I have just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I can’t wrap my head around it, though. I don’t really know what it meant. One can interpret it in a number of ways, and I have been doing that for the past few days. The meaning the author wanted to convey can be as elusive as the book’s subject matter: SCENT.
There was a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, at my mother’s house when I was in college. I never touched it. I’m glad I didn’t, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it then, being too young to deal with its abstractions. Now I read the English translation from the German by John E. Woods: The language is amazing, a pleasure in its own right. I wonder what it sounds likes in the original. There’s a movie based on the book, but most of my friends told me it wasn’t nearly as good as the novel. So I guess I won’t see it.
The content of the book wafts from the page in its mixture of aromatic words, fragrant images, perfumed beauty, pungent corruption, and putrid evil. What does it mean to be human? What can satisfy a person? This is what the story seems to ask. Read this masterpiece and let’s discuss it.
However, after reading the book, you will never think of scent, odor, perfume, and stench – or France in the 18th century for that matter – in the same way again.
Have you read the book? What are your thoughts about it? Let us know.
I read Euclides da Cunha’s The Backlands (Os Sertões), a brilliant journalistic account of the War of Canudos, a couple of years ago. The report is extremely well-written, precise, and exciting – to the extent that non-fictional pieces of writing can afford to be, even when they incorporate techniques more typically used in fiction. However, regular readers will agree that nothing can be more thrilling, more stimulating to the imagination, than great novels.
Therefore, even if you loved The Backlands, which I certainly did, don’t miss reading Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, the novel based on the same event – a war waged between the official powers of the recently proclaimed Brazilian Republic and a gathering of some 30,000 jagunços (the name given to the impoverished and undernourished inhabitants of the backlands), who built a community, Canudos, in the northeast of Bahia at the end of the nineteenth century.
First of all, I was impressed by how much Llosa knows about Brazil. He must have undertaken extensive and in-depth research about this period of our history. As a consequence, he is quite familiar with the different groups of people who lived in the region, their customs and physical characteristics, the regional names they gave to the native vegetation and geographic locations of the backlands, an area of the interior of the northeast of Brazil punished by constant droughts, leading to poverty, scarcity of all kinds of resources and, as a result, illness, ignorance, and predisposition to all kinds of superstitions and fanaticism.
The War of Canudos is a very complex conflict, involving clashes between opposing political interests, different economic classes, idiosyncratic religious views, and diverse cosmologies to sum it all up. It was a war between myths, in the broadest sense of the word. The military sent to the region claim they were defending the interests of the Brazilian Republic against heavily armed conservationists backed up by the English and local aristocrats who were trying to revert the country to a monarchy. Nevertheless, the jagunços who came in droves to put together and live in the community of Canudos were mostly Catholics who followed the somewhat peculiar doctrine of the charismatic religious guru Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor. This religious leader had, with the mere strength of his words and personal example, the power to persuade the simple-minded people of the backlands to turn their violent and empty lives into something more peaceful and meaningful; he gave them loftier aspirations.
The War of Canudos needs to be interpreted from different angles and perspectives. The lines separating right and wrong as far as the confronting ideologies went are not clear-cut. Lots of gray areas. The horror, however, made itself rather concrete and clear, through the brutality and violence that took place in those forgotten and distant dry lands of the interior of Brazil during the conflict. Llosa’s novel is not for the faint of heart, by the way. The explicit descriptions of shots, throat slashes, decapitations, stabbings, bombardments, disfigurement of faces, bayonet perforations, dismembering of body parts, causing corpses to accumulate in piles or lie strewn around, exposed to the voracity of famished vultures, dogs and rats, disputing the remains, are nauseating and shocking.
On the other hand, a strange beauty permeates the novel, when it shifts to the narration of the resilience, bravery, abnegation, cooperation, and empathy shown by the jagunços toward each other. It also emerges in the description of the cold star-studded skies at night that alternate with orange moonlit landscapes lacking in water and vegetation – only cacti, mandacarus, and shrubs could survive in such hostile climate – or, also, in the rare and quick passages portraying the sudden and brief storms that brought hope and happiness to the fighters.
