Art As Politics and Politics As Crime in Patricio Pron’s ‘Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets’

Don't Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets Book CoverIn Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets, Patricio Pron transports readers to the final months of World War II where, at the Fascist Writers’ Conference in Pinerolo, Italy, a man called Luca Borello is found dead in the dangerous, partisan-held territory surrounding the city. Borello, a member of the Futurist movement and a former fascist, had been estranged from his friends and colleagues for years following the theft of a deceased friend’s work by another Futurist writer several years prior. But, in April 1945, Borello appears as if out of nowhere, intent on righting what he believes to be the ultimate transgression against the Futurist vision of art.

It isn’t until the late 1970s when a university student named Peter Linden takes interest in the goings-on of this fateful conference that the details surrounding Borello’s death – an event intertwined with the history of Linden’s own family – fall into place. The narrative, comprised largely of interviews Linden conducts with the four writers closest to Borello in his youth, recounts the conference and its players while also capturing the frenetic, violent, masculine energy of Futurism in its heyday. With their retelling of events, Pron masterfully explores the Futurist movement and its indelible link to fascism. At the conference, fascist writers from across Europe convene to discuss, in an increasingly futile manner, the tenets and goals of fascism, even as the Axis powers – the representative force of these fascist philosophies – is on its knees.

How art became politics and politics became crime is the heart of Pron’s novel, best represented by these men searching for artistic purity through violent means – art turned into action. As they recall the events surrounding Borello’s death two decades later, the sputtering flame of youthful conviction allows this group of aging artists to examine what they once believed to be true about their art and its aims. In the stark aftermath of the war, where the philosophies of the Futurists and their ilk are wretched, one writer posits the following:

…Our idea, I now think, was an aesthetic utopia, and those utopias should never transcend the realm of books, maybe they shouldn’t have ever even left the heads of their authors.

-Excerpt from Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets

And what comes of nations, people, and movements – the members of which are never fully in agreement about anything – forging political landscapes out of “aesthetic utopias”? This striving for artistic purity, as it is transposed onto life, breeds violence – where those who see it will rip the fabric of reality, ultimately tearing flesh to fit the mold of its vision.

In 1945, after the theft of the work Borello was meant to safeguard, Borello retreats into himself and comes to the realization that literature cannot be used as a political tool successfully. To attempt as much is to degrade the principles of Futurist art. This is why he attends the conference after years of isolation. His attempts to convince the other writers of this belief goes unheeded, but his eventual death, according to one of the writers, signified “the end of the idea of fascist literature, or, at least, the end of the idea that it could somehow help governments that could no longer help themselves and had given up trying.”

Peter Linden, the radically left-wing student who questions these writers, must confront the “schisms [their] story has provoked in his life and ideas,” which, ” divorces a certain idea of justice from the conviction that justice can actually be carried out by individuals or even [an] organization.” The story presented to him insists that our deepest held convictions are never as diametrically opposed to those of our foes as we like to believe.

Linden’s father, Francesco, a leftist partisan fighter during the war, confronts the same questions in the months leading up to the Fascist Writer’s Conference when he is saved by Borello who has been living in relative isolation nearby. The section of the novel that concerns the interaction between Francesco and Borello – two men in doubt about the methods of the organizations and movements with which they’ve aligned themselves, movements they once believed to be fundamentally pure and true – shows the gnawing sense of dread that comes with betrayal and the sudden imperative for a reappraisal of moral code, since what was once clearly defined is no longer so and, perhaps, never was.

The uneasy friendship between Linden and Borello is the most riveting part of Pron’s narrative, one where readers are offered a reprieve from the fascist writers and their remembrances. Here, readers no longer have to wade through ideas of theoretical purity but can instead witness purity in practice – a beautifully rendered scene in which two men realize their sense of self and humanity through compassion.

This paves the way for the novel’s final section, which reveals the narrative to be, in part, a generational exploration of affliction. We meet Linden’s son Tomasso, or T., who represents the outcome of his patriarchs’ track record of trying to align themselves with organizations meant to rectify the wrongs of government, “all of whom have had to compare their convictions to the results of their actions.” The three men are “linked by…an uncomfortable awareness of history and the place of individuals,” and T. becomes, perhaps more than anyone else in the novel, the one who sees that the systems in which we live are simply a “replacement ceremony” where generations will continuously become those they despise.

Pron’s novel is a tapestry of styles woven together perfectly to create a novel of unexpected force, one that probes beyond monolithic alliances and shifting moral structures. And like so many Latin American writers, Pron gets to the core of political dysfunction with his own brand of narrative ingenuity. The result is simultaneously unnerving and captivating.

Carmen Boullosa’s ‘The Book of Anna’ Is a Masterpiece of Metafiction

The Book of Anna Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Carmen Boullosa‘s latest novel, The Book of Anna, threads characters from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece into an innovative narrative caper that blends history, fiction, and fairytale. In the tradition of Latin American writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clarice Lispector, Boullosa pushes the boundaries of fiction in a novel that tackles the nature of fiction itself, from the chasm of authorial intent to the presentation of fictitious elements as real objects. The result is an unexpected delight – an oddity that moves within its paces so brilliantly, readers will take each strange turn of events as it comes, knowing Boullosa will lead them to a space of literary transcendence.

In Boullosa’s continuation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s son Sergei must decide whether or not to sell a portrait of his mother to Tsar Nicholas II for display in the Hermitage. His wife, Claudia, is thrilled at the prospect, but Sergei can’t shake the fact that he is Tolstoy’s creation, one who, as much as he tries, cannot escape the shadow of his mother’s shame or that of the author’s legacy. Meanwhile, several servants in the Karenin household have aligned themselves with the movement of Father Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who organizes a march comprised of laborers and peasants and plans to protest on the grounds of the Winter Palace despite knowing the Tsar will inflict violence on anyone involved. His duplicity and hubris set the stage for a series of events that careen through Tolstoy’s world, Boullosa’s world, the history of revolutionary Russia, and several combinations of each.

As the protest in St. Petersburg comes to a tragic end, Sergei and Claudia are preparing the portrait of Anna Karenina. Sergei wishes to leverage the tsar’s offer into a lucrative position away from St. Petersburg where he can be free of Anna Karenina’s legacy and Tolstoy’s machinations – a place where he can, ideally, forge a self that belongs to him alone, one that exists in the world outside of fiction. Claudia balks at the idea of leaving the city behind and hopes to give the money to Sergei’s sister Anya. As they continue to debate each other and an angry, dream-world Tolstoy, Claudia discovers a box in her attic containing two manuscripts by Anna Karenina: the first, a morality story for children that was lauded by a publisher in her lifetime, and the second, a rewrite of the same story that turns out to be a kaleidoscopic feminist fairy tale written under the influence of opium.

This manuscript, the long lost “Book of Anna,” reveals a woman torn between worlds and how to be. The highly wrought constructed “self” morphs over the course of the fable and ends with something that resembles happiness. A much better fate, readers will agree, than Tolstoy’s Anna. But, in a cruel turn of events, as the revolution chugs forward (not unlike another fateful train, if you’ll excuse the easy parallel), an anarchist called Clementine and the distraught brother of a servant killed in the protest march plant a bomb in the car carrying Anna Karenina’s portrait and her manuscripts to the Winter Palace. All of her selves are destroyed in one instant.

The sheer innovation of Boullosa’s multi-layered narrative presents the reader with a nesting doll of fictions and histories – threads that intertwine questions of self-hood, artistic creation, and the many-layered voices of political change. The Book of Anna marks the rare achievement of a writer who balances the weight of Tolstoy’s complicated genius with her own interpretation of events, real and fictitious, with unmitigated brio and a touch of mischievous whimsy. It will surely become a modern classic.

Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

imaginary-museumsThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

On “The Need” by Helen Phillips

the need2019 ended on a strange note with a reading of Helen Phillips’ widely acclaimed second novel, The Need. In this heady blend of domestic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Phillips creates an atmospheric narrative that begins with a mother sensing the presence of an intruder in her home. In her fear, Molly, our narrator, operates solely on instinct in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to protect her two young children from such a violation.

Phillips’ strongest efforts in this novel can be attributed to her clever layering of a complex narrative timeline. Molly’s work as a paleobotanist brings her into contact with an excavation site known as “the Pit,” where, prior to the events of the novel, she discovers several everyday items with strange variations in their composition: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola can with the font shifted the opposite way; and a Bible that references God as “she.” Each is harmless, but something about these differences lends the objects an uncanny, otherworldly quality. The latter object in particular makes a splash in local papers, leading to a rapid increase in tourists to the Pit–some of whom do no take kindly to this new edition of the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Phillips introduces another threat of violence to the narrative, infusing the skewed world of the novel with dread.

As Molly confronts the prospect of an intruder in her home, the narrative cuts back to her time at the Pit and the significance of these small objects. When the plot pushes forward to Molly coming into contact with the intruder–an excellent buildup of suspense from Phillips–we find that this interloper is none other than Molly herself. “Moll”, as this variant of Molly comes to call herself, is a version of our narrator from a different reality–one of an infinite number of realities in which a tourist viewing the discovered Bible detonates a bomb, killing Molly’s children. In her grief, Moll finds her way to Molly via the Pit–a seam in the fabric of the universe that allows the alternate realities to come into contact with each other.

Moll demands access to the children, forcing Molly into an arrangement in which the two share care-giving duties. The threat of violence, combined with the weight of grief and the physical need to be with the children form this novel’s backbone. Phillips uses Molly’s experiences–and by extension Moll’s experiences–to explore motherhood, from the quotidian grind of caring for small children, who are more creature than human, to the extreme lengths a grieving mother will go to for the sake of those children…or what she will do to avenge their deaths.

Phillips writes with unparalleled beauty and grace about how the instinctive, physical  elements of motherhood–the trappings of nursing combined with the touch and smell of these small lives produced from one’s body–transcend mortal pinions to the realm of some unknowable universe; a higher existence in which infinite realities can take shape from a knowable present.

While Phillips’ prose is not consistently clean in craft, it is often stunningly understated and clear in intent. At just 272 pages, the author shows her ability to expand the short story form for which she is known, successfully executing the same succinct exploration of theme in the extended novel form.

A bit bleak for year’s end, but well worth the time.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s ‘The Remainder’ Explores Grief and Reckoning

The-Remainder-Alia-Trabucco-Zerán-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her introduction to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s groundbreaking new novel — recently shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize — Lina Meruane frames the narrative as an exercise in “mortuary maths,” asking how we reconcile the number of people born with the number of those who die in a country stuck in the shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meruane suggests The Remainder, and other examples of post-memory literature, respond to a specific need: “the need for a kind of grief that manifests in the counting of dead bodies and the recounting of stories.” These stories, Meruane observes, question whether or not “borrowed or imposed memory [can] be separated from one’s own memories,” or if the cut will lead to another kind of death.

Told from the dual perspective of childhood friends struggling with the weight of this collective memory, Zerán explores the ways in which those coming of age in the wake of a dictatorship attempt to forge their own identities out of sustained trauma — a cycle that any number of careful calculations will almost certainly fail to undo. Yet they persist, as all characters of Latin American fiction are wont to do, searching for a cure to what ails the progeny of colonialism: the original sin.

In The Remainder, Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, the children of former militants, embark on a journey to recover Paloma’s mother’s body after it is diverted away from Santiago. Their attempt to repatriate her forces them to reckon with what they remember of the past–the brutality and grief threaded into every inch of recollection, whether experienced directly or as a product of the strange osmosis that permeates their shared stories.

We see this as the book’s narrators, Felipe and Iquela, build the story through alternating passages, effectively representing the duality of the questions Zerán attempts to answer. In Felipe’s countdown to zero–the end goal in which all of Chile’s dead have been accounted for–we see a manic, hunger-panged reaction to grief. Felipe’s is a form of suffering in which the whole and all its parts are seen at once. Nothing can be unseen, therefore, nothing can be forgotten. Everything flows from him in a wild rush of sensory overload. His passages, which go on for several pages, contain only one long stream-of-conscious like sentence. Iquela, on the other hand, is tethered firmly to reality, preoccupied with imposing her own memories (interspersed throughout the text in parenthetical asides) on the narrative of her life, and in doing so, forging a new language. In childhood, both narrators inflict and endure physical pain in an attempt to feel something that is their own–”a pain that was visible and mine,” as Iquela remembers it.

Paloma’s arrival forces the trio to examine the past and finally put it to rest, allowing them to arrive at zero. She leads them to the cure, the final reckoning, by allowing Felipe and Iquela to join her in recovering her mother’s body. It becomes an offering, which we see in Iquela’s final passage as she faces the prospect of returning to Chile:

…Only by ridding myself of it all would I be able to face going back, only by shaking off the “scars,” “grief,” “sorrows,” and repaying, syllable by syllable, that incalculable debt, a debt that would have rendered us mute…I’d walk toward my mother, gazing at her affectionately, carrying the weight of all the things she’d ever seen (carrying remains, debts, sorrows). And in an old voice–no less mine for being inherited–using frail and untranslatable syllables, final words which, once spoken, would leave me empty and alone in a desert full of new lines (to be spoken in a timeless language), I would say to her with a hint of sadness, ‘I’ve brought you Ingrid Aguirre, and here is Felipe Arrabal.’ And I would hold her (her skin so close to her bones and her bones so close to mine), and only then, from within the perfect parenthesis of our interwoven bodies, would I open my mouth to tell her: ‘Mother, I’ve done all this for you.’

excerpt from The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

The pain Felipe, Iquela and Paloma carry with them — that which was passed along to them and which they inflicted upon themselves — will pass. Holding onto it will not repay the “incalculable debt” of loss, from those who disappeared to those who were killed or forced to flee. There are too many deaths to square, but the return of one body–Ingrid’s repatriation–is the key to being at peace with their ghosts.

Zerán’s formidable command of two distinct styles throughout the novel (translated beautifully by Sophie Hughes), her ability to plumb the depths of generational trauma and her ability to engage with and deconstruct the concept of collective memory propels The Remainder to the status of masterpiece. She continues the longstanding tradition of Latin American writers attempting to make sense of political violence by rendering the darkest sins of a country, and the pain of its people, into a beacon of light.

Natalia Ginzburg’s Genius Shines in Her 1947 Classic ‘The Dry Heart’

the dry heartNatalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.

Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.

-excerpt from The Dry Heart

She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.

Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about  Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.

She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.

In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.

Jac Jemc’s ‘False Bingo’ Defies Convention

false bingoThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.

Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?

Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.

Despite its incongruity on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.