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


From the Life of a Fanatic

Cliff Arroyo made an interesting comment (because  his comments always rule) that made me remember a funny story from my past as an undergraduate student:

I once had a supposed advanced intro-ish course taught by an excellent and insightful professor but rather than prepare the ground he zoomed right into the very latest hotness and we were all lost.

I remember a course like that when I was an undergrad. It was taught by a visiting star scholar from Spain. The course was on Golden Age drama. The star professor said at the beginning of the course, “I’m not going to analyze Calderón’s plays here, you’ve all read Life Is a Dream a hundred times, so it’s boring to keep talking about that. Instead, we’ll talk about the history of reception of these plays.”

That was the first time in my life I heard Calderón’s name, so I was absolutely terrified. Half of the people dropped the course immediately. The professor didn’t care because he is such a star that student evaluations or retention were of zero interest to him.

I, on the other hand, immediately ran to the library and spent the entire semester sleeping 4 hours a day, catching up on Golden Age drama. There were so many crucial works of literature from that era, and I had only been learning Spanish for 1,5 years by that time. Eventually, I wrote my MA dissertation on Calderón’s reception. But I’m a fanatic, and most students aren’t. Don’t we all wish we had a classroom full of our little clones to teach? Gosh, what wouldn’t I do with students like me!

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part II


When I was admitted to the university, I was 22 years old. I knew I didn’t have the time to go the usual route of taking Spanish 101, 102, and so on. So I lied to my advisor, told her that I’d studied Spanish before, and enrolled in Spanish Intermediate Intensive. On the first day of class, when our Salvadoran teacher came into the classroom and started prattling in his very difficult Central American Spanish, I realized that I was in trouble. When he announced that we were going to do an overview of the Preterite and the Imperfect, I realized that I was in even bigger trouble because these words meant nothing to me.
I knew that I had to learn to speak and fast if I wanted to get that PhD within a reasonable amount of time. I was an immigrant, I had no money. Any exchange program was out of the question because of the conditions of my visa and money constraints. Besides, my underage sister was living with me, and I couldn’t just abandon her and flee to yet another country. There was no money for a tutor or an immersion program. But there was something a lot better, though: the rich and vibrant Hispanic community of Montreal. I made friends with Spanish speakers from many different countries. That wasn’t easy for me. I have Asperger’s and meeting people is not something I enjoy (to put it very, very mildly). But I made the effort and started visiting all kinds of events where Spanish speakers were present.
I had a neighbor from Colombia who was going through a convoluted drama with her boyfriend. She would ask me over and narrate the story of her life for hours. (I am extremely thankful for the fact that so many Spanish-speakers love to talk.) At first, I understood about 5% of what she was saying. Obviously, I couldn’t say much in return, so I just looked compassionate and nodded. As a result, she started presenting me to her friends as a very kind person and the best listener she ever met. So more people started asking me over to share their stories. And I had even more opportunities to listen, look compassionate, and nod. Later, when I learned to speak and we became best friends I told my very first Colombian interlocutor, “Look, you have to retell me all your stories once again because the first time around I didn’t understand a word of them.” I was extremely lucky in meeting her because Colombian Spanish is considered the most correct in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
There was also a language exchange program affiliated with our university. These programs allow people who don’t have money for language lessons to swap their language skills. Say, you want to learn Russian and I want to learn German. We meet, talk for an hour in my language and then for another hour in yours. As a result, everybody gets to speak and listen, the environment is casual and relaxed, and the learning process is enjoyable.
To compliment these activities, I also read in Spanish all the time. I had already arived by that time at what would become the basis of my language teaching philosophy: when talking and reading compliment each other, you get great results. So I read. I don’t believe in adapted texts or easy solutions. So I decided to start with reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. For those who know this book it must be very clear why that was an insane choice of the first book ever to read in Spanish. The first time I read this beautiful but extremely complex work of literature that not every native speaker understands on the first reading I had no idea what it was about. But I felt it was beautiful. So I read it once more. And the third time. And then something kind of became a little clearer. So I decided to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla. Again, those who know this novel are now thinking that I am a very crazy person because it’s also a very complex book.
I also persecuted my Salvadoran Spanish teacher with questions. He would dread the sight of me appearing at his office yet again to announce: “I don’t understand Preterito and Imperfecto!” He would explain for hours, bring print-outs, activities, transparencies. “Do you understand it now?” he’d ask, desperate for some good news. “No!” I’d respond brightly. Then, he would start all over again. Today, whenever I go back to Canada to speak at a conference, my teacher (who in the meantime went from being a graduate student to a tenured professor) always comes to listen. He sits there looking very proud and then comes up to me after the talk to ask, “So now do you understand the differences between Preterito and Imperfecto?” “Yes,” I say. “But now I have to explain it to students who refuse to understand.”
In short, I lived and breathed Spanish for this entire period of time. Within 18 months, I was teaching Spanish at a private language school. In 2,5 years, I walked into my very frist college classroom as a teacher of Spanish. (I’ll blog about that experience one day because that course was something special.) And only 3,5 years since I started learning, I published by very first research article in Spanish. And not in some graduate journal, or anything like that. I published in Anales Galdosianos, a very prestigious, “real” scholarly journal. As I said, I’m very proud of my Spanish and I will boast all I want about it. 🙂
It’s been almost 12 years since I said my first words in Spanish. Of course, learning a language is a project of a lifetime, even if you are a native speaker. A language is a living entity, and we renegotiate our relationship with it on a daily basis. Learning a new language gives you access to an entire civilization, to a world of experiences, to a version of yourself that is completely different from what you are when you speak your own language.
For those who want to learn to speak a foreign language very fast and very well, I have the following suggestions:
  1. Speak. You don’t need a pricey immersion program, a trip, or an exchange visit to learn. Of course, if you can afford them, that’s fantastic. Have fun and enjoy this great opportunity. Many people, however, simply don’t have the resources to afford anything like this nowadays. My advice to you is to find  in your town a language exchange program like the one I described. If it doesn’t exist, start one. Find a Spanish store or a community newspaper and place an ad for a free exchange of language knowledge. There are many immigrants who would love to teach you their language in exchange for practicing English with you. What should you do, though, if there are no speakers of your target language who live in your area? Not to worry, today’s technological advances have solved that problem, too. How many people in the world would love to improve their knowledge of English in exchange for practicing their language with you? All you need to do is find them and talk to them through Skype or any other similar program. Even though you might have no money, you still have a very valuable commodity: your knowledge of English. Make use of it in your language learning.
  2. Read. Reading in the target language is crucial because it builds up vocabulary and gives you what the Germans call “Sprachgefühl” (an intuitive understanding of how a language works.) When I was learning Spanish, I read for at least 6 hours a day every single day in my target language. As a result, I now have a vocabulary that is extremely rich. Not everybody has the time to read this much, of course, but reading at least a page a day will boost your language learning in a way that nothing else will.
  3. Tell yourself stories. Try to narrate to yourself in the target language things that you see around you. Funny comics, an encounter with friends, a list of things you need to do, a curious blog post you have read: try retelling all this to yourself in Spanish. It’s best to do it out loud, of course, but if that’s not convenient, tell it to yourself in your head. This will teach you to think in the target language, instead of trying to translate every sentence (a horrible practice to be avoided at all costs.)
Good luck!
P.S. I know that these last two posts sound extremely self-congratulatory, but come on, people, it’s New Year’s. A person should be able to celebrate her massive achievements on such a festive occasion. 🙂

