Category Archives: Chile

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

thirdreichI’m not convinced that The Third Reich was the best introduction to the work of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. It’s one of his early pieces, written in 1989  but discovered only after his death in 2010. Although it apparently prefigures much of his later work it feels very much the product of someone who hasn’t yet found his form.

The chief narrator is Udo Berger, a German champion of war gaming who takes his girlfriend Ingeborg to a small coastal town on the Costa Brava where he spent his childhood holidays. Udo is a serious gamer, recently having won a German championship and turning semi-pro. While his girlfriend wants to lie on the beach, drink at cafe terraces and spend the evenings in disco, Udo prefers to stay in his hotel room perfecting his strategy for a board game called The Third Reich. It’s essentially a re-run of World War 2 with markers to represent armies and weapons that can be deployed by the players.

Fortunately for Ingeborg relief arrives in the form of Charly and Hanna, another young German couple who have rather more of an idea how to enjoy a holiday. Through these new friends they are introduced to the seedier side of the town, and some shady characters – two beach bums known only as the Wolf and the Lamb and El Quemado (nicknamed The Burns Victim because of hideous scars on his face), who operates the pedal boats on the beach. These characters provide a signal that there are dark aspects to the otherwise idyllic seaside resort.

Fairly soon, the intimations of danger become reality when Charly disappears while out windsurfing. When he is still missing after a few days, Hanna and then Ingeborg return to Germany. For an inexplicable reason Udo decides to stay put until Charly’s body is discovered, spending his time in heavy drinking sessions, playing his fantasy war with El Quemado and observing real life from the balcony of his hotel room.  His grip on life appears to disintegrate, sending Udo into a spiral in which he stalks the hotel owner and her terminally ill husband and  creates a fantasy that El Quemado is a torture victim out to get revenge for his injuries.

Described like this, the plot suggests a very powerful novel. The problem for me was that it led nowhere other than to an awkward message about the blurred lines between reality and fiction. There are also threads about guilt and identity buried deep but these never get fully developed. As for the protagonist – I will respectfully disagree with NPR who felt Udo is “someone complex, sometimes frustrating and absolutely unforgettable.”  True Udo is a frustrating character but that was really because his  raison d’être was so unclear  that when his fears and suspicions lead him to see menace at every turn, it was hard to take him seriously.

 

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

the japanese loverIsabel Allende’s latest novel The Japanese Lover started as a pleasant enough read.  Irina Bazili, a young girl from a poor background in communist Moldova, gets a job working at the kind of retirement home you hope exists in real life. The inhabitants are people who 

… know what it means to carry winter on your back, to hesitate over every step, to confuse words you don’t hear properly, to have the impression that he rest of the world is going about in a great rush; the emptiness, frailty, fatigue and indifference toward everything.

But they chose to ignore these issues and to spend their final years taking part in the hubbub of life. At Lark House they reject the idea that fun consists of watching  TV quiz shows or  being dragooned into group sing-alongs. These residents are in San Francisco after all.  They’re an odd mixture of left wing intellectuals, former hippies and second rate artists. So they get to act in their own productions, use alternative forms of healing,  and indulge in marijuana on demand (though the centre’s strict no smoking policy means they can’t inhale indoors). 

Irina’s calm manner and air of efficiency brings her to the notice of the home’s wealthiest resident, the semi-retired silk screen artist Alma Bolsacova.  Working as Alma’s assistant, Irina becomes intrigued about Alma’s past and her long-standing love affair with the son of her family’s Japanese gardener.  This is a love story that spans more than six decades. It moves back and forth in time to introduce a geographically and culturally diverse set of characters, tracing the obstacles put in the way of the lovers, first the internment of Japanese inhabitants after the attack on Pearl Harbour and then the opposition of her wealthy family.

Allende deals realistically with the hardships of aging. Lark House residents are sanguine about their dwindling faculties that will result in a gradual move from the ground of floor of the home to the fourth floor (named “Paradise”) But in relating Alma and Irina’s story, there is far too much telling going on rather than showing how each character reacts to events or how they feel. Allende also commits the – to me – unpardonable sin of including large chunks of background information gleaned from research with little attempt to make it feel a natural evolution of the narrative.  We thus get three pages or so of the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the decision of the American government to protect against a “yellow invasion” by confining all those of Japanese origin to interment camps in desert states. It reads almost like an extract from an encyclopedia. Frankly speaking, I found Allende’s narrative style rather uninspiring throughout the novel. It becomes in fact absurd at times It becomes absurd at times.   Describing the process of writing a novel, for example, we learn:  “The words sprang forth unaided with the fertile womb of the briefcase and strolled tranquilly through the panorama of the imagination.”

If “happiness writes white” then goodness is its paler cousin in this novel. Irina Bazili becomes indispensable to the residents of Lark House “thanks to her open, friendly attitude” and her determination to use her job as “the opportunity to give to others what she hadn’t been able to give to [her grandparents].”  Everyone who comes into contact with her seems to fall under her spell. One elderly lothario leaves her a substantial legacy; the home’s volunteer doctor becomes her closest friend and Alma Bolsacova’s son falls in live with her. Irina’s qualities are not doubt admirable but she has far too high a dosage of the Pollyanna gene flowing through her veins to make me warm to her or to find her believable.

I can see how many fans of Isabel Allende might view The Japanese Lover as another very readable novel from this best selling author. I am certainly not one of them. I made it as far as the half way mark and then decided enough was enough.

End Notes

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende was published on November 5, 2015 by Simon and Schuster in the UK. My copy was provided courtesy of the publisher via Net Galley

Holiday reading companions

Deciding what books to take on a holiday never gets any easier. Too many questions race around the brain.

Do I take a tried and trusted author or is this the time to branch into unknown territory? What if I don’t feel in the mood for the book/s I’ve taken? What if they’re duds? What if I finish them too quickly and then can’t get my hands on anything decent in English (the advent of e-readers has made that much simpler of course but I still like to have paper copies with me).

Answering those questions involves multiple cycles in which I pull books off the shelf convinced this is the perfect choice. Only to change my mind a day later.  Of course I then go and add to the complexity by trying to take at least one book written by an author from the country I’ll be visiting.

This holiday I eventually settled on two that are loosely connected by the theme of World War 2 which seemed entirely appropriate since I am visiting Germany.

Holiday readingI’ll be reading The Third Reich by Robert Bolano, an author I’ve intended to read for years but never got around to doing so. This novel was published in Spanish in 2010 and in English the following year having been discovered among his papers following his death. It concerns Udo Berger, a German war-game champion, who returns with his girlfriend Ingeborg to the small town on the Costa Brava where he spent the summers of his childhood. When one of his friends disappears Udo invites a mysterious local to play a game of Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, a classic wargame.

From my TBR I’ve selected a Virago Modern Classic, The Quest for Christa T by the German writer Christa Wolf that follows two childhood friends from the second World War into the 1960s in East Germany.  Wolf was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany but since unification she’s been criticised for failing in her work to criticize the authoritarianism of the East German Communist regime.

Neither are very long novels so I’ve made sure my e-reader is well stocked with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (long listed for the Booker prize) and The Dictator’s Last Night  by Yasmina Khadra which is due out in October. In between all that reading I just might be able to squeeze in a few site seeing trips around Berlin and Dresden….

The Infinite Plan, Isabel Allende

Infinite PlanWhen I asked some work colleagues in South America for recommendations on authors to represent Chile in my world literature project, the name most frequently mentioned was Isabel Allende. I duly bought The Infinite Plan, her fourth novel. It’s been lingering unread on the bookshelf for the last two years. The Spanish Literature Month readalong hosted by Winston’s Dad blog and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos, gave me the nudge I needed to actually open the pages.

It’s an ambitious novel that charts the progress to self awareness of Gregory Reeves. He’s the son of an itinerant preacher who claims that nothing in life is random but is governed by an infinite plan. It takes Gregory five decades to realize there is no plan; there is ‘just the strife of living’. Or maybe in his case it would be more apt to say the strife of surviving since Gregory is a man who seems to have more than his fair share of obstacles and calamities. As a child he is taken to live in a crowded Los Angeles barrio when his father is taken ill and is forced to abondon his ministry. As an outsider in a Latino world, he is a target for racial discrimination and sexual predatory behaviour. All that sustains Gregory is the friendship of of the Mexican Morales family, especially their daughter Carmen, and the caring love of an exotic midwife come fortune teller called Olga.

Gregory stumbles into two disastrous marraiges only to discover – far too late – that they resemble his mother, an ethereal figure who effectively separates from life in horror over the bombing of Hiroshimia. He’s an even more disastrous father. The only part of his adult life that seems to go well is his career as a wealthy lawyer, but even that turns out to have been built on rocky foundations.

This is a man who seems to court disaster. Instead of creating a character who evokes our sympathy, Allende’s narrative had the reverse effect for me with the exception of the hallucinatory effects Gregory suffers as an aftermath of his Vietnam war experience. I never felt drawn into his predicament so by the time we get to his breakdown and his redemption I was just wishing he would get the whole therapy and healing thing done with quickly.

There were moments when the writing was elegant and lyrical and I could glimpse the qualities that have made her such a well respected author. But one stylistic technique she employed proved irritating to an impossible degree. I don’t know what the correct terminology would be to describe this but the closest description I can get to is ‘foretelling’ or giving us some hints that the situation she is describing would change in the future. As an example, in the midst of a section explaining how Carmen developed a habit of wearing multicoloured ‘gypsy’ style clothes and began to gain success designing and making jewellrey the narrator suddenly breaks in with “but all this is in the future.”. I really couldn’t understand how this glimpse of the future added any value, in fact for me it became intensely irritating. I wanted to know more about the here and now, and wanted to let the story takes its course, not have all these hints dropped.

I also found the switch of narrative voices rather disconcerting. Most of the novel is told via a third party narrator but then would switch to first person narration from Gregory without any preamble. Not until the final pages do we learn that all the time he has been telling his life story to an unidentified person.

This could have been a great novel but the flaws were too many for me to class it as anything more than okay.

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