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.

Completed: Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the Detectives [Emil und die Detektive]
Erich Kästner
(1929, Germany)
Eileen Hall, translator
Walter Trier, illustrations

’Oh he’ll like Berlin, I’m sure of that,’ declared Mrs. Wirth from the depths of the wash-basin. ‘It’s just made of children. We went there the year before last for the skittle club outing. My word, but it’s a noisy place! Do you know—some of the streets were as light at night as during the day. And the traffic! My, what a lot of cars!’ (Chapter 1)

Emil and the Detectives starts out deceptively, Emil carrying the water jug and his mother washing her client’s hair—a scene of domestic tranquility, nothing of adventures in sight. Yet this opening chapter, slow by current standards, is our introduction to Emil and his character: he is obedient and polite, determined to do right by his mother. Which is why it is so important to Emil, when the one thing she warns him against happens, losing the money she gives him for his grandmother, that he make it right. Especially since he feels particularly wronged; he didn’t lose the money, it was stolen from him after he fell asleep on the train, despite all his precautions, both to protect the money and stay awake. It is from this point that the story takes off; Emil soon meets up with a group of boys who upon learning his story are only too happy to help him chase down and trap the thief. His cousin, Pony, the only girl in the story, makes occasional appearances with her new bike—which she is only too eager to show off—functioning as messenger or go-between with Emil’s adult relatives. We also see other aspects of Emil’s character–his determination to right a wrong, a bit of temper (he nearly fights the first boy he meets), and a hint of mischief: he believes he can’t go to the police, because he chalked a statue at home and believes the Berlin police will surely learn of it and accuse him of stealing the money!

I’m really not quite sure what I expected from this classic from 1920s Germany. Perhaps more of a mystery, but the detective work in this story is tailing a known suspect, not discovering “whodunit.” Of course, this makes for an exciting adventure, and the reader never really cares that we know the thief already or that we feel fairly assured of a positive outcome. After all, there are still plenty of twists and turns and we can’t be sure, exactly, how the boys will manager to confront the thief and reclaim Emil’s money.

A German writer, Kästner would some years after writing this children’s tale watch the Nazis burn many of his books, including the sequel Emil and the Three Twins. But they didn’t include Emil and the Detectives, in part because of of its popularity. It’s been adapted for several film versions, including multiple German versions and the 1964 Disney adaptation, as well as a UK stage production.

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - 300px wide

As well as reading this for the readalong, it also counts as one of my titles for the Books in Translation Challenge 2016.

Emil and the Detectives RAL

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - Original

It’s here, time for discussion of our thoughts on Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives! Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below.

If you’ve never read Emil and the Detectives before, was there anything that surprised you? How does it compare to other children’s mystery-adventure stories you’ve read?

Completed: Beowulf

BeowulfCover: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
Anonymous
England, between 8th-11th cent.
Translator, Seamus Heaney, 2000

Sitting down to write about Beowulf, I feel woefully ignorant of the context of the poem—and therefore completely unqualified to write more than some cursory thoughts. (I should point out that Cleo provides some great background info to the poem, which is very useful.) I know that is it old—somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. That it was written in Old English (which can also be called Anglo-Saxon, as I read…somewhere?). And based solely on my reading, the anonymous writer was clearly very religious, specifically Christian. But the literary context of the poem: how does it relate to other writings of the era/region? It is a poem, in the Germanic form, Cleo tells us, but I’ve not read anything else in the style. Used to end rhymes and syllable-based rhythms, it barely feels a poem to me. This is not the fault of the writer, nor the translator, it is me.

Looking in the other direction, on the other hand, I can clearly see Beowulf’s influence, specifically on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some time back, Tom at Wuthering Expectations commented that he wasn’t sure why more Tolkien fans didn’t read the Icelandic Sagas, given the relation between the two; this applies also to Beowulf. Even beyond Tolkien’s essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” (which I have still to read—I’d hoped to get to it this week, but instead paid the price of a week off work with extra hours), and his recently published translation of Beowulf, there seem to be clear lines of influence on his fictional works. I marked quite a few scenes in my notes, from noting in general the fondness for lays to descriptions that seemed reminiscent of scenes from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, to the powerful chain-mail that was perhaps the prototype for Bilbo’s–later Frodo’s–mithril shirt, and even a reference to an “Eomer.” But it was a passage towards the end that struck me most vividly:

…until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into a rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover. (2210-2220)

It was as if I was reading a poetic rendition of the dragon Smaug and the thief Bilbo, hired by the dwarves.

I also saw Beowulf in contrast to other more ancient works I am familiar with, some of the Greek plays and myths. Over and over, I noted that Beowulf seemed to boast of his prowess—and yet his boasting didn’t bring him low or or his end. Were this a Greek tale, I felt sure that the gods would punish him for his boasts. But the worldview is different here: it is a brutal world, and whatever is fated will be—and in the writer’s Christian worldview, it will be God who will decide that fate, a belief Beowulf acknowledges even as he claims the power to defeat Grendel.

‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no ides of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.’ (677-688).

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading the poem, and should very much like to read the Tolkien translation and commentary, hopefully soon. This was only my first reading, and really my first familiarity with Beowulf and its world, and I feel like I have only started to grasp what it is about. My way in was via the Tolkien writings, but I think there is probably still much more the glean from it. And perhaps this will prove my way in to other Old English works as well as a stepping stone towards reading some of the ancient sagas and mythologies of the northern countries.

Thank you so much, Cleo for hosting and prompting me to finally read Beowulf! As a bonus, it also counts as my second selection for Once Upon a Time IX (and I thought I’d only read one this spring) and as my seventh title completed for The Classics Club.