Melhores do Ano 2010: Brazilian writer/fan poll on the Best of Brazilian SF (or FC in Portuguese)

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Several friends of mine on Facebook and Twitter are Brazilian writers.  Last night was announced the results of a poll taken of Brazilian writers, critics, and other SF fans, organized by writer Ana Cristina Rodrigues, called simply Melhores do Ano 2010.  These results are of great interest to me, not just because I am acquainted with several of the people who participated and/or won, but because this illustrates just how non-Anglophone SF is growing across the world.  Plus, it was nice to see that I had read two of the books mentioned in the awards and enjoyed one of the co-winners of the Best Story (and hope to read the other in the near future, if possible, even if I have to import it)..  But enough of me gabbing here.  Here are the categories and the winners:

Novel: : Kaori, by Giulia Moon

Collection:: Anacrônicas, by Ana Cristina Rodrigues

Anthology:: Steampunk: Histórias de um passado extraordinário (reviewed this anthology last year)

Story: “O mapa para a terra das fadas”, by Ana Cristina Rodrigues and “Uma vida possível atrás das barricadas”, by Jacques Barcia [Note: Barcia’s story is being translated into English for appearance as an online supplement to Steampunk Reloaded, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer]

Non Fiction: Anuário Brasileiro de Literatura Fantástica de 2008 (read this last year, but didn’t review it.  Informative for this gringo)

Magazine: Scarium

E-book: Empadas e morte, by M. D. Amado

E-zine: Black Rocket

Story Site:  Estronho e Esquésito

Information Site:  Fantastik and Homem Nerd

Columnist/Reviewer: Eric Novello

Editor: Ademir Pascale

Publisher: Draco

Cover Art: Metamorfose

No sea disponible in inglés: David Soares

May 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

A few months ago, I was asked by a publicist for a Portuguese genre press, Safaa Dib, if I would be interesting in reading a couple of novels by one of Portugal’s leading genre writers, David Soares.  I quickly agreed and a little over three months ago, I received three books, the two Soares novels, A Conspiração dos Antepassados and Lisboa Triunfante, and an anthology of stories either written in Portuguese or translated into Portuguese, called A Sombra Sobre Lisboa

Unfortunately, I became quite busy around the same time, as there were a lot of things going on in my now-former job that kept me from getting around to discussing these books like I would have liked.  I wish I had time to do a second reading before commenting, as my Portuguese, improved as it is, is still not as good as my Spanish.  But I had delayed too much in writing at least a short bit, so here goes.

David Soares, at least in the two novels that I read, displays a talent for mixing Portuguese history and literature, English literature, and horror elements together to create fast-paced but yet ponderous reads.  In his earlier novel, A Conspiração dos Antepassados,  set in large part in the early 20th century, he has Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and English magician/Satanist Alastair Crowley teaming up to solve a centuries-old mystery.  Despite the oddity of this pairing, Soares manages to make the entire premise believable (well, as much as a mystery involving supernatural forces can be “believable”) and the story rarely falters, even when the PoVs switch back and forth between Pessoa and Crowley.  I am looking forward to re-reading this one in the near future.

Lisboa Triunfante, the other Soares novel that I received, relies more upon the reader being aware of Portuguese history (thankfully, I have at least the required cursory knowledge).  The story is in equal parts a centuries-spanning romance and a detailed look at the history of Lisbon, from the pre-Roman days to the present.  Although I didn’t have as strong of a historical knowledge as I would have wished, Soares made both the historical layers of Lisbon and his characters interesting to read.  Although I struggled a bit with the prose (my fault, since my reading comprehension in Portuguese is not at near-native levels, like it is with Spanish), I am also looking forward to re-reading this one soon as well.

Based on what I’ve read, I believe there would be a market in English translation for these novels, especially the first one.  Although the references to Portuguese history and literature might create a barrier for many readers, I suspect that barrier could also serve to make the setting and characters more exotic, making these novels appealing to those readers who enjoy cross-genre works that are neither fish nor fowl, but something enjoyable in-between.

