All About Mothers

cancion_de_tumba_julian_herbert_medIn recent months, for no specific reason I’ve found myself reading stories about mothers. One is the brilliant Canción de Tumba (something like Song of Tomb, a game of words in Spanish where a ‘canción de cuna’ is a lullaby and when changing 2 letters sound like tomb… got it?).  Anyways, in this book the author, Julian Hebert, narrates the story of his life with his mother, a prostitute, who is dying of leukaemia. If there are any publishers looking to translate an absolute jewel of Mexican contemporary literature, please look no further.

mother departsThe second title is Mother Departs by Tadeusz Rózewicz, Poland’s most celebrated writer and poet. Rózewicz has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and it’s one of those authors I am so glad to have discovered.

Mother Departs can be described as the portrait of a life. A truly moving read in which Rózewicz mixes diary entries, notes and poems. The book is wrapped in an atmosphere full nostalgia as it becomes a celebration of the life of: Stefania Rózewicz, his mother.

I found particularly interesting the fact that Stefania herself has a voice in the book  as she narrates her life as a child in the village of Szynkielew. This is a testimony of a world and a way of life long gone. Here she talks about traditions, culture and everyday life in rural Poland in the early twentieth century. Witty and observant, Stefania’s contribution to this book is one that certainly stands out.

The poems included in Mother Departs are also a pleasure to read, especially The Tear and The Photograph. As we move in time, Stefania becomes old and frail. And once again we witness the anguish of a man looking at  his mother fading away. Both Herbert and Rózewicz, in two completely different styles, narrate with an impeccable choice of words the last days in the life of their mothers. Heartbreaking yes, but the literary value of these books lay within the ability of these authors to talk about death with great beauty. In the final pages of Mother Departs, Rózewicz writes:

‘My Good Beloved Old Lady, it’s hard to breathe. But I am writing this like a letter to you. You were my trepidation, fear and joy and breath. I’m kissing your parched hands and swollen legs, dearest, your eyes – your blue hands as you died. I’m kissing your agonised body, which I gave back to our great mother – the earth.’ (p. 106)

They say no one is ever prepared for the death of their mother. I just hope I have many years ahead to enjoy the company of mine, a lady who is, and will always be, an extraordinary woman.

Mother Departs is published in the UK by Stork Press and translated from Polish by Barbara Bogoczek.

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Looking for ‘marranos’ with Jeffrey Lewis

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Like many people I very rarely read hardbacks. Mainly for two reasons: they are heavy and don’t fit in my bag. (As you all know I don’t do e-books, so no Kindle for me and I’m happy this way!)

In the last few weeks I’ve been receiving an exceptional amount of books from publishers in regards to work events. But as they say, when someone gives you a book there’s an expectation, which also means homework. This is how a copy of The Inquisitor’s Diary came to my hands. It was left at the bookshop were I work and I almost fainted in terror when I saw it was a hardback.

The good omens were with me as a) wasn’t too heavy and b) had the perfect handbag size. I started reading it on the bus on my way home and I was instantly hooked with the story written in the form of a 17-Century friar in Colonial Mexico and which had to do with a little known historical episode: that of the hunt of secret Jews or marranos. For those Spanish speakers, the word marrano is simply pig and it’s still widely used today. But back in the 16 and 17 century Spain, marrano was used to refer to converted Jews and their religious prohibition to eating pork.

Jeffrey Lewis, author of the book was blown away with this story when he randomly bought a second hand copy of a book called A History of the Marranos by historian Cecil Roth. He then knew he had the perfect setting for a novel.

In 1492, as many as 800,000 Jews were expelled from Spain under the Edict of Expulsion issued by Ferdinand and Isabel of Castile. During this period, up to 50,000 Jews converted (perhaps by force) to the Catholic faith, becoming known ‘marranos‘. Trying to escape the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of converted Jews arrived into the New World, especially into what is today Mexico and the South West of the United States, looking for a new life.

Our main character, Fray Alonso, has been sent by the Inquisition to the northern territories of New Spain in search of those marranos. which as we’ll see where nowhere to be found. This is 1649 and the journey is as tough as it could possibly: harsh conditions, lack of water, heat, a kind of black plague and even an Apache attack is suffered. Desperate not to go back to Mexico City empty handed, Fray Alonso turns to the cook of the group, a mute man that he’ll call the Dumb One and who he will accuse of heresy. His marrano has been found. But is it really?

In The Inquisitor’s Diary Fray Alonso also takes a journey into himself, questioning his faith, morality and even his own sanity. In conversation with the author at Belgravia Books, Jeffrey said that this story is also about the very thin line that exists in proving someone’s believes and the power of the freedom of consciousness.

The author turned to Saint Augustine’s Confessions as well as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis to build up the voice of this fascinating character that we hate and feel pity at the same time.

The plot of the novel is much more complex than this, there’s political rivalry and Fray Alonso’s desire of being transferred to Spain makes him capable of unimaginable things for a ‘man of God’. Overall The Inquisitor’s Diary was a very, very enjoyable read that made the hardback format so irrelevant,

Solitude and the City

 

For the last three years, the Association of Cultural Attaches of Latin America, Spain and Portugal (ACALASP) has presented the only literary festival dedicated to promote our literature and so kindly have let me collaborate with them as co-curator. The location is the wonderful Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross in the heart of London, the perfect place to gather Ibero American book lovers.