The War of the End of the World is a hard book to read, with many different themes to take into consideration and reflect on. Although, at a more superficial level, it seems to be simply the fictionalized account of a real conflict that took place more than 100 years ago, the novel encapsulates relevant and current themes, especially for Brazil, a country whose stark economic inequality and cruelty toward the lower classes are still a sad reality.
Have you read any of the books mentioned in this article? Did you like them? Please leave your comments below.
Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.
With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.
Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.
The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.
Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.
At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.
As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.
Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.
The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes).
Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer!
Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.
The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today
Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.
The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.
In his book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips does a wonderful job of collecting the great author’s thoughts on the field of writing. Phillips draws from various sources including personal letters, books, novels, essays, commissioned articles, and interviews. Sectioning our post in the same way Phillips did with his book, let’s try to summarize some of Hemingway’s most interesting ideas on the topic.
What Writing Is and Does
• Good books are all alike in the sense that they feel true. Communicating genuine experiences to the reader is essential. It’s the writer’s job to convey to the reader feelings, sensations, and even the weather, as he narrates the experience he’s writing about.
• Literature is, after all, poetry written in prose and it should read like that.
• Good books may be reread as many times as the reader wishes: they never lose their mystery, there’s always something new to learn.
The Qualities of a Writer
• Writers need the talent of a Kipling and the discipline of a Flaubert. They also must be intelligent, honest, and disinterested.
• Writers must be able to detect anything that doesn’t sound genuine in their texts. Their minds need to work as radars to avoid artificiality.
• To write novels, writers need to have an inbuilt sense of justice and injustice. Otherwise, they had better be doing something else.
• Writers need to be fast learners. Knowledge of the world is an essential tool for this job.
The Pain and Pleasure of Writing
• You write for two people basically: for yourself (and you need to make it perfect) and for the person you love, so they can read it and share the experience.
• Hemingway says he never suffered when he wrote. He felt empty and horrible when he was not writing. This is the opposite experience of many other writers, as you probably know.
• Writing is a difficult and challenging process, yet, so rewarding. It’s a disease some people are born with.
• Sometimes a writer will need to reread something good he has written in the past to convince himself he can still do it, and then, will continue writing.
• Writing is an obsession. Maybe a vice.
• There are no rules to writing: it may come easily sometimes, and at other times it can seem almost impossible.
What to Write About
• Don’t write about your personal tragedies: nobody really cares about them. But you can use your hurt feelings to convey truth in what you are writing.
• A man has to have suffered a lot to write a really funny book.
• Writers should stick to what they know profoundly.
• Readers expect the writer to repeat the same story every time they pick up one of their new books. Don’t do that: the new book is not going to be as popular at the last.
• War is a good subject. Experiencing war can teach writers a lot. Some are jealous because, never having taken part in a war, they can’t write about it firsthand. Other good topics are love, money, avarice, and murder.
Advice to Writers
• At the beginning of your text, write one true sentence. The rest will stem from that.
• Write about what you really feel, not what you are supposed to feel. Only real emotions count.
• Remember the details of the experience that inspires you in order to pass on to the reader real feelings and sensations. Readers should relive your excitement.
• Listen carefully and actively when you talk to people, so you can understand their perspective and use it in your writing. Learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
• Hone your observational skills.
• To be truthful, you can’t put only what is beautiful in a novel. You need to add the ugly and the bad.
• Distrust adjectives.
• Write like Cézanne painted: Start with all the tricks and then get rid of all the artifice and bare the truth.
• As you are writing, stop when it’s going well. So the next day you feel energized about the task and pick it up knowing where you are going.
• When you are not writing, don’t think about it, try not to worry about your novel; do something physical or read other books. Let your subconscious work on it.
• Every time you start writing, reread everything you have written so far. When it begins to take too long to cover all the written passages, reread only the last few chapters.
• After writing a novel, give it a couple of months before you start rewriting it. Let it cool off. So it looks and feels fresh in your mind when you go back to it.
