I love Aki Kaurismaki, and here’s the trailer for The Man without a Past:

Best line: An electrician helps M to “borrow” power from the closest pylon and connect it to his container. When M enquires about his fees, the guy answers “Turn me over if you find me face down in a ditch one day.”


In Posthegemony I point out that “For all his fame as a novelist of magical realism, and so purportedly of surprise, creativity, and delight, Gabriel García Márquez is as much a writer of habit, tedium, and repetition” (178). This is nowhere more true than in the Colombian writer’s early novella, La hojarasca.

Of course, it is not as though García Márquez were only a writer of “habit, tedium, and repetition.” The very concept of the “hojarasca” or leaf storm that gives this book its title suggests the tumultuous forces of modernization and industrialization that tear through even a town as remote as Macondo (introduced here for the first time) in Colombia’s otherwise sleep Caribbean littoral:

Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm. A whirling leaf storm had been stirred up, formed out of the human and material dregs of other towns, the chaff of a civil war that seemed ever more remote and unlikely.

Even here, though, in the story’s opening lines, there are some strange tensions. What does it mean for a whirlwind to “set down roots”? Even the exceptional becomes, somehow, rooted in the everyday–and isn’t this after all the classic formulation of magical realism? Or at least the whirlwind becomes routine until, just as suddenly as it arrived, it leaves.

For the events recounted in La hojarasca take place long after the leaf storm has up and left. And these events are minimal indeed: we are in a boarded-up house where an old man (a doctor who has long since abandoned his practice) has died, has committed suicide by hanging; another old man (a similarly long-retired colonel), with his daughter and her son, has come to the scene to prepare for the ensuing funeral. The dead man’s body is placed in a coffin; there is a minor disagreement with the mayor as to whether the burial can go ahead as planned; finally, it is agreed that it can, and the house door is forced open so the coffin can be carried out to the street. The whole action takes place over the course of exactly half an hour, between two and three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.

These small, ritual actions and the long pauses between them (the wait for the mayor to return in the suffocating heat) provoke a series of reflections and recollections on the part of the three members of the funeral party, and it is of these that the narrative consists: the old man and his daughter think back to their history with the dead man; the grandson observes them as they remember and considers what he might be doing otherwise, if it weren’t for this brief interruption to his routine. But even the history that the older two recount takes places almost entirely after the leaf storm has already departed, concerns long periods in which literally nothing happens, and focusses mainly on a couple of brief, dramatic interludes in which, again, stubbornly and unyieldingly, nothing happens.

Indeed, perhaps García Márquez’s genius resides, both here and elsewhere, in his masterly evocation of the intense drama he shows us can be found in anticlimax, in disappointment. In the end, everything takes place as it always would have taken place. García Márquez’s theme is this inexorability of a fate that at almost every point looked as though it could have been avoided, but never is.


While I’m posting videos and thinking about Neruda…

Here are the Brazilian Girls (perhaps my new favorite band; incidentally, they’re neither Brazilian nor, for the most part, girls) with a rendition of “Me gustas cuando callas”:

Sadly the visuals for the above video are far from inspiring. It’s worth seeing the song live. Here’s a performance from a couple of years ago in New York:

One of the things I like here is that this rendition is something of a performative contradiction: though the poem speaks of absence and a woman’s silence, in the person of singer Sabina Sciubba we see a woman very much present and the focus of attention (while the male members of the band hide behind their instruments) and it is her voice that sounds out, rather than being hushed.

Indeed, is she telling us to be quiet?

Meanwhile, Sciubba is renowned for hiding her eyes. So while making herself the center of visual attention, she also seems to want to resist the gaze. In her words, “I can do whatever the fuck I want because nobody is going to recognize me in the street.”


After a fun class yesterday on Neruda, in which students acted out Poem 15 from Veinte poemas de amor and then wrote letters or poems to the poet from the point of view of the woman or women he addresses (my favorite: “¿Pór que no te callas tú de vez en cuando?”), I was extolling the virtues of UBC undergraduates to some friends.