The festival started last Monday with a session dedicated to Colombia’s award winning author Evelio Rosero and on Tuesday it was Mexico’s turn in the spotlight with the presence of the celebrated writer Chloe Aridjis.

Chloe (apart from being the daughter of the renowned poet and writer Homero Aridjis) is the author of a fantastic novel called Book of Clouds, published in the UK by Vintage. Unlike many conferences where the author talks about the book half the audience hasn’t read, Chloe was accompanied by an extraordinary chair: Darian Leader. Without revealing much about the plot of the novel, Darian and Chloe focused on the most relevant topic in the book: solitude in the cities.

Chloe said to always been interested in the relation people have with the place they inhabit, especially now a days when people live in cities without any family roots. The main character in novel, Tatiana, experiences feeling lonely surrounded by a crowd, and in this way Chloe Aridjis makes clear that solitude is detached to the physicality of people and perhaps a key element in contemporary life. By doing this, the city in the novel (Berlin) becomes a character as well, capable to interact with its inhabitants by provoking a variety of feelings: anxiety, disorientation, happiness and, of course, loneliness. I guess she’s right to say that at the end of the day, our lives in an urban space are determined by how much the city gives and takes away from you. This is food for thought for all of us living away from our home town, and definitely a must read novel.

So thumbs up to Chloe Aridjis and Darian Leader for a fantastic event!

 

 

Why you should read Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m sure you have noticed I am very keen on literature that talks about drug trafficking, that obscure genre that some call narcoliteratura and that is truly fascinating. But what is even more fascinating is to come across a novel that touches the subject in a new way: humour.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first novel Fiesta en la Madriguera, is available in English by And Other Stories and translated as Down the Rabbit Hole. Worth reading and I’ll give you a few reasons why.

The protagonist of the story is a boy called Tochtli and whose age is uncertain. He could be 8, 9,  or 10 years old but in a very intelligent way, Villalobos leaves that to the reader to figure out. He is the narrator of the story and through the pages of this short novel we have the opportuinity to see the world through his eyes. He is no ordinary boy. He is the son of a drug lord. But as tragic as this may sound, the truth is that Tochtli’s view of the world is rather distorted and therefore funny. Really funny. His everyday reality is surrounded by a violence and cruelty he is incredibly familiar with, but therefore he is not scared. “This is what was in the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the tigers were already full.” (p.20)

Last week, I had the privilege to chair a panel on literature with Juan Pablo Villalobos at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and obviously the topic of drug trafficking came into the  picture. It is true that the world of these drug lords give way to never ending possibilities for stories being brought to fiction. And Tochtli is the result of this. He is a little boy who can wish for anything he likes and  in this world asking of a Liberian pygmy hippo makes a lot of sense. It does!

Juan Pablo told me that while writing Down the Rabbit Hole, the only way to justify Tochtli’s whim is by placing him in the narco world. At the end of the day, this is a rite of passage novel that tells us the bitter-sweet story of this boy. This is what this novel different from any other narconovela I’ve read. Because in the words of Nick Hornby it is about a boy.

But at the end of the day, the big winner of this adventure is the reader because Tochtli brings a smile in your  face. It’s the kind of character you’d like to put in your pocket and take home with you. Things like this makes him unique and incredibly charming:

“There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle.” (p.27)

A truly enjoyable read. Don’t be put off by the drug trafficking references in it. On the opposite, share the joy of being a child again, completely innocent and unaware of the harsh world outside. I think we would all like to be Totchli every now and then and I wish I could be his Facebook friend!

To get a copy of this book visit http://www.andotherstories.org

Chronicle of an unfortunate book launch

Launching a new book is usually a happy occasion. There is never a question on the amount of time, sweat and tears that the author spent on the new creation and most of all, authors want everybody to know what they have achieved. Fair enough I say, especially when this involves years and years of research that come to an end in the form of a book.

That is how book launches must be and feel on paper. But the one I attended was different. The book is called México sabe México (something like Mexico tastes Mexico) and it is an anthology of 50 worth reading Mexican authors.

The session had as special guest a remarkably well-known Mexican writer, Margo Glantz, who arrived 25 min late. Now that’s a start. The panel had her in the middle, and two wonderful British academics who spoke only about how unique Margo was and how they all met in London back in the 1970s and how great her work is, and so on. The author of the book, Concepción Zayas, was nowhere to be seen as she was merged in the audience which gathered in King’s College’s Anatomy Theatre .

Margo started her presentation by talking about two authors. She said “One that is included in the anthology: Sergio Pitol and one that is not included in the book: Mario Bellatin.” (Strike one!) Then she started reading and reading and reading until half the auditorium was either asleep or looking for the nearest fire exit.

40 min into the “book launch” and nobody had mentioned a) who were the 50 writers featured in the book and  b) why were they chosen.

