Category Archives: General Literature

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

download (1)Confession: Until I read this book, I had never read a Toni Morrison book before.  I’m not quite sure why. Sure, I know all about Beloved and I feel as though I know Morrison – I certainly felt as thought I had a intimate taste of her writing as I read this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I thought Morrison would feel like… if that makes sense.

When I think Morrison, I think Maya Angelou but somehow without the gravely tone of her voice and the echo of her depths. I realise that this is a very sensory response to a piece of writing but I don’t see that there is any other way to response to such a work. I agree with Kara Walker who says, in the NY Times review: “Toni Morrison has always written for the ear, with a loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”

I don’t think I can do a review of this book justice. Not sure it’s worth trying since The Guardian has done such a superb job! What I will say is that the premise of this book quite distubed me. I expected the colour issue and I expected a feminist angle and I wasn’t disappointed on either count. What I found confronting was the story itself – the way that the protagonist, Bride, physically regresses in response to the burden of a lie she told as a child. In her own mind, her body reverts back to her childhood self. It was this that disturbed me, perhaps because it was most unexpected.

I wasn’t bowled over by this book. I loved the majesty of Morrison’s prose – there’s no doubt that she has a symphony hidden in her pen, or her keyboard or quill. She is clearly a master of language and storytelling. I was captivated by the story and by Bride’s boyfriend, Booker – I found him fascinating. I think where I was left somewhat empty was in Bride herself. There was something in her voice that didn’t entirely resonate with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on… Perhaps it is just in comparison to the grandeur of the prose that I have been left with such a high expectations of perfection from this author.

As The Atlantic so succintly puts it: “Rather than craft big novels, Morrison has distilled her fictions with atomic elements.”

This novel was certainly worth the read and Morrison is truly one of the greats. Equally fascinating, are the various opinions of the different reviews which all provide such insight into this intriguing little book.

Mark Haddon, The Red House

I‘ve been trying to work out what it is about Mark Haddon’s writing that so appeals to me. I can’t quite seem to put my finger on it. He has such a distinctive style that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact element which stands out as stellar.

Haddon tells a story through his characters and their inner thoughts. On one level, his writing seems disjointed, fractured, fragmented and at first, it was a challenge to sink into this book. But then something happens and suddenly you are committed to the story and the people and their lives and you need to know, you have to see the resolution, how they come together or are torn apart.

I’ve read a few of Haddon’s books now and they all seem to be an intimate portrait of family and the intricacies which make each one so unique. This book was no exception. I don’t think it is Haddon’s best work, but I am glad I read it for it made me think and reconsider how I relate to others, particularly those closest to me.

 

A Tiger in Eden, Chris Flynn

This book came courtesy of the good folk at textpublishing and I have to say that off the bat it wasn’t something that would normally attract my reading attention. On the surface, this book traces the journey of an Irish man wanted for ‘things’ he did back in Ireland. To survive, he has travelled to Thailand where he is living an idyllic but tortured existence romping from beach to beach and woman to woman.

But that is just one element of this story, and a sometimes superfluous one at that.

What this book is really about is a man’s struggle to negotiate the minefield of his past, to learn to accept responsibility for actions that he chose to take and then to be able to move forward and actually know and like himself in his truest form. For me, it was this that was at the core of this novel.

I am still unsure whether or not Flynn has actually managed to pull off this challenging weave of Irish rebel replete with ‘No Surrender’ tattoo and soul-searching individual perched in the strange embrace of a monk’s meditation retreat. I agree with what Rob Minshall at the ABC Weekend Bookworm has noted:

… if anything, and considering his supposedly violent past and bigoted beliefs, Billy’s character is a little too sensitive. An Australian girl composing songs on the beach moves him to tears at one stage of the novel, he falls in love awfully quickly, he enjoys a good book and, considering his years as a sectarian street fighter, he’s terribly perceptive about cultural differences.

I do think that the ending came together too easily and that has let the book down a bit. I wanted more than just a sweet happy sunset. It didn’t seem to do the subtext of this novel justice.

What I do know is that I read this book and enjoyed it, it made me think about people I would not have otherwise thought about, in a way that I definitely would never have considered appropriate for their stereotype. I warmed to this different approach and in this way, the book was, for me, successful.

“You think I don’t know what the world’s like sure I seen more than most men could stand and I done things I’m not proud of … I done enough bad shit in my life and I need to get myself sorted out before it’s too late, maybe it is already maybe I’m just kidding myself on but I got nothing left no more enthusiasm for nothing I’ve just got to stop and face up to the world before it crushes me like the f*cking worthless bug that I am.”

I couldn’t help but like Billy and I liked him even more when I read this interview with Flynn which I think adds enormously to the book.

This is definitely worth a read and I will be watching out for more from this debut author.

11/22/63, Stephen King

As a young reader I ploughed through all of Stephen King’s work. I can’t quite recall what grabbed me at the time … Most probably it was just that his work was just so readable and gripping. It has been a long time since I read any of King’s work and I have to confess that I only picked this one up because of a high school history project that I once did on JFK. I couldn’t resist seeing what King had done with this era and how he had resolved some of the controversies surrounding Kennedy’s assassination.

In hindsight, this book had some interesting elements. I was intrigued by King’s description of time travel and the implications of changing the past. At times I felt that this part of the book was too drawn out and at times meaningless. But I did find myself considering his notion of the “butterfly effect” and the waves of change that ripple from any one moment in time …

It was clear that King had done considerable research in constructing this narrative – reconstructing the events around Kennedy’s last moments and building Lee Harvey Oswald’s persona seductively in the background. I found all of this very well crafted. The insights that King provided were intriguing and certainly provided much food for thought. Who was Oswald? Was he a patsy? King’s time travel enables him to envisage multiple endings or resolutions to this situation and I found that quite liberating in some way.

As to be expected, King’s characters were wonderful and layered and there was sufficient thrill in each of them to provide action to sustain the flow of the book and to carry King’s underlying interest in the Kennedy story.

Despite all these intriguing elements, I found reading this book somewhat slow and at times tedious. While I appreciate King’s desire to properly explore his context, there were times when I felt that he had done so in a manner that was too long winded and that detracted from the flow and speed of his narrative. I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone … If you have an interest in Kennedy then it is a must read, or, if you are a history buff and appreciate some of the deeper nuances of the passing of time and the impact of all events on the evolution of society and the world, then I expect you will find this book well worth the time.

We Are All Made of Glue, Marina Lewycka

I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what attracted me to this book. I recall seeing the book by the same author with the bizarre title about Tractors in Ukrainian and I being so perturbed by the peculiarness of the title that I never bothered to give the book a second glance. I had never read any review about this book nor had I read anything about Lewycka as an author. I had nothing to guide me but the apparent ‘fun’ that this author seeks as implied by those tractors.

So, imagine my surprise and sheer delight when I discovered that this book was filled with the most magnificent characters in a traditional sense. Here were people who seemed real. People with issues, people who struggled with themselves and with the world without needing psychotherapy. People who seemed somehow whole, despite their many holes.

I was gripped from the moment I first encountered Georgie Sinclair vigorously throwing her husband’s precious LPs into the dumpster. I was even more taken by the quirky Mrs Shapiro, a neighbour, who we meet ravaging through the dumpster and delighting over her find. The conflicting values between these two women make them a perfect combination to force readers to reconsider their own connections with people, what manufactures those connections and how they are cemented.

For some very strange reason, Georgie and Mrs Shapiro are bonded, quite like glue in fact. Georgie comes to Mrs Shapiro’s aid in many ways throughout the book, saving her from nursing homes and other nightmares. However, at the same time Mrs Shapiro gives Georgie back the passion that she has lost somewhere along the road that is her life. I loved the way that these two bantered and related, the way they resided both separately and within each other, alongside each other, connected but clearly apart.

Even more than the characters, I loved the plot. The twists and crazy turns were fabulous. There were so many highlights that I can’t name them all and doing so would only spoil the story for those who might choose to read it. Needless to say, this book spoke to me on so many levels and really reignited a joy for reading that is so often lost beneath the mire of more intense and overtly challenging texts.

In this book I read satire and endearment, love and passion, politics and sociology. I read health care and economics, I read deceit and resolve. I read families and loneliness, connections and the wonderful unfolding of furls of tangents which made the characters so multi-dimensional. Watch out for the action with Georgie’s son to understand some of my meaning here!

So, I eat my words. Tractors in Ukrainian sounds, in hindsight, like a magnificent idea… along with Two Caravans and anything else this marvellous author cares to pen.

The Book of Lies, Mary Horlock

Textpublishing provides the following outline of this book:

Guernsey, 1985. Fifteen-year-old Catherine Rozier has a secret she can no longer keep to herself. It’s about the night her best friend fell from the cliffs.

Twenty years earlier, Charlie Rozier stands at the edge of the same cliffs, looking for a confession of a different kind. He thinks he was betrayed by his friend during the Occupation, and now he wants the truth to come out.

This stunning debut from Mary Horlock is about the conflicts and trials of growing up, the secrets of families, and the repressed histories that we all harbour. Captivating and moving, it is a journey with two characters whose unique voices the reader will not easily forget.

It sounds captivating. It wasn’t.

I really and truly struggled with this book. I so desperately wanted to like the characters, to be drawn into the plot and to be carried away into another time and place. But, none of this happened. I found the first part of the book terribly boring, slow moving and at times confusing. I felt as though there was something there waiting to be discovered but it was never really revealed. My position as reader in this relationship was frustrating to say the least and I read on to the final page only because of this feeling that buried here was something great.

Despite the challenges that I faced in actually completing this book (read: it took me a REALLY REALLY REALLY LLLLLOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG time!), what I found most interesting was the context of Guernsey during WWII. In fact, I was so taken by this background that at times I found myself researching some of the events and descriptions which Horlock provided in outlining the backdrop for part of the story.

When I go back and reread the book’s opening, it doesn’t seem so bad. It actually captures some of the elements which so attracted me to the book in the first place. For a moment I have to consider that perhaps I have missed the book’s essence … but no, I don’t think this is the case. I wasn’t convinced on too many levels – even the title didn’t seem to fit with the angst that this book described. Poor Cat, fat and lumpy she seemed to me, totally out of place, exactly as I imagine Guernsey to be, funnily enough (not that I have anything but assumptions to base that on!). But, rather than empathise with Cat, I found her irritating. She grated on me as I imagine she grated on her peers. And, to top it all off, I found Nicolette’s actions totally over-exaggerated and unrealistic, especially toward the end as Cat tries to recall the events of the night on the cliff. Whether Nic’s behaviour is described in this way as a means to convey Cat’s version of events (a type of justification), I cannot be sure. Nonetheless, there are too many moments in this text where Nic seems excessive in terms of characterisation.

Feel free to read some other reviews here, here and here.

What has stayed with me most from this read is how relieved I am that I finally reached the last page!

(As an aside, I have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and I found that a far more endearing read.)

Alice Munro

How is it that I have never before read Alice Munro? How is it possible that I have missed such awe inspiring brilliance? I am stumped. Baffled. I feel as though I have suddenly discovered all that I am lacking in my appreciation of literature, of texts in general. What else am I missing out on? I shudder to think!

Alice Munro and short stories to boot (you will recall that this is my least favorite genre)!

“When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for a bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.”

In this first story of her collection Too Much Happiness, Munro has carved a fluid, simple and wonderfully vivid and intense narrative without being overwhelming. She has danced around this story in a way that clearly indicates her skill and alacrity. She is subtle with a sense of integrity or perhaps, even, innocence or naïveté?

Clearly, Munro’s ability to manipulate the flow and style of this genre sets her apart from so many other short story writers who have, in the past, so defined this genre for me.

Am I allowed to confess that I possibly enjoy Munro more than Woolf in this genre?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

I first stumbled across this controversial book in the Wall Street Journal where an extract published caused furious and frenzied responses from a wide spectrum of the community, both local and global. The original publication depicted Chua as somewhat of a demon, extreme, manipulative and, in all honesty, quite vile. She was described as terrorizing her children, forcing them to perform to a strict schedule of tasks, limiting their interaction with their peers and preventing them from engaging in anything that might be deemed ‘fun’. Chua herself confesses that she is “not good at enjoying life”, this is apparently not one of her “strengths”. For Chua, childhood was “a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”

I was intrigued. It was hard not to be. Chua’s position – that Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts – was so outside of our expectations of political correctness and accepted social ettiquette. How could one not read this book?

As one might expect, the Post sensationalized Chua’s book, selecting the most vitriolic segments to create its extract, probably hoping to inspire debate. And her response to the uproar parallels the disclaimer with which she starts her book:

“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

What Chua’s book is actually about is her own journey through parenting her two, very different children. It is about an extraordinarily driven woman who seemingly managed to balance marriage, children and a demanding academic role and still be apparently successful.

But Chua’s message is clear: “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Chua goes on to detail what she perceives as some of the greatest differences between Chinese and Western parents and parenting:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

And I have to confess that this gave me pause to think about my own parenting style – how often do we pander to our children, concerned that we might offend them, desperate to enable them to lead a soft and easy life and certain that the way to do this is to bring them dinner while they sit in front of the television and warm their milk just so in the evenings.

It is almost impossible not to like Chua – she is bright, devoted and respected. She is also reasonably honest about herself, confessing her inability to have fun and painfully detailing how she failed with her younger daughter, Lulu. However, this does not stop readers from wanting to shake her and make her refocus! Interestingly, the urge to bring the author to her senses is consumed by Katrin’s – Chua’s sister – battle with cancer which neatly distracts readers, allowing them to empathise with Chua on a totally different plane.

But, there is a resounding and subtle sadness to this book. Despite Chua’s convictions, she still has doubts, is still uncertain about her choices and her parenting style:

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano – and violin – induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.

But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart … I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.”

Perhaps, for Chua, the lesson is to decide what parenting is actually about: is it predominantly concerned with creating “happy” little people or is it more about molding character and determining futures. This book doesn’t provide any answers. It does, however, present a fantastic read filled with thought provoking ideas.

August, Bernard Beckett

This one came from the good folk at Textpublishing. I was attracted to the book for several reasons, one of which was that the author shares a last name with Samuel Beckett, one of the most probing writers of our time. The other major thing which intrigued me about this text was its cover page which is seemingly upside down, an indication of things to come! I was also particularly fascinated with the book’s opening which describes the protagonists trapped in a car wreck, inverted, clearly seriously injured.

I wanted desperately to like this book, in fact, I really wanted to love this book. I think that this partly accounts for my disappointment – my high expectations. The opening is superb:

“For a moment the balance was uncertain. The headlights stabbed at the thick night. A rock loomed, smooth and impassive, then swung out of the frame. A stunted tree rushed at him, gnarled and prickly. The seat pushed hard, resisting his momentum. Road, rock again, grass, gravel. The forces resolved their differences and he was gliding, a dance of sorts, but he was deaf to its rhythm, just as he was deaf to her screams. Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.”

I was immediately intrigued and desperate to find out what drew these characters to this point, to this fall.

However, I think that this book was somehow too dense for me, too heavily resting upon philosophical tenets about which I know very little and this was my disadvantage. The text grapples with the question of free will from a Christian perspective. The title alludes to the influence of Saint Augustine on the thinkings of this text – Saint Augustine was concerned with the concept of the original sin and the notion of free will. All this was culturally alienating to me and I found myself floundering, often, while reading.

I certainly enjoyed some of Beckett’s prose and his basic plot was definitely interesting but I feel as though I need to complete a Bachelor’s in Christian theology in order to properly appreciate this text.

 

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 Mario Vargas Llosa

Nobel Lecture
December 7, 2010

In Praise of Reading and Fiction
I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space and allowing me to travel with Captain Nemo twenty thousand leagues under the sea, fight with d’Artagnan, Athos, Portos, and Aramis against the intrigues threatening the Queen in the days of the secretive Richelieu, or stumble through the sewers of Paris, transformed into Jean Valjean carrying Marius’s inert body on my back.

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.

I wish my mother were here, a woman who was moved to tears reading the poems of Amado Nervo and Pablo Neruda, and Grandfather Pedro too, with his large nose and gleaming bald head, who celebrated my verses, and Uncle Lucho, who urged me so energetically to throw myself body and soul into writing even though literature, in that time and place, compensated its devotees so badly. Throughout my life I have had people like that at my side, people who loved and encouraged me and infected me with their faith when I had doubts. Thanks to them, and certainly to my obstinacy and some luck, I have been able to devote most of my time to the passion, the vice, the marvel of writing, creating a parallel life where we can take refuge against adversity, one that makes the extraordinary natural and the natural extraordinary, that dissipates chaos, beautifies ugliness, eternalizes the moment, and turns death into a passing spectacle.

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

If in this address I were to summon all the writers to whom I owe a few things or a great deal, their shadows would plunge us into darkness. They are innumerable. In addition to revealing the secrets of the storytelling craft, they obliged me to explore the bottomless depths of humanity, admire its heroic deeds, and feel horror at its savagery. They were my most obliging friends, the ones who vitalized my calling and in whose books I discovered that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances, that living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.

Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, know it or not, when they invent stories the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. When Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina throws herself in front of the train, and Julien Sorel climbs to the scaffold, and when, in “El sur,” the urban doctor Juan Dahlmann walks out of that tavern on the pampa to face a thug’s knife, or we realize that all the residents of Comala, Pedro Páramo’s village, are dead, the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas. Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

Since every period has its horrors, ours is the age of fanatics, of suicide terrorists, an ancient species convinced that by killing they earn heaven, that the blood of innocents washes away collective affronts, corrects injustices, and imposes truth on false beliefs. Every day, all over the world, countless victims are sacrificed by those who feel they possess absolute truths. With the collapse of totalitarian empires, we believed that living together, peace, pluralism, and human rights would gain the ascendancy and the world would leave behind holocausts, genocides, invasions, and wars of extermination. None of that has occurred. New forms of barbarism flourish, incited by fanaticism, and with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we cannot overlook the fact that any small faction of crazed redeemers may one day provoke a nuclear cataclysm. We have to thwart them, confront them, and defeat them. There aren’t many, although the tumult of their crimes resounds all over the planet and the nightmares they provoke overwhelm us with dread. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilization. Let us defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, coexistence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternation in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us closer – though we will never attain it – to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it. By confronting homicidal fanatics we defend our right to dream and to make our dreams reality.

In my youth, like many writers of my generation, I was a Marxist and believed socialism would be the remedy for the exploitation and social injustices that were becoming more severe in my country, in Latin America, and in the rest of the Third World. My disillusion with statism and collectivism and my transition to the democrat and liberal that I am – that I try to be – was long and difficult and carried out slowly as a consequence of episodes like the conversion of the Cuban Revolution, about which I initially had been enthusiastic, to the authoritarian, vertical model of the Soviet Union; the testimony of dissidents who managed to slip past the barbed wire fences of the Gulag; the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the nations of the Warsaw Pact; and because of thinkers like Raymond Aron, Jean Francois Rével, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper, to whom I owe my reevaluation of democratic culture and open societies. Those masters were an example of lucidity and gallant courage when the intelligentsia of the West, as a result of frivolity or opportunism, appeared to have succumbed to the spell of Soviet socialism or, even worse, to the bloody witches’ Sabbath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

As a boy I dreamed of coming some day to Paris because, dazzled by French literature, I believed that living there and breathing the air breathed by Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust would help transform me into a real writer, and if I did not leave Peru I would be only a pseudo Sundays-and-holidays writer. And the truth is I owe to France and French culture unforgettable lessons, for example that literature is as much a calling as it is a discipline, a job, an obstinacy. I lived there when Sartre and Camus were alive and writing, in the years of Ionesco, Beckett, Bataille, and Cioran, the discovery of the theater of Brecht and the films of Ingmar Bergman, the Theatre National Populaire of Jean Vilar and the Odéon of Jean-Louis Barrault, of the Nouvelle Vague and the Nouveau Roman and the speeches, beautiful literary pieces, of André Malraux, and what may have been the most theatrical spectacle in Europe during that time, the press conferences and Olympic thunderings of General de Gaulle. But perhaps I am most grateful to France for the discovery of Latin America. There I learned that Peru was part of a vast community united by history, geography, social and political problems, a certain mode of being, and the delicious language it spoke and wrote. And in those same years, it was producing a new, forceful literature. There I read Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso, and many others whose writings were revolutionizing narrative in the Spanish language, and thanks to whom Europe and a good part of the world discovered that Latin America was not the continent only of coups, operetta despots, bearded guerrillas, and the maracas of the mambo and the cha-cha-cha but of ideas, artistic forms, and literary fantasies that transcended the picturesque and spoke a universal language.

From that time to this, not without stumbling and blunders, Latin America has made progress although, as César Vallejo said in a poem, Hay, hermanos, muchísimo que hacer [There is still, brothers, so much to do]. We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before, only Cuba and her named successor, Venezuela, and some pseudo populist, clownish democracies like those in Bolivia and Nicaragua. But in the rest of the continent democracy is functioning, supported by a broad popular consensus, and for the first time in our history, as in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and almost all of Central America, we have a left and a right that respect legality, the freedom to criticize, elections, and succession in power. That is the right road, and if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present.

I never felt like a foreigner in Europe or, in fact, anywhere. In all the places I have lived, in Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Washington, New York, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic, I felt at home. I have always found a lair where I could live in peace, work, learn things, nurture dreams, and find friends, good books to read, and subjects to write about. It does not seem to me that my unintentionally becoming a citizen of the world has weakened what are called “my roots,” my connections to my own country – which would not be particularly important – because if that were so, my Peruvian experiences would not continue to nourish me as a writer and would not always appear in my stories, even when they seem to occur very far from Peru. I believe instead that living for so long outside the country where I was born has strengthened those connections, adding a more lucid perspective to them, and a nostalgia that can differentiate the adjectival from the substantive and keep memories reverberating. Love of the country where one was born cannot be obligatory, but like any other love must be a spontaneous act of the heart, like the one that unites lovers, parents and children, and friends.

I carry Peru deep inside me because that is where I was born, grew up, was formed, and lived those experiences of childhood and youth that shaped my personality and forged my calling, and there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered, and dreamed. What happens there affects me more, moves and exasperates me more than what occurs elsewhere. I have not wished it or imposed it on myself; it simply is so. Some compatriots accused me of being a traitor, and I was on the verge of losing my citizenship when, during the last dictatorship, I asked the democratic governments of the world to penalize the regime with diplomatic and economic sanctions, as I have always done with all dictatorships of any kind, whether of Pinochet, Fidel Castro, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Imams in Iran, apartheid in South Africa, the uniformed satraps of Burma (now called Myanmar). And I would do it again tomorrow if – may destiny not wish it and Peruvians not permit it – Peru were once again the victim of a coup that would annihilate our fragile democracy. It was not the precipitate, emotional action of a resentful man, as some scribblers wrote, accustomed to judging others from the point of view of their own pettiness. It was an act in line with my conviction that a dictatorship represents absolute evil for a country, a source of brutality and corruption and profound wounds that take a long time to close, poison the nation’s future, and create pernicious habits and practices that endure for generations and delay democratic reconstruction. This is why dictatorships must be fought without hesitation, with all the means at our disposal, including economic sanctions. It is regrettable that democratic governments, instead of setting an example by making common cause with those, like the Damas de Blanco in Cuba, the Venezuelan opposition, or Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, who courageously confront the dictatorships they endure, often show themselves complaisant not with them but with their tormenters. Those valiant people, struggling for their freedom, are also struggling for ours.

A compatriot of mine, José María Arguedas, called Peru the country of “every blood.” I do not believe any formula defines it better: that is what we are and that is what all Peruvians carry inside us, whether we like it or not: an aggregate of traditions, races, beliefs, and cultures proceeding from the four cardinal points. I am proud to feel myself the heir to the pre-Hispanic cultures that created the textiles and feather mantles of Nazca and Paracas and the Mochican or Incan ceramics exhibited in the best museums in the world, the builders of Machu Picchu, Gran Chimú, Chan Chan, Kuelap, Sipán, the burial grounds of La Bruja and El Sol and La Luna, and to the Spaniards who, with their saddle bags, swords, and horses, brought to Peru Greece, Rome, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Renaissance, Cervantes, Quevedo, and Góngora, and the harsh language of Castile sweetened by the Andes. And with Spain came Africa, with its strength, its music, and its effervescent imagination, to enrich Peruvian heterogeneity. If we investigate only a little we discover that Peru, like the Aleph of Borges, is a small format of the entire world. What an extraordinary privilege for a country not to have an identity because it has all of them!

The conquest of America was cruel and violent, like all conquests, of course, and we should criticize it but not forget as we do that those who committed pillage and crimes were, for the most part, our great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers, the Spaniards who came to America and adopted American ways, not those who remained in their own country. Such criticism, to be just, should be self-criticism. Because when we gained our independence from Spain two hundred years ago, those who assumed power in the former colonies, instead of liberating the Indians and creating justice for old wrongs, continued to exploit them with as much greed and ferocity as the conquerors and, in some countries, decimating and exterminating them. Let us say this with absolute clarity: for two centuries the emancipation of the indigenous population has been our exclusive responsibility, and we have not fulfilled it. This continues to be an unresolved issue in all of Latin America. There is not a single exception to this ignominy and shame.

I love Spain as much as Peru, and my debt to her is as great as my gratitude. If not for Spain, I never would have reached this podium or become a known writer and perhaps, like so many unfortunate colleagues, I would wander in the limbo of writers without luck, publishers, prizes, or readers, whose talent – sad comfort – posterity may one day discover. All my books were published in Spain, where I received exaggerated recognition, and friends like Carlos Barral, Carmen Balcells, and so many others were zealous about my stories having readers. And Spain granted me a second nationality when I could have lost mine. I have never felt the slightest incompatibility between being Peruvian and having a Spanish passport, because I have always felt that Spain and Peru are two sides of the same coin, not only in my small person but in essential realities like history, language, and culture.