As further evidence, my buddy Alec mentioned the following video, produced by a UBC class in response to a now somewhat infamous article in Maclean’s arguing that Canadian universities are “too Asian”:

For more, see Tetsuro Shigematsu’s account of the making of the video, “Too Asian?”, and Brian Lamb’s take, “Is UBC ‘too Asian’? Let’s sing and find out”.


Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. To date, she is still the only Latin American woman to receive the prize. The prize citation states that her award recognizes “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”

Introducing her before her banquet speech at the occasion of the prize-giving, the Swedish Academy’s representative stresses the geographical distance she has travelled: “From a distant continent, where the summer sun now shines, you have ventured the long journey to Gösta Berling’s land, when the darkness of winter broods at its deepest.” The implication here is that this voyage is some sort of novelty, that Mistral has been plucked from her naturally sunny climes to receive her award in frosty Northern Europe. In reality, however, the poet’s biography is marked by constant mobility: first in Chile itself, where she worked in secondary schools from Antofagasta in the north to Punta Arenas in the far south; and then, after leaving Chile in 1922, as she moved between consular posts and teaching positions in Mexico, France, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and finally the continental USA where she was to die in 1957. In short, the long trip to Sweden was hardly Mistral’s only transatlantic or transhemispheric trip.

The Nobel prize committee’s point, however, is no doubt more metaphorical than literal: it may feel that “the darkness of winter broods at its deepest” in that Europe had only recently emerged from the Second World War. As the first post-war recipient of the Literature prize, Mistral’s task is to bring some Latin American optimism and “idealistic aspirations” to a climate in which, as German theorist Theodor Adorno suggested, it felt barbaric to write poetry in the wake of Auschwitz.

In response, Mistral says very little about herself and nothing about her (or indeed anybody else’s) literary work. She presents herself as the representative of Chilean democracy and Latin American culture, both of which tells us are indebted to European social democracy. In a speech whose hallmark is modesty and self-abnegation, she thanks “the cosmopolitan spirit of Alfred Nobel” for including Latin America within its remit and “the Swedish democratic tradition” for showing an openness to renovation while adhering to “the core of the old virtues, the acceptance of the present and the anticipation of the future.” If her prize signals the New World’s “idealistic aspirations,” Mistral is far from playing the part of enfant terrible or radical innovator. A stress rather on “tradition” and “heritage,” both her own and that of the hosts, is the keynote of her modest acceptance as part of the pantheon of global culture.


Cien años coverGabriel García Márquez‘s Cien años de soledad is a long, sprawling novel that lacks much in the way of a conventional plot. Rather, it is full of events and incidents, digressions and flashbacks or flashforwards, not least the famous flashforward with which the book opens:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (9)

In fact, in a further complication, this is a double flashforward: both to the story of the discovery of ice, recounted some twenty pages later; and to the story of Aureliano Buendía facing the firing squad, which will not be told for another several hundred pages.

But what does appear even in this opening sentence is one of the threads that connects and gives some sense to what might otherwise appear to be a jumble of narrative excess. For in what we take to be his final moments, by recalling the transmission of knowledge from father to son the colonel also highlights the theme of inheritance, of what is passed down from generation to generation. In short, of genealogy.

family tree
For there’s no surprise that some editions of the novel include a family tree. Cien años de soledad is (among other things) a family saga. One of its central concerns is they ways in which sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, and even great-grandsons and great-grand-daughters, have, face up to, take responsibility for, or negotiate what they have inherited from their forebears.

Still early on in the novel, for instance, we see how José Arcadio Buendía (Aureliano’s father) destroys or uses up his wife’s inheritance–a trove of colonial gold coins previously buried under the matrimonial bed (11)–in his misguided zeal for alchemical progress.