What I’ve been reading before going to bed this morning

April 2, 2010 § 7 Comments

1Ταῦτα εἰπὼν Ἰησοῦς ἐξῆλθεν σὺν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ πέραν τοῦ χειμάρρου τοῦ Κεδρὼν ὅπου ἦν κῆπος, εἰς ὃν εἰσῆλθεν αὐτὸς καὶ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ. 2ᾔδει δὲ καὶ Ἰούδας παραδιδοὺς αὐτὸν τὸν τόπον, ὅτι πολλάκις συνήχθη Ἰησοῦς ἐκεῖ μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ. 3 οὖν Ἰούδας λαβὼν τὴν σπεῖραν καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων ὑπηρέτας ἔρχεται ἐκεῖ μετὰ φανῶν καὶ λαμπάδων καὶ ὅπλων. 4Ἰησοῦς οὖν εἰδὼς πάντα τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἐπ’ αὐτὸν ἐξῆλθεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τίνα ζητεῖτε; 5ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ, Ἰησοῦν τὸν Ναζωραῖον. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἐγώ εἰμι. εἱστήκει δὲ καὶ Ἰούδας παραδιδοὺς αὐτὸν μετ’ αὐτῶν. 6ὡς οὖν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐγώ εἰμι, ἀπῆλθον εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω καὶ ἔπεσαν χαμαί. 7πάλιν οὖν ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτούς, Τίνα ζητεῖτε; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Ἰησοῦν τὸν Ναζωραῖον. 8ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Εἶπον ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι: εἰ οὖν ἐμὲ ζητεῖτε, ἄφετε τούτους ὑπάγειν: 9ἵνα πληρωθῇ λόγος ὃν εἶπεν ὅτι Οὓς δέδωκάς μοι οὐκ ἀπώλεσα ἐξ αὐτῶν οὐδένα. 10Σίμων οὖν Πέτρος ἔχων μάχαιραν εἵλκυσεν αὐτὴν καὶ ἔπαισεν τὸν τοῦ ἀρχιερέως δοῦλον καὶ ἀπέκοψεν αὐτοῦ τὸ ὠτάριον τὸ δεξιόν. ἦν δὲ ὄνομα τῷ δούλῳ Μάλχος. 11εἶπεν οὖν Ἰησοῦς τῷ Πέτρῳ, Βάλε τὴν μάχαιραν εἰς τὴν θήκην: τὸ ποτήριον δέδωκέν μοι πατὴρ οὐ μὴ πίω αὐτό; 12 οὖν σπεῖρα καὶ χιλίαρχος καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται τῶν Ἰουδαίων συνέλαβον τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ ἔδησαν αὐτὸν 13καὶ ἤγαγον πρὸς Ανναν πρῶτον: ἦν γὰρ πενθερὸς τοῦ Καϊάφα, ὃς ἦν ἀρχιερεὺς τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ ἐκείνου: 14ἦν δὲ Καϊάφας συμβουλεύσας τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ὅτι συμφέρει ἕνα ἄνθρωπον ἀποθανεῖν ὑπὲρ τοῦ λαοῦ. 15Ἠκολούθει δὲ τῷ Ἰησοῦ Σίμων Πέτρος καὶ ἄλλος μαθητής. δὲ μαθητὴς ἐκεῖνος ἦν γνωστὸς τῷ ἀρχιερεῖ, καὶ συνεισῆλθεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἰς τὴν αὐλὴν τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, 16 δὲ Πέτρος εἱστήκει πρὸς τῇ θύρᾳ ἔξω. ἐξῆλθεν οὖν μαθητὴς ἄλλος γνωστὸς τοῦ ἀρχιερέως καὶ εἶπεν τῇ θυρωρῷ καὶ εἰσήγαγεν τὸν Πέτρον. 17λέγει οὖν τῷ Πέτρῳ παιδίσκη θυρωρός, Μὴ καὶ σὺ ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν εἶ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τούτου; λέγει ἐκεῖνος, Οὐκ εἰμί. 18εἱστήκεισαν δὲ οἱ δοῦλοι καὶ οἱ ὑπηρέται ἀνθρακιὰν πεποιηκότες, ὅτι ψῦχος ἦν, καὶ ἐθερμαίνοντο: ἦν δὲ καὶ Πέτρος μετ’ αὐτῶν ἑστὼς καὶ θερμαινόμενος. 19 οὖν ἀρχιερεὺς ἠρώτησεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν περὶ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ καὶ περὶ τῆς διδαχῆς αὐτοῦ. 20ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ἰησοῦς, Ἐγὼ παρρησίᾳ λελάληκα τῷ κόσμῳ: ἐγὼ πάντοτε ἐδίδαξα ἐν συναγωγῇ καὶ ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, ὅπου πάντες οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι συνέρχονται, καὶ ἐν κρυπτῷ ἐλάλησα οὐδέν. 21τί με ἐρωτᾷς; ἐρώτησον τοὺς ἀκηκοότας τί ἐλάλησα αὐτοῖς: ἴδε οὗτοι οἴδασιν εἶπον ἐγώ. 22ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ εἰπόντος εἷς παρεστηκὼς τῶν ὑπηρετῶν ἔδωκεν ῥάπισμα τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἰπών, Οὕτως ἀποκρίνῃ τῷ ἀρχιερεῖ; 23ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ἰησοῦς, Εἰ κακῶς ἐλάλησα, μαρτύρησον περὶ τοῦ κακοῦ: εἰ δὲ καλῶς, τί με δέρεις; 24ἀπέστειλεν οὖν αὐτὸν Αννας δεδεμένον πρὸς Καϊάφαν τὸν ἀρχιερέα. 25*)=ην δὲ Σίμων Πέτρος ἑστὼς καὶ θερμαινόμενος. εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ, Μὴ καὶ σὺ ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ εἶ; ἠρνήσατο ἐκεῖνος καὶ εἶπεν, Οὐκ εἰμί. 26λέγει εἷς ἐκ τῶν δούλων τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, συγγενὴς ὢν οὗ ἀπέκοψεν Πέτρος τὸ ὠτίον, Οὐκ ἐγώ σε εἶδον ἐν τῷ κήπῳ μετ’ αὐτοῦ; 27πάλιν οὖν ἠρνήσατο Πέτρος: καὶ εὐθέως ἀλέκτωρ ἐφώνησεν. 28Ἄγουσιν οὖν τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἀπὸ τοῦ Καϊάφα εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον: ἦν δὲ πρωΐ: καὶ αὐτοὶ οὐκ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον, ἵνα μὴ μιανθῶσιν ἀλλὰ φάγωσιν τὸ πάσχα. 29ἐξῆλθεν οὖν Πιλᾶτος ἔξω πρὸς αὐτοὺς καὶ φησίν, Τίνα κατηγορίαν φέρετε [κατὰ] τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τούτου; 30ἀπεκρίθησαν καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Εἰ μὴ ἦν οὗτος κακὸν ποιῶν, οὐκ ἄν σοι παρεδώκαμεν αὐτόν. 31εἶπεν οὖν αὐτοῖς Πιλᾶτος, Λάβετε αὐτὸν ὑμεῖς, καὶ κατὰ τὸν νόμον ὑμῶν κρίνατε αὐτόν. εἶπον αὐτῷ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, Ἡμῖν οὐκ ἔξεστιν ἀποκτεῖναι οὐδένα: 32ἵνα λόγος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πληρωθῇ ὃν εἶπεν σημαίνων ποίῳ θανάτῳ ἤμελλεν ἀποθνῄσκειν. 33Εἰσῆλθεν οὖν πάλιν εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον Πιλᾶτος καὶ ἐφώνησεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; 34ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀπὸ σεαυτοῦ σὺ τοῦτο λέγεις ἄλλοι εἶπόν σοι περὶ ἐμοῦ; 35ἀπεκρίθη Πιλᾶτος, Μήτι ἐγὼ Ἰουδαῖός εἰμι; τὸ ἔθνος τὸ σὸν καὶ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς παρέδωκάν σε ἐμοί: τί ἐποίησας; 36ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, βασιλεία ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου: εἰ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἦν βασιλεία ἐμή, οἱ ὑπηρέται οἱ ἐμοὶ ἠγωνίζοντο [ἄν], ἵνα μὴ παραδοθῶ τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις: νῦν δὲ βασιλεία ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐντεῦθεν. 37εἶπεν οὖν αὐτῷ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκοῦν βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ; ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Σὺ λέγεις ὅτι βασιλεύς εἰμι. ἐγὼ εἰς τοῦτο γεγέννημαι καὶ εἰς τοῦτο ἐλήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον, ἵνα μαρτυρήσω τῇ ἀληθείᾳ: πᾶς ὢν ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας ἀκούει μου τῆς φωνῆς. 38λέγει αὐτῷ Πιλᾶτος, Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια; Καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν πάλιν ἐξῆλθεν πρὸς τοὺς Ἰουδαίους, καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἐγὼ οὐδεμίαν εὑρίσκω ἐν αὐτῷ αἰτίαν. 39ἔστιν δὲ συνήθεια ὑμῖν ἵνα ἕνα ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν ἐν τῷ πάσχα: βούλεσθε οὖν ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν τὸν βασιλέα τῶν Ἰουδαίων; 40ἐκραύγασαν οὖν πάλιν λέγοντες, Μὴ τοῦτον ἀλλὰ τὸν Βαραββᾶν. ἦν δὲ Βαραββᾶς λῃστής.

 

Graecum est. But I do understand a little bit of it. Just a topical passage, you might say.

Roberto Bolaño, El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich)

March 7, 2010 § 8 Comments

When word came out in late 2008 that a complete, unedited novel of the late Latin American author Roberto Bolaño, labeled as El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich in English translation), had been discovered, along with several other lengthy narratives, by the executor of his literary estate, I was in turns excited by the news that these works would be published over the next few years and very skeptical about the quality of these works.  There are often very good reasons why “trunk novels,” those completed but unedited/unpublished novels, are rarely ever published during an author’s lifetime; they generally are poorer in quality than the author’s best published works at best and at worst they are veritable garbage that serves to downgrade the public’s estimation of the author.

So when I received my copy of Bolaño’s novel in the mail Saturday, I read with great trepidation that it was probably composed in 1989, well before his 1996-2003 writing/publishing frenzy that saw the release of virtually all of his fictional output.  I was not comforted by the publisher’s claim on the blurb that it was “pure Bolaño – detectives, extravagant characters and a descent into hell” since for me the importance of his work revolved less around these staples of several of his works and instead more around the terse, raw prose that served to accentuate the emotional outpourings that were spilling out inside his sometimes-fevered narratives.  However, when I put aside these preconceptions of El Tercer Reich‘s qualities, or rather its deficiencies, I was pleasantly surprised by the narrative.

Unlike The Savage Detectives or 2666, the only novels larger in length than El Tercer Reich, the narrative here is largely linear and the point of view is limited to only the first-person narrative provided by tabletop game enthusiast Udo Berger.  Set along the Costa Brava of the Catalonia region of Spain, El Tercer Reich is divided into chronological chapters that span from August 20 to September 30 of a non-specified year before five person-related chapters and an October 20 brief narrative close out the 360 page novel.  Over the course of these six weeks or so, Bolaño sets up two sub-narratives, that of Berger’s fixation on remaining the national champion of the tabletop game The Third Reich, and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a visitor (and fellow game enthusiast), Charly, one night after he visited Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg. 

It is interesting how Bolaño intertwines the two narrative threads.  Berger’s mindset is paralleled in how his campaign against a top contender, Quemado, evolves.  At first flushed with apparent triumph, Berger begins a descent into frustration and near madness just as details surrounding Charly’s disappearance begin to emerge.  Seemingly innocent asides and character interactions began to take on a more sinister tone.  Who has ulterior motives and what might they be?  Why exactly does Berger have this fixation with this tabletop game and how will things change?

On the whole, the story unfolded at a quick, measured pace.  Bolaño did a competent job weaving together the two main narrative strands, but ultimately, there were places where the story felt flat, especially in comparison to Bolaño’s latter works.  While there were indeed detectives in this novel, Bolaño use of them was more ancillary and less metaphorical than in his latter works, particularly The Savage Detectives.  In addition, the narrative, while fairly well-executed, felt more distant somehow, even when told in first-person, than does most of Bolaño’s longer fictions.  There was not that sense of urgent immediacy that flavors several of his stories; the action, even the central mystery (which only truly began just before the halfway point of the novel) seemed “off” in comparison to what the author later achieved with similar elements.  In many ways, perhaps to be expected considering the date of conception, El Tercer Reich is more proto-Bolaño than anything truly approaching what Bolaño accomplished toward the end of his life. Many of the elements that he later used to masterful effect in his two major novels were present in this one, but in a more tentative and limited fashion.  The outline was present, but Bolaño had yet to fill in the shades and contours and perhaps this is why he apparently shelved this work and never bothered submitting it late in his life; it was good, competent work, but it lacked that narrative fire that his latter novels and short fictions had.

This is most apparently in the final, quasi-thriller part of the novel.  Bolaño has set the stage for what might be a great finale, but due in large part to the remoteness of the narrator, there isn’t quite the frisson that I suspect Bolaño aimed to create.  Thus the conclusion is somewhat intriguing, but it is not as memorable as it could have been, due again to the sketchiness within the narrative and  the underdeveloped aspects of Berger’s interactions with certain other characters.  El Tercer Reich felt more like the germ of an exciting, psychological quasi-thriller than anything truly approaching the narrative layers he experimented with in his latter fiction.  As a trunk novel, El Tercer Reich does not embarrass its author’s legacy.  It was competently told and doubtless could have been published and regarded as a solid novel soon after its completion.  But when compared to his latter works, El Tercer Reich certainly is the lesser in comparison.  While it illustrates the genesis of several of Bolaño’s later narrative experimentation, it lacks the confident narrative voice that is the hallmark of the mature phase of Bolaño’s prose compositions.  El Tercer Reich perhaps may be best valued as a look into how an author comes to develop future narrative riffs rather than trying to read it as a proto-masterpiece.  It is a solid, early novel, but it certainly is far from the author’s best.  Recommended, with some reservations, for those curious about Bolaño and his writings.

Publication Date:  January 2010 (Spain); March 9, 2010 (US). Spanish language.  Tradeback (US).

Publisher:  Anagrama (Spain), Vintage Español (US)

English Translation:  2011 (Tentative)

For the (very) few curious about the non-English grammars and dictionaries I have

February 25, 2010 § 6 Comments

 
Here are pictures of most of  the non-English grammars and dictionaries I have acquired over the years (at work, I have two more Attic/Koine Greek grammars, another Romanian one, along with multiple German, French, and Italian textbooks).  Some of these originally were for students I taught in Florida almost a decade ago, while a couple of others are college textbooks of mine.

For some of these, I have no literature in those languages, but most of these I do have fiction and non-fiction published in these languages that I do want to learn, if I haven’t already in some form.  And yes, that’s a Quechua book up there.  One day, one day…

 
Right now, most of my language focus is on Attic Greek, but I constantly read works in Spanish and occasionally will use my two dictionaries (bilingual, defining) to help me with translations back and forth between English and Spanish.  Will likely next return to studying Serbian, now that I have a proper textbook and a rudimentary dictionary.  Many reasons I have for wanting to learn that language, not least was learning what veverica was…

Just finished reading a fascinating article in the current issue of Kenyon Review

February 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Beth H. Piatote’s “Our (Someone Else’s) Father:  Articulation, Dysarticulation, and Indigenous Literary Traditions” was perhaps the best non-fiction entry in a very strong field of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction submitted by Indigenous/Native American writers for the all-Indigenous Winter 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review.  Despite not finding any suitable stories for consideration for BAF4, I found myself just reading each and every piece in large part because of just how totally my own part-Cherokee heritage has been obliterated due to two centuries of cultural and political denials and stigmatization.

Of particular interest was how Piatote discussed the dynamics involved in the Nez Perce translation of the Pater Noster, given below:

Numin Pist kem in ues eis nuespa
Taz He imene wanikt paraquaneitag uag Pahatauyaitag
Taz He imin Miogatoit painag
Taz He imene nekt patuignaitag kino uetespa
kam kus Einuespa ituigneitanig.
Taksain hipt neozenim nuna
kapsisuit nas usunanim
kag kus nun nuaunaisig kakimem inaskapsisuiyutenig
ka wet met nez nikukum kapsisuitg
metu kapsieuitkinig nez nakettem.
Nunag kus.

In particular, her treatment of how there is a clash between the inclusiveness of “our” and the abstract expression of “father” perhaps serves as an apt metaphor for the dynamics involved between those indigenous peoples (and the mestizos and others who have more than one cultural grounding) and the dominant Anglo-American culture surrounding them.  Makes me wish I were still in school and could have the opportunity to learn more about Native American cultures.  Then again, I’m going to be getting that chance quite shortly, since the residential treatment center where I work recently entered into an agreement to house several teenage males from several of the nations.  Something to look forward to, I suppose.

2009 in Review: En Otros Idiomas

December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

As I just said in my previous post on 2009 books translated into English, this blog perhaps is best-known for its promotion of authors, mimetic and speculative alike, whose works were not written in English.  Although I did manage to read close to 100 books in Spanish and over 30 others in French, Portuguese, Italian, and Serbian, most of those works were not released for the first time in 2009.  Perhaps I will do a summation in the near future of works read this year that are worthy of readers’ considerations that will cover pre-2009 releases in any idiom.

But for now, I guess I should note that there were six books read in 2009 that were not read in English.  Four of them are Spanish-language fictions, another is a Spanish non-fiction work that I’ll cover in more detail in the section on 2009 non-fictions read, and the final book is a Brazilian anthology of Steampunk stories that I felt was among the best anthologies I read this year.  Furthermore, two of the four Spanish-language fictions are actually translations from the original Polish of Andrzej Sapkowski, creating a sort of gray area, since my “translated fictions” post could have covered these translations as well, but since this section is for works not read in English, I guess this is best placement for them.

The variety of books read is as follows:  one anthology, one YA fiction not covered in that section since I plan on reviewing it next year or in 2011 when the English translation is available, one popular history of the ancient greeks, one historical novel without magic, another historical novel with magic, and one epic fantasy work.  Since there will be reviews in 2010 of the two Sapkowski and since I’ll be covering Javier Negrete’s excellent history of the ancient greeks elsewhere, most of the book-specific comments will be limited to just a couple of prior reviews reproduced in excerpts.



Ildefonso Falcones, La mano de Fátima

From the review posted on Omnivoracious:

Christian-Muslim relations have never been easy, history bearing witness to attacks by partisans of both religions, with the attendant martyrs and villains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Spain, where for almost 900 years the Reconquista was waged to win back the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control, culminating in the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1609.

Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones sets out to explore the tensions that existed in late 16th century Spain in his new novel, La Mano de Fátima. Over the course of over 900 pages, Falcones covers the period from the Alpujarras revolt of 1568-1571 to the 1609 expulsion through the character of Hernando Ruiz. Young Hernando, the offspring of the rape of a Moorish woman by a Catholic priest, serves as a small-scale representation of the divisions that rent Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492. Rejected by his fellow Moors as being a “Nazarene”and condemned to be treated as a Moor by the Christians due to his crypto-Muslim Morisco culture (public Muslim practices being banned in 1499), Hernando bears witness to the mutual distrust that Morisco and Spaniard alike felt toward one another.

***


There are three main conflicts in this story: 1) Hernando’s wavering commitment to the Moriscos and the crypto-Muslim faith that they hold, 2) Hernando’s treatment by both the Christian Spaniards and the Moriscos, and 3) Hernando’s relationships with Fatima and certain other people later in life. Falcones does an excellent job with the first two, with the exception of the main “villain” of Brahim, whose character rarely fails to rise above that of an implacable, diabolical foe of Hernando and of his desire for peace between the faiths. It is in the third main conflict, that between Hernando and those closest to him, where Falcones falters.

In large part, this is due to the 41-year span of the novel. In attempting to illustrate the atmosphere of the times and how attitudes began to change toward the Moriscos after the failed Alpujarras revolt, Falcones unfortunately padded the novel in places, creating quite a few turns and introducing a new character dynamic that feels a bit forced after the action of the first few hundred pages. As a result, important characters fade away for long stretches, reappearing only fitfully until the final scenes, where their reemergence feels forced and underdeveloped.

Yet despite this, La Mano de Fátima contains several moving passages that speak to the hope of Hernando (and presumably, of Falcones) for a more peaceful co-existence between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Hernando, despite the unevenness of the second half of the novel, serves as an excellent reminder just what was lost when Christianity and Islam began their ideological war, as well as the hope that many adherents of both faiths have for a reconciliation. Falcones’ novel, coming as it does on the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moors, bears witness to the optimistic faith and tolerance that those like Hernando have managed to uphold in the face of the tumults of the past few centuries.

Gianpaolo Celli (ed.), Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

From my original review:

In many senses, steampunk is the one of the first truly “international” subgenres of speculative fiction, as its appeal quickly spread from one country to the next, without a single country or language region dominating the literary landscape. In the past twenty years or so, ever since K.W. Jeter’s use of the term “steampunk” in a 1987 letter to Locus to describe this nascent movement, steampunk literary and fashion circles have sprung up in cities all across the globe.  It truly is an international movement, one that adapts to fit the needs of each country’s literary scenes.

This certainly was the case with the release this summer in Brazil of Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk:  Stories of an Extraordinary Past would be a good English translation of the title).  Edited by Gianpaolo Celli and published by the São Paulo publisher Tarja, this original anthology of nine stories written by several of Brazil’s leading SF writers serves to highlight not just Brazilian interpretations of what constitutes “steampunk,” but also that this emerging world power has the potential in the next few decades, as linguistic and trade barriers continue to fall, to play a larger role in the rapidly-growing global SF conversation.

I read each of these stories three times over the past four months, since my reading fluency in Portuguese is less than that of Spanish.  What I discovered with each read is that most of these stories took on additional layers of meaning for me.  There is no single common approach to telling a steampunk story in this collection. Some stories, such as the opening “O Assalto ao Trem Pagador” are a bit more heavy on overt action involving steam-driven trains, boats, and dirigibles than some of the others, but there are certain nuances in the writing that refer more specifically to issues of Brazilian history.  In the footnotes to Romeu Martins’ “Cidade Phantástica,” the author refers to how the character João Fumaça has been utilized by other authors, including an alt-history where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay lost the 1864-1970 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.  In Jacques Barcia’s “Uma Vída Possível Atrás dad Barricadas,” Barcia references the long-standing popularity of communists among the proletariat.

These are elements that are often downplayed in much of North American and British steampunk literature.  Yet the 19th century was certainly a time of social unrest, so when reading these stories, I found myself curious to know more about the root causes that the authors referenced in passing.  Fábio Fernandes’ “Uma Breve História da Maquinidade” goes a step further, as he utilizes fictional characters such as Doctor Frankenstein to underscore just how stratified social classes were in the 19th century in Europe and the Americas.  António Luiz M.C. Costa’s “A Flor do Estrume”in many ways was the most mysterious story in this collection.  Referencing the 19th century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,who wrote a fictional memoir of Brás Cubas, his story was the one where I felt lost at times, not because his writing was poor (if anything, the quality of the writing was almost uniformly high in this collection), but because there were references to Brazilian history that I did not know well, if at all.

***


Most of these tales were very enjoyable to read and the undercurrents noted above never threatened to overwhelm the stories being told.  Although there were a couple of stories that didn’t work as well for me as did the others, Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário is one of the most taut and enjoyable anthologies that I have read in 2009 in any language.  Hopefully, in the coming decade, the writers that appear in this collection will see more of their stories translated into various languages (from what I recall, several already have appeared in English and Romanian translations at least). There appears to be a growing, if still somewhat small, SF culture developing in Brazil.  I suspect with time, that several of these writers will craft new narratives of Brazil that will challenge not just current Anglo-centric conceptions of that emerging power, but which will influence global conversations on steampunk and SF fiction. 

 Other Works to be Covered in Other Sections or in Future Reviews:


Rafael Ábalos, Grimpow y la bruja de la estirpe (second volume in a YA series that I thought was one of the more enjoyable ones I read in 2007).

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm (first volume in his Hussite Wars trilogy where magic exists with the religious struggles of the early 15th century); La dama del lago, vol. 1 (the first half of the original last volume in La saga de Geralt, which I’ll review once the second half appears, hopefully sometime in 2010).

Javier Negrete, La Gran Aventura de los Griegos (non-fiction that will be covered in that section)

New writing gig, including my first print appearance since 2000

December 15, 2009 § 4 Comments

Yes, for the first time since 2000 (when a fellow teacher and I were interviewed by the local paper about the 2000 elections and our efforts to register our students to vote), something I’ve said/written will appear in a written magazine.

A couple of weeks ago, after my article “‘International SF’ and Problems of Identity” was posted on the Nebula Awards site, I was contacted by Roberto Mendes, who had recently started a Portuguese SF magazine called Dagon. He asked for permission to translate my article into Portuguese and I granted it.  He emailed me last night to say that it would appear in the January 2010 issue and that there would be a print edition of it.

He also asked if I would be willing to contribute to a related blog, Correio do Fantástico, and I said yes to that as well.  So sometime in the near future (depending on my free time), I’ll be contributing articles and perhaps reviews to it, as well as elsewhere.  Very excited about this opportunity to interact with writers, readers, and critics from across the globe.  Be sure to click on the link above to see more about it (it’s in Portuguese, I ought to add).

Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

December 13, 2009 § 10 Comments

Steampunk has exploded in popularity over the past decade.  From anthologies such as 2008’s reprint anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (with a second volume set to be released in the next year) and the original anthology Extraordinary Engines (2008, edited by Nick Gevers) to steampunk-inspired garments, typewriters, computers, and other elements that have made steampunk as much a fashion as a literary subgenre, steampunk is huge.  There is something about the ethos behind the images.  Perhaps inspired by equal parts Jules Verne, H.G.Wells, Thomas Edison, the Age of Imperialism, steam-based transportation, and perhaps a violent reaction to the confusion and horrors of the 20th century, there is something intriguing about the notion of “going retro” and creating a sort of alternative past.

This is not to say that practitioners of steampunk fashion and steampunk literature view the Age of Steam (1775-1914, according to some historians) as a pure, untainted golden age.  If anything, the contradictions inherent in the era’s social and political structures provide a sense of tension, some of which exploded into the devastating wars of the 20th century, where mechanized warfare inspired new horrors on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, and Asia (and to a lesser extent, the Americas and Australia).  It was an age in which Marx and Engels gave a voice and direction to the frustrations of the emerging industrial working classes across the globe; it was a time which the abhorrent practice of chattel slavery gave its death rattles in the United States and Brazil; it was perhaps, as Dickens described 1789-1794 France, both the best and worst of times.

These elements combine to create narrative possibilities that touch upon shared historical and scientific achievements.  In many senses, steampunk is the one of the first truly “international” subgenres of speculative fiction, as its appeal quickly spread from one country to the next, without a single country or language region dominating the literary landscape. In the past twenty years or so, ever since K.W. Jeter’s use of the term “steampunk” in a 1987 letter to Locus to describe this nascent movement, steampunk literary and fashion circles have sprung up in cities all across the globe.  It truly is an international movement, one that adapts to fit the needs of each country’s literary scenes.

This certainly was the case with the release this summer in Brazil of Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk:  Stories of an Extraordinary Past would be a good English translation of the title).  Edited by Gianpaolo Celli and published by the São Paulo publisher Tarja, this original anthology of nine stories written by several of Brazil’s leading SF writers serves to highlight not just Brazilian interpretations of what constitutes “steampunk,” but also that this emerging world power has the potential in the next few decades, as linguistic and trade barriers continue to fall, to play a larger role in the rapidly-growing global SF conversation.

I read each of these stories three times over the past four months, since my reading fluency in Portuguese is less than that of Spanish.  What I discovered with each read is that most of these stories took on additional layers of meaning for me.  There is no single common approach to telling a steampunk story in this collection. Some stories, such as the opening “O Assalto ao Trem Pagador” are a bit more heavy on overt action involving steam-driven trains, boats, and dirigibles than some of the others, but there are certain nuances in the writing that refer more specifically to issues of Brazilian history.  In the footnotes to Romeu Martins’ “Cidade Phantástica,” the author refers to how the character João Fumaça has been utilized by other authors, including an alt-history where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay lost the 1864-1970 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.  In Jacques Barcia’s “Uma Vída Possível Atrás dad Barricadas,” Barcia references the long-standing popularity of communists among the proletariat.

These are elements that are often downplayed in much of North American and British steampunk literature.  Yet the 19th century was certainly a time of social unrest, so when reading these stories, I found myself curious to know more about the root causes that the authors referenced in passing.  Fábio Fernandes’ “Uma Breve História da Maquinidade” goes a step further, as he utilizes fictional characters such as Doctor Frankenstein to underscore just how stratified social classes were in the 19th century in Europe and the Americas.  António Luiz M.C. Costa’s “A Flor do Estrume”in many ways was the most mysterious story in this collection.  Referencing the 19th century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,who wrote a fictional memoir of Brás Cubas, his story was the one where I felt lost at times, not because his writing was poor (if anything, the quality of the writing was almost uniformly high in this collection), but because there were references to Brazilian history that I did not know well, if at all.

However, this is not a negative to me, but instead a very positive development.  When I first ordered this anthology back in August, I had some trepidation that the authors would ape the manners and styles of the Anglo-American steampunk writers and not write anything that would be original in form or content.  If anything, the elements that these nine writers (the others being Claudio Villa, Flávio Medeiros, Alexandre Lancaster, and Roberto de Sousa Causo) use are more appealing to me than what I have found in the majority of the English-language steampunk fiction of the past decade.  There is a darker undercurrent in this anthology, a sense that underneath the trappings of a steam age “golden age” that there is much wrong with the local and global societies.  A frustration that technological advancement and the rise of a leisure class is not improving the lot of the social classes as much as it should.  There is a dark cloud in several of these stories, a cloud which threatens to burst asunder, bringing destruction and ruinous change in its wake.

This is not to say that these stories are didactic fictions devoid of adventure and fun.  Most of these tales were very enjoyable to read and the undercurrents noted above never threatened to overwhelm the stories being told.  Although there were a couple of stories that didn’t work as well for me as did the others, Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário is one of the most taut and enjoyable anthologies that I have read in 2009 in any language.  Hopefully, in the coming decade, the writers that appear in this collection will see more of their stories translated into various languages (from what I recall, several already have appeared in English and Romanian translations at least). There appears to be a growing, if still somewhat small, SF culture developing in Brazil.  I suspect with time, that several of these writers will craft new narratives of Brazil that will challenge not just current Anglo-centric conceptions of that emerging power, but which will influence global conversations on steampunk and SF fiction. 

Highly recommended for those who can read Portuguese (no known English or other foreign language translations are in the works at this time).  Will be featured in a couple of weeks in my Best of 2009 posts.

Interesting to see one’s own reviewing qualifications discussed, or irony is a bitch, huh?

December 9, 2009 § 9 Comments

I know I have made a few posts over the past couple of years about reviews and (obliquely) about qualities necessary for a good (not necessarily “positive”) review to take place.  So it was with a great sense of bemused irony that I discovered tonight that a few comments of mine are being discussed elsewhere.

Normally, I would post a response in the thread I’m linking to here, but for some reason, my Reply button isn’t active (maybe because I’m not a member), so I guess this is a sort of open letter/confession/something else.  For those who cannot read Portuguese at all, earlier today (Wednesday), one of the authors, Romeu Martins,  that appears in the recently-released Brazilian anthology Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário linked to my Best of 2009 longlist, because I listed this original anthology as one of the books I plan on discussing the last week of this year in the context of discussing non-English works as well as anthologies of short fiction (NB:  the longlist was unnumbered, so there are no “rankings” of my favorites to date, since I want to keep an element of surprise for when I do an overview of the year’s best – as I see them – in a variety of categories).

The discussion on the Orkut group for Ficção Científica, when I discovered it via the stats page on my now-mirror blog, Vaguely Borgesian, was (and still is) fascinating.  Not just because I felt like a fly on the wall listening in to a conversation about myself, but also because of the many interesting points raised in the discussion to date.  While I suppose I could translate what everyone was saying almost word-for-word, I believe I’ll sum up some of the discussion points and then give my apologia.

Beyond the usual incredulity that I get when people discover reading this blog that I’ve read hundreds of books this year (currently reading #525) is usually a questioning of how much I can grasp of works not written/published in English.  This is a very valid question, one that I wished I could have addressed there directly. 

I have a facility with languages, it seems.  I went from barely-remembered high school Spanish when I took a job in Florida teaching social studies for students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program to being able to communicate in serviceable (if not elegant or grammatically correct) Spanish within 4 months. After I moved back to Tennessee after two years there, I continued my self-education in Spanish, doing things from watching novelas en español to reading Spanish-language masterpieces in first English and then Spanish until I learned more than just a basic working vocabulary to taking advanced-level Spanish at a local university in 2005.  I read Spanish very near a highly-educated native’s level.  When I read it, I don’t “translate” it into English as I read; it’s all Spanish in my mind and I understand it without paying much attention to the fact that I shifted languages in my head.  Doesn’t hurt that I’ve assisted a Salvadorean friend of mine with a few translations and that he and I have worked on translating a handful of interviews from Spanish into English.

When I taught in Florida, I also had Portuguese speakers in class (from Portugal, but strangely not from Brazil).  I heard the language, learned a bit from them while I was learning how best to teach them how to understand the social studies lessons in English.  While I didn’t have the continual exposure to Portuguese that I’ve had with Spanish, the structures of the two languages are so similar to me (plus I had two years of university education in classical Latin and was also around Haitian speakers in Florida, so there are several layers of cognates and lexical similarities that I draw upon when reading another Romance language) that it is not that difficult for me to read something written in Portuguese. In addition to that, I have acquired Portuguese grammars in the past year and have worked on learning the grammatical rules and words that do differ from the Spanish.  It’s still a work in progress, but my level of understanding is already better than my grasp of Latin.

But as a few commentators point out, being able to read a language fluently enough to get the gist of a phrase and understanding it enough to grasp not just the syntax but also the semantics is something completely different. Can a non-native reader (since I would be best able to be a passive receiver of information in that language than someone who could speak it fluently) ever hope to be able to review a work in a second (or third) language with enough depth and breadth of understanding?

That is the $64,000 question.  I would say that it depends.  When I read (and then re-read) the Steampunk anthology, there certainly were a handful of times that I had to pause and re-read the section to make sure I “got it.”  The language in my head when I read it?  An odd mixture of Spanish and the remembered Continental Portuguese (and yes, I know there are considerable differences between that and Brazilian Portuguese) that somehow made sense to me. 

Is that enough to qualify me to review adequately this work?  I guess there’s just one way to find out.  If I have time this weekend (perhaps as soon as Friday, since I’m taking the day off from work), I’ll review the anthology with just as much analysis (I hope!) as I’ve provided for prior anthologies that I’ve enjoyed.  After all, if I’m going to be going out on a limb in the eyes of some and praising a book that 99% or so of my regular audience couldn’t read, I guess I better damn well make sure that I state my case well and let others decide just how much I grasped (and how much I failed to grasp about thematic qualities, narrative structure, characterizations, etc.), no?

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