Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Epistolary Novels’

Transcontinental love

July 4, 2015 11 comments

Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique. 1999. French title: L’amygdalite de Tarzan.

Preamble: I have read it in French, translated by Jean-Marie Saint Lu. I translated the quotes into English and as often, it’s not easy to translate a Latin language into English.

A tous les deux, comme en tant d’autres occasions, la seule chose qui nous a manqué, qui nous a manqué d’emblée, certes, c’est notre Estimated Time of Arrival. Ce qui n’avait jamais dépendu de nous mais de divinités contraires et, par conséquent, notre histoire devait forcément déboucher sur un avenir souriant et meilleur, sur un optimisme effronté qui nous permettait d’affirmer, avec plus d’enthousiasme chaque fois, que le vrai miracle de l’amour, c’est que, en plus du reste, il existe. For us, like on many occasions, the only thing we never had from the start is our Estimated Time of Arrival. It didn’t depend on us but on opposite gods and as a consequence, our story HAD to lead to a smiling and better future, to a cheeky optimism that made us believe with even more enthusiasm each time that the true miracle of love is that, on top of everything, it exists.

Bryce_Echenique_tarzanPerhaps I should manage the upcoming billets list with a FIFO method. It would be rational. Only I can’t because sometimes the book I’ve just read is so vivid that I want to write about it right away, before I lose the feeling, before I’m out of its zone of influence, before I lose its melody. Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique is one of those books. I bought it by chance because the title and the cover appealed to me. My instincts proved right –only because I based my decision upon the French cover, though. So what’s it about?

Juan Manuel Carpio is Peruvian and from Indian origins. He went to university in Lima. Fernanda María de la Trinidad del Monte Montes is Salvadorian and from a bourgeois family. She went to school in California and in Switzerland in private schools. They meet in Paris where Juan Manuel Carpio plays the guitar and sings in the metro while Fernanda María works for the UNESCO. At the time, Juan Manuel Carpio is married to Luisa who left him and went back to Lima because he wouldn’t give up his dreams about becoming a musician. He’s still healing from this pain.

Chacun se débat comme il peut sur son terrain. Les séparations ne sont pas faciles, comme tu le sais. Et les amours ne s’enlèvent pas avec de l’eau et du savon. Each of us fights on their grounds. Breakups aren’t easy, as you know. And love doesn’t go away with water and soap.

Juan Manuel and Fernanda María fall in love but Luisa is still in the picture, legally and in Juan Manuel’s mind. Fernanda María goes back to El Savador, leaving Juan Manuel behind in Paris with a pile of regrets. She comes back for a while, only now she’s married to Chilean would-be photographer Enrique. They will have two children, Rodrigo and Mariana.

Juan Manuel will pursue his career as a songwriter and a singer and will stay in Europe, living between Paris and Majorca. Fernanda María will be in El Salvador, California, Santiago, London…pushed by the wind of dictatorships, guerillas and family troubles.

It’s a semi-epistolary novel. Juan Manuel tells us their story. His point of view is a classic narrative and Fernanda María’s voice is heard through her letters. Juan Manuel’s letters were stolen when Fernanda María was assaulted once.

Juan Manuel doesn’t complain about his life or his career but we can guess that he was lonely sometimes and that his path to fame and success wasn’t paved with flowers and soft and green lawns. He spent a lot of time on tours and the rest writing songs. His unconventional relationship with Fernanda María nourishes his art.

Fernanda María doesn’t complain either but her life was difficult and made of exile, a drinking husband who doesn’t know what to do with his gift as a photographer and odd jobs to survive and take care of the children. And the pain to come from a little country destroyed by civil war.

Nous marchons tous sur des sables mouvants ces temps-ci. Pour les raisons les plus diverses, le monde est inhabitable. We all walk on quicksand, these days. For the most diverse reasons, the world is uninhabitable.

Friends who disappear. Threats on their lives. Family split in different foreign countries to escape destruction and poverty. Fear for the future. That’s part of Fernanda María’s quotidian in El Salvador.

They will write to each other during thirty years and more. They will meet sometimes. They will nurture their love for each other. They will support each other from afar. They will have other people in their lives but these persons will have to accept they are second best.

Mais comme tu le dis si bien, c’est Dame réalité qui est la vraie triomphatrice de toutes nos batailles.Et peut-être qu’elle se venge de nous parce que nous ne lui avons pas rendu le culte qu’elle exige des personnes réalistes. Comme si nous lui avions tiré la langue, et elle est tellement, tellement orgueilleuse, cette Dame réalité. But as you say it so well, Lady reality is the real victor of all our battles.And maybe she takes revenge because we haven’t worshipped her the way she expects it from realistic people. As if we had stuck our tongue at her and she’s so, so conceited, this Lady reality.

Neither Fernanda María nor Juan Manuel is Argentinean but their story sounds like a tango. They move towards each other, then move away without losing touch and always with amazing grace. Everything in this novel is graceful, from the rhythm of the prose to the acceptance of the characters to move with the music score of their lives. It’s never corny and they embark you on the journey of their lives. The novel is also a reminder of how difficult it was to stay in touch with a loved one from a non-Western country before the internet age. Letters had difficulties to reach Juan Manuel because of war, poor post office service. Phone calls were awfully expensive. And there wasn’t anything else.

“So why Tarzan’s tonsillitis?” you may wonder. Fernanda María is like Tarzan, fearless and jumping in the jungle of her life. Confident in her walk into the jungle except when her throat is clogged with worries and angst. Her mental tonsillitis leaves her unable to yell and jump into the unknown. And Juan Manuel is a distant but concerned witness of her struggles.

I had a lovely reading time and I’ll leave the last word to Juan Manuel and Fernanda María:

– On se revoit dans notre prochaine lettre, Juan Manuel.- Sûr, mon amour. La lettre doit être comme un portrait de l’âme ou quelque chose comme ça, parce que toi et moi nous sommes tout ce qu’il y a de plus photogénique, épistolairement parlant. – We’ll see each other in our next letter, Juan Manuel.– Sure, my love. Letters must be like a portrait of our souls, or something like this because you and me are the most photogenic people ever, from an epistolary point of view.

PS: This is my contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog

 

The witty pie turned into gooey mashed potatoes

January 19, 2011 14 comments

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

What a disappointment! This book sounded so funny and lovely!

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is based on a good idea.

London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is travelling the country to meet the readers of her recently published book Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War. It is the gathering of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the war under the penname of Izzy Biggerstaff. Her publisher is directed by her dear friend Sydney, whose sister, Sophie, lives in Scotland and has been friend with Juliet since boarding school. The three of them are the first circle of pen pals.

On Guernsey Island, Dawsey Adams happens to read a book by Charles Lamb who once belonged to Juliet. He writes to Juliet to ask for a favour: since there isn’t any bookstore on Guernsey anymore, would she be so kind as to send him another book by Charles Lamb? Touched by his request, Juliet provides him with another book and starts corresponding with him.

That’s how she first hears of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This literary salon was created during the war, out of fear. Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Nothing new for a French reader, everything was pretty much the same in France during those years: hunger, fear, cold, curfew, troops, women sleeping with the enemy by interest, genuine love stories with German officers.

Like in France, livestock was thoroughly listed and some Guernsey neighbours tricked out the Germans to withdraw a swine from them. They throw a party to eat this unexpected meat and forget the curfew. As walk home after the feast, they are caught by the Germans, wandering after curfew. One member of the group, Elizabeth boldly lies and tells they had a literary meeting and forgot the time while talking about books. The Germans buy it and the next morning, the neighbours, led by Elizabeth, buy as much books as possible and start the literary circle for real, to keep the pretence.

Letters fly between Juliet and the Guernsey friends. In the second part, Juliet ends up leaving London for Guernsey to write her new book and meet her pen-friends. Unfortunately, the strongest personality, Elizabeth, is missing, as she has been sent to a prisoner camp on the continent for having protected a Todt worker. Follow then the description of her life in Guernsey, anecdotes about the German occupation, etc.

There are so many goods ideas in this book that it’s even more disappointing that they have been wasted. Elizabeth could have been a more central character as her personality and her actions influenced other people’s life. It is always strong in a book when an important character is there despite her absence. I’m thinking for example of Lydia, in Rebecca Connell’s The Art of Losing.

I would have liked to read Sophie’s letters as well. I think Juliet should have stayed in London and stick to writing letters to Guernsey; it would have been more powerful. And the literary meetings are disappointing. The first part raised my expectations. I expected to read more on books and the characters’ reactions to them.

I’ve read that Mary Ann Schaffer’s health declined and as she knew she wouldn’t have the strength to finish her book, she asked her niece Annie Barrow to complete it. I wonder where Mary Ann Schaffer stopped writing. If she wrote the first part and Annie Barrow the second part, it would explain the differences between the two.

The first part is lovely. The letters addressed by Juliet to Sydney and Sophie, describing her love for literature and her life in London are tender, funny and witty. There are interesting thoughts on how individuals recover from a war, if they recover at all. The early correspondence between Guernsey inhabitants and Juliet is nicely put.

The second part is goofy. Juliet takes a boat to Guernsey to write a book about the German occupation of the island. It seems all the possible clichés are there: a lonely shy and reliable Dawsey – Naming him George would have been too obvious – , an illegitimate child born from the love affair between Elizabeth and a decent German officer, orphans, an eccentric middle-aged lady with a golden heart.

The description of the occupation goes on. The predictable love story between Juliet and Dawsey happens with all the peripetia of romantic comedies. No, Juliet isn’t in love with Sydney since he’s gay. No, Dawsey isn’t in love with Remy, the French woman the literary society welcomes to Guernsey. The end is absurdly “Austenian”.

Well, what could have been a good book turns into a silly romance.

I can’t resist reporting the description of THE French woman in this book: stylish, practical and bold.

“Remy, for all she’s so frail and thin, manages to look stylish at every turn. What is it about French women?”

“Remy, like most Frenchwomen, is practical”.

“I would tell her of his affections, and then she, being French, would know what to do. She would let him know she’d find favour in his suit”

 

I’d never thought that my being practical came from my nationality. As for stylish and bold, I’m not the best judge. But this, added to Rebecca Connell telling me that my Italian features look exotic, makes me think I should have spent an Erasmus year in England. It would have been fun.

The positive point is that I’d never heard of Charles Lamb before. At least I will have learnt something, for which I’m always grateful. My opinion isn’t at all representative of the reviews. It is rated 4,5 stars on Amazon by almost 1400 reviewers.

Instead of reading The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, you might want to read the wonderful Journal à quatre mains written by Benoîte et Flora Groult. I think it has been translated as Diary in Duo. THIS is worth reading. It is autobiographical and composed of extracts from Benoîte and Flora’s diaries during WWII in Paris. If you want to know how it felt to be a teenager in Paris from 1940 to 1945, it’s witty and insightful. For men who’d be interested in understanding what it is to be a teenage girl, it’s pretty accurate.

Here is a teaser. Benoîte writes about her suitor Pasquale, who wants to sleep with her:

En me quittant, Pasquale dit « Vous êtes mignonne à croquer » J’en reste pantoise. Serait-il idiot ? S’il m’arrive d’être croquée par un homme, je compte bien lui rester sur l’estomac! Je ne suis pas une bêtise de Cambrai qu’on suce et qui fond sous la langue. » When leaving me, Pasquale says ‘You’re so lovely I would eat you’. I’m flabbergasted. Is he dumb? If I am to be eaten by a man, I hope I’ll weigh heavily on his stomach! I am not a Cambrai humbug one sucks and that melts under the tongue. (1)

(1) NB: “être mignonne à croquer” is the French expression to say “to be as lovely as a picture”. I meant to keep the food metaphor so I didn’t use it.

%d bloggers like this: