July 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Under 40

A few years ago a group of publishers came up with a short list of the best Latin American authors under 40. They called them the Bogotá 39. Among them was Junot Díaz. Since his visit, he has enjoyed a wide readership here. For many, that would seem logical: Díaz, a Dominican, would naturally have a Latino reading audience. But Díaz writes in English, in a very particular kind of English, an English nearly impossible to translate, especially when one considers the lexical complexity of Spanish -- which spans a few dozen countries. Díaz wrote at the beginning of his first book, Drown, "What I'd like say I've already ruined in saying it in this language." That is exactly what makes that style of writing good: it is untranslatable. I remember reading the first Spanish translation of Drown (a gift). It was like reading an entirely different book. Where were the sharp edges, the fiery irony, the zombie consonants, the diction ups and downs? Since then, better translations have appeared, but I haven’t really been convinced by any of them. What Díaz does with English creates big questions about the nature of the Spanish language, and more importantly, Spanish speakers. Is Spanish ghetto? How does one capture the essence of a phenomenon as massive as Spanglish? Or are we to think of Spanish as a language of latinates like castigate, culpable, taciturn, cuotidian? For a while it seemed pretty formulaic. Italics was the word of the day, and these readers would just have to learn, just as some English writers include words French as though it were still a lingua franca. But then Daniel Alarcón wrote Lost City Radio, and put the whole formula on its head.

To me, Daniel Alarcón, also a member of the Bogotá 39, sounded like another name on multiculturalism's reading list, along with Cisneros and Díaz and Alvarez. That can get tired. Maybe that's because they're not writing for me (why write for anybody?). Anyway, for a long time I thought he wasn't worth reading, until I came upon Lost City RadioLost City Radio is about the recent war in Peru. Although the country in which it takes place remains nameless, clues like an ancient language (Quechua), a desert city near water (Lima), and a guerilla faction obsessed with an indigenous past (Sendero Luminoso), make it unmistakably Peru. 

It starts with Norma. She lives in the big city. She has a radio show, Lost City Radio. People like her show because she reads out the names of people who have gone missing in the war. We discover her husband is one of the missing people whose name she hopes to read one day. It's all pretty sad. Then comes the highly unlikely Dickensian coincidence: Victor, a poor rural boy appears by himself in Norma's big city. Victor's hometown, 1797, is the very same town where her husband Rey disappeared. Victor opens the door up to the past, and perhaps offers clues to where Rey might be. I don't want to give away any of the book’s surprises -- suffice it to say, the reader's sympathies are twisted and turned as the horrifying past is revealed. The plot unravels (and it’s a good one), and we begin to reconsider who is culpable, who deserves who, if any at all. We are lost. All of us.

And all of this is good. It's a good book, maybe a great book about war, but what it does with language -- how it answers the bilingual polemic -- is brilliant. Alarcón wrote a book in English that sounds like it's translated from Spanish. While I was reading it I could hear the Spanish behind it. It was like reading subtitles. I don't think a book has done that before, at least not as successfully.  

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo is also about the war in Peru, also written by a member of the Bogotá 39. He, like Díaz and Alarcón, is widely read in Spanish, only Roncagliolo actually writes in Spanish. Red April, in fact, was just translated into English. It's a good translation, which means it sounds familiar, when it shouldn't: this is, after all, a foreign country, with their own foreign war. Winner of the Alfaguara Prize a few years ago (awarded by a panel of dynamite writers like Antonio Caballero and Fernando Iwasaki), Red April is a seamless thriller of high literary caliber (particular attention is paid to language). Its even pacing provides this caper with enough bloody clues to turn readers into frightened detectives. The novel consists of three main narrative modes: bureaucratic documents, a third-person narrative, and spooky psycho-killer notes with bad spelling. The play between the painless, objective government talk, and the emotive descriptive language works well, particularly in scenes about the protagonist, Félix Chacaltana, writing. Félix for the most part is a boob; a government official in a far away outpost where there is no law. Absurdly, he continues to act as though there is a reason to any of this. He's forced to investigate a murder, and soon finds himself in the murky immoral waters of a sanguine civil war. The only amable person in his lonely life is a waitress. Then even she becomes suspect.

