“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.” Philip Roth
In his in-depth work, K. David Jackson, Professor of Portuguese at Yale University, focuses on the oeuvre of Machado de Assis, rather than on more personal aspects of his life. If, on the one hand, you wish you’d get to know more about the man behind some of the greatest works of the Latin American literary canon, Jackson’s choice is understandable. Machado was a very private person, who led a rather uneventful and quiet life, totally devoted to his artistic objective: the construction of a philosophical and fictional world.
This detailed work by K. David Jackson isn’t, therefore, your typical biography, but a fascinating study of Machado’s output, illuminating unsuspected aspects of his fiction and acquainting the reader with hidden facets of his creative process.
Here are some of the most engaging points made in the book:
1. Biographical landmarks: Machado de Assis, known as the Wizard of Cosme Velho (the neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where he lived), was the co-founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (1897). His most famous works are the Carioca Quintet (a set of five novels published from 1881 to 1908: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Quincas Borba; Dom Casmurro; Esau and Jacob; Counselor Aires’ Memoirs). He died in 1908 at the age of 69. His image was used on a Brazilian banknote in 1988, and he was the featured author at the International Literary Festival Party of Paraty (FLIP) in 2008, to celebrate the centenary of his death.
2. His importance: According to Jackson, Machado’s writings ought to be placed alongside the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Hardy, Melville, Stendhal, and Flaubert.
3. Innovation: Having started off as a romantic writer and progressively become associated with the Realist artistic movement in Brazil, Machado is said to have anticipated the modernist narrative features found in Proust, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mann, and Borges.
4. Features: Machado’s work is hybrid and cannibalistic (intertextual). Through extensive reading, he assimilated and digested an incredible amount of information on Western culture as a whole (arts, music, philosophy, and literature), and based on these sources produced a very original body of work, using the social context of the city of the Rio de Janeiro during the Empire as a means to discuss and represent, mainly through parody and satire, universal truths and human dilemmas.
5. His most important works (such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro) feature unreliable character-narrators, whose hallucinations dreams and obsessions are said to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.
6. Theater and opera: These are among the main influences in the construction of the fictional space of Machado de Assis. Rio de Janeiro hosted a great number of European theater and opera companies in the 19th century, which allowed Machado to be exposed to a lot of comedic operas (opera buffa) and plays, which are not only frequently referenced in his fiction, but are also woven into the fabric of his works.
7. Shakespeare’s Othello: the classic story of the Moor who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy is reflected in the feelings – if not the actions – of important protagonists of Machado’s fiction. Othello is, for example, one of the main inspirations of Bento Santiago, the character-narrator of Dom Casmurro, whose insecurity and obsessions prompt him to write his memoirs as a way of persuading himself and the readers that his wife, Capitu, had an affair with his best friend Escobar, bearing an illegitimate son, Ezequiel.
8. Social Darwinism and Positivism – dominating scientific theories at the time – were strongly criticized and ridiculed by Machado, especially through the fictitious philosophy of HUMANITAS, summarized by the motto To the Victor, the Potatoes, created by the mentally unstable character Quincas Borba, who first appeared in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. He later made a comeback in the novel Quincas Borba (although, in typically oblique Machadian fashion, he’s not the protagonist of the book).
9. Main themes: Machado’s work is a profound depiction of Rio de Janeiro society during the Empire. This microcosm, however, is used by the author only as a familiar context for the highlighting of universal themes, such as legitimacy, chastity, honesty, hypocrisy, adultery and cruelty, which receive a modernist treatment in his hands.
If you haven’t had the chance to read Machado de Assis yet, K. David Jackson’s book will surely whet your appetite. For those, like me, who have read and reread Machado on a regular basis, Jacksons’ work was a surprising and welcome source of new interpretations of the familiar novels and short stories the Brazilian author is most famous for.
It’s exciting to have complex scientific concepts explained in everyday language, in a way that makes you acknowledge the relevance of the topic and understand how it affects your life. There is a line of great books that do that. In general, they belong to a genre called ‘popular science’ books.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee – a cancer physician and researcher as well as a stem cell biologist and cancer geneticist – goes way beyond that narrow genre definition, though. With the objective of discussing “the birth, growth and the future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas” in science (the gene), the author explores historical facts and tells personal anecdotes about the main people involved in the narrated events, and bravely includes information about his own Indian family history – with its many cases of mental illnesses – to illustrate points and, ultimately, to justify his interest in the subject.