• Hemingway needed to be left completely alone to focus on his writing. He said writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
• Hemingway refused to write about living people. He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. Unless he deliberately wanted to.
• Use what you know as well as other people’s experiences to write fiction, but don’t make them recognizable. Invent it.
• Let people be people, don’t turn them into symbols.
Knowing what to leave out
• Hemingway compares writing to an iceberg: only the tip shows, but the underwater part is the knowledge the author has about what he’s writing, and it matters.
• Avoid slang (except if it’s needed in dialogue).
• Only use profanity that has existed for 1000 years. It may go out of fashion fast.
• Don’t use profanity merely for its shock value. Make sure it’s really necessary.
• It takes time to find a good title.
• A great number of good titles comes from the Bible, but they have all been taken.
• Other writers can teach you a lot.
• A selection of books every writer should read: War and Peace and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy); Madame Bovary (Flaubert); Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann); Dubliners (Joyce); Tom Jones (Fielding); The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky); Huckleberry Finn(Mark Twain); The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)…
• Authors should write what has not been written before or try to beat dead men (which means: write better than former writers on a certain subject).
• Hemingway thought War and Peace was the best book ever written, but that it would have been even better had Turgenieff written it.
• Do not follow the political fashions of your time. They are temporary and will wear off soon.
• There is no left and right in writing: only good and bad writing.
• Patriotism does not make good writing either.
• Don’t write about social classes you don’t belong to or don’t know deeply about.
• Writing about politics may get you a good job in government but it won’t make you a great author.
The Writer’s Life
• Writing is more exciting than the money you make from it.
• When writers make a lot of money, they get used to an expensive lifestyle and have to carry on making money to sustain it. That’s when they compromise.
• Good writers don’t keep their eyes on the market.
• Publicity, admiration, adulation or being fashionable aren’t worth it.
• Writers should be judged on the merit of their writing and not on their personal lives.
• Critics have no right to invade the writer’s personal life and expose it.
• Critics will find hidden symbols and metaphors in a text when they are simply what they are.
First, let me explain what I mean by becoming a better reader. It does not mean to read faster, but to read more often and more efficiently. I know it may sound contradictory, but reading faster and reading better are not the same thing. As a matter of fact, reading better means reading more slowly: in the sense that you put more time in savoring every word of the book, appreciate and reread sentences, try to decipher the deepest meanings of a novel; reading slowly also means to understand and reflect on the author’s views, if you are reading non-fiction, and decide if you agree with them or not. What motivated the author to write his/her piece? What is he/she really trying to say? Is the plot the most important element or just a gimmick to sustain interesting characters and what they represent?
Here are a few tips to improve your reading process:
1. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t finish every book you start. Read for pleasure and fun. If you have read, let’s say, 20 pages into a book and the story (or the material) still doesn’t hold any real interest, why go on? Quit it and get something more pleasant.
2. On the other hand, make time to read more serious or difficult books (once a day or a week, maybe). It’s important to stretch your reading skills. So, now and then, make an effort to read beyond your proficiency level or your sphere of interest. You will develop as a reader and find it progressively easier to tackle harder texts. And the payoff will be huge.
3. Try audiobooks. Especially the ones you suspect you will never find the energy to read. Listening can be great in situations in which you are doing mechanical things and cannot use your hands to hold a book or another reading device (such as driving, or riding a bike, or commuting on a bumpy road – some people get nauseous if they read even while moving smoothly on a train or bus, for example). I live in a city with some of the worst traffic jams on the planet. I don’t know what I would do without my precious audiobooks.
4. Keep informed about interesting books: readers’ lists; publishing staff’s picks; lists of the 100 best books ever in different categories; books which have won prizes (the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer prize winners or shortlisted books are a sure way of getting great recommendations for your future read).
5. Make time for skimming. To read better, there’s no need to apply your full concentration every time you pick a book or magazine. Practice skimming: going through a number of articles in print or electronic format just to get the gist, the main idea. This is an excellent way to acquire a reading habit or develop your reading strategies.
