Tag Archives: magic realism

“In the country of silence, the light in your eyes can land you in a concentration camp”: Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Days and Nights of Love and War’

“Every day one of the prisoners stood up and read to the others. I wanted to tell you, Don Alejo, that the prisoners chose to read El siglo de las luces (Explosions in the Cathedral) and couldn’t. The guards allowed the book in, but the prisoners couldn’t read it. I mean, they began it several times and had to put it down. You made them feel the rain and smell the violent fragrances of the earth and the night. You brought them the sea the roar of the waves breaking against the keel of a boat and you showed them the throbbing of the sky at daybreak, and they couldn’t keep reading this.”

Replicating a fractured life in a fractured continent, Eduardo Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War is a memoir of discontinuous and fragmentary anecdotes, impressionistic, almost aphoristic at times. To use Mourid Barghouti’s memorable phrase while entering Palestine from exile, Galeano’s work is an attempt to “collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away.” Barghouti goes on to talk about collecting “the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments…” – and that is exactly what Galeano’s impressionistic, discontinuous, almost aphoristic narrative tries to achieve. “My memory will save what is worthwhile,” he writes in the beginning, “My memory knows more about me than I do. It doesn’t lose what deserves to be saved.”

What is saved is a lifetime of political activism in Montevideo, in Buenos Aries, and in Havana, in the stifling shadow of the mid-20th century Latin American dictatorships. “Custom houses for words, incinerations of words, cemeteries for words are organized.” Galeano recalls the kidnappings, the disappearances, the terror – and what it does to the soul of the individual. “Censorship truly triumphs when each citizen is transformed into the implacable censor of his own acts and words.” And yet, it is not always bleak hopelessness. He recalls, for example:

“Today I discover that once a month, the day the magazine comes out, a group of men cross the Rio Uruguay to read it.
There are about twenty of them. The group leader is a professor of about sixty who has spent a long time in prison.
In the morning they leave Paysandu and cross over to Argentine soil. They all chip in and buy an issue of ‘Crisis’ and then go to a cafe. One of them reads aloud, page by page. They all listen and discuss the material. The reading lasts all day. When it ends, they leave the magazine at the cafe as a present for the owner, and return to my country, where it is banned.
‘Even if it were just for this,’ I think, ‘it would be worthwhile.”

But what is saved also is love and laughter, refusing to wilt even in that shadow: “… the trees were alive, they were accomplices, and the world softly reeled at our feet.” And what is saved is the memory of larger-than-life, unforgettable characters: of the El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, whose “poetry was like him, loving mocking combative“, killed in an internecine vendetta, and of whom his friends believed that he would have gone to his death “roaring with laughter”; and of Ariel Dorfman, Chilean dramatist in exile in France,  who meets an unknown compatriot on a train to Paris, expressing a wish to become a clown. “It must be a sad profession.” Yes. But I am sad.

What accompanies the memories, however, and lends a depth and richness to them, is a sense of self-reflection, a sometimes bemused self-awareness. Even though he is writing a political memoir, the history of a continent, Galeano notes that “I am the world, but very small. A man’s time is not history’s time, although, admittedly, we would like it to be.” Elsewhere, remembering a reading session with friends, he recalls that “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.” Offered without judgment, but there is nonetheless an almost rueful acknowledgment about the eternal temptations of revolution and lyricism, the kind that Kundera warns us so savagely against.

Accompanying the self-reflection, as well, is a keen wisdom, a wisdom that is borne out of a lifetime of experiences, many of them bitter, all of them real. Recently, during a dinner-time conversation, my father recalled an anecdote from the life of the Russian cellist Rostropovich: while instructing one of his students in playing a Brahms sonata, Rostropovich said to her: “you haven’t shed enough tears in your life.” Reading Days and Nights of Love and War, one feels that one is in the presence of a wisdom that has been forged in more than a lifetime’s fair share of tears. This is reflected, at times, in his choice of anecdotes. He recalls, for instance, a director telling him about filming in a poor part of Chile:

“The local persons were “extras” in the scenes where there were masses. Some of them played themselves. Others played soldiers. The soldiers invaded the valley, and with bloodshed and fire, threw the peasants off the land. The film was the chronicle of the massacre… the problems began on the third day. The peasants who wore uniforms, rode horseback, and shot blanks had become arbitrary, bossy, and violent. After each day of filming, they would harass the other peasants.”

But perhaps nowhere is that tempered wisdom more evident than at the end of the book, when Galeano notes, about living and surviving in a dictatorship: “Joy takes more courage than grief. In the end, we are accustomed to grief.”

My copy of Days and Nights of Love and War is prefaced by a brilliant introduction from Sandra Cisneros. Wisely – and very riskily – Cisneros adopts the same style for her Introduction that Galeano does for his book. Brilliantly, she pulls it off. Her own brand of wisdom is refracted clearly in the few passages she takes up, most notably in her recounting of her first meeting with Galeano: “The book is the sum of our highest potential. Writers, alas, are the rough drafts.”

