much in earnest when it’s an obvious parody. The problem is that parody has been done so well in Spanish literature by Chirbes’s precursors that it’s best not to venture into this genre unless you can do something entirely amazing. And I’m not even talking about Cervantes’s attempt at parody that gave the world Don Quijote. In the XXth century, Spanish writer Juan Marse produced his brilliant parody The Girl in the Golden Panties. If you can’t top that, it’s better not even to try. And that’s why I’m not that impressed by Mimoun.

Author: Rafael Chirbes

Title: Mimoun

Year: 1988

Language: Spanish

My rating: 2,5 out of 10

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A Writer’s Transformation

When I was an undergrad in Hispanic Studies, I read Esther Tusquets’s novel The Same Sea as Every Summer in Spanish. The novel was incredibly hard for me to read. I suffered so much with this book that I never read anything by this author again.

Recently, I discovered that, after a long silence, Tusquets has published a new novel. I started reading it and realized that the text was very accessible and not hard at all.

“She started writing much better,” I concluded.

Then, for the purposes of my research I started rereading The Same Sea as Every Summer that had been so hard for me to read 10 years ago. Surprisingly, there was nothing at all complicated or confusing about this text.

It turns out that Tusquets did not become a better writer. Rather, I have become a better reader of Spanish.

How do you decide what book to read next?

Joshua Kim’s article in Inside Higher Ed made me consider this question. Here is the answer Kim provides:

I always go first to nytimes.com/books . A good review attached to a subject that I’m interested in, or an author that I like, will almost always result in a purchase (as an Amazon Audible audiobook or a Kindle e-book). A middling or bad review – no sale. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search for “book review (book title)” – and read reviews from other sites – but rarely. If the book is reviewed on IHE, then I’m definitely buying. This book selection process has been seriously disrupted by the NYTimes paywall. Sure, it is easy to get around (just do a Google search with the headline of the article you want to read) – but this is an extra and unpleasant step.

I find this account very curious because it is so different from how I buy books. For me, the main – and I’d say the only – source of reading suggestions is the Amazon. I’ve spent so much time and money there that Amazon really knows me well and always recommends books that will interest me. I’m very familiar with Amazon’s structure and the different ways one can search for reading matter on it. I now try to avoid the site as much as possible because it’s hard for me to leave it without a purchase.

It’s strange to me that Joshua Kim relies on the NYTimes so much for his choice of books to read. I dislike NYTimes and discontinued my Kindle subscription to NYTimes Book Review because, for the most part, the books it reviewed were part of what I refer to as “reading for housewives”: cheesy, overly sentimental fare of the tearjerker variety. The reviews were always dedicated to retelling the plot in as much detail as possible, which is something that even the least bright among the Amazon reviewers know not to do.

In my opinion, Amazon reviews are always going to be more reliable than the ones that appear in print media for the same reason that independent bloggers will eventually destroy traditional newspapers. Amazon reviewers and bloggers can only rely on their own hard work and the reputation they manage to build for themselves among their readers. The NYTimes, however, can manage its affairs right into the ground and then rely upon somebody to bail it out. Besides, there is absolutely no reason to believe that newspaper journalists will offer their honest opinion about books. They don’t seem to offer honest opinions about anything else, so why trust them on this subject?

And how do you decide what book to read next?

P.S. If this passionate diatribe on what might seem like a pretty trivial subject surprised you, I have to confess that I’m one of Amazon’s popular reviewers.

Ricardian: A Review of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

Most of my readers didn’t warm to my first Ricardian post. This is completely understandable since the subject of whether Richard III did, in fact, murder the princes Edward and Richard in the summer of 1483 is quite academic. I will keep indulging my love of Ricardian arcana from time to time, while you should feel free to skip posts tagged “Ricardian” if the subject bores you.

