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Book Review

Jakarta

by on May 8, 2020

Written by Rodrigo Marquez Tizano
Translated by Thomas Bunstead
Review by John Venegas

What is the measure of a good piece of fiction? You’d think after all these reviews, I’d have a definition. But the truth is that no definition can ever be broad enough to encompass all the possibilities and specific enough to have any useful meaning. So it may be better to ask what makes this piece of fiction a good one. In this case, the fiction in question is Jakarta, by Rodrgio Marquez Tizano, and to be quite honest, I am writing this review to figure out the answer to that question. I’ve read it three times now and, after each reading, I’ve come away with two undeniable conclusions: 1) this a fucking fantastic piece of literature and 2) I can’t make sense of why. So here’s to hoping that putting words on digital paper might lend some clarity.

Though the city stagnates, and any possible works are safely buried under endless red tape, it’s still a place you never fully get a handle on.

On the most direct terms, this is a truly dystopian narrative. A first-person, non-linear dystopian narrative that teeters on the edge of magical (or perhaps sci-fi?) realism, all delivered by an unnamed protagonist. Right off the bat, the sense of dislocation and a lack of identity is intense. You are let loose in a world that goes largely unexplained and yet which is also disturbingly familiar, and your only guide is a person who won’t tell you their name and may not have the best grip on the flow of time, or their own sanity. It is, I have to say, a hell of a risky play. But damn does it pay off in the end. For one thing, I am always happy to see when an author trusts their audience to be smart enough to keep up. For another, the text is so well written that you find yourself following along almost through instinct alone, at least until you are so far in that you can’t really see the way back and you give in to the flow.

From Morgan’s notebook:

A story: the king asks the artist to paint him a labyrinth.

But it takes more than evocative sentence structure and clever wordplay to make a piece of fiction good, doesn’t it? What about the story? Dystopian fiction in particular always seems to be a misstep or two away from being a nihilistic masturbatory session for unprocessed immaturity. And yet here, Jakarta manages to be unrelentingly, mercilessly bleak, and yet somehow also funny and sweet and charming. The story allows you to empathize with people that, had someone just told you about their personalities, you’d probably never approach. It hands you existential questions with a sympathetic and regretful pat on the shoulder, not because it feels guilty, but because it knows you’ve been avoiding these questions for too long. I know this sounds pretty damn vague, but for however corny this might sound, Jakarta is a text to be experienced, not explained.

Maybe it is just me. Maybe this text comes along at the perfect (worst?) time for me. In the interest of disclosure, I am Latino, I am on medication to treat depression, I am a socialist, I am a former athlete and gambler, and I am living and writing this review while under stay at home orders to try and avoid the attentions of a global pandemic. When you read Jakarta, you will understand why all of that is relevant on the surface, but the reason I bring it up is that if we are going to consider that “good” may just be entirely subjective, then maybe this text is just letting me indulge that particular combination of young man’s angst and aging man’s bitterness, the parts of which I am just old enough to have a foot in.

Farther along the coast, beyond the ravines, the sky glows with a dirty light, like halogen lamps about to give up the ghost.

It takes a text like Jakarta, I think, to remind us of the purpose of literature, or perhaps the multi-faceted nature of that purpose. The purpose I speak of is empathy, the willingness and desire to recognize and experience (however second-handedly) perspectives that are not our own. Literature, like pretty much any art, is an act of understanding that we are not alone, that we want to be recognized and want to recognize in turn. And that recognition is not reserved for wholesome, or even bittersweet, experiences. If anything, we need solidarity and acknowledgment more than ever when we are isolated, when we are being oppressed and abused, when we are being fed narratives that are meant to distract us, deceive us, or render us powerless.

Addendum to idea: when I ask for my boulevard to have its very own median and for this median to be fitted in turn with a row of banana trees, Dos Bocas banana trees, the Secretary for Hydraulic Resources and Social Wellbeing gives me a tender look and exclaims: Don’t push your luck.

So have I stumbled upon an answer then? Is that what makes Jakarta a good piece of fiction? It’s probably as good an answer as I am capable of at the moment. The fact is that it is a wonderfully cathartic text, in the truest Aristotelian sense, one that tackles extremely difficult and unfortunately poignant subject matter and handles it with supremely gratifying deftness. To be clear, it is not a book that is going to appeal to everyone. But it’s also the kind of book that makes you realize what a damn shame that is.

Jakarta is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

After the Winter

by on December 6, 2018

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel
Review by John Venegas

 

I don’t know that anything can be said to be simple anymore. Everything has its context and, in that context, everything attaches to a functionally infinitely complex weave. That’s not to say that people don’t desire simplicity – our brains seem hardwired to default to it – or that being comparatively simpler to something else is a good or bad thing. It just is. Given how aware we have become of the interconnectedness of our lives, I don’t know that it is possible to tell a simple love story and do justice to the complexity of people’s lives. So many of us seem to latch onto concepts like “soulmates” and “the love of my life”. We wait for the moment where “fate intervenes” and presents us with our “perfect match”, as if the cosmos owes us each individually one big favor for making us put up with its unfathomable enormity and sense of humor. Believe what you want to about the order of things, by all means, but I think we need the ironic reality check of books like Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter from time to time. It is a love story, an all too real love story, not because of how it ends, but because of how its characters truly live.

After the Winter is the story of Cecilia, a Mexican woman who moves to Paris to study, and Claudio, a Cuban man who lives an extremely orderly life in New York. From the start, it is clear that Nettel knows what kind of beast the romance genre has become. Pick up any such book from supermarket or airport shelves and you are almost guaranteed gorgeous cis men with “flaws” that only make them more attractive to heroines that are not aware of how beautiful they are and who have their value repeatedly ignored or denied. I do not disparage such works in the least – they possess an inherent and powerful value – but they do love their tropes, and from the opening page, Nettel is determined to show that After the Winter is not that kind of story. The text begins with Claudio, who proves himself to be uptight, aloof, arrogant, rampantly sexist, and dismissively judgmental. And that all comes across in the first chapter. The second chapter introduces us to Cecilia, a bookish, intelligent, reserved woman who doesn’t know how attractive she is but who possesses a determination that most do not expect from her. I’m sure that sounds like we are beginning to veer back towards trope territory, but Nettel knows exactly what she is doing, dear reader.

At different periods in my life, graves have protected me.

The rest of the book (mostly) alternates between Claudio’s story and Cecilia’s story as they wind and wind and inch ever closer to one another. We see their relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the nuances in how they see themselves and the world, as well as how they present to that world. We see their worlds collide, an event not entirely unexpected but one which plays out in a way that I definitely did not see coming and yet which, in hindsight, felt inevitable and natural. Most of all, we see how these characters, so very different from one another despite some mutual interests, deal with moments of bare vulnerability, of life being capricious and unfair in multiple ways. Love in these two almost parallel stories, including when they intersect, not as this supernatural force for good, or even evil, but as a naturally occurring connection between people that we can choose to embrace or ignore, and in what manner we do either.

My apartment is on 87th Street on the Upper West Side in New York City. It is a stone corridor very like a prison cell. I have no plants. All living things inspire in me an inexplicable horror, just as some people feel when they come across a nest of spiders.

It is at this point that I began to realize something, at least where my interaction to the book is concerned. After the Winter is not about love and its vagaries; it is a book about love’s relationship to death. I’m guessing at this point that I may be leaving you with the impression that this book is what many of us like to refer dismissively as “emo”. Don’t worry. In its determination to stare unflinchingly at its subject matter, After the Winter treats the heady intersection of topics with a mature honesty that is surprisingly rare in literature. Cecilia and Tom are not “star-crossed” lovers whom fate conspires against. Cecilia and Claudio were never fated to find each other. Rather, Cecilia is a beautiful depiction of reality, loving intensely, occasionally even to the point of danger. And Death becomes something akin to an unseen character in the final third of the text, whose presence looms and who stubbornly refuses to (or perhaps cannot) resolve our stories how we might wish. The point then, for telling this particular love story, seems to say that love is our statement, our testimony against death. It is our coping mechanism, our gift to ourselves and each other to remind us that we are not alone on our journey.

I want total silence to see if it is true that you have something to say to me, if you feel you did not interrupt the dialogue between us abruptly or if, on the contrary, you have disappeared for ever.

While all of this is compelling on its own, it is still possible for these emotional themes and character studies to fall flat on their faces if the writing isn’t doing them justice, and Nettel handles all of it beautifully. Her style is wonderfully efficient without losing a hint of intelligence, and the effect of this is a book that, while by no means small, is paced so well that you can devour it in a single evening if you are not mindful of the time. Some of the credit for this in the English version (which is what I read) surely has to go to translator Rosalind Harvey. The best translations are almost always the ones where you completely forget you are reading a translation at all, and I could not find a single mistake, awkward sentence, or moment that linguistically disengaged me. I find these things all the more impressive considering the whole of the book is delivered in first person (something many editors try to scare their authors away from) and that Nettel and Harvey never once fail in keeping the characterizations and narrative voices consistent and believably flexible. Both Claudio and Cecilia have distinct and strong personalities and make decisions you will not predict. Not all fiction has to feel so richly real, but the effect is undeniable and intense.

If there is any real criticism to be made, I will say that the quick pacing does not let up at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution to both stories feel very fast. But even there I cannot really fault Nettel or the text, because I can see that this might be intentional and, if so, consistent with the book’s themes about story resolution. In any case, I still whole-heartedly recommend After the Winter. It is the kind of book I want to show to people who still think that stories about people just living their lives cannot be dramatic and utterly compelling. It is powerful and fun and, at times, devastating in the most meaningful ways.

 

After the Winter is available now through Coffee House Press.

