Completed: The President [El Señor Presidente]

Cover: The President by Miguel Angel AsturiasThe President [El Señor Presidente]
Miguel Ángel Asturias
(Guatemala, 1946)
Frances Partridge, translator

It’s been months since I read The President and yet I find it still lingers. Parts may be fuzzy and vague, but details still stay sharp—elements of the plot, of the natures of the characters. Even scenes that seemed but loosely tied to the main line of the story still clank around my head. It is a powerful novel.

Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The women felt the divine power of their Beloved Deity. The more important priests paid him homage. The lawyers imagined they were attending one of Alfonso el Sabio’s tournaments. The diplomats, excellencies from Tiflis perhaps, put on grand airs as if they were at the court of the Sun King at Versailles. Native and foreign journalists congratulated themselves on being in the presence of a second Pericles. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The poets felt they were in Athens, so they announced to the world at large. A sculptor of saintly figures imagined he was Phidias, smiled, rubbed his hands and turned his eyes to heaven when he heard the cheering in the streets in honour of their eminent ruler. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! A composer of funeral marches, a devotee of Bacchus and also of religion, craned his tomato-coloured face from a window to see what was happening in the street. (Chapter XIV, “Let the Whole World Sing!”)

The titular President shows up but little directly—just a scene here or there—but his presence haunts every moment, every interaction. He is authoritarian, a tyrant, and the poisonous atmosphere his government engenders enables those beneath him to be just as cruel and petty and vindictive. It is such cruelty that sets the plot in motion, as a group of homeless taunt one of their own. His instability will lead to an unexpected murder, which event enables others of more power and position—seeking to consolidate wealth or favor or power—to go after personal enemies, dragging along many innocent citizens in their wake. But there is one ray of hope in the story, in an unexpected romance between a favorite advisor of The President and the daughter of one of The President’s political enemies. Indeed, while The President is an illustration of how fear and lust for power or influence makes monsters of men, it also offers us the redeeming power of love.

The President is a novel set in a county never named, but imagined by many to be author Miguel Ángel Asturias’ native Guatemala. Perhaps Asturias left his setting unnamed to keep distance between himself and the politics at home, but leaving the country anonymous allows the reader to imagine any number of possibilities. This tyranny by man is non-specific, it is possible anywhere, everywhere, in anyone.

Originally intended as a Spanish Lit Month/August Classics Club Spin read, The President counts for the Back the to Classics Challenge as a title which has “been banned or censored”—although written in the 1920s and 30s it was delayed from publication until 1946 by the censorship of the Guatemalan government. It is also on my Classics Club and Libros Españoles project lists.

Completed: Pedro Páramo

Cover: Pedro Paramo by Juan RulfoPedro Páramo
Juan Rulfo
(1955, Mexico)
Margaret Sayers Peden, translator

And though there were no children playing, no doves, no blue-shadowed roof tiles, I felt that the town was alive. And that if I heard only silence, it was because I was not yet accustomed to silence–maybe because my head was still filled with sounds and voices. (8)

I had meant to read Pedro Páramo for last spring’s Classics Club “spin,” as well as for Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) Mexicanos perdidos en México winter-spring event. I started it, but didn’t finish on time, more due to lack of free time than the book itself. Fortunately, I’ve been similarly remiss in writing up a post as now I find I can make a small contribution to Spanish Lit Month, even if I don’t finish anything else on time.

The story of a man in search of his father, Pedro Páramo can be at times disorienting and confusing, as it flits from present to past, narrator to narrator with no more notice of its current time and location than what context clues may provide. Narrators–even he who opens the story, Juan Preciado–do not name themselves, simply breaking into their little portion, providing their identity only if asked by the audience at hand. It demands the reader’s complete attention, not letting go until the last page is turned.

But at the same time it is engaging, the story of Juan Preciado–young?, middle aged?, we don’t know really–returning to his mother’s hometown, Comala, in search of the father (Pedro Páramo) he has never known, at the request of his dying mother. But it is more the story of Páramo, and to some measure the town itself, and in Preciado’s search for them–learning about them–he becomes ensnared by the dying town. Or perhaps already dead town. It is never entirely clear if all those he meets–and Preciado meets many people–are already dead, or only most of them. It is a ghost story: the ghosts of all the hidden stories of the past, come to light as now the dead are given voice and take the turn to tell their tale, with no more to fear from the dominating Páramo.

‘This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away.’

That was what Damiana Cisneros was telling me as we walked through the town. (41)

Reading Pedro Páramo, I could sense–but not put my finger on precisely where I saw it–Rulfo’s influence on Gabriel García Marquez. There was a familiarity to it. There was also perhaps a hint–though maybe I imagine it?–of William Faulkner. I could easily see reading Pedro Páramo again, looking to see all that I surely missed on this first go-round as well as visiting Rulfo’s short story collection, The Burning Plain and Other Stories [El Llano en llamas].

I originally read Pedro Páramo for The Classics Club spring “spin” (ended May 1 – oops!) and Richard’s Mexicanos perdidos en México (ended May 15 – oops!). But it’s worked out nicely for Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month and for the category “a classic in translation” for the Back to the Classics Challenge. It is also on my Libros españoles project list.

Week’s End Notes (25)

View through the screen porch

  • So. It’s officially the first day of summer today. Though by the weather, it’s seemed it for a while. It’s been warm–though outside of a few days, not particularly hot–and very humid much of the past few weeks. And rain. Lots of rain. Everywhere I go in Northeast Ohio, everything is lush and verdant. I’ve had reason recently to travel parts of NEO I don’t normally visit, and several times now–avoiding interstate congestion–I’ve travelled through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Driving alongside the old Ohio & Erie Canal and Towpath Trail (well used by bicyclists), past old farmsteads and canal locks and all the lovely forested scenery is so relaxing, I’ve found I don’t mind taking a few or more extra minutes at all. And it’s lovely that it’s free to enter–I actually didn’t realize until recently that most U.S. National Parks charge entrance fees–though I don’t know, really, how they could as there are so many roads that pass through the park. (Ohio state parks are also all free.)
  • The weather’s not only been perfect for enjoying all the green around us, it’s been perfect for reading. Lovely weekend mornings on the back porch, lemonade and book in hand–perfect. Which is perhaps why I’ve gotten a little carried away with my to-read-soon list, especially regarding my library selections. I did decide that I will put on hold reading Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf or his essay “Beowulf and the Critics” until I’m ready to do a bit of Icelandic or other similar reading as well. But I’m in the middle of three other books, and my ambitions for the rest of the summer are perhaps a tad unrealistic.
  • First, the current reads. I’m still working my way through The Piazza Tales (included in the Library of America volume, black cover, in the image below), and I’m finding that I’m becoming more comfortable with Melville as I’ve been reading. There’s still about 100 pages to go, but I WILL finish this summer! Anne of Avonlea is a slow reread, one I pick up on occasion in evenings to read a bit from before I fall asleep. I know these books so well, and it’s such a nice bedtime read that I don’t care how long it takes me  to finish.
  • The most exciting current read, however, is Pioneer Girl, the unedited original manuscript of the memoir Laura Ingalls Wilder would later modify into The Little House books. It’s a lovely annotated edition, full of lots of historical tidbits and explanations. I’m almost through the section that corresponds with By the Shores of Silver Lake and hope to finish by the end of June. Although I’m reading a library copy, I am planning to order my own copy soon. And it’s prompting me to contemplate some Little House rereads. Maybe not the whole series, but if nothing else, I don’t remember some of the middle books that well, so perhaps those.