Josephine Tey created several classical British mysteries that any lover of the genre would appreciate. Few people know, however, of her contribution to Ricardian Apology. In The Daughter of Time, Tey offers us her take on the provenance of the myth that blames Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, for the murder of his nephews (the Princes in the Tower.)
Inspector Alan Grant finds himself stuck in a hospital, bored and desperate to participate in some sort of an investigation. While he is in a hospital bed, he only has access to history textbooks. The story of Richard III catches his eye and as he begins to read accounts of Richard’s “crimes”, Grant realizes just how senseless and lacking in logic all accusations against Richard are.
I might have believed Grant’s asseverations
that murderers don’t look like this
had I never seen pictures of Ted Bundy,
a wholesome-looking serial killer
The Inspector’s journey begins in a way that I didn’t find very convincing. Grant looks at the famous portrait of Richard III and realizes that a man who looks this way could not have possibly been a cold-blooded murderer of two small boys. This, of course, is very naive and smacks of Lombrosianism that had been discredited long before Tey wrote The Daughter of Time.
This, however, is the only weak point of an otherwise logical and reasonable account of the numerous holes in the myth of Richard’s guilt. Inspector Grant and a young researcher who helps him discover the truth soon realize that Richard III had absolutely no reason to kill his nephews. The boys had been declared illegitimate by an Act of Parliament and Richard III occupied the throne as a well-loved and legitimate King of England. Elizabeth Woodville, the boys’ mother, was friendly with Richard III until his death. Would she had visited his court and allowed her daughter to do so had Richard III, indeed, murdered her small sons? That seems highly unlikely. Moreover, after Henry Tudor defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field, he never declared publicly that Richard had killed the boys or even that the boys were dead. He did, however, imprison the boys’ mother in a convent.
In the view of these facts, Grant arrives at a conclusion that the first Tudor king, Henry VII, was the only person with means, motive and opportunity to kill the Princes. Having absolutely no claim to the throne, he needed to destroy the Plantagenets so that nobody would dispute his rise to power. I need to tell you right now that not every Ricardian shares Tey’s belief in the culpability of Henry Tudor. There are many other suspects, and you can make up your own mind as to which one is the likeliest murderer. I will keep bringing you these accounts on a regular basis.

Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: A Review

After the disappointment of Selina Hastings’s biography of Somerset Maugham, I didn’t expect much from Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, a book that has served as an inspiration to Hastings. Still, I was too sick to process anything more complex than a biography, so I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I really liked it.

For one, McKenna doesn’t take on a task that would be excessively hard for him to carry out and never promises anything he will not be able to deliver. He makes it very clear from the start that this book is dedicated exclusively to Wilde’s sexual biography and nothing else. Unlike Hastings, he doesn’t attempt to cover every aspect of his subject’s life or offer inane pronouncements on the subject of his literary work. Wilde’s artistic production is discussed only in terms of its connection to his sexuality.

It is obvious that McKenna has done an incredible amount of research. However, he is different from Hastings in that he doesn’t expose the readers to a barrage of irrelevant minute details of Wilde’s existence. Every new personage he introduces is relevant to the culminating moment of the book: Wilde’s trial. McKenna never forgets to attract the readers’ attention to the information that will become crucial much later in the book. Every fact that the author mentions serves to advance the story, so it’s easy to follow the narrative without getting distracted from the story-line. McKenna makes every effort to remain objective and, unlike Hastings, never tries to offer inane judgements where none are needed. This is quite a feat for a biographer of somebody as controversial as Wilde.

In spite of McKenna’s objectivity, Wilde comes off like a very disgusting individual who bullied underage boys into having sex with him and might have been on the verge of pimping his 9-year-old son to Lord Albert Douglas on the very eve of the scandal that eventually put him in jail. One of the reasons I rarely read writers’ biographies is that I’m fearful of being so disappointed in them that it will prevent me from enjoying their work ever again. Of course, there are artists of such stature that you can forgive them anything. Francisco de Quevedo was an anti-Semite and a hater of women. Dostoyevsky was also a rabid anti-Semite who treated his wife horribly. Juan Goytisolo is a passionate misogynist. Still, they created works of art of such magnitude as to be enough to redeem our entire civilization with all its faults. In my view, Wilde is nowhere near that category.Biographies are often boring, especially if they discuss people whose life journey has been written about and filmed many times. This is not the case with The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. McKenna offers some very interesting findings. I used to think that my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Wilde’s trial and incarceration was quite good. This book, however, proved me wrong. After reading it, I realized that the case was a lot more complex than I thought. The book really reads like a mystery novel.

Of course, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t find anything in this biography to make fun of. McKenna sometimes creates phrases that are quite heavy-handed. I will give you a few of my favorite examples:
  1. Certain events were enough “to send him rushing towards the bacteriological sanctity and safety of marriage.” You have to agree that the bacteriological safety of marriage sounds perfectly hilarious. Coupled with the general tone of the book that often borders on pompous, this turn of phrase is priceless.
  2. Oscar performed his husbandly duties manfully and to good effect. Just four months after her marriage, Constance found herself pregnant.” It is highly debatable whether the appearance of children in such a loveless and miserable marriage was such a good effect, of course.
  3. The love of Oscar for Constance, and of Constance for Oscar, was a strangely arbitrary, ill-considered, precipitate sort of love.” This sounds like there is love that isn’t arbitrary or precipitate, which is hardly possible. A calculated and well-pondered sort of love is no love at all.
  4. The locus of Oscar’s sexual interest in Constance lay in her virginity, and in robbing her of that virginity.” I don’t know how it’s possible to “rob” anyone of their virginity, as if it were an actual object and not a social construct. It is especially difficult to do so within a fully consensual relationship.
  5. Pierre Louis is usually regarded as a red-blooded heterosexual.” This, of course, immediately made me wonder what other kinds of blood heterosexuals might possess.
  6. The letters were from Oscar, Lucas D’Oyly Carte and others, and were indeed compromising. Wood knew that they were worth their weight in-gold.” Given that letters don’t weigh all that much (and here we are talking about pretty short letters, too), one is left to wonder whether their weight in gold was really that big of an amount. 
  7. Charlie even accepted a preserved cherry from Oscar’s own mouth. `My brother took it into his, and this trick was repeated three or four times.’ It was quite clear to everybody that Oscar wanted Charlie to take more than just a preserved cherry into his mouth.” We cannot possibly know what was clear to everybody who was in the room at that time or what Oscar wanted Charlie to take into his mouth. Thankfully, such heavy-handed attempts at guessing are very few in the book.
McKenna is, however, perfectly capable of creating a very powerful, pithy, incisive sentence. Consider this one, for example: “In the eyes of the Victorians, there was only one thing worse than a sodomite, and that was a proselytising sodomite.” In spite of some minor slips, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is a very good book that I enjoyed a lot.

V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River: A Review

I want to begin this new year of blogging with a review of one of the most famous books by V.S. Naipaul, a controversial writer and a Nobel Prize winner. Before I begin, I want to warn you that if you are here with the goal of ripping off this review to pass it as an essay at school, you are making a huge mistake. Not only because plagiarism is always stupid and wrong but also because my reading of this novel is very different from what your teacher wants to hear. Feel free to see if I’m right at your own peril.

V.S. Naipaul differs from many other postcolonial writers in that his attitude towards independence is a lot more complex, painful, and honest than the usual starry-eyed “Yippee! We are finally free from the vile, horrible empire” we keep getting from the writers of the postcolonial reality. I am a postcolonial subject, too. Believe me, there is nothing I like more than denouncing the ills of imperial domination. This is why I have to admire Naipaul’s courage in demonstrating the fallacies of an unconditional acceptance of independence.
A Bend in the River describes post-independence struggles of an unnamed African country whose experiences are in many ways similar to those of other newly independent nations irrespective of their geographical location. The process of creating a new, post-colonial identity is central to such nations. Naipaul realizes that the only way of analyzing the workings of identity formation is from a distance. This is why the first-person narrator of this story, Salim, is a perennial outsider in all communities he inhabits. As an onlooker, Salim is in the position to notice and analyze identity-related issues better than others. This capacity, however, results in his marginalization:

A Bend in the River is a story of Salim’s efforts to accept unquestioningly the nationalistic discourse of the country where he comes to reside and his failure to do so. As hard as this character tries, he never manages to escape the realization that independence is a lot more problematic than anybody around him wishes to accept. In the novel, we see a gradual disintegration of a newly independent country that leads to an ever-growing violence.

So from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance. It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity. I used to think of this feeling of insecurity as a weakness, a failing of my own temperament, and I would have been ashamed if anyone had found out about it. I kept my ideas about the future to myself.
Naipaul’s writings have been very controversial because he verbalizes those feelings and experiences of post-colonial that we don’t want to acknowledge even to ourselves. Salim’s friend who is even more removed from his country of origin by virtue of his European education expresses some of these concerns whose mere existence is unacceptable to many:
I hadn’t understood to what extent our civilization had also been our prison. I hadn’t understood either to what extent we had been made by the place where we had grown up, made by Africa and the simple life of the coast, and how incapable we had become of understanding the outside world. We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make that outside world. We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is all that most of us can do. We feel of the great world that it is simply there, something for the lucky ones among us to explore, and then only at the edges. It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves. And that is why we miss everything. When we land at a place like London Airport we are concerned only not to appear foolish. It is more beautiful and more complex than anything we could have dreamed of, but we are concerned only to let people see that we can manage and are not overawed. We might even pretend that we had expected better. That is the nature of our stupidity and incompetence. And that was how I spent my time at the university in England, not being overawed, always being slightly disappointed, understanding nothing, accepting everything, getting nothing.
“Our stupidity and incompetence?” How dare he? Haven’t we been schooled to proclaim ourselves as owners of alternative and much better forms of knowledge, inhabitants of a different kind of civilization? Haven’t we been told ad nauseam that we have our own Prousts and Hegels? And if nobody knows or appreciates this special contribution of ours, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the contribution. It just means the world is unjust and its system of values is all wrong. This is what we defend with everything we have while falling over ourselves in our rush to possess as many attributes of the hated colonial masters. Contempt and desire of that which is apparently so disdained are among the unavoidable attributes of the postcolonial experience.
Naipaul’s analysis of every facet of how national identities are created and imposed is nothing short of brilliant. To give just one example, every national identity requires legitimizing heroic figures that embody the best characteristics of the nation. These figures are invented, distorted, mythologized and contested by groups within the country that struggle for the right to propose their own version of national identity. Naipaul demonstrates with absolute brilliance how such symbols of national identity end up robbing the national subject of individuality:
I studied the large framed photographs of Gandhi and Nehru and wondered how, out of squalor like this, those men had managed to get themselves considered as men. It was strange, in that building in the heart of London, seeing those great men in this new way, from the inside, as it were. Up till then, from the outside, without knowing more of them than I had read in newspapers and magazines, I had admired them. They belonged to me; they ennobled me and gave me some place in the world. Now I felt the opposite. In that room the photographs of those great men made me feel that I was at the bottom of a well. I felt that in that building complete manhood was permitted only to those men and denied to everybody else. Everyone had surrendered his manhood, or a part of it, to those leaders. Everyone willingly made himself smaller the better to exalt those leaders. . .  We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves.
As much as one might admire Gandhi, it does get annoying to encounter yet another set of pious platitudes every time his (or any other independence leader’s) name is mentioned. Any national identity is based on a set of myths that fall apart under even a very superficial kind of scrutiny. This is why national identities are so bound with emotions: we have to be blinded by our deeply emotional response to our particular piece of painted fabric, venerated independence leaders, mythology of first oppression then liberation in order to buy these poorly constructed myths.
Naipaul has made himself hated by many when he started discussing the problematic nature of each newly-achieved independence, each nationalistic mythology. His honesty leaves me speechless, while his beautiful writing style makes me feel ashamed of everything I have ever written in English. We often believe that a great writer is somebody who makes us nod our heads and think, “Oh, this is so true.” That isn’t greatness, though. A true genius tells us things we never thought of before, makes us angry by an assault on widely-accepted trivialities. This is precisely the kind of writer Naipaul is. A Bend in the River is, in my opinion, his angriest and consequently his best novel.

>Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids

Life is hard for us, American-based fans of the incomparable mystery author Ruth Rendell. Every time her new book comes out, we either have to sit around waiting for over 18 months for an American edition to come out, or hunt around for a copy someone might have brought from Great Britain and might be willing to sell. Some people, of course, are lucky enough to have close friends in Great Britain and can pester them for a copy of Rendell’s new book. I have not been blessed in this department, so I have to cast my lot with used books sites.

Ruth Rendell is admirable on several accounts. As an auto-didact, she has a range of vocabulary and the breadth of erudition that many of her Oxford-educated peers do not possess. She is 80 years old, but this prolific writer keeps releasing new books on a regular basis. The great changes that have taken place in our Western societies over the last 50 years and the incapacity of many people to adapt to said changes form one of Rendell’s favorite topics. Still, this writer who was born in 1930 has an astonishing understanding of today’s realities. In my favorite novel by Rendell ever, 13 Steps Down, she created a memorable character of Gwendolen Chawcer, an elderly bookish spinster who is terrified of “new-fangled” (her favorite word) devices such as computers and microwaves. Even though Rendell understands how terrifying modern reality can be to older people, she seems to have a perfect grasp of today’s modes of existence.

Her most recent novel* Tigerlily’s Orchids (Import Edition) Hardback is not Ruth Rendell’s best work but it’s still a joy to read. The book is light on mystery. You pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen, and there is little (if any) suspense. The strength of Tigerlily’s Orchids (as well as of this writer’s entire corpus of work) lies in Rendell’s gift of creating delightfully quirky characters who are weird in most endearing ways. I am usually horrible with characters’ names (which, believe me, is a huge problem for a literary critic.) You can see me engrossed in a book and ask me what the names of the protagonists are, and more often than not I will not be able to say. Ruth Rendell, however, is so good at creating memorable characters that even my unreliable memory always retains their names.

What I like the most about Rendell’s books is her skill in taking any minor quirk in a character’s personality and demonstrate how this touch of strangeness can gradually develop into full blown insanity, taking this character along some very dangerous paths. I might be projecting here, but I believe that everybody has this little place within them that houses some uncanny oddity, some little spot of the bizarre, some minor obsession. We keep it under control – for the most part – but it’s very pleasurable to imagine it unleashed, they way it is in Rendell’s books. I have read interviews with Ruth Rendell and I have no idea where this proper and quite sheltered older lady** found her deep knowledge of the darker side of human psyche. Still, nobody writing today describes a gradual slippage into insanity better than Rendell.

If there is a Rendell fan among my readers, please make yourself known. I have tried foisting Rendell’s books on everybody around me but, somehow, I can’t find a true lover of Rendell’s books among people I know.

* Rendell’s The Vault is scheduled to appear in 2011 to the delight of her fans all over the world.

** Rendell is also a very kind human being. When I was a teenager in Ukraine, I wrote her a letter to express my admiration of her novels, and she responded with a long letter and a gift of books. It was next to impossible to find new Enlgish-language books in my country at that time, so this gift was priceless to me.