Equally, José Arcadio and his wife, Úrsula, fear that their very marriage may set trouble in store for their offspring. In that they are cousins, and they have heard that other cousins in the family who married gave birth to a child with a pig’s tail, they fear their children will likewise be monstrous. For months after their wedding, Úrsula refuses to allow the relationship to be consummated, out of fear for what might issue. They only start to reproduce after a neighbour, Prudencio Aguilar, mocks José Arcadio for his failure to bed his own wife. “If you bear iguanas, we’ll raise iguanas,” José Arcadio tells her.

Yet indirectly the future has already been set for the couple’s descendants. Spurred in defence of his honour to kill Prudencio Aguilar, José Arcadio has as a result to take Úrsula off in the founding Exodus that establishes the community of Macondo.

So Macondo is troubled from the start by the question of inheritance, of legitimacy, and the ways in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers) may be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

In other words, the novel is also troubled from the start by the ways in which, whether through incest or adultery or any number of other complications, the family tree soon becomes as unruly a structure as the narrative profusion that it is in part designed to contain and control.

Genealogy, intended to produce order and secure legitimate inheritance, is equally a source of disorder and confusion as Aureliano follows Arcadio but is followed in turn by other Arcadios and other Aurelianos. It becomes increasingly hard to keep up. The family tree is soon lost to the multitudinous forest.


dollFelisberto Hernández‘s short story “Las Hortensias” explores an uncanny modernity of couples and doubles and life-like mass reproduction.

The story centres around a childless couple, Horacio and María, who live in a suburban house next to a factory whose machinic hum pervades their lives and the narrative. Partly perhaps as a substitute for the child that they cannot have (44), and also (we’re told) partly because of his fears of mortality and particularly of the possibility his wife might pre-decease him (20), Horacio acquires a collection of life-size dolls that he has arranged in a series of tableaux vivants.

But one doll in particular becomes rapidly an object of obsession for them both. This is Hortensia, made in the likeness of his wife (whose middle name is Hortensia), who stands in for wife, child, sister, and increasingly Horacio’s lover.

At the outset María colludes in the imaginative play with which Horacio gives life to Hortensia. But there’s something slightly sinister about the “surprises” she likes to play on her husband by switching roles with the doll, dressing her in her own clothing and providing her with animate qualities at the same time as she herself takes on increasingly doll-like roles. Soon collusion turns to jealousy as Horacio takes this simulation a stage further, having Hortensia fitted with veins through which warm water can be piped for additional verosimilitude, and fixing his desire ever more firmly on the mannequin.

Meanwhile, other doubles are equally troubling: for instance, the household’s servants include a pair of twins, one of whom is also named María, whom María (the wife) feels she has to hide from her husband’s gaze; and the couple keep the mirrors in their house shrouded, as their reflections provoke anxiety in Horacio however much he also “very much liked to discover the confusion of people and things that mirrors provoked” (51). There’s a sense from the start that such reflections and imitations are always likely to get out of hand, and to lead towards madness. Horacio feels himself surrounded by disturbing signs, above all the sense that “the dolls had their secrets,” that they are “full of omens,” and that they appeared to be “hypnotized beings carrying out unknown missions or lending themselves to unsavoury designs” (22).

More substitutions follow: María attacks Hortensia, though the couple both worry about the notion that a doll, supposedly inanimate, could be “killed.” Then Horacio swaps Hortensia first for a blonde doll and ultimately for a black one who turns out to be his wife, providing him with yet another of her surprises.

Unable or unwilling to trust his own senses, and with the feeling that his desire has become delirious (increasingly [un]fixed on part objects–the dolls’ detached limbs floating in a tank), Horacio himself becomes ever more of an automaton: he scarcely moves, “his eyes fixed as though they were glass, his silence that of a doll” (77). In a final breakdown, in terror at one last surprise on the part of his wife, one last substitution in which she plays the part of a doll, we find him setting off across the flowerbeds “heading towards the sound of the machines” (80).