It's interesting that both Lost Radio City and Red April follow the narrative formula of the radical past of a lover revealed, like Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (also a novel about terrorism): Once-truthful loverboy, or girl, turns out to be the enemy, or at least sympathize with the enemy. Like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, or Dumb and Dumber, characters must choose between their vision of one another and society's vision of them.

Well, I liked Lost City Radio so much, I bought a used copy of Alarcón's story collection War by Candelight for one cent (plus shipping and handling, of course). I was happy to see it wasn't one of those books pilfered from a public library and resold to an unsuspecting customer. However, I was disappointed with the book for other reasons. The short story is like poetry in the nineteenth century: everyone is doing it. It's a craft. It's like cross-stitch. It´s brainy Double Dutch. So, if it's a realist short story, as these are, best to be sincere -- if not it´s only artifice, and why bother? I could go vomit at a Picasso exhibit or admire a roller coaster. 

The stories, which alternate between Lima or New York, sometimes sound like reporting, made-up reporting. In the New York stories, like the 9/11-theme "Absence," this makes sense because they’re about foreigners, so the superficiality is a reflection of the characters’ alienation. But for the stories in Lima, about Limeños, it doesn´t make sense. The narration focuses on things an American viewer would find intriguing, or offensive, or topical, like maids and bums and stray dogs and delinquents (sorry, no nuns), but maybe that is intentional; the stories are neither here nor there. I, nevertheless, am here, so I thought the setting was kind of played.

As the stories precede his novel, I think Alarcón was still trying to work out exactly how to deal with the code-swtiching problem. In some stories you can clearly hear street syntax -- know what I'm sayin'? And there were more than a few times I thought words were being used in italics just cuz. For example, in "The City of Clowns," the pauper clown that gets on the bus starts, "Damas y caballeros," which is "Ladies and gentlemen." Is there a difference? Also, hijo, pasaje, niña, pasaje -- could have easily been written "son, ticket please, young lady, ticket." Or instead of cálmate, just write calm down or relax. In each story Alacarcón´s answer is different, but the problem remains. Keep in mind, these were written back when we were living la vida loca, and the identity writers were the best next thing, until the new best next thing came, whatever it is we're in (deep shit, from what I can tell).

I liked the title story most of all. Told anachronologically, in fragments, over the span of forty years, "War by Candlelight" recounts one family's history in Peru's civil war. In each fragment -- be it by bus accident, bombs or bullets -- the family takes another step closer together, while they take another step closer to death. The boy-heavy, school-centered narrative reminded me of early Vargas Llosa novels. It is also the story with some of the best descriptions like: "Repairs were cruel surgeries of convenice, and the bus grew hardned, indifferent and ran from spite and disgust, crossing Andean passes, wheezing and cursing the broad-bowed freighter, that brought it from Germany, the United States or Sweden." Not only is the story the most experimental, I also felt it the most. The proposition -- daily proximity to death strengthens family bonds -- comes from the heart. For all my cyncisim, I couldn't help but feel it.

Alarcón is the sort of writer I want to marry (I mean, if I weren´t already married, and heterosexual). He is young, erudite, with a healthy portion of pathos. He´s an editor for the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra. He's a journalist (he wrote a great piece at Granta about looking for bootlegs of his books in Peru). He's a translator (with great taste, choosing to take on Samtanta Schweblin), and he's coming out with a novel in Spanish. If and when his book in Spanish hits, he will be one of the first truly bilingual, transnational writers. It's worth mentioning that for a relatively small country, Peru is stacked with good writers and poets (Cesar Vallejo, Jose Arguedas, Cesar Moro, Juan Ramon Ribeyro). Alarcón is surely the next name in the Andean country´s legacy.
After hearing a presidential debate in Colombia in which the names Jurgen Habermas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Carlos Fuentes were mentioned, with as much nonchalance as Joe the Plumber, I think it's safe to say that Spanish isn't ghetto. But in English, in that world governed by English, something happens to Spanish, what one cultural theorist called ¨fringe-thinking¨ (or pensamiento fronterizo). Fringe-thinking is seeing things from both sides of the border, something like W.E. B. DuBois's double consciousness for Hispanophones. Which is right? This was how we got metido in the Spanglish in the first place. Alarcón runs around somewhere in between the in-betweens. He seems to be the way to go.