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#SpanishLitMonth: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is another readalong title for Spanish Lit Month, and my chance to read Vargas Llosa for the first time. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published in Spanish in 1977 (Helen Lane’s English translation appeared in 1982). It’s inspired by the author’s life in Peru in the 1950s. 

Eighteen-year-old Marito has literary aspirations, though he’s currently earning a living writing news bulletins for a radio station. Two people are about to change his life: one is Julia, a relation of his by marriage, with whom Marito falls in love. The other is Pedro Camecho, a celebrated Bolivian scriptwriter, brought in to liven up the radio soap operas. 

One strand of Vargas Llosa’s novel chronicles the ups and downs of Marito’s relationship with Julia, which he has to keep secret from his family. Alternate chapters tell some of Comecho’s stories, which are eventful and larger-than-life, invariably ending in a series of questions pondering what might happen next. 

I found Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter very enjoyable to read. The Comecho chapters set a heightened tone for the book, and the Marito ones in turn take on some of that feeling. It really keeps the pages turning.

The edition I read was published in Faber Modern Classics.

Peninsula Press: Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner

Isabel Waidner has been shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice and the Goldsmiths Prize once, which puts their work squarely in my area of interest. I had tried Waidner’s previous novel, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, but… well, it just didn’t click with me. But I wasn’t going to give up.

Sterling Karat Gold was a recent Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month, and I was determined to meet it halfway. “‘Different’ doesn’t need to be scary or boring or hard; it can be fun,” says Waidner in a recent interview. So I thought: just go with the flow. 

This time, the book clicked.

Any synopsis I give will be inadequate, because there’s so much going on, and because so much is in the actual experience of reading. But let’s see… This is how the narrator introduces themself:

I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservativism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart. 

This paragraph merges the personal, the political, the geographical, the linguistic, and the bodily. And that’s how Waidner’s novel continues. 

When we first meet Sterling, they are set upon by a group of matadors, and saved by Rodney, a footballer who sends the bullfighters off. Sterling later goes to a Hendon FC match in search of Rodney, but is arrested by two representatives of the authorities for assaulting one of the matadors. Sterling is taken to a detention centre in Margate on further spurious charges. This results in a trial that takes place in Sterling’s bathroom, muscling in on Catastrophic Foibles, the performance art project that Sterling hosts at home with their best friend Chachki.

Did I mention the time travelling spaceships?

The world of Sterling Karat Gold is a nightmare for Sterling and their friends, because its workings are inexplicable and primed to act against them. The reader gets a sense of this by proxy through the strangeness of what happens, but there are also sharp moments of clarity. For example, there is a powerful chapter of long paragraphs (which you can read in full on the Granta website) in which Sterling reflects on the life of the footballer Justin Fashanu:

…in Chachki’s and my Cataclysmic Foibles lexicon, a ‘spaceship’ is a moment in which discreet neo-authoritarian governance and deliberate governmental deceit become apparent, just momentarily, before vanishing again. What’s that have to do with your life, you might ask, Justin Fashanu, a gay, black footballer, but how the concerted bullying of an individual belonging to more than one oppressed demographic relates to the workings of state control is a pertinent question, and one I ask myself every day.

Alongside this, Sterling Karat Gold is a lot of fun to read – and in that fun, there is hope. A word that came to my mind when reading this book is ‘carnival’, in the sense of entertainment, but also in the sense of the old feast when the structure of society could, in a fashion, be turned upside-down. Sterling and friends are able to take some control back at last. 

Published by Peninsula Press.

#SpanishLitMonth: The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories (ed. Margaret Jull Costa)

Over the last few years, Penguin Classics have published new anthologies of translated short stories from individual countries. There have been Dutch, Japanese and Italian anthologies, and this latest one focuses on Spain. 

Renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa has selected over fifty stories from the 19th century to the present day, many of them appearing in English for the first time. As well as Castilian Spanish, the book includes stories originally written in Basque, Catalan and Galician. 

I worked my way through the anthology gradually, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the stories. For this review, I thought I’d pick out some of my favourites. I’ve kept these in the order they appear in the book (which is arranged in chronological order of the authors’ birth). All of the stories below are translated by Margaret Jull Costa, unless otherwise stated. 

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#SpanishLitMonth: The Island by Ana María Matute

The theme for the second week of Spanish Lit Month is books from Spain itself. The Island is an autobiographical novel first published in 1959 (it has been translated into English before as School of the Sun; this 2020 translation is by Laura Lonsdale). 

Fourteen-year-old Matia has been expelled from her convent school and sent to stay with her grandmother on Mallorca. It’s a hot, stifling place, where the closest thing Matia has to a friend is her good-for-nothing cousin Borja. The Civil War means that Matia has to stay there, come what may. 