6. Join a book club. Being part of a group of readers will give you structure and will help you keep the interest and motivation. It adds accountability to the process, so you will feel the pressure to get it done, so you are able to discuss the assigned chapters in the next meeting.
7. Reread: there is no need to read new stuff all the time. Reread your favorite books as often as you wish. They are a tried and tested source of pleasure. Besides, you will always find something new; a passage or sentence you either don’t remember or hadn’t noticed before. When I reread books I first read years or decades ago, I’m usually surprised at how much I missed the first time around: I was younger and did not have the necessary maturity to grasp all the richness of the material.
8. Write your impressions about the books you are reading. Keep a journal. Highlight and write notes about your favorite passages on the page itself (remember you can add notes to ebooks as well!). Ask yourself questions about the book and try answering them. Some books already bring ready-made comprehension questions to help structure the reading process. Answer them in writing.
9. Try different genres, do not limit yourself to what you already know or like. You will be surprised at the new possibilities of discovery this will open.
10. Always carry books with you: in print or e-format. I usually travel with at least one paperback, in print format, and my whole ebook library on my iPhone. I’m terrified at the prospect of having free time and nothing available to read.
11. See a movie version of the book you are planning to read to make it more palatable. Now that you have the context, it may be easier to cope with the heavier language of the book.
I would love to hear your own strategies and tips on how to read better. Would you share them with us, please?
Historical novels are made-up stories written around real facts that took place in a significant time period. One of the premises of this popular literary genre is that the author’s contemporary times and the period reflected in the plot must be separated from a distance of at least 25 (others will say 50) years. Good examples of effective historical fiction are the Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which look back and offer a perspective on Henry VIII’s court in sixteenth century England.
However, if you take a book like Tom Wolf’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – a very sophisticated and entertaining study of New York City during the 1980s – it cannot be considered historical fiction, since the novel was written around the same time as the period it depicts. For the same reason, books like Jane Eire, Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations are not historical fiction either. They were simply novels which were written in the past.
Historical novels may mix real facts, people and situations with fictional ones.
What are the prerequisites of great historical fiction?
They are based on extensive and careful research. Although we can’t expect historical fiction authors to be historians, they will need to have an accurate sense of the period they are focusing on. To write a simple scene in one of these books, writers will have to know, for example, the kinds of clothes people wore; the objects they used; their language; the political and social context; how they celebrated their holidays; what parties they went to; what was their religion, and a lot more. Therefore, authors of historical novels must carry out a lot of research to be able to sound convincing about the times they are depicting.
The focus is on storytelling. Authors need to keep in mind they’re not writing a history manual, though. The research only helps to build the context where a story will be developed. The most important part of their job is the creation of an exciting plot; the development of well-rounded characters (which may or may not be real); their ability to infuse the text with the right atmosphere; their craft to play with language; to promote what all great literature does: a discussion or reflection on what makes human beings tick when put in certain situations.
Authors use creative ways of exploiting historical gaps. It takes leaps of imagination to write historical novels. Successful writers of the genre will have to fill in historical gaps (like what people say in private, their feelings, their motives, etc.) with interesting information. Part of this information will be inferred and some of it will be invented.
The story is preceded by an Author’s Note. The reader shouldn’t be deceived. The author’s note will explain what in their story is based on facts and what is purely fiction. Writers will clarify what poetic licenses were taken in the book. Also they should make explicit what is the scope of the historical information applied.
Authors take the opportunity to discuss contemporary issues. Historical fiction can be used as a powerful way to discuss current issues. Although they narrate specific events that happened in past as context, the best historical novels offer an interesting angle on contemporary or timeless themes, such as the position of women and other minorities in society; the fairness of the social and political system; interpretations regarding the role and nature of human beings; the importance of religion and mythology, etc.
Historical novels – especially the ones that abide by the principles we listed above – are becoming even more popular these days.
What are your favorite historical fiction novels? Please use the comments section below to let us know.