Book Review

Fish in Exile

by on January 25, 2017

Fish in Exile, Vi Khi Nao

 

Many people have their own techniques for dealing with trauma.  Some of these techniques are learned in the mouth of the dragon, born out of necessity and scars.  Some are useless and catchy platitudes cooked up by people who have been blessedly free of real hardship.  Many people on both sides, and along the rest of the spectrum, will offer their advice on how to emerge from the cages made of grief and loss.  But ultimately the keys to those cages are all unique to the imprisoned individuals.  Our ability to cope is crafted by our own hands and cannot be made for us.  This is one of the ideas lying at the core of Vi Khi Nao’s beautiful and excruciating Fish in Exile, an unabashed immersion into one of the core agonies of the human experience and the rebounding echoes of its consequences.  It is a novel of shatterings, where the best laid plans and boundaries are sundered and left to shape new perspectives.

The story at the core of Fish in Exile is not entirely unfamiliar – a couple that the novel names Ethos and Catholic are parents who have lost their two children to inexplicable happenstance on a beach.  The novel centers around the relationship between Catholic and Ethos, two people who care deeply for one another but who are unable to cross the ocean of grief between them.  But the way in which Vi Khi Nao breathes painful new life into the story is by taking it deeper that most any author would be comfortable venturing.  No part of this experience is left sugar-coated or unexplored.  The sexual tension between husband and wife bleeds through the text as they both yearn for intimacy from the person they love most but cannot psychologically dissociate intercourse from procreation in light of what has happened.  This unreleased tension bubbles over toward taboo moments that threaten to shatter relationships and lives, ranging from the relatively mundane in the form of adultery to the illegal in the form of statutory and incest.  Through the perspectives of side characters, we see how the parents become the objects of well-intentioned but completely ineffective gestures and gawking from their communities.  The way in which societies often turn tragedies into spectacles is eviscerated by the novel as cruel and the height of selfishness.  Even the reader is pulled into this critique, as we find ourselves engrossed in this sensory overload of sexual awkwardness and emotional loss.

She lifts the waistband of my briefs and lowers it to my thighs. The daisies crawl out, falling onto the comforter like confetti.

My wife stares at my eyes, and then at my deflowered penis.  She alternates this ping-pong gaze for five seconds before wiping the daisies swiftly away from my penis and leaping off the bed. She sobs her way into the bathroom and closes the door.

The reason Vi Khi Nao is able to get the reader to sit and engage with this guilty excitement is because of some fantastic and exquisitely sharp prose.  Fish in Exile reads quickly thanks to its effortless flow and direct delivery, and these lend themselves to riding the emotional wave that the book takes us through.  The language is smart but not pedantic and it is wonderfully crafted in that special way that lets you forget you are reading text on the page as the words fit together.  Nao then combines this with a clever structure for the novel that completes the effect of the experience.  The book starts from Ethos’ perspective and we spend the first third of the text over his shoulder and in his mind, watching him struggle and fail to breach the defenses that Catholic has built around her body and mind.  The middle section of the book is reserved for several of the important secondary characters, such as Callisto, Lidia, and Ethos’ mother, who attempt to fill the yawning gaps between the main characters and, at times, attempt to hold them together or drive them apart.  The final section and say belongs to Catholic, who must deal with more pain and obstacles than any other character and whose arc ultimately shapes the narrative itself.  This layout perfectly encapsulates the journey of the characters and the plot.  I don’t know about you, but I find few things more satisfying than reading a book like this, where everything resonates and harmonizes throughout the text to reveal the meticulous care with which the novel was written.

How can I apologize if I don’t feel anything? If it doesn’t hurt to make an apology, why don’t I just do it? I decide I will make a point to apologize to him. But when? He has disappeared to another place in the house. The silence.

While on a personal note, I will also mention that, as a student of Greek mythology, I found Nao’s use of the Persephone myth and the callbacks to Greek tragedy to be beautifully handled.  It is unfortunately common to see mythologies of the ancient world called upon in unsubtle and obtuse fashion, more for their “cool factor” than for any real metaphorical resonance.  But here the novel handles the relationship with brutal sincerity and surprising levity simultaneously.  In one go, the text highlights the patriarchy’s utter inability to fully understand or appreciate motherhood, the biological imperatives that form the foundation of parenthood, and the acceptance of the notion that grief can never really be extinguished, only embraced as part of the human experience.  It shows that some things are even beyond the reach of gods, and yet no tragedy is so great that it cannot be overcome.

Given the intensity of the subject matter, I cannot recommend this novel for the purposes of an easy read.  But I do encourage anyone who might have difficulty with such a notion to steel themselves and open Fish in Exile.  It is a fantastic example of the beauty that can be found in tragedy and trauma, and I am not referring to the notion of happy endings.  Rather, the resiliency and the capacity to work through difficulty are what are on display here.

 

Fish in Exile is available now through Coffee House Press.