There are frequent references to fairytales, and the book in general has a distinctively hazy atmosphere. Political and religious tensions play out in microcosm on the island, which means that the personal coming-of-age tale reflects a much broader story. The war may seem a long way away from Matia’s life on Mallorca, but its shadow looms large. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics: read an extract here.

Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan

This novel (first published in 1998) is another reissue in the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo and published by Penguin. It opens with sisters Anita and Beth as children, helping their mother to look after their dying father. It’s a stark beginning. 

Years later, Anita returns to the house in London. Her mother is on holiday, but Beth is still there, and now it’s the sisters’ chance to reconnect and sort through the past. There is a lot to work through: the shadow of Anita’s and Beth’s father in particular looms over the house. 

Judith Bryan creates a wonderful, shifting atmosphere throughout her novel. There’s tension and dread in seemingly ordinary domestic scenes. Then the writing may move into the safety/distancing of a fairytale register. There are also times when the tone becomes brighter, such as the rhythm of this passage celebrating a childhood friendship of Anita’s:

Two girls, one dark one darker, like twin shadows, each seeking shelter, ‘home’ is only one another, whispering secrets, telling tales. Don’t let go of her, she’ll never leave you, always ready to relieve you, stepping in when you can’t take it, when your back’s against the rails.

Then there are the scenes where Anita catches up with her ex-boyfriend, Steve. There’s a real sense of openness to these scenes, the possibilities of the city. Whether this can last for Anita is another question; it’s just one strand in this multi-faceted novel. 

#SpanishLitMonth: A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco

Stu chose this book for a Spanish Lit Month readalong, a collection from that fine publisher of Latin American fiction, Charco Press. The five stories in A Perfect Cemetery (marvellously translated by Jennifer Croft) are all set in Federico Falco’s native Córdoba Province in Argentina. The image of the title implies long-term stasis, but Falco’s characters are actually facing pivotal moments of change in their lives. 

Let’s start with the story ‘A Perfect Cemetery’ itself. In the town of Colonel Isabeta, the mayor wishes to build his father the perfect cemetery. The old fellow is 104 and has been ailing for years, but there’s no sign of him going anywhere just yet. Enter cemetery designer extraordinaire Víctor Bagiardelli, who sees the chance to create his masterwork – if only he can bring all the pieces together. Víctor’s obsession is brought to life on the page, with the mayor’s father an equally powerful creation. The old man asks Víctor what he will do with the rest of his life. The events of the story force Víctor to confront this question, and may give him the beginnings of an answer. 

There’s more vivid characterisation in ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’. The title character is a teenager who accompanies her mother when the latter is administering the last rites to people. At the start of the story, Silvi announces that she is now an atheist – but she soon develops a fascination with a visiting Mormon missionary. It’s not straightforward infatuation: the Mormon reminds Silvi of a boy she once visited, who died in hospital. But this is not a situation that can give Silvi the anchoring she needs in the world, and there will be painful consequences. The ending, however, points to a way forward, a different kind of hope. 

In ‘Forest Life’, the home of old Wutrich and his daughter Mabel is placed under threat, and so Wutrich tries desperately to find Mabel a husband. She reluctantly marries Satoiki from the local Japanese community. In another example of Falco’s nuanced character work, we can see Mabel’s ambivalence about entering this marriage, balanced against a genuine desire on Satoiki’s part (and perhaps on Mabel’s as well) to make it work. Seeing her father’s experiences in a care home makes Mabel rethink her situation. Yet again in A Perfect Cemetery, the ending of a story is really just a beginning. 

Besides the characterisation, there’s also a strong sense of place and environment in Falco’s stories. ‘The Hares’ introduces us to the self-styled “king of the hares”, who lives out in the wilderness and maintains his own altar of bones. This individual turns out to be a human named Oscar, who has abandoned society for his own reasons. Nobody asked the hares, of course, and Oscar is quite happy to eat them – a tension between character and place that adds another dimension to the story. 

The closing piece, ‘The River’, takes us to the depths of winter, and Señora Kim, who may be living with her late husband’s ghost. When she thinks she sees a naked woman running in the snow towards the river, this could be an hallucination – or it could be a chance to rescue someone and turn a corner. Falco leaves the question open: as so often in this compelling collection, the stories only open out once you finish them. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero

July is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos, and I have a few titles lined up for the blog. The theme for the first week of July is contemporary Latin American fiction, and I’ve chosen this story collection from Ecuador, published by Influx Press.

Ampuero’s stories shine a light into the darker corners of ordinary domestic life, and confront brutal subjects head-on. I have to say that this is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. 

The opening story, ‘Auction’, sets the tone. Ampuero’s narrator recalls cleaning up after her father’s cockfight as a girl, and how she would use the birds’ viscera to put off jeering men in the crowd. It then becomes clear that, as an adult, the narrator has been kidnapped by a taxi driver and taken to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The only way she can save herself is to draw on her childhood experiences. 