Of all the years I have lived on Spanish soil, I remember as most brilliant the five I spent in a dearly loved Barcelona in the early 1970s. Franco’s dictatorship was still in power and shooting, but by then it was a fossil in rags, and especially in the field of culture, incapable of maintaining its earlier controls. Cracks and chinks were opening that the censors could not patch over, and through them Spanish society absorbed new ideas, books, currents of thought, and artistic values and forms prohibited until then as subversive. No city took as much or better advantage of this start of an opening than Barcelona or experienced a comparable excitement in all fields of ideas and creativity. It became the cultural capital of Spain, the place you had to be to breathe anticipation of the freedom to come. And, in a sense, it was also the cultural capital of Latin America because of the number of painters, writers, publishers, and artists from Latin American countries who either settled in or traveled back and forth to Barcelona: it was where you had to be if you wanted to be a poet, novelist, painter, or composer in our time. For me, those were unforgettable years of comradeship, friendship, plots, and fertile intellectual work. Just as Paris had been, Barcelona was a Tower of Babel, a cosmopolitan, universal city where it was stimulating to live and work and where, for the first time since the days of the Civil War, Spanish and Latin American writers mixed and fraternized, recognizing one another as possessors of the same tradition and allied in a common enterprise and certainty: the end of the dictatorship was imminent and in democratic Spain, culture would be the principal protagonist.

Although it did not occur exactly that way, the Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy has been one of the best stories of modern times, an example of how, when good sense and reason prevail and political adversaries set aside sectarianism for the common good, events can occur as marvelous as the ones in novels of magic realism. The Spanish transition from authoritarianism to freedom, from underdevelopment to prosperity, from third-world economic contrasts and inequalities to a country of middle classes, her integration into Europe and her adoption in a few years of a democratic culture, has astonished the entire world and precipitated Spain’s modernization. It has been moving and instructive for me to experience this near at hand, at times from the inside. I fervently hope that nationalism, the incurable plague of the modern world and of Spain as well, does not ruin this happy tale.

I despise every form of nationalism, a provincial ideology – or rather, religion – that is short-sighted, exclusive, that cuts off the intellectual horizon and hides in its bosom ethnic and racist prejudices, for it transforms into a supreme value, a moral and ontological privilege, the fortuitous circumstance of one’s birthplace. Along with religion, nationalism has been the cause of the worst slaughters in history, like those in the two world wars and the current bloodletting in the Middle East. Nothing has contributed as much as nationalism to Latin America’s having been Balkanized and stained with blood in senseless battles and disputes, squandering astronomical resources to purchase weapons instead of building schools, libraries, and hospitals.

We should not confuse a blinkered nationalism and its rejection of the “other,” always the seed of violence, with patriotism, a salutary, generous feeling of love for the land where we were born, where our ancestors lived, where our first dreams were forged, a familiar landscape of geographies, loved ones, and events that are transformed into signposts of memory and defenses against solitude. Homeland is not flags, anthems, or apodictic speeches about emblematic heroes, but a handful of places and people that populate our memories and tinge them with melancholy, the warm sensation that no matter where we are, there is a home for us to return to.

Peru is for me Arequipa, where I was born but never lived, a city my mother, grandparents, and aunts and uncles taught me to know through their memories and yearnings, because my entire family tribe, as Arequepeños tend to do, always carried the White City with them in their wandering existence. It is Piura in the desert, mesquite trees and the long-suffering burros that Piurans of my youth called “somebody else’s feet” – an elegant, sad name – where I discovered that storks did not bring babies into the world but couples made them by doing outrageous things that were a mortal sin. It is San Miguel Academy and the Varieties Theater where for the first time I saw a short work I had written produced on stage. It is the corner of Diego Ferré and Colón, in Lima’s Miraflores – we called it the Happy Neighborhood – where I exchanged short pants for long trousers, smoked my first cigarette, learned to dance, fall in love, and open my heart to girls. It is the dusty, pulsing editorial offices of the paper La Crónica where, at sixteen, I stood virgil over my first arms as a journalist, a trade that, along with literature, has occupied almost my entire life and, like books, has made me live more, know the world better, and be with men and women from everywhere and every class, excellent, good, bad, and execrable people. It is the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where I learned that Peru was not the small middle-class redoubt where I had lived until then, confined and protected, but a large, ancient, rancorous, unequal country, shaken by all kinds of social storms. It is the clandestine cells of Cahuide where, with a handful of San Marcos students, we prepared the world revolution. And Peru is my friends in the Freedom Movement with whom for three years, in the midst of bombs, blackouts, and terrorist assassinations, we worked in defense of democracy and the culture of freedom.

Peru is Patricia, my cousin with the upturned nose and indomitable character, whom I was lucky enough to marry forty-five years ago and who still endures the manias, neuroses, and temper tantrums that help me to write. Without her my life would have dissolved a long time ago into a turbulent whirlwind, and Alvaro, Gonzalo, Morgana and the six grandchildren who extend and gladden our existence would not have been born. She does everything and does everything well. She solves problems, manages the economy, imposes order on chaos, keeps journalists and intrusive people at bay, defends my time, decides appointments and trips, packs and unpacks suitcases, and is so generous that even when she thinks she is rebuking me, she pays me the highest compliment: “Mario, the only thing you’re good for is writing.”

Let us return to literature. The paradise of childhood is not a literary myth for me but a reality I lived and enjoyed in the large family house with three courtyards in Cochabamba, where with my cousins and school friends we could reproduce the stories of Tarzan and Salgari, and in the prefecture of Piura, where bats nested in the lofts, silent shadows that filled the starry nights of that hot land with mystery. During those years, writing was playing a game my family celebrated, something charming that earned applause for me, the grandson, the nephew, the son without a papa because my father had died and gone to heaven. He was a tall, good-looking man in a navy uniform whose photo adorned my night table, which I prayed to and then kissed before going to sleep. One Piuran morning – I do not think I have recovered from it yet – my mother revealed that the gentleman was, in fact, alive. And on that very day we were going to live with him in Lima. I was eleven years old, and from that moment everything changed. I lost my innocence and discovered loneliness, authority, adult life, and fear. My salvation was reading, reading good books, taking refuge in those worlds where life was glorious, intense, one adventure after another, where I could feel free and be happy again. And it was writing, in secret, like someone giving himself up to an unspeakable vice, a forbidden passion. Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping the intolerable, my reason for living. From then until now, in every circumstance when I have felt disheartened or beaten down, on the edge of despair, giving myself body and soul to my work as a storyteller has been the light at the end of the tunnel, the plank that carries the shipwrecked man to shore.

Although it is very difficult and forces me to sweat blood and, like every writer, to feel at times the threat of paralysis, a dry season of the imagination, nothing has made me enjoy life as much as spending months and years constructing a story, from its uncertain beginnings, the image memory stores of a lived experience that becomes a restlessness, an enthusiasm, a daydream that then germinates into a project and the decision to attempt to convert the agitated cloud of phantoms into a story. “Writing is a way of living,” said Flaubert. Yes, absolutely, a way of living with illusion and joy and a fire throwing out sparks in your head, struggling with intractable words until you master them, exploring the broad world like a hunter tracking down desirable prey to feed an embryonic fiction and appease the voracious appetite of every story that, as it grows, would like to devour every other story. Beginning to feel the vertigo a gestating novel leads us to, when it takes shape and seems to begin to live on its own, with characters that move, act, think, feel, and demand respect and consideration, on whom it is no longer possible to arbitrarily impose behavior or to deprive them of their free will without killing them, without having the story lose its power to persuade – this is an experience that continues to bewitch me as it did the first time, as complete and dizzying as making love to the woman you love for days, weeks, months, without stopping.

When speaking of fiction, I have talked a great deal about the novel and very little about the theater, another of its preeminent forms. A great injustice, of course. Theater was my first love, ever since, as an adolescent, I saw Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Segura Theater in Lima, a performance that left me transfixed with emotion and precipitated my writing a drama with Incas. If there had been a theatrical movement in the Lima of the 1950s, I would have been a playwright rather than a novelist. There was not, and that must have turned me more and more toward narrative. But my love for the theater never ended; it dozed, curled up in the shadow of novels, like a temptation and a nostalgia, above all whenever I saw an enthralling play. In the late 1970s, the persistent memory of a hundred-year-old great-aunt, Mamaé, who in the final years of her life cut off her surrounding reality to take refuge in memories and fiction, suggested a story. And I felt, prophetically, that it was a story for the theater, that only on stage would it take on the animation and splendor of successful fictions. I wrote it with the tremulous excitement of a beginner and so enjoyed seeing it on stage with Norma Aleandro in the heroine’s role that since then, between novels and essays, I have relapsed several times. And I must add, I never imagined that at the age of seventy I would mount (I should say, stumble onto) a stage to act. That reckless adventure made me experience for the first time in my own flesh and bone the miracle it is for someone who has spent his life writing fictions to embody for a few hours a character of fantasy, to live the fiction in front of an audience. I can never adequately thank my dear friends, the director Joan Ollé and the actress Aitana Sánchez Gijón, for having encouraged me to share with them that fantastic experience (in spite of the panic that accompanied it).

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.

Stockholm, December 7, 2010

Translation by Edith Grossman