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part I


The reader Angie Harms. asked me how I learned to speak Spanish. Thank you, Angie, because I love sharing this story. First of all, I have to tell you that my Spanish is really fantastic. Learning this language is my proudest achievement, and I don’t feel that I need to be modest about it. It always takes me a while to convince native speakers that I’m not one of them. And that I never lived in a Spansih-speaking country. And that my parents are not Spanish-speakers.
So it all started back in Ukraine when I was in my late teens. Suddenly, there were all those Latin American soap operas on television all the time. (Yes, it started with watching soap operas in Ukraine and culminated in a PhD in Hispanic Studies in the US.) When I watched them, I always thought, “Here is this entire civilization that I know absolutely nothing about. And nobody I know has any knowledge of it. How strange is that?” I was a university student majoring in English literature then but I decided that I didn’t want to continue with that program any more. I tried learning Spanish on my own, with a textbook, but that was useless. There was not a single Spanish-speaking person in my Ukrainian town. Spanish wasn’t taught at my university (even though it is the oldest university in the country.) There was no scholarship in Hispanic Studies in my country at all. And there still isn’t, unfortunately.
In Canada, however, there was. (The only place to do research of the kind I like in Hispanic literature is North America. That’s just how it is for now.) After we emigrated to Canada, I applied to the Department of Hispanic Studies of the country’s most famous university. As soon as I was accepted, I made a visit to the wonderful person who was then the Chair of the department.
“I want to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Eventually,” I said. “And it would be great to teach at this university. I really like these offices and would be glad to occupy one of them.”
“So you like Spanish literature?” the kind Chair asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I never read a word of it, not even in translation.”
“But you speak Spanish, right?” she said.
“No, not a word,” I responded brightly. “But I will do a PhD in Hispanic Studies and learn.” (Remember that video on the robotic prospective PhD student? As I said, that was me.)
The Chair is a very polite and proper British lady but at that point she laughed so hard, I was afraid she would hurt herself. And if you now want to tell me I made an idiot of myself during that conversation, I will let you know that exactly two and a half years after that conversation I started teaching Spanish at that very department. And one of the pretty offices I liked so much was mine (shared with some other people, of course.) And four and a half years later, I left the department to do a PhD in Spanish after receiving every single award that was ever offered by our program. (As I said, I’m very proud of this and don’t see why I shouldn’t be. I invested a truly Herculean amount of effort into this.)
(To be continued. . .)