So you have a carefully drawn situation (in prose powerfully translated by Frances Riddle), with a closing shift into deeper darkness. The story ‘Griselda’ starts off more innocently, with the narrator telling us of Miss Griselda, who baked extraordinary cakes. But there are suggestions of what might be going on behind closed doors, until events reach a crescendo – and, afterwards, the narrator’s birthday cakes never taste as good again. 

Much of Cockfight takes a pessimistic tone, but there are glimpses of light to be found. The protagonist of ‘Other’ is out shopping, constrained by the thoughts of what her husband wants buying, and the likely consequences for her if he doesn’t get it. A small act of rebellion at the end of the story may or may not turn out well, but there is at least the possibility of hope. It’s a precarious end to a vivid collection. 

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr Fortune’s Maggot & The True Heart

Last year, I read and enjoyed Lolly Willowes (1926), the debut novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Penguin Modern Classics have continued to reissue her novels, so I’ve caught up with the next two. I found them intriguingly different from Lolly Willowes and each other – and, above all, worth reading.

Warner’s second novel was Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). ‘Maggot’ here means a fad or whimsy, and it’s perhaps a whimsical desire for solitude that leads bank clerk-turned-priest Timothy Fortune, a bank clerk turned priest, to become a missionary on the (fictitious) Polynesian island of Fanua.

After three years, Fortune has not lived up to his name: he has only one convert, a boy named Lueli. Fortune thinks he is getting through to the boy, but Lueli insists on keeping his wooden idol. The time comes for Fortune to take decisive action… and events unfold in a way that challenges his own faith. 

Mr Fortune’s Maggot is focused tightly on these two characters, and in that it makes broader points about faith and colonialism. The change in Fortune’s thinking is carefully drawn, and I found the ending deeply affecting.

***

Warner’s introduction to her third novel, The True Heart (1929), says that it’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. This wasn’t really on my mind as I read the book, because it’s not a story I knew much about – but there it is anyway. It must be quite a well disguised retelling, because Warner adds that only her mother made the connection at the time!

In 1873, sixteen-year-old orphan Sukey Bond is sent from London to work as a maid on a farm in the Essex marshes. She falls in love with Eric, whom she mistakes for one of the family. He’s actually the son of the rector of Southend, who has been sent away to the farm because his own family consider him “an idiot”. 

When Sukey’s and Eric’s love is revealed, he is taken back to Southend, and Sukey sets out to find him. There’s a heightened quality to The True Heart that I really appreciated – Sukey even takes her plight to Queen Victoria – as well as a vivid sense of place. 

***

I’ve discovered that this week is Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week, hosted by Helen at A Gallimaufry. Head over there for more Warner!

Pushkin Press: The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan

In a village that has seen little rain for years, an old farming couple are given a black goat kid by a mysterious stranger, a giant figure who seems to have at least one foot in the world of myth. They name the kid Poonachi and raise her to adulthood. Poonachi doesn’t quite fit in, which leads to some difficulties – for example, she’s a different colour from the couple’s nanny goat, so it takes some ingenuity to get her registered with the authorities.

Poonachi’s life is eventful, has its ups and downs analogous to a human’s, and she springs to life as a character in her own right. The Story of a Goat becomes a fable of society, difference and acceptance. The measured tone of Murugal’s prose (in N. Kalyan Raman’s translation from Tamil) draws you in, and the end result is an affecting tale. 

Published by Pushkin Press.

Tartarus Press: Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Tartarus Press are a Yorkshire publisher specialising in supernatural and strange fiction (they were the original publisher of The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley). They publish some beautiful limited edition hardbacks – there are still some copies available of the book I’m reviewing today – but they also do ebooks, which is the version I read.

Ezra Slef is a contemporary Russian writer, “a titan of contemporary Postmodernism”, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Will Self. The text we’re reading is apparently a biography of Slef, written by one Humbert Botekin, an academic and self-styled literary genius. The problem is that Slef wants nothing to do with him, so Botekin ends up writing mostly about himself instead. 

Oh, but this book is such a joy to read! Botekin is a splendidly pompous narrator, and his life goes through so many ups and downs. He accepts the help of a certain individual calling himself Rensip De Narsckof (I could tell this was an anagram, but I have to thank a Washington Post article for the solution: ‘Prince of Darkness’) to deal with a Twitter troll, and things are never quite the same again… 

Komarnyckyj includes little riffs on writers such as Borges and B.S. Johnson, and plenty more that I didn’t spot (there’s a list at the back). It’s just great fun. If Ezra Slef sounds like your kind of book, I’d say go for it. 

Read an extract from Ezra Slef at minor literature[s].

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