June 2015 Current Reads

  • And then the hope-to-read-soon pile. (Including a Little House book as mentioned above.) Realistically, this could probably take me to the end of the year, although if I were to make that pile, I’d include my next Sherlock Holmes (The Valley of Fear) for fall reading, and perhaps a few others. But for now, these are the books I think I’d most like to get to soon.
  • Actually, I may or may not read Off With Their Heads!, which is a nonfiction book about fairy tales and the way we use and read them. I’d originally planned to read it this spring, but never quite got to it. I think I’m down to my last renewal, so it probably won’t happen.
  • There are two titles that are definitely planned for July, as Stu and Richard are again planning a Spanish Lit Month. (Yay!) I went the “what’s on my shelf that I haven’t read yet” route for this one, which leads me to Love in the Time of Cholera and The Book of Imaginary Beings, which I keep misnaming in my head as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J.K. Rowling). Completely different authors! But both the Borges and the Rowling are in the tradition of the Medieval Bestiary. (And did you ever imagine a mention of Borges and Rowling in the same sentence?)

Summer-Fall 2015 Plans

  • The other “dedicated” read is Northanger Abbey, for Adam’s Austen in August. I started to reread it early this past spring, but didn’t get far before I was distracted by other things. An Austen event seemed the perfect time to actually make some headway.
  • Out of Africa is at the suggestion of several other bloggers (plus my mom) from a few posts back. And the other books–Enter Jeeves, The Farm, The Bluest Eye, A Wrinkle in Time–are all books that for some reason or other, I’m drawn to read soon. At my current reading rate, I should make it through all these by next June! Guess I need to work on that.
  • Of course, I did manage to read two books (Beowulf and The Scorpio Races) for Carl’s 9th Once Upon a Time reading event, ending today. That was one better than I had planned. So perhaps I’m not too ambitious after all?
  • Happy reading!

Completed: Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Spanish Lit Month)

Cover: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia MarquezChronicle of a Death Foretold
Gabriel García Márquez
(1981, Colombia)
Translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

She had watched him from the same hammock and in the same position in which I found her prostrated by the last lights of old age when I returned to this forgotten village, trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards. (6)

I confess that I’ve been avoiding writing this post for some time now, at first simply because I couldn’t bear to write anything after a tragic event just outside the office where I work, and later because this very book brings back to mind that tragedy. Not, fortunately, a premeditated murder, but a hit-skip accident, killing a man getting in (or out of?) his–legally–parked car. In the novella, an unnamed narrator is looking back on events of twenty-seven years previous, trying to understand how his friend came to be killed on that day so many years ago while so many bystanders seemingly knew it was coming yet did nothing to stop it. So too, my coworkers and I gleaned every piece of information we could–and in a small town everyone seems to know someone who knows something–as we tried to understand this tragedy, knowing that it could have been any one of us.

At the distance I am now from my initial reading, and as I am now understanding Chronicle of a Death Foretold in a way I didn’t before the accident, I can’t be certain I am remembering it entirely correctly, but if I am, there seem to be two recurrent threads underpinning the novella: piecing a story together bit by bit and the elusivity of accurate memory. The second thread is the one I noticed as I read: the recurrence over and over again of conflicting memories: it was nice that day, no it was raining; they had met this way, no they had not. The suggestion is not just that our memories are malleable or fickle, but that we may not recognize the significance of any given event until well after the fact, at a great enough distance that we can’t trust that we are recalling the correct event, or that the enormity of the event may overwhelm our capacity for memory.

I had a very confused memory of the festival before I decided to rescue it piece by piece from the memory of others. (23)

In the days after the accident, with little released from official news sources, limited by a slow-developing police investigation, we too were left to piece the story together. Everyone seemed to know a different piece, to have heard something from a different source. It was then that I began to see in Chronicle what Márquez, who started his career as a journalist, would have known well–that a story does not come from just one person, one vantage. There are many viewpoints that make it up, and each is important in relation to understanding the whole. And yet, is any tragedy ever understandable?

For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate. (96)

I read this for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu of Winstons dad’s blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos. Thankfully, they’ve extended the month a bit into August!

Completed: El burlador de Sevilla (Spanish Lit Month)

Cover: El burlador de Sevilla“El burlador de Sevilla”
Tirso de Molina (written c. 1616; published c.1630, Spain)
My edition from Diez Comedias del Siglo de Oro, 2nd edition
José Martel & Hymen Alpern, editors
Revised by Leonard Mades

Don Juan:        Tío y señor,
Mozo soy y mozo fuiste;
Y pues que de amor supiste,
Tenga disculpa mi amor.


Don Juan:        Uncle and lord,
Youth I am and youth I was;
And you knew what it is to love,
You must excuse my love.

(my attempt)

Act 1

You know how sometimes you decide to do something that seems like a really good idea at the time, but in execution turns out to be not so great? Yeah, that would be my brilliant idea to read “El burlador de Sevilla” in Spanish. At first it seemed it would work out well: similar to my method of reading The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, I decided read an English translation followed by the Spanish. It was an easy enough decision–I had both on hand, hand-me-downs from an aunt who once-upon-a-time was a Spanish teacher (before moving on to other things). The English read quickly enough, although I found myself with nothing to say about the play. So move on to the Spanish.

Which is when I became disappointed.

Turns out, the English translation I have* is…lacking. To be kind. First, it was in prose rather than making any attempt to match the poetry of the original. Fair enough, translation of poetry is understandably difficult. (Though Grossman proves it very doable.) Of course, it turns out that I’m a reader that wants the translation to at least follow the from of the original.  But on top of that, lines were reassigned to different speakers, sections were left out and an entire passage (a lengthy three-page monologue) was dramatically condensed and reassigned to a different speaker in a different act and there were even brand-new lines of dialogue added†. I feel like that’s taking poetic license a bit far! So all this to say, instead of reading through the Spanish for a general sense of the language and sounds of the original, instead I found myself trying to understand the entire thing. (I will admit, the English translation did at least give me a go by to help with some of the trickier places. Assuming the section hadn’t been omitted, of course.)  Thank goodness for online translation dictionaries!

I am glad I read the Spanish, though. The English left me feeling ambivalent towards it (turning it into prose is a travesty), but after conquering the Spanish, I find I like “El burlador de Sevilla” much better. I would LOVE to see it performed, but that seems highly unlikely. (Is there a recorded version anywhere, though?)

“El burlador de Sevilla” was the first dramatization of the Don Juan legend (although not perhaps the best known–Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni likely holds that title), the story of a womanizing trickster who seemingly seduces every woman he meets, heedless of consequence, and seeming to delight even in seducing the women his own friends love. Indeed, the question may be whether he takes more delight in the women or in the engaño (trick or deception) he pulls. But this play is in the hands of a Catholic monk (Tirso de Molina was the pseudonym for Fray Gabriel Téllez), so consequence there must be. His sins are not only his deceptive seductions, but also murder and arrogance. He does not repent until too late–and likely only out of desperation; doubtless Molina intended this as a morality play. Were it not for this moral, it would have felt in some ways like reading a Shakespearean comedy: deceptions and wrongs, but with everything turned right in the end (save Don Juan, of course), all told in poetic meter and fast-paced action among quickly-shifting scenes.

I do wish I had a better translation of “El burlador de Sevilla” on hand. (If you know of a good one I could get, do let me know.) Despite reading the Spanish second, and slowly (verrrrry slowly), I still feel as if I need another few go-throughs before I can really get to the heart of this play. The basic outlines are there, I know the plot, and can begin to see some threads of ideas to explore. The variety of women–for although most–but not all!–fall for Don Juan, they are each a different character with different responses. The limitations placed on both the women, and on the nobility–were not Don Juan’s fated decided by his sin, his King would chose his path for him. The importance of honor for both men and women, and the different concepts of justice then and now. And without a better hold on Spanish, I can’t even begin to comment on the language of the play. After all, I was so focused on basic meaning that I barely even noticed the rhyme schemes employed throughout. Perhaps one to revisit again?

I read this both for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu of Winstons dad’s blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos and as part of a readalong (originally planned for June) hosted by Richard.

*If you must know, from Three Classic Don Juan Plays, edited by Oscar Mandel, 1971 edition. I believe out-of-print.

† I did consider that perhaps the editors were working from a different Spanish text, but not only have I not found  any significant variations between the Spanish I read and versions I found online, they openly admit to moving and condensing the above-mentioned monologue.