After Margo Glantz finished reading, there were a few more comments from the panel before opening the floor for questions from the public. Question 1 obviously goes to Margo. She’s asked why did she chose to send that text to Dr. Zayas and if it had a particular meaning or relevance for her. The answer? “Oh, well it was one I had handy, sitting there, so I sent it”. (Strike 2!) I thought ” You are certainly making Dr. Zayas feel really comfortable now”.

An hour went by and still, I was wondering what this whole circus was all about. The session was getting worse, boring and irrelevant every second. So I asked Margo Glantz which young Mexican authors she considered should be translated. The answer? ” There are so many, I cannot name one right now”. Thanks, that’s really useful. I gave up. (Strike 3, batter is out)

At the end of the day, I left the event without the book (only 7 copies for sale) and still not knowing about the other 48 authors worth reading. I guess that as a marketing strategy could work really well because the only way to find out is by buying the book! Clever! But I couldn’t feel sorry for Dr. Concepcion Zayas who I’m sure did this book with lots of care and did not get the credit and recognition that she deserved in an event that proved rather unfortunate and even more, upsetting.

But with all this taken into account, I’ll buy México sabe México and will let you know what it’s all about!

Literature and Violence: let’s talk about it

Writing about violence is not a new topic in literature. But it became a recurrent subject after the Second World War when the writers used it to talk about the horrors of war, to expose the evil in mankind and to set a reminder of the fragility of peace. It became and stayed popular because violence , more than any other topic, has the power to shock.

For many, violence is an unescapable reality, to others it also comes with a window for creative writing that gives way to new legends, myths, heroes and anti-heroes.

As years passed by, Mexican society has been deeply touched and transformed by the increasing violence as a result of conflicts between drug cartels and police. The impact of this situation in every day life has touched the imagination of contemporary authors, perhaps as a natural reaction to cope with the unstable current situation.

 The publication in 1999 of Un asesino solitario  by Élmer Mendoza got the critics’ attention about this fascinating subject.  Few years later the flow continued with El amante de Janis Joplin (2001) and the award-winning Balas de Plata (2008).

But not only Mendoza captured the sometimes bizarre world of drug trafficking in his novels. The younger and upcoming generation did it too with remarkable and original novels such as Los trabajos del reino (2004) by Yuri Herrera, to be published in the UK under the label of Faber and Faber. Also, the famous blogger Bernardo Fernández (aka BEF) won the Otra Vuelta de Tuerca award with the extraordinary Tiempo de alacranes (2005).  Later on, Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez shocked his readers with El hombre sin cabeza(2009) a mesmerizing journalistic essay on violence surrounding Mexican drug cartels. And as recent as 2010 Juan Pablo Villalobos touched this world under the innocent view of a child in Fiesta en la madrigueraa tragic and funny novel also soon to be published in September the UK by And Other Stories.

These are just a few examples of some of the authors who have touched the subject and who provide the reader with a vast range of points of views and unforgettable characters who question their reality perhaps in the same way a nation demands for answers and solutions to stop the violence.

In my opinion these so-called narco novelas are becoming movement of great literature which I hope leave a mark in the nation’s literary history. For that reason they should be read. They matter. Talking about violence in Mexico matters.

The Mango Orchard

My friend Robin Bayley, author of this very moving story, gave me a freshly just out of print copy of The Mango Orchard in December. We agreed that it would be the perfect opportunity for me to read it on my way to Mexico for the Christmas holidays. Eleven hours on a plane, come on! there is no excuse not to do some reading. As it happens, I took the book with me and came back to London without reading a single page.

He kindly invited me to the book launch this coming Friday 5 March at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon. I thought it would be unacceptable to show up without reading his book. I wanted to avoid the “hey great story, loved it! very interesting! I’ll definitely recommend it ” kind of situation.

The Mango Orchard is the story of the journey that Robin made to re-trace the footsteps of his great-grandfather who lived in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century and left the country when the Mexican Revolution made it too dangerous for him to stay. (I won’t say anything else about the plot because it’s worth reading it.)

In my opinion, the beauty of Robin’s writing is the lack of a patronising point of view towards Latin America which is quite frequent in travel writing in Britain. He just goes with the flow. He does not judge the way things are. No comments on culture shock. Nothing. He comes to us in a completely transparent and honest way describing what he saw, the people he met and overall his thoughts and feelings throughout the journey.

People, of course, play a key part in the story. I think it is through them that Robin, in a very original way, captures the essence of Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. I believe he is able to achieve this because when this journey took place Robin was already able to speak Spanish and therefore had the unique opportunity of getting very close to his “characters” in the book. As I read, I sometimes forgot these were real people because they could easily come out of a  García Márquez novel.

Needless to say, I very much enjoyed the book. There are some truly moving moments as some family secrets are being unfolded. Risking getting emotional, I must confess these kind of stories make me feel I should follow Robin’s footsteps and research, I mean, really research on my family’s past and take the risk of finding not so very nice things. We all have wonderful family stories to tell but only a few are as brave as Robin Bayley to share them with the rest of the world.

The Mango Orchard has a wonderful webiste where you can find out more about the book and his author.

www.themangoorchard.com