Horacio has definitively abandoned human reproduction centered around the closed world of the domestic couple, to ally himself with the infinitely more productive (if also more disturbing) world of the factory. In the proliferation of representations that modernity allows, any distance between sign and thing has (for him) broken down. So why not enter fully into the world of things, abandoning pretensions to puppet mastery, to some kind of transcendent humanity?


Marta BrunetMarta Brunet‘s “Piedra callada” is a chilling little tale of long-guarded resentment, terse conversation, and sudden violence; it’s reminiscent somewhat of a Flannery O’Connor short story, but with southern Chile standing in for the US Deep South. Two implacable wills face off against each other: the mother, Eufrasia, who has opposed from the start her daughter’s marriage to a lowly, sullen peon; and the son-in-law, Bernabé, who refuses to be parted from his children following his wife’s death.

Or rather, this is not so much a “face off” as the mother knows that to get her way she might have to proceed “by short cuts, clambering around, biding her time, if the direct route was made arduous and full of obstacles” (39). Hence she is consistently seen only in profile (e.g. 46, 54, 60, 64) as she half turns away, seeking to slip to one side or another, looking askance at her surroundings: “The old woman, always turned to one side [siempre de perfil], observed [Bernabé] out of the corner of her eye” (59).

There is something aslant or crooked also about the son-in-law: his eyes, for instance (40), and he too takes in the changes Eufrasia has wrought by looking at them only indirectly (49). But his characteristic movements are less from side to side than up and down. In the presence of hacendado and mother-in-law alike he hangs his head, slouching as though admitting defeat ahead of time (40, 58). And when his ill-named wife Esperanza (“Hope”) dies, it’s “as though his head had all of a sudden buried itself in his shoulders” (50).

Increasingly, Bernabé’s anger literally swells up from deep within his body, his arms, his hands. But it’s not for nothing that even Esperanza, pleading to be allowed to marry him, has to admit that he’s clumsy, heavy, slow-witted [lerdo] (36, 37). Eufrasia by contrast is “prodigiously agile, quicker in thought than he” and also quicker to move: she “side-step[s] immediately,” leaving him behind when threatened (60).

Neither of these two rivals is distinguished by their use of language. Bernabé is taciturn to the point of dumbness, managing only a grunt or two for the most part, and “drowning in words” when he is called upon to say more (62). Eufrasia’s silences, by contrast, are part and parcel of the long game that she’s playing as she watches and waits for her opportunity to strike.

And when strike she does, it’s to force Bernabé likewise to step off to one side: but here this involves his slipping and falling; unlike her, he’s lost if he cannot move ahead and straight. Eufrasia wins out (was there ever really any doubt that she would?), though in a chilling final paragraph that reminds us how imperceptible her wayward track has been, she leaves the door open “because as far as the others were concerned, the man might still return” (65).


Everyone else is doing it (The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum, AngryBrownButch, Truly Outrageous, The Valve, and plenty more), so here’s a poem by Pablo Neruda. Specifically, Poem 15 from Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada:

Pablo NerudaMe gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

Como todas las cosas están llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mía.
Mariposa de sueño, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolía.

Me gustas cuando callas y estás como distante.
Y estás como quejándote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
déjame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.

Déjame que te hable también con tu silencio
claro como una lámpara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.

[Hear Neruda himself recite it, albeit rather dolefully, here (mp3).]

It’s a tough poem to translate (though there are a couple of egregiously bad attempts out there, notably this one, which gets the last line utterly wrong).

Above all, no doubt, there’s the question of how to translate “me gustas cuando callas.” Among other efforts, I’ve seen “I like you calm,” “I like it when you’re quiet,” and “I like for you to be still.” And callarse does indeed have a range of meanings.

The Collins Spanish Dictionary provides the following: “to keep quiet, be silent, remain silent; (of noise) to stop; to stop talking (or playing etc); to become quiet; (of sea, wind) to become still, be hushed.”

The Real Academia Española gives us:

callar. (Del lat. chalāre, bajar, y este del gr. χαλᾶν).

  1. tr. Omitir, no decir algo. U. t. c. prnl.
  2. intr. Dicho de una persona: No hablar, guardar silencio. Calla como un muerto. U. t. c. prnl.
  3. intr. Cesar de hablar. Cuando esto hubo dicho, calló. U. t. c. prnl.
  4. intr. Cesar de llorar, de gritar, de cantar, de tocar un instrumento musical, de meter bulla o ruido. U. t. c. prnl.
  5. intr. Abstenerse de manifestar lo que se siente o se sabe. U. t. c. prnl.
  6. intr. Dicho de ciertos animales: Cesar en sus voces; p. ej., dejar de cantar un pájaro, de ladrar un perro, de croar una rana, etc. U. t. c. prnl.
  7. intr. Dicho del mar, del viento, de un volcán, etc.: Dejar de hacer ruido. U. t. c. prnl. U. m. en leng. poét.
  8. intr. Dicho de un instrumento musical: Cesar de sonar. U. t. c. prnl.

It’s clear from both that the word’s primary meaning concerns voice or sound, and so only by extension the other senses implied by calmness or stillness. Moreover (as Ashea notes), the range of signification also encompasses, without being limited to, the Spanish equivalent of “shutting up”: “¡Cállate!”

At first sight this is a disconcerting image: the poet silencing the woman’s voice, or even suggesting that she shut up. Such silencing is a familiarly gendered move, of course, but we’d rarely expect such explicitness, in a love poem at least.

And the image remains disconcerting at second sight, too, because it is the beloved’s imagined absence that’s celebrated; this appears to be an encomium to distance: “I like you when you’re quiet because it’s as though you were absent.”

Worse still, at third sight, the poet seems also to be delighting in positing the woman’s death: “Distant and doleful as though you had died.”

Can then it be redeemed–if indeed we should want to “redeem” it–by the final line’s ironic twist, “And I’m happy, happy that in fact it’s not true”? Perhaps indeed the mistranslation “And I am happy, happy of what, isn’t certain” is symptomatic: the poem surely leaves the reader with a shiver of uncertainty. Can Neruda really mean what he’s saying?

Yet this is hardly the only poem in the collection that praises the beloved’s silence: “Ah silenciosa!” [“Ah, silent woman!”] is Poem 8’s refrain. Or compare Poem 14: “Ah déjame recordarte cómo eras entonces, cuando aún no existías” [Ah let me remember you as you were then, when you still did not exist”].

The woman (or women) addressed throughout the twenty poems is always a shadowy figure, however often she is compared to the most concrete and tactile of substances: the earth, for instance, in Poem 1. She hovers perpetually between presence and absence and that, it seems, is how Neruda likes her.

Because in the end what’s affirmed her is not the beloved herself, let alone “the real subjectivity of another person” as Joseph Kugelmass argues about a poem (14) that states, of all things, “Since I’ve loved you, you’ve seemed like nobody” [“A nadie te pareces desde que yo te amo”].

What’s affirmed is the poet’s voice. He has “forged” his beloved “like a weapon” [“te forjé como una arma”] (Poem 1), and throughout the collection runs the double sense of this forgery: as both something unreal, insubstantial, untrue; and also a creation that pays homage more to the creator than to to the created. No wonder the final poem resounds with the self-affirmation “I can write” [“Puedo escribir”] (Poem 20).

I can write… I can write… I can write… And Neruda can surely write. There’s no question that these are marvellous, beautiful poems, deservedly famous. But we shouldn’t perhaps lose sight of the disconcert–and indeed discordance–the shiver of uncertainty induced by the spectral presence of the woman who is invoked only to be despatched, conjured up to be absent even in her presence, excessively haunting but also enabling the master poet find his voice through her silence.

[Meanwhile, Marta Brunet provides a rather different take on subaltern silence–and treachery.]