Containing a great number of literary and movie references, and using language that becomes poetic and evocative at times, the author does not hesitate to apply clarifying metaphors to help us understand processes and results. The Gene, therefore, must be categorized as a hybrid text, with strands of history, science, biographical data and literature tightly interwoven in a fascinating whole, in which issues of heredity, illness, normalcy, family and identity are discussed.
In this post, we list and summarize 10 key lessons we have learned. Of course, we will be simplifying and reducing much of the fascinating content you will find in the book.
1. Darwin and Mendel: The science of genetics started off in the middle of the 19th century, with the development of Darwin’s theory of the origin and evolution of species (based on the idea of mutations, natural selection and the survival of the fittest) and the first heredity experiments carried out by Gregor Mendel in his pea garden in the backyard of the Augustinian abbey where he lived. Mendel discovered that heredity was handed down through discreet units, which were much later – in 1909 – called genes.
2. Eugenics: In 1869, Francis Galton coins the term “eugenics,” in his book Heredity Genius. Eugenics misused new genetic discoveries, helping create distorted and evil racial hygiene government policies, which enabled the setup of special asylums and the submission of mentally ‘feeble’ women to sterilization by force in the 1920s in the US, and the promotion of Nazi ideas about the purification and preservation of the Aryans as a superior race during the 1930s and 40s, with the extermination of millions of human beings.
3. The gene: If the atom is the basic unit of the matter and provides an organizing principle for physics, genes represent a similar unit in biology and provide similar organizing functions. Genes are parts or stretches of chromosomes – “long, filamentous structures buried within cells.” Human cells contain forty-six chromosomes: 23 inherited from one of parent and 23 from the other. They provide recipes (instructions for processes: basically the making of different kinds of proteins) and regulate all the work done by our cells. They are located in the nucleus of the cell.
4. Chromosomes: Chromosomes are made up of a special molecule called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), composed of sugar, phosphate and four kinds of bases (guanine, thymine, adenine and cytosine). The DNA structure – discovered by Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin in 1953 – consists of a double helix format with two strands linked by the bases.
5. RNA (ribonucleic acid): RNA is another molecule, similar to the DNA in structure, but with a single strand. It copies stretches of code from the DNA and serves as a messenger, carrying instructions from the genes located in the nucleus to the cytoplasm – the liquid part of the cell outside the nucleus – where proteins will be assembled according to the RNA code. Proteins compose most of the structures of our tissues, signal the initiation of processes and accelerate chemical reactions in our bodies. They rule.
6. Diseases associated with genes: From 1978 to 1988 a series of disease-linked genes were mapped. There are basically two kinds of gene-related diseases: monogenetic (involving one gene, such as cystic fibrosisand Huntington’s disease) and polygenetic (involving the coordination of a number of genes – most diseases, including cancer and schizophrenia, belong in this category). Besides, the effect genes have on the development of diseases is influenced by the level of penetrance. This means that different gene-related diseases are more likely to express themselves than others. The environment also plays an important role, working as a trigger to some of the diseases.
7. The ‘gay gene’: As of 1993 scientists started wondering if homosexuality could be directly linked to a gene. While there is evidence that there is a strong correlation between sexual orientation and the presence of a gene or a group of genes located in a certain region of the X chromosome, no one knows for sure how the process of formation of sexual identity is carried out. There may be other regulators scattered across other parts of the genome (see definition below); there’s no doubt that powerful environmental inputs or triggers are also at play here.
8. Race: Genetic studies disprove the mythical concept of race. Studies show that there is more variation within a “race” (85% to 90% percent of the level of total diversity of the human genome) than between the so-called “races” (only 7%).
9. The genome: The genome is the collection of all genes (with annotations, footnotes, and references) found in a species. In human beings, it amounts to three billion base-pairs, divided up into 21,000 to 23,000 genes (differentiated parts or stretches of the whole genome). In the year 2000, a draft sequence of The Human Genome Project, an international initiative to map and sequence the entire human genome, was announced.
