READS OF THE YEAR 2014: Rebecca DeWald

Agua by Eduardo Berti, translated by Alexander Cameron and Paul Buck (Pushkin Press, 2003 [1997])

Agua Eduardo BertiThis short novel came to me by way of the Argentine Travelogue I began early in 2014 and has been the most unusual of the selection I read this year. This is a book as cryptic and obscure as its title-less cover. Set in the rural Portugal of 1920 it begins with Luis Agua, an agent for the first electricity company, who sets out to convince the people of Vila Natal to have artificial light installed in their homes and buildings. Agua depicts a mysterious place, a town presided over by a castle and the widow who inhabits it, never leaving her imposing  home. While being the namesake of the novella, Agua is not the focus of events but only the outsider arriving at the village to set the narrative arc in motion which jumps from one person to the next. Agua is a short epic, which takes much longer to read and take in than the mere 156 pages suggest because no single word of this marvellous translation by Alexander Cameron and Paul Buck is out of place. The sentences, in keeping with the length of the novel, are short and concise, yet every element is important and a single word can turn the whole story round. Much like Berti’s own biography suggests — beside being an Argentine writer living in Paris, he also edited the South American Rolling Stone and is the leading authority when it comes to the history of Tango — Agua is full of unexpected twists, turns and surprises and when Alberto Manguel says in his Afterword that Berti “gives the impression of not being quite certain of what will prove important in the end,” he means that as a compliment.

The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, edited by Roberto González Echevarría, translated by various (Oxford University Press, 1997)

I like a good short story, maybe even more than a good novel (certainly more than a not-so-good or overly long novel). As a slow reader, the short story allows me to read it in one go (or at least not more than two) and return to it to capture it in its manifold levels without having forgotten the beginning by the time I get to the end. Like with any other choice of reading, however, I have a tendency to return to what I know. Hence, I have read a lot of short stories by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and about the blossoming of the genre in Argentina, but not that many by other Latin American writers. Pondering where to begin, I came across Echevarría’s comprehensive, if slightly outdated, anthology and discovered — behind the questionable design of the cover — an array of short stories and writers I had never even heard of. Every story is preceded by a short introduction to the writer and their work, pointing the interested reader into the direction of further noteworthy reading. It is telling that Echevarría included, besides more and lesser known Latin American writers, translated by more and lesser known English translators (among them Gregory Rabassa, Angel Flores, Harriet de Onís and William Carlos Williams), a few early pieces from the colonial period of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries (from about 1520 until the early 19th century). Echevarría notes that “most stories of colonial times are entangled in the web of legal writing,” as the first form of (Iberian) Spanish writing about Latin America. This inclusion is testimony to the link between early writing about Latin America — crónicas by Spanish conquistadores about their discoveries — and its development into a form particular to the area (which I discussed in two recent reviews here and here). I was particularly haunted by a story by Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964) and translated as ‘The Daisy Dolls’ by Luis Harss. At the centre of the story is a married bourgeois couple who appear to live their marriage by proxy, through life-size mannequins, one of which gradually becomes more and more human-like throughout the story, without ever coming to life, as the husband develops affections for her which surpass the ones for his wife. And if that doesn’t sound interesting, Echevarría’s description of ‘The Daisy Dolls’, comparing it to Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’,  should certainly get you hooked:

The protagonist’s frenzied — though to his mind perfectly logical — arrangements, his son et lumière pornographic shows so carefully constructed, his sadomasochist tendencies, reveal one of the most bizarre constructions of a subconscious mind on the loose. […] The human itself appears to be in peril in the manipulations of the body, and in the reconstruction of both physical shape and psychic phenomena.

‘Glasgow Flourishes’ by Calum Rodger (Tapsalteerie, 2014)

Glasgow-Flourishes-Cover-Calum-Rodger2014 was a remarkable year for Glasgow: It had us cheer along the athletes of the Commonwealth Games in July and watch with excitement (and, for many, disappointment) as the referendum results came in on the night of 18th September. While the Games made me, at least temporarily, more interested in sports (also infused by Germany winning the World Cup just before) the referendum debates and aftermath sparked a deeper and more lasting interest in and engagement with the concern of this country and this city. Calum Rodger’s spoken word poem, available as a limited edition print run — see the recording of Calum’s TedX talk here — captures perfectly the face Glasgow presented to the world in 2014, as a down-to-earth city with strong opinions, not “wrought from miracle” but rather as one that “lives in stone, souls, song, and syllables.”

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