What Did You Do in the Dirty War?

'My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain’ by Patricio Pron Reviewed by Marcela Valdes New York Times Book Review. July 5, 2013.

In the 1970s, during the years that Argentina’s last military dictatorship was busy raping, torturing and killing thousands of the country’s citizens, a large obelisk in Buenos Aires was adorned with this menacing piece of advice: ­“Silence is health.” That dictatorship ended in 1983, but no one recovers quickly from a bludgeon, especially not a child. The Argentine novelist Patricio Pron was born in 1975, a year before the Dirty War began. The nameless narrator of his artful novel “My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain” isn’t merely silent; he’s erased.

For eight years he has been living in Germany, popping paroxetine, benzodiazepines and sleeping pills until his mind is shot through with gaps like a censored letter. Lest we forget we’re dealing with damaged goods, Pron makes the novel’s very structure as perforated as our man’s memory. Holes appear in its numbered fragments — a missing No. 8, say, or an elided 17 — whenever the narrator hits a snag. When he gets sick, the sequence turns feverish: 22, 11, 9, 26, 3.

Only when his father sinks into a coma, in August 2008, does this bruised soul finally return to Argentina. There he finds a photograph that disturbs his willful amnesia: Dad in sideburns next to a woman who is not the narrator’s mother. Below the photo lies a folder thick with clippings about a recent missing-person case: 60-year-old Alberto José Burdisso has disappeared from the town of El Trébol; decades earlier his sister, Alicia, vanished during the military dictatorship.

“You don’t ever want to know certain things,” the son thinks, staring at the photo of his father and the woman, “because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Reason enough to eat another Xanax.

But having discovered Dad’s interest in Alberto and Alicia, the protagonist must find out: Who are these siblings? Why did they disappear? How is his father connected to them? And what, exactly, was Dad doing during those crucial years when Argentina’s democracy imploded? Suspense swells through the early sections, as Pron nests mystery within mystery, carefully tending the big enigma: What trauma drove the narrator to Germany, and into the fuzzy comfort of pills?

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'The Hare' Leads A Merry Chase

'The Hare' by Cesar Aira Reviewed by Marcela Valdes June 26, 2013.

To love the novels of Cesar Aira you must have a taste for the absurd, a tolerance for the obscurely philosophical and a willingness to laugh out loud against your better judgment. His latest novel to be translated into English, The Hare, is set in the Argentine pampas at the end of the 19th century. But don't let any veneer of realism fool you. Despite its gauchos, Indians and lyrical descriptions of Argentina's sprawling plains, The Hare doesn't approach the accuracy of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira's last pampas novel to be published here. It's more like an episode of Star Trek, crossed with Lawrence of Arabia.

As in so many of Aira's novels, the hero is an earnest man with a faintly ridiculous mission. Tom Clarke, a British geographer and naturalist, roams the pampas in search of a mythical rabbit that not only jumps but flies. With him ride two Argentine sidekicks: a chatty 15-year-old boy and a taciturn gaucho with his own secret mission. Together the three horsemen visit a series of Indian tribes, becoming more and more entangled in local politics until Clarke is declared commander-in-chief of an Indian confederation and the region erupts in war. Near the book's climax, the Englishman strips off his clothes, dons Indian greasepaint, and watches a flock of giant ducks usher an enormous egg into the ocean.

Even that bizarre synopsis is too solemn for Aira's novel. From The Hare's first chapter, when a drunken dictator pirouettes on the back of a galloping horse, the plot is only loosely attached to logic. Clarke's journey through the pampas resembles a vast space voyage: long rides through desolate landscape punctuated by conversations with extraordinary grotesques. One of the tribes he meets lives underground, indulging in promiscuous sex and bartering coal for liquor. Another speaks in "monstrous sentences" designed to be incomprehensible. For better or worse, such tribes are more ontological experiments than historical re-creations. And Clarke himself is hardly more rational. His war-winning battle strategy? It's "the Great Sine Curve of the Mapuche armies, a line that would have exploded the maps if anyone had tried to trace it."

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Unmanageable Realities: On César Aira

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. April 10, 2012.

Whether or not César Aira is Argentina’s greatest living writer, he’s certainly its most slippery. His novels, which number more than sixty, are famous for their brevity—few are longer than a hundred pages—and for their bizarre, unpredictable plots. In How I Became a Nun (2005) an innocent family outing climaxes with murder. The weapon? A vat of cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream. In The Literary Conference (2006) an attempt to clone the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes causes giant blue silkworms to attack a Venezuelan city, and in Aira’s latest book to appear in English, Varamo (2002), two spinsters get caught smuggling black-market golf clubs.

Aira loves to keep readers guessing—he once said that he deliberately writes the opposite of whatever fans praise—and several of his novels are actually works of probing psychological realism. But for all the variety of his novels’ plots, what has remained consistent during the thirty-odd years he has been writing is his taste for blending genres. Social realism and haunted-house tale mix with architectural theory in Ghosts (1990). Biography, pioneer tale and biogeography melt together in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). The B-movie plot of The Literary Conference is peppered with asides on myth and translation.

Critics in the United States have typically tried to account for Aira’s oddball complexity by classifying him as a Dadaist or a Surrealist. In this they have followed the lead of Aira, who has praised Marcel Duchamp and declared that he might have been a painter if the job weren’t so tricky (“the paint, the brushes, having to clean it all”). Yet Aira has also said that his books “come from the things I see, that I live,” and that “I’ve never liked surrealism for surrealism itself.” He has even gone so far as to criticize other contemporary Argentine writers for producing novels that are too “frivolous” and insufficiently concerned with Argentina’s “social and economic problems.”

Read more of this essay at The Nation.

Lisandro Alonso: “La Libertad” & “Liverpool”

It’s no secret that Lisandro Alonso is emerging as one of Latin America’s great directors, but it wasn’t until the Harvard Film Archives hosted a screening of his films this weekend that I got a chance to learn what the fuss is about. Let me begin by saying: Lisandro Alonso deserves all the praise he gets.

I hope to write more about him and his work once my Nieman fellowship ends in May, so I won’t say too much now. But for those who haven’t yet seen his films, or who are wondering what he said in the post-film Q&As, I thought I’d share a few details.

Tonight, the Archives screened Alonso’s first feature film, “La Libertad,” which debuted in 2001. (Note to film scholars: The Archives just bought a print of it for their collection.) Blending documentary and narrative elements, “La Libertad” follows a fictional day in the life of a real woodcutter (Misael Saavedra) in the Argentine Pampas. Misreal works alone, and most of the scenes consist of him simply chopping wood, driving, or eating. There is no major drama, no overt conflict, and almost no dialog.

So why is the film so compelling? I think that Haden Guest, the director of the Archives, came close to answer when he observed that though Alonso has often been called a minimalist, his “camera work is anything but minimal.” To which, Alonso replied, with characteristic self-deprecation, that he decided to keep the camera moving almost constantly in order to keep his stripped down story from getting “boring.”

In contrast, in Alonso’s latest film “Liverpool,” the camera barely moves during most scenes. Instead each perfectly-composed shot is held so long that you have time to observe all the minutia of each room the characters inhabit. And that’s the point.

“The environment creates the personality of the character,” Alonso remarked after Saturday’s screening. And in a film that resists psychological interpretations, studying the rooms is as close as we can get to divining the main character’s soul. About him (the main character), I will only say: 1) he works in a cargo ship, 2) he likes Stoli vodka, and 3) when he gets leave to visit his mother, the action is not like anything Hollywood films have led us to expect.

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This month, Alonso will be traveling to New York City, Seattle, and Madrid to attend screenings of “Liverpool.” If you live anywhere near these places, try to check it out. Without a doubt, it’s the most striking piece of film I’ve seen all year.