10. The future: In the past years or so, we have developed new technologies which allow us to manipulate, re-engineer and edit genomes. We are at the stage where scientists are able to alter the human genome permanently, but we still don’t know all the moral, ethical, and physical implications of that. One of the objectives of this book is to bring more people into this interesting discussion. For the first time in history we will be creating a new species of humanoids. It’s, therefore, essential that all kinds of voices in the global community express their concerns, present their cases, and share their perspectives before we go down this road, as the process may be irreversible.
Siddartha Mukherjee’s previous book – The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer – won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Guardian First Book Award.
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.
Please let us know your opinion about this post.
The very well-produced Netflix show The Crown has been generating a lot of controversy all over the world. It seems there’s a great divide: British people and the royal family themselves hate it, as they wish it were more faithful to reality and less disrespectful to their beloved monarchy. Commoners around the globe, on the other hand, love the exceptionally good writing, the dazzling performances and thrilling storylines. They watch it as a soap opera – as they should.
What nobody seems to be taking into consideration are the important lessons viewers can extract from the show. That’s what I’m here for: To assist you. Read below the main takeaways, which will help you become a more successful and happier human being:
Don’t try to emulate your opponent even if you admire and envy her: be authentic. Spread as much jam and butter on your toast as you want, while your beautifully slim rival, sitting across from you, sips tea, dreaming she could be bathing in a chocolate tub. You will win their respect eventually.
Keep quiet and do nothing in most situations: They will sort themselves out eventually.
Don’t give in to your children. No displays of love and affection, which will only weaken them. Discipline is what they need most. Let them be bullied and brutalised at school to prove they are real men.
Love your pets more than your family and friends.
On the other hand, if animals are not pets, just go out dressed as a peasant and shoot them ruthlessly.
Complain, complain, complain about the constraints imposed upon you, as much as you want…but never try to live a freer and more fulfilling life: The privileges and pleasures of the royalty prove unsurpassable.
All problems can be solved by heavy drinking and chain smoking, or by huge doses of extramarital sex.
Pretend you are the only person on Earth that has direct contact with God – whatever your religion. People will believe you if you don’t waver.
Power has a lot to do with accents. Especially in English. Open your mouth minimally to enunciate your vowels. Let people struggle to understand what you are trying to say.
Use the word Indeed as often as possible. It will impress most commoners.
Keep a bell next to you at all times and ring it often, even if you don’t have any servants to summon.
Don’t get a real education, it will not do you any good. Learn about manners, rites, some French travel phrases, and all about the Constitution. More than that will be useless.
Lie, lie, lie.
Never touch a book. Spend your free time in long walks in muddy terrain and cold weather, drinking tea or hugging your dogs.
Go back on your promises without hesitation if it servers your agenda.
If you are having domestic problems (like your wild son went missing), go bombard some faraway country – such as Argentina – to relax a bit.
I strongly recommend you watch the show. It is already a classic.
Please post your comments below.
Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country, all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)
What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further…
The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.
The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.
Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South.
What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition.
Dystopias are a subgenre of science fiction that depict a nightmarish society, usually autocratic and controlling, in which the inhabitants or a section of the community are submitted to horrors imposed by the abuse of power or by the fact that technology has gone awry. The plot is usually embedded in a strong political context; the authors predict developments that might occur when trends in social conditions of their own times, combined with ill-use of technology, are taken to extremes. Having said that, some dystopias are written with the future in mind (1984 by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; or The Circle by Dave Eggers); others take place in the author’s present (Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example). Others are even set in the past, as is the case with Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary novel we’ll be reviewing in this post.
Kazuo Ishiguro and His Novel
Authors who have made their names writing what is considered high literature – such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – can produce exceptionally refined sci-fi/dystopian novels. This is because they do not overemphasize the importance of the plot or try to deliberately shock the reader with the strangeness of their imaginary dysfunctional world. They build well-rounded characters who are incredibly believable, stressing their nuanced emotions, their heroic and/or flawed deeds, their generosity and their meanness: The overall complexity of human relationships. The drama and thrills emerge naturally and slowly from the characters and their behavior. Besides, these stories give us new insights into the human condition and, under the guise of this imaginary world, the authors tend to be discussing relevant current issues metaphorically.
The plot and the characters
Never Let Me Go is the poignant story of three friends – Kathy (the protagonist), Tommy and Ruth – whose only purpose in life is to grow up to serve as organ donors for other members of society. They are part of a group of people who have been specifically cloned from models (other human beings) and are raised in special training centers, boarding schools in the UK, which lend the whole process a pretense of normality and humaneness. Soon after they finish their education, as adults, they are trained as carers – to look after donors after their surgeries – before they themselves start receiving notifications to begin donating all their viable organs in sequential surgeries, until they die, having, thus, accomplished their function.
The novel is narrated in flashback by the protagonist Kathy, when she is already a carer in her early 30s. She nostalgically reminisces about their time at the idyllic Hailsham, their boarding school, which we find out later was famous for offering the best conditions for the raising of clones in the whole of the UK – unlike the first centers set up as an experiment during the 1950s and 1960s, where thousands of people were submitted to horrific upbringings before they became donors.
Kathy’s childhood and teenage years are spent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s when we get to know Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, who has a strong manipulative streak; Tommy, the short-tempered sporting boy, who is unfortunately terrible at arts, a rather valued skill at the school; and the young and sensitive Kathy herself, who has mixed feelings towards Tommy, but can never engage in a full relationship with him, as Ruth steps in first to become his official girlfriend. Tommy’s personality – his aggression and lack of artistic ability – makes him the target of bullies at the school, until he is aided by a sympathetic teacher who helps him manage his feelings and learn to come to terms with who he really is.
The students have a vague notion that they are being prepared for an unusual kind of future. However they will not know all the details about their tragic fate until much later when they enter society. The novel’s atmosphere is dark, ominous and deeply poignant – almost gothic in certain passages – as we see these kids growing up only half realizing what the future holds for them.
Of course, as in all kinds of impactful dystopian works, the author comes up with specific language to define processes and entities of that special reality. In this case, donors do not die, they complete (passing away after a number of operations); the teachers of the special school they go to are known as guardians. The breed of humans cloned to serve as donors have a first name and only a capital letter for surname: Kathy H, Tommy D, and Susanna C, for example. Possibles are random people they run into occasionally and suspect they are probably the models from whom they might have been cloned.
In the last part of the book, as Ruth’s donations have already started, Kathy becomes her carer; later she is finally persuaded by Ruth to go and look after Tommy, who has already undergone two donations, so they can develop the autumnal – and doomed – romantic relationship that Ruth believes she has made impossible for them to enjoy so far, by standing between the two of them all their lives. She wants to make up for it now that she is about to die.
Some critics say this is the best book Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has written since The Remains of the Day. It’s certainly a great achievement, having been shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize.
The book was also turned into a movie in 2010 and has become more popular ever since. Nevertheless, the language of some of the scenes created by Ishiguro is in itself so visual, beautiful and emotional, that I refuse to let the painful yet rewarding experience of reading those wonderful pages be influenced by any movie director’s interpretation or view of that special world.
No movie for me, thanks! The book has all the magic I need.
Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018, at 85. This is the last article I wrote about him:
Before you read this post, you must understand and accept that nothing about it is objective or detached. I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth, who is considered by many one of the greatest American writers. I love his books. From the first Philip Roth I ever read – I was 17 or 18 at the time, young and impressionable – I was hooked for life. The fact that it happened to be the outrageously funny and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint undoubtedly had something to do with my obsession. So my disclaimer is this: partiality will color this article; I’m a pro-Roth kind of person. My plan in this article is to tear down ingrained myths about the life and work of this brilliant provocateur, in my own inartistic words.
1. Philip Roth was an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew.
Have you ever read any of his books? The fact that he was Jewish pervades his work. His self-deprecating comments can only deceive the naive. He was very proud of his ethnicity and his family and friends, although he was far from orthodox or even religious. Roth was an atheist. The misunderstandings arise from his greater pride in being an American and his love for the fundamental (although perhaps more ideal than real) values the US stands for. He never took for granted the freedom and lifestyle that are the simple result of being born and having grown up in the geographic space that comprises the United States of America. Unlike the Anne Frank of his book The Ghost Writer, he had a childhood. And if he refused to be “a good boy” to be accepted, it’s because he believed that being a good boy made it even harder to fit in. You need to be outstanding, outrageous, infamous to break down walls and belong in the world of the goy.
2. Philip Roth wrote about his own life.
Of course, reality informed his stories, and reality is apprehended through personal experiences as much as from vicarious ones – from books we read, movies we watch, things that happen to our family and friends. So there’s certainly a lot of Roth’s own life in his stories, but these experiences are transformed by imagination; they’re not necessarily exact representations of things that happened to him or that he did himself. Everything is filtered through the powerful lens of language and fiction. Life becomes larger and its dark corners are illuminated by the spotlight of Art. Hyperbole, amplification, metaphors, and masks are all part of the process. You can’t put your finger on a single paragraph in any of his books and guarantee it describes something that really happened to him. Even the famous Nathan Zuckerman, who first appears in The Ghost Writer and continues to feature as either the protagonist or the narrator in many subsequent novels, isn’t a warranted alter ego. I’ll admit Zuckerman is the mask that most closely resembled the author behind it, but he’s not Roth. There are a couple of books, however, in which Roth dares to unmask himself and write about reality – as far as this is possible since experiences are based on memory and language, which somehow always transform them. One of these non-fictional books is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, written after a serious bout of depression caused by taking the drug Halcion for pain in his back. He wrote this short autobiography covering only the first 30 years of his life as a healing exercise, stripping himself as much as possible of his imagination and the usual masks. The second is the moving but never sentimental Patrimony: A True Story, a “snapshot of his father in movement,” as he states in the BBC documentary Roth Unleashed (which I strongly recommend), and a portrait written so he could remember his father in as much detail as possible. “I mustn’t forget anything,” was his mantra at the time. His father was dying of a brain tumor, and Roth realized he had the makings of a book – a tribute to the old man – in the notes he took at the end of each day, after coming home from the hospital where he looked after his father.
3. Philip Roth was a misogynist.
All I can say is Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip), the writer of a very interesting book titled Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, is a woman, and she strongly disagrees with the view that Roth hated women. She gives the reader great insight into his body of work, including the themes, language, characters, and masks explored in his novels, and she maintains his books probe deeply into the human soul and bring up everything, the good and the bad, and therefore include a wide spectrum of women characters. It’s not accurate to say that he always depicted women as shrews. Besides, who’s to say that the women depicted as shrews in certain novels are representative of all women? If he hated women, he must have hated men as well, or haven’t you met one of the most despicable and depraved heroes ever created in Western literature: Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Roth’s gripping novel Sabbath’s Theater?
4. Philip Roth was a misanthrope.
Writers, as a rule, aren’t the most sociable people in the world. They need hours of solitude if they’re to produce something worthwhile. Roth was a well-integrated and sociable person in his years as a child, teenager and young adult, and made many friends in college. Some of these friendships lasted until the day he died. He survived a tumultuous marriage to an older woman he met when he was only 23 and entered into a long-term relationship with actress Claire Bloom, during which time he lived mostly in London. He had other lovers and mistresses throughout his life. As he grew older, however, he became more and more of a recluse, spending long hours on his books, which grew in scope and importance to become indisputable masterpieces. According to writer Salman Rushdie, the growth and maturity reflected in these books were a direct consequence of Roth’s turning his creative beam from the obsessive self-analysis of his early works to the depiction and discussion of what lay around him, focusing on the bigger issues and themes of his beloved America. In his early 80s, he was perfectly happy living alone in his beautiful country house in Connecticut. When asked if he ever felt lonely, he replied, “Yes, sometimes, like everyone else,” but that the absence of friction – the inevitable result of contact and negotiations with other human beings – was something he never missed. It’s bliss not to have to cope with this any longer, he claimed.
The best way to get to know the real Roth – or rather, the Roth that matters – is by reading any of his 31 books. Immerse yourself in his world of masks without worrying too much about what’s real or imaginary. Engage in his game of mirrors. Appreciate his language and power of imagination. The life of any human being is composed of memories, so its account is never 100 percent reliable. We create and recreate reality all the time, so why expect anything different from a man who earns his living writing fiction? You will never get to his core because it’s impossible to grasp, being unpredictable and transient.
Love is always in the air, even in these difficult times of COVID-19. To help our blog followers make a decision on what to read next during the quarantine, we’ve selected 5 classic Latin American stories (three novels, a novella, and a play). These are stories in which love and passion (and their inseparable counterparts: hatred, vengeance, and violence) play a key role, though they do not necessarily fit the paradigm of romantic works. Let’s explore them.
Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig
Argentina in the mid-1970s. The charismatic window dresser Molina (age 37, gay, sentenced to 7 years in prison) shares a cell with the political prisoner Valentin (age 26), who cannot forget the woman he left behind to serve the revolutionary cause. To fill up the void and boredom of their current situation, Valentin spends his waking hours either studying politics or listening to Molina’s retelling of his favorite films (they are usually romantic, black-and-white B-movies from the 1940s, featuring strong glamorous heroines he identifies with. Warning: the reader will get completely hooked on these melodramatic plots!). Slowly, a powerful bond develops between these two very different men. But can Valentin trust Molina? Or is he just a poisonous spider, weaving a dangerous web around Valentin, who’s entrapped by his captivating storytelling and generosity? Revolution, sexuality, male bonding and gender rights are the key themes of this unforgettable and moving tale of tales. In 1985, the novel was made into an acclaimed movie directed by Hector Babenco, featuring William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Sonia Braga.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa
Set in 1950s Lima, Peru, this is the story of Mario, age 18, a Law student and aspiring writer, who works as a journalist for a radio station. Two simultaneous events will have a sudden impact on Mario’s quiet and reserved life. The arrival in Peru of his divorced Bolivian Aunt Julia (the exuberant sister of his uncle’s wife) in search of a new husband, and the hiring by the radio station of the also Bolivian eccentric scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, whose hard-working habits and inexhaustible creativity will become sources of inspiration to the young man. Mario and Julia – the typically irresistible older woman – start a puritanical romantic relationship, necessarily hidden from the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Pedro Camacho’s outlandish radio serials – whose plots, reproduced in prose, are incorporated in suspenseful chapters within the main narrative of the novel – take Peruvian audiences by storm, transforming the scriptwriter in an overnight celebrity. Hilarious.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez
The opening lines of this thrilling novella are among my favorite in all Latin American literature:
“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream.”
You may wonder how the author manages to keep readers hanging on to his every word until the last paragraph, since the ending of the tragedy has already been so openly given away. Well, the obvious reason is we are dealing with Gabriel García Márquez here. In his works, the plot represents only one among many fascinating elements, which work together in the creation of a whole literary experience. The characters, for example, with their idiosyncrasies and complexity, leap off the page. The language stands out, producing a hauntingly suspenseful atmosphere; the strength and relevance of the themes (at once local and universal) engulf the reader in a potent swirl of ideas and feelings.
This novella is basically a deep examination of the chauvinistic culture still very much ingrained in the region. Following the extravagant and lavish wedding celebrations, the young Angela Vicario is sent back to her parent’s home only a couple of hours after the ceremony, as her husband, the rich and powerful Bayardo San Román, discovers she is not a virgin (which will not allow him to get the necessary public validation by the shameful tradition of displaying the bloodied linen sheet as proof of the marriage consummation). The young girl’s twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo, take upon themselves to avenge the family’s honor. They will hunt down and kill the man who seems to be responsible for the girl’s doomed fate, the wealthy and good-looking Santiago Nasar. Surprisingly, as the narrator – a friend of the victim’s from their school days – collects interviews from the various inhabitants of the town to reconstruct the events and write the story decades later, he finds out that everybody seemed to have known in advance, one way or another, about the murderers’ plans: so how could they have failed to warn Santiago of his imminent death?
Of Love and Shadows, by Isabel Allende
The love story takes place in Chile during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Francisco and Irene, the protagonists, have very different backgrounds. He is the youngest son of a Spanish anarchist, Professor Leal, who fled the Spanish Civil War with his wife, Hilda, and now, living in Chile, uses a printing press at home to produce leaflets promoting his political views. Francisco is involved in the clandestine leftist resistance, helping people hide and cross the border to escape the tentacles of the Political Police. Looking for a job as a photographer, Francisco meets Irene, a charismatic upper-class heiress who works as a journalist for a women’s fashion magazine. Their initial friendship and camaraderie develop slowly into passionate love, as Irene’s political awareness also matures. They finally realize they can’t live without each other.
However, when they discover an abandoned mine packed with corpses of desaparecidos (missing people, killed by the repressive military regime), they must embark on a political mission that will change their lives forever. The novel’s themes remain relevant, as political upheavals continue to shake South America in the 21st century.
Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman
This disturbing play in three acts (which has had productions in Chile, New York, and London, and was also made into a movie directed by Roman Polanski, starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in 1994) deals with confronting terrifying ghosts from one’s past.
Paulina Salas lives with her husband in an isolated house on the beach somewhere in Chile, nursing her psychological traumas from the recent past, when she, as a leftist militant, was imprisoned and tortured by members of the military dictatorship.
Times have changed: the dictatorship is over now and the nation is undergoing a healing process. Gerardo Escobar, her husband, has been appointed a member of an Investigating Commission that will look into the crimes against human rights perpetrated by the former regime. One night, however, he gets a flat tire and has no available spare. He’s rescued by Doctor Roberto Miranda, who’s also staying in a house on the beach, and gives him a ride home.
On the following night, Roberto turns up unexpectedly at Gerardo’s home, saying he just wanted to find out if they needed any more help with the car problem. On hearing the doctor’s voice, however, Paulina recognizes it. Although she could never see the man’s face in prison, she is sure he was the sadistic doctor in charge of her torture sessions. She is determined to take justice into her own hands, putting the doctor on trial in her own house… and she will enlist her husband as Dr. Miranda’s lawyer in the macabre plan.
If you have more suggestions on great Latin American literature, please write your comments below.
For months, I tried to get an exclusive interview with Homer Simpson for Father’s Day. His PR representative kept turning me down but I didn’t give up. Then I had a lucky break. As Lisa, his daughter, was browsing through my blog Linguagem, she came across the article Stephen King’s The Shining: Like Father, Like Son (https://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1IL) and got interested. The PR rep had neglected to inform Mr. Simpson as to where the interview would be published. Lisa convinced her Dad how important it could be for his career to talk to Linguagem. Consequently, Homer immediately granted me an interview. He couldn’t have been more apologetic about his employee’s gaffe. Needless to say, she got fired.
The next day I flew to Springfield and, after a wonderful dinner with the entire family, I spoke to Homer. Below, you will find a summary of the insightful conversation we had about his life and the importance of fatherhood:
Linguagem: Mr. Simpson, how do you plan to celebrate Father’s Day with your family? Are you going anywhere fancy?
HS: What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway.
Linguagem: I see. How do you feel about life in general?
HS: I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another…
Linguagem: Do you follow any particular philosophy on how to educate your kids? Can you give us an example of how you discipline them when they are out of line?
HS: Now Bart, since you broke Grandpa’s teeth, he gets to break yours.
Linguagem: And what about when your boy reach puberty?
HS: …I told my wife how to go about teaching Bart how to become a man: The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let’s see. Don’t tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything, unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.
Linguagem: Hmmm. As a Dad, what are your hopes for your children?
HS: I believe that children are our future. Unless we stop them now.
Linguagem: Are you a religious man? Do you thank God for the great life and wonderful family you have?
HS: I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman. But I remember saying on one particular occasion: Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me. As an offering, I present these milk and cookies. If you wish me to eat them instead, please give me no sign whatsoever…thy will be done.
Linguagem: What would you do if there were some kind of emergency with your kids?
HS: Operator! Give me the number for 911!
Linguagem: What is the best advice you could give to kids who didn’t accomplish what they had wanted to?
HS: Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.
Linguagem: Do you consider yourself a good role model for your children?
HS: I think the saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things, and Bart experienced that at the age of four.
Note: all Homer’s answers are actual quotes from the very successful and funny TV show. Homer may sometimes sound harsh, but he is a loving father and adored by his dedicated wife. Happy Father’s Day to all.