Days and Nights of Love and War is certainly the sum of our highest potential.


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Filed under Eduardo Galeano, Latin American Fiction

“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria”: Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” (p. 1)

Last summer, while winding down my days at Balliol College, I had one of those chance discussions that that irrepressibly cosmopolitan place often afforded: I sat down to dinner with a Chilean acquaintance, and the talk turned to literature. He said to me, “nobody understands and tells Colombian history like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” It was a statement that surprised me, because fond as I was of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had never considered it a work of history. Then, while re-reading Joan Rappaport’s The Politics of Memory, I came across Marquez’s own words: “we must tell our stories before the historians have time to arrive.” It made me understand a little better what my Chilean interlocutor was getting at; and having just finished Eka Kurniawan’s sprawling novel of 20th Century Indonesia, Beauty is a Wound, perhaps I understand it even more now.

In a sense, Indonesia is indeed the place where the historians have not yet arrived. Just last week, I read that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival at Bali was forced to “cancel a series of events marking the 1965 massacre of alleged communists, after threats by authorities to revoke its operating permit.” My attempts at amateur historical research after finishing the book often led me to the same, rueful destination, websites providing snippets of information, before concluding by noting that discussion about the massacres of ’65 continues to be taboo in Indonesia, with the authorities tightly censoring information about it.

Eka Kurniawan, then, is a few decades late, but still ahead of the historians (although not the film-makers). Beauty is a Wound is set in the fictional Indonesian town of Halimunda, and (in very Marquezian fashion) tracks the life of the extended family of Dewi Ayu, who is born in luxury to a Dutch father, is forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation, and comfortably remains one after independence. Her three beautiful daughters (after more than a few contretemps) end up married to the three power-brokers of Sukarno-era Halimunda: a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter and now in charge of the police force; the chief of the local gangsters; and the leader of the local chapter of the Communist Party. Through the intertwined lives of all these individuals, the history – and tragedy – of 20th century Indonesia is played out: from Dutch colonisation to Japanese occupation, back to Dutch occupation, independence, the great communist massacres of ’65, and then Suharto’s dictatorship.

Those intertwined lives are sprinkled with an admixture of the fantastical. A gravedigger’s son seduces his future wife by his ability to draw into himself the soul of her executed communist father; two pregnancies resulting from rape end not in conception, but a great burst of wind and the nothingness, much to the agony of the putative father; ghosts wander the town, needing active placation; a woman safeguards herself against rape by her husband through a lock upon her privates, bolted with magic spells; the local gangster wins ascendancy because no weapon can hurt him; the scatological mixes with the spiritual in a heady cocktail.

This sounds almost too Marquez, but there is a difference. This New York Times review, I think, brings out the similarities and differences very succinctly. It points out that like Marquez, Kurniawan uses magic realism to “show how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people.” But, it goes on to observe, “García Márquez could fall into sententiousness and grandiosity; Kurniawan, by contrast, has a wry, Javanese sense of humor.” Consider, for instance, the following dialogue:

“The child was surprised to see him reappear after being gone for so long, and asked him, ‘How are you? I heard you were sick.’

‘Yeah, I’m sick with love.’

‘Is love some kind of malaria?’


Alamanda shuddered, and then leading her little sister, she took off walking toward the school. Kliwon followed and walked next to her miserably, before he finally spoke.

“Listen up, little girl,” he said. “Do you want to love me?”

Alamanda stopped and looked at him, and then shook her head.

“Why not?” asked Kliwon, disappointed.
“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria.” (p. 170)


‘Have you become a communist?’ asked his mother, almost in despair. ‘Only a communist would be so gloomy.’

‘I’m in love’, said Kliwon to his mother.

‘That’s even worse!’ (p. 166)

These passages reminded me of another writer who uses an irresistible combination magic realism and humour to tell a poignant tale: Emile Habiby, in his Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. When reading Habiby, one is often driven to impromptu bursts of laughter, before the slow, sinking realisation that laughter is the sandpaper that is covering up the cracks of an emerging darkness. Some of the most hilarious scenes in Beauty is a Wound are when the ghosts of dead communists infect the waking and sleeping life of Shodancho, the police chief who oversaw the killings. But, underlying that are the killing. As Kurniawan puts it bluntly:

“That afternoon, in one quick massacre, one thousand two hundred and thirty-two communists died, bringing an end to the history of the Communist Party in that city, and the entire country.”

Even as one can scarce forebear from laughter, that knowledge is on the edge of consciousness, shadowing it. Colonial exploitation, the rape of women in times of conflict, lawlessness and violence, mass murder – these truths of Indonesian history are ever-present, deftly written into the story as framing devices, occasionally sliding forth, rapier-like, into prominence. And then there are the moments of gravitas, rare, and all the more effective for their rarity. The musings of Comrade Kliwon, for instance, as he is about to be forced into exile:

And the one thing that made him happy was that I can leave all this behind without having to become a reactionary or a counterrevolutionary.” (p. 312)

The bitterness of a two centuries of experience in countries all over the world lies heavily upon this simple sentence. At other places, it would be cloying; but here, in the midst of gibbering ghosts and bizarre miscarriages, almost paradoxically, it fits like a glove. Magic, irony, burlesque, narrative, tragedy – this novel gets the combination almost perfectly right. What emerges is a truly memorable read.

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Filed under Eka Kurniawan, South-East Asia

“He was a creature given to short-lived, contradictory, but invariably sincere enthusiasms”: Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with Llosa. Books have been started, but for a variety of reasons, remain unfinished. The War at the End of the World was left behind on the back-seat of an auto rickshaw, 120 pages in; The Dream of the Celt was interrupted by a change of continents, and the consequent loss of Blackwell’s Bookshop, which allowed you to take books to their cafe and read them cover to cover. This time, I took up Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and – thank heavens! – managed to finish it. Actually, it is a hard book not to finish. Unlike Llosa’s other writing, which is characterised by dense prose, indubitably complex, multi-faceted plot-lines, and a proliferating cast of characters, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a racy comic novel, an unabashed farce with, of course, a very distinctive Latin American flavour.

Aunt Julia, set in Lima during the mid-20th century, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story about 18-year old Vargas, part-time news-editor for Radio Pana-mericana and part-time Law Student, who falls uproariously for his 32-year old, divorced Aunt Julia (an aunt, but not a blood-relative). At around the same time Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian script-writer and actor, with an implacable hatred for Argentines, arrives to take over the production of radio plays for the organisation. As their courtship progresses, from hand-holding and long walks to an improbable bid for marriage, via fights and reconciliations, stiff filial opposition (including a gun-toting father) and much help from friends, Pedro Camacho’s radio plays grow zanier and zanier, with characters appearing and re-appearing, dying and being resurrected, until a final genocidal climax, which also coincides with the climax of the courtship.

Apart from its memorable characters (including the sidekicks, who often steal the show) and delectable twists and turns, Aunt Julia contains some hilarious (and hilariously sharp) reflections about the writing life. Pedro Camacho, an unabashed caricature of the classic literary genius immersed in his work, dresses up as his characters while he writes, so that he can get into the feel of things. Vargas himself is an agonised writer-in-waiting, who dreams about living in a garret in Paris, and wants to write a story called The Qualitative Leap, which – in a quite brilliant one-line portrayal of the anxiety of influence – will be “as coldly objective, intellectual, terse, and ironic as one of Borges’s – an author whom I had just discovered at that time.” When he first meets Aunt Julia, and is attempting to impress her without even knowing it, he explains to her, in classically endearing 18-year old fashion, that:

“… love didn’t exist, that it was the invention of an Italian named Petrarch and the Provencal troubadours. That what people thought was a crystal-clear outpouring of emotion, a pure effusion of sentiment, was merely the instinctive desire of cats in heat hidden beneath the poetic words and myths of literature.”

… before immediately conceding to his audience that he doesn’t believe a word of it. Vargas, as a character, is splendid: cocky without being cocksure, headstrong, but not annoyingly so; self-conscious but not to a fault; reflective, but never consumed by his own interior world. It is difficult not to see at least parts of one’s own 18-year old self in him, and almost impossible to refrain from caring very intensely about his fate, which for most of the novel, seems as precariously balanced as a pig upon a beanstalk.

Aunt Julia is a book of multiple narratives. The main story – the courtship of Vargas and Julia – is punctuated, after every chapter, by a Pedro Camacho radio play, recounted in third-person, like a story. Being reductive, one can say that the book is composed of one novella, broken up by many short stories, none of whom bear any tangible resemblance to each other. For a long time, I attempted – unsuccessfully – to work out the relationship between the main storyline and each of the radio plays (potboilers filled with incest, murder, insanity, betrayal and everything else  that Baudelaire would maintain ought to splash the canvas of our lives with their colours). This review quotes Llosa as saying that one of his intentions was “to prove that his own early world and the world of soap opera were not so very different from each other”, and goes on to compare the main storyline (set in the real world) with the plots of a soap opera, especially in its explosive climax.

There is, admittedly, some truth in that; and there are a couple of places in the novel where Llosa deliberately blurs the line between “real-life” and a Camacho soap opera. But I feel that that is not entirely convincing. The Pedro Camacho soaps have just that extra layer of exaggeration, that hint of the grotesque and the weird, that places them in the realm of fiction. The story of the deranged rat-killer who may or may not be eaten by rats at the end, the story of the good-for-nothing lad who becomes the greatest football referee in Latin America, and so on – for such stories, at the end of the day, it is difficult to entirely suspend disbelief, while the Vargas-Julia episodes suffer from no such infirmity: they are entirely, viscerally believable. Of course, real life and soap operas hardly mirror each other – and Llosa himself said he wanted to prove they were “not so very different”.

Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that perhaps it is best not to look for connections. Perhaps Aunt Julia simply shows us that the novel and the short story can exist together in a book, that can be enjoyed as  a book with multiple, unconnected narratives, and nothing more.



Filed under Latin American Fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa