Book Review

International Masters

Mario Vargas Llosa has always had a somewhat masochistic relationship with his homeland of Peru. The second sentence of his early masterwork, Conversation in the Cathedral, memorably reads, “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” From the very start—and even as he shifted from Castro backer to full-on Thatcherite— Vargas Llosa has doggedly exhumed the power structures that have damaged a country already afflicted by racial, lingual, and geographic divides. Along the way, he has developed a bit of a split personality. There is Vargas Llosa the bard, capable of comic outlandishness, formal bravado, and fully animated historicism, and then there is Vargas Llosa the ideologue, a former presidential candidate who scribbles cranky op-eds for the Spanish newspaper El País.

Vargas Llosa’s partitioned selfhood is certainly related to his contradictory feelings toward Peru. As a child, he associated “La Mangachería, the joyful, violent, and marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of Piura . . . with the Court of Miracles in Alexandre Dumas’s novels,” a sensibility he channeled when writing about the city in his breakthrough novel The Green House. But this accommodation—or even outright encouragement—of societal intricacy is missing when Vargas Llosa focuses less on literature and more on stump speeches. During his presidential campaign in 1990, with things beginning to flag, Vargas Llosa found himself outside Piura of all places, where he encountered “an infuriated horde of men and women” waiting for him:

Half naked . . . they hurled themselves on the caravan of vehicles as though fighting to save their lives or seeking to immolate themselves, with a rashness and a savagery that said everything about the almost inconceivable levels of deterioration to which life for millions of Peruvians had sunk.

As readers, we can be glad that Vargas Llosa lost the election to the even more unproven Alberto Fujimori. His best novels—especially reputation-making works like The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral—contain an expansive social lens, one that includes Miraflores aristocrats, mestizo dogcatchers, aspiring revolutionaries, indigenous prostitutes, harp-playing drunkards, and impoverished water vendors. This ecosystem, described with Flaubertian remove and subjected to nonlinear time shifts inspired by Faulkner, has allowed Vargas Llosa to invent a form that conveys his passionate and tortured feelings toward his country.

Some concern arises, then, when we realize that Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, The Neighborhood,[1] transpires during “the turbulent and deeply corrupt years of Alberto Fujimori’s presidency” (as per FSG’s flap copy). Is this the sort of book one writes a decade after winning a Nobel and twenty-eight years after losing an election—a novel stained by ideology and the desire for revenge?

On the campaign trail Fujimori raised concerns about the economic “shock” reform that was the lynchpin of Vargas Llosa’s campaign; as president, he copied it. The relative success of this approach, in con­junction with the military’s defeat of the Shining Path guerillas, allowed Fujimori to stage a coup against his own government without much public dissent. Surrounded by a legion of pawns, the administration was free to imprison journalists, embezzle funds, and intimidate, kidnap, or murder potential adversaries.

In view of these events, The Neighborhood would seem to fit into Vargas Llosa’s wheelhouse. The late-career success of The Feast of the Goat—which details the atrocities committed by Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic—re-established him as an eminent chronicler of rancor, violence, and power lust. Read this way (or read any way, one imagines), The Neighborhood disappoints. Amidst a back­drop of bombings, blackouts, and kidnappings, the action centers around Enrique Cárdenas, a wealthy, Lima-based mining engineer who receives a visit from a tabloid editor who has acquired photographs of an orgy Enrique “attended” years prior. After the magazine uses the images in a centerfold exposé, the editor, who may or may not have government ties, is brutally murdered.

Considering the apparent intrigue of this set-up, The Neighborhood flags mightily, undermined by rigid self-seriousness, uneven scenes, and numerous clunky sentences that even esteemed translator Edith Grossman cannot save. Despite its tabloid trappings and soapy plotlines —especially one in which Enrique’s wife conducts an affair with the wife of his best friend and lawyer—the novel possesses none of the roguish humor of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which made use of the tele­novela aesthetic while describing the newsroom of a successful radio series.

Toward the novel’s close, in an anomalously exhilarating thirty-page sequence, Vargas Llosa splices together several disconnected conversations, employing a technique that has become his trademark formal innovation (he first experimented with it in the final chapter of his 1963 debut, The Time of the Hero). Here, dialogic montage conveys the horror of disappearance—an all-too-frequent occurrence in twentieth-century Peru—and the way the threat of state-induced violence forever alters the lives of individuals. The section climaxes with a conversation between a tabloid reporter and “the Doctor,” a sinister government official who is a clear stand-in for Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s head of intelligence.

Yet the thrill of this scene—and its inevitably personal nature—enables the emergence of Vargas Llosa the ideologue. The novel’s penultimate section, styled as a re-print of a tabloid issue, takes on the Fujimori regime with a gasping earnestness that disappoints: “By exposing these stinging truths, we help to impede . . . Peru’s becoming, because of the Doctor and his master, President Fujimori, a banana republic, one of those caricatures that damage our America.” Maybe next time, Vargas Llosa will resist the urge of didacticism.

The late William Trevor, on the other hand, never let any ideology influence his prodigious output of fiction. Trevor’s mastery, very much on display in his recently published Last Stories,[2] lies in his ability to modulate almost effortlessly forms according to the requirements of a given story. And while Trevor’s milieu—drawn from his native Ireland and his eventual residency in Devon, England—might appear limited to the untrained eye, his variety of character is breathtaking. Protestant schoolteachers, hard-drinking priests, spouse-swapping Londoners, scheming farm hands, Wagner-obsessed bachelors, loveless office workers, imaginative schoolgirls: all are treated to modes of storytelling that suit their myriad psyches and stations.

Born in County Cork, Trevor was part of a Protestant “minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away,” partly because it was “without much of a place in [Prime Minister Éamon] de Valera’s new Catholic Ireland.” In addition to religious exclusivity, de Valera empha­sized Ireland’s rustic fertility, which he saw as inextricably linked to its Gaelic roots. A few of Trevor’s best stories—particularly “The Distant Past,” from his outstanding collection Angels at the Ritz—examine the way the landed Anglo-Irish gentry faded into a shabby, picturesque way of life that both suited and complicated this idealized image of pastoral Ireland.

Given his almost limitless adaptability, Trevor declined to fixate on this fairly personal history and instead transmuted his affinity for place and memory into the lives of his characters. In “The Unknown Girl,” Harriet Balfour thinks of how “one day she would be alone in a house she had grown increasingly to love,” a house she feels especially attached to because of her devotion to the memory of her late husband. That morning, a clergyman drops by and informs her that Emily Vance, a former housecleaner, has died in a traffic accident. Quite suddenly—before we even notice—Harriet’s domestic stability is punctured.

After the visit, Harriet tries to remember a mysterious girl “who came and went so quietly she was hardly noticed,” a girl who one day stopped showing up to the house. “Snatches of illusion”—which may even be truths—swarm in Harriet’s mind, and she fixates on “the shyness of undeclared love” that Emily may well have shared with her son Stephen. As Harriet obsesses over someone who has become an absence, Trevor intensifies his own focus on the actual, cataloging the physical details of the house as if to mimic an attempt at self-distraction. “Through the blur of her tears the beauty that had spread in her garden, and was spreading still, was lost in distortion,” Trevor writes, as the particulars of Harriet’s life begin to warp. Memory has uprooted memory, and a space once beloved will never feel like home again.

“An Idyll in Winter”—perhaps the strongest story in the collection—also examines the perils of recollection and the way that place can influence self-conception, though in this case the backdrop is a sprawling farmhouse. Here Trevor employs a wide temporal scope, one that echoes the vastness of his setting while also conveying how a relatively brief stretch of time can change a life forever. One summer, twelve-year-old Mary Bella develops a fondness for her twenty-two-year-old tutor Anthony, a fondness “that he could not dismiss or pretend he didn’t notice and which, when September came, caused him more unease than he admitted to himself.” As time passes, both Mary Bella and Anthony find it harder to disentangle their memories of each other from their memories of “the hurrying and the bustle” of the farmhouse where they met. “How well you taught me to imagine,” Mary Bella recounts years later, her words cascading over the sun-soaked grounds.

Illusions, fantasies, things unsaid: these are the ingredients that put Trevor’s compassionate yet ruthless character studies in a stratosphere all their own. In a completely distinct manner, Hanne Ørstavik makes these internal discursions the crux of her wondrous, uncanny novella Love,[3] which has just been translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken a little over two decades after its initial release. Crafting an innovative yet unassuming structure, Ørstavik cuts between the minds of Vibeke and Jon, a mother and son who have recently moved to a secluded village in the icy reaches of northern Norway. The story transpires amidst the impenetrable darkness of a single, wintry evening —the evening before Jon’s ninth birthday.

When we first encounter Jon, he is waiting for Vibeke to come home from work, fiddling with a box of matches, and “wedging them cau­tiously in his sockets” in an effort to stop a blinking fit. As she enters the house, removing her coat and unpacking some groceries, Vibeke is too distracted to call out to him, preferring to fantasize about the “brown eyed-engineer” she hopes to collaborate with as the village’s newly appointed “arts and culture officer.” Plunging headlong into her con­sciousness, we find Vibeke to be creative, intriguing, and unabashedly self-absorbed:

There’s an interview program on, but she doesn’t listen. The voices make a kind of melody, changing back and forth . . . She’s still got her short skirt on, she’s had it for years, but it falls so becomingly around her bottom and thighs . . . Life’s too short not to be dressing nice, she thinks to herself.

In their only scene together, Jon and Vibeke eat sausages for dinner, and Vibeke listens as her son tells her a tale about a faraway castle. For a few moments, they both drift into reflection, before Jon tells Vibeke another story, this one “about a man who throws himself out a window and never reaches the ground . . . Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?” This thought, though obviously unspoken, is the catalyst of the novella’s action and the backbone of Ørstavik’s formal arrangement.

Like his mother, Jon is an inventive thinker, driven by boredom, isolation and a resulting search for community. Wanting to give Vibeke space so that she can bake him a cake, he sets out to sell raffle tickets for the local sports club and is invited inside by the old man who lives next door. After the man buys all of the tickets, Jon leaves and encounters two girls skating, watching them from a distance: “He wonders if he looks like a cowboy in a film, standing against the wall outside the saloon. A cigarette dangles from his lips and his eyes narrow to slits as he peers through the mists of smoke he blows from his nose and mouth.”

As relayed by Ørstavik’s candid, glinting prose, Jon’s outing induces a mounting sense of dread, even as he is met by apparent acts of kindness. By the time one of the two girls has invited him over to play board games, Vibeke—having completely forgotten Jon’s birthday—has embarked on an outing of her own, setting off for the library to pick up some new books to read.

Finding the library already closed, Vibeke encounters a travelling fair in the parking lot. There she meets Tom, a carnival worker who invites her to have coffee in his trailer. Like Jon, Vibeke seems impervious to trepidation and instead crafts an elaborate fantasy out of a rather unpleasant conversational partner. “His face expresses reflection,” she convinces herself. “He triggers pleasant images in her mind: the two of them together on an endless beach, it’s winter and they’re the only people there.” More than anything, Vibeke just wants to be looked at, to have her life match—for at least a moment—the wonder of the novels she reads.

Both mother and son daydream about distant worlds, unreal people, and the sensations of daily existence. In their distinct ways, they both imagine a communion or emotional bond that they cannot seem to provide for each other. This is the brilliance of Ørstavik’s technique: that we, as readers, can see how often Jon and Vibeke’s thoughts converge, while they are each left blindly to await salvation.

The associative nature of Jon’s mind—bursting with digressions about tropical landscapes and chocolate cakes—makes him seem like the kind of boy who might grow up to become an artist of some kind. While Ørstavik presents Jon’s circuitous thought-patterns forthrightly and without comment, his reflections recall those of Karl Ove Knausgaard, a fellow Norwegian whose work is made up almost entirely of asides, interpretations, and personal reminiscences. As Knausgaard’s legions of English-language fans await the release of the sixth and final volume of his prodigious autobiographical novel My Struggle, they have been proffered a far slimmer seasonally-themed quartet, made up so far of Autumn, Winter, and now Spring.[4]

The first two installments of the series functioned as a “personal encyclopedia of the world,” intended for Knausgaard’s unborn daugh­ter, containing meditative fragments about disparate topics such as “Piss,” “Petrol,” “Lice,” “Flaubert,” and “Chewing Gum.” In Spring, Knausgaard has moved back to a meandering structure, making use of a letter that he originally intended to give to his now newly-born daughter on her eighteenth birthday. The shift facilitates something of a return to form: whereas Autumn and Winter were distractingly sentimental and not entirely successful in their attempts at aphorism, Spring draws on Knausgaard’s gloomy and discursive instincts.

The primary struggle in My Struggle is that between Karl Ove and his father. Here, Knausgaard is struggling as a father, busy changing diapers, unclogging drains, making spaghetti, and doing laundry while his wife lies upstairs in their darkened bedroom, dealing with a bout of “severe depression.” Spring is propelled by things unsaid, and by the tension between this elision and Knausgaard’s usual willingness to divulge: early on, Knausgaard alludes to a time “half a year before you were born,” when he was “summoned to a meeting with the Child Protection Service. It was a routine meeting, they always arranged one when it happened, the thing that happened here.”

Knausgaard’s uncharacteristic reticence draws the reader along and mirrors the remoteness of his wife and the “kind of shadow existence” that has engulfed her. Governed by a fear of paternal failure, Knausgaard fashions this book “as a sort of apology” for his own tendency to “withdraw into myself” and for the moments when “every­thing seemed to be sliding away in every direction, as if there was no centre, nothing to hold anything in place.”

In light of this concern, Spring becomes a place of refuge, as Knausgaard strains to protect his children from the terrors of the outside world as well as those that lurk within their home. “Life is made up of events that have to be parried,” he remarks, perhaps thinking of how his father drank himself to death or of his wife lying nearly motionless upstairs. “Engaged in a kind of meteorology of the mind,” Knausgaard hopes that routine and predictability—the subject matter that he has made so peculiarly engrossing throughout his career—will afford his children a sense of safety and normalcy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this attempt at familial insularity becomes an act of connection, drawing Knausgaard out of himself and into the world. In his eldest daughter he sees a “great sensitivity” that allows her to take in “everything that went on around her” and respond to what she sees in others. Instead of resorting to self-defensive parrying, Knausgaard finds himself looking out the window,

at the light rain falling steadily outside, where the grey light made the green glow with that peculiar intensity typical of rainy Nordic summers, which I liked so well, not least because it reminded me of all the summers I had spent in western Norway, where it rained all the time and the landscape possessed a kind of cold lushness, green as a jungle but without the jungle’s steaming luxuriance, more like a sober wildness, a cool ecstasy.

Too often, though, Knausgaard’s connective urge leads him to spout axioms rather than insights, and as the alluring discretion of its first half fades, Spring becomes defined by shapelessness more than receptivity. “You see, the beauty of this world means nothing if you stand alone in it,” Knausgaard opines, and while the reader cannot help but agree, one wishes that this literary superstar would take a page out of his eldest daughter’s book and begin “thinking more about others than about [himself].” Maybe, after his seasonal quartet is concluded with the imminent publication of Summer, he will be able to begin a project that involves, if not the social scope of Vargas Llosa or the psychological intensity of Trevor or Ørstavik, at least some characters outside of his own home.

While Vargas Llosa’s The Neighborhood is the kind of unfocused novel that results from post-Nobel bloat, Yasunari Kawabata’s Dandelions[5] intrigues as an unfinished work interrupted by the pageantry of the award. The novel—Kawabata’s last—was originally published in serial form by the literary journal Shinchō, and though the twenty-second and final installment was printed two weeks before he was honored by the Swedish Academy in 1968, a completely overhauled manuscript was discovered at the time of his death by apparent suicide four years later. In a brief but revealing afterword, translator Michael Emmerich notes that Kawabata was “as much a revisionist as he was a novelist”; after he died, executors also found a remarkably abbreviated version of his undisputed masterpiece, Snow Country, a book he had already reworked four times since publishing a “final version” in 1948.

Not only does the incomplete nature of Dandelions fit into the general context of Kawabata’s working habits, it beguilingly intersects with its own themes. This is a novel about absences, the near impossibility of human connection, the imperfect yet overpowering nature of memory, and the shortcomings of sight. Several of these concepts are embodied quite literally: the de facto protagonist, a young woman named Ineko, remains largely unseen, having just been deposited at an asylum by her mother and her lover, Kuno. Ineko has been afflicted by a mysterious disease called “somagnosia,” which occasionally prevents her from seeing the bodies of others. But is this perceptive hiccup really akin to insanity? The flimsy boundary between reason and madness is a recurrent focus of Kawabata’s fiction, one that coincides with his career-long quest to convey a reality that exceeds the usual limits of language.

As Ineko remains offstage, the novel takes on a dialogic format, with Kuno and Ineko’s mother exchanging philosophical meditations that double as attempts at one-upmanship regarding their love for Ineko. Initially it seems that Ineko’s mother is the force behind her daughter’s institutional entrapment, perhaps attributing Ineko’s bouts of “body blindness” to the young couple’s “relations as man and woman.” For his part, Kuno insists that “her condition is rooted in love. A woman’s love, almost excessively pure.” But despite their disagreements, there are instances when lover and mother share more than they know, as during a delicious moment when they drift into reverie, “busy savoring the touch of Ineko’s skin,” so wholly consumed that “neither suspected that this was what the other was thinking of.”

This electric stillness gives way to a vivid reminiscence on the part of Ineko’s mother, as she recalls the first incidence of her daughter’s somagnosia. Suddenly—finally!—Ineko materializes before us, return­ing home from school in tears, terrified that “she had suddenly lost sight of the ball” during a ping-pong match. As mother and daughter try to make sense of what has occurred, their thoughts eventually turn to Ineko’s father, Kizaki, an army lieutenant irreparably shattered by Japan’s surrender during the war. Again, we are privy to minds overlapping as unity and isolation commingle:

Ineko and her mother of course had been thinking of these things when their conversation turned to the topic of loneliness, yet even now a substantial gap, a sizeable body of missing information, separated Ineko’s use of the word “lonely” from her mother’s. Still, they understood each other.

Otherwise regarded as a symbolic vacancy to be filled with hastily assembled metaphysical concepts, Ineko is treated to an unadorned and honest portrayal in this all-too-brief section, finally obtaining a tangible humanity. “I suspect you’d be disappointed if you married her,” Ineko’s mother tells Kuno late in the novel, an observation that feels like a valorous act of love in comparison to Kuno’s self-serving projections. Though less cynical than Shimamura, the conceited dilettante at the center of Snow Country, Kuno is just as prone to idealizing women, unable to fathom the hardships, banalities, and irritations that love inevitably includes.

Much of Kawabata’s work is characterized by an attraction to visible surfaces, as snow-capped mountains, blooming orchards, and forlorn graveyards are imbued with qualities that subtly reflect the moods and impressions of his characters. As an entirely conversational novel about sight, Dandelions is a curious inversion and a somewhat surprising conclusion to Kawabata’s oeuvre. In the final scene, we find Kuno and Ineko’s mother in a hotel room, still talking, sitting on opposite sides of a sliding door. “Perhaps because she could no longer see him, either his face or his body,” Ineko’s mother detects “a certain pleading note” in Kuno’s voice when he breaks a lengthening silence, her own momentary blindness revealing a particularly resonant presence: that of unfettered compassion.

[1] THE NEIGHBORHOOD, by Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. by Edith Grossman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.00.

[2] LAST STORIES, by William Trevor. Viking. $26.00.

[3] LOVE, by Hanne Ørstavik, trans. by Martin Aitken. Archipelago Books. $17.00p.

[4] SPRING, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Ingvild Burkey. Penguin Press. $27.00.

[5] DANDELIONS, by Yasunari Kawabata, trans. by Michael Emmerich. New Directions. $14.95p.