Month: March 2013

Let’s Discuss — Pierre and Jean and Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

Let’s start with some fun facts about the author:

  • Gustave Flaubert was his mentor.
  • He has written over 300 stories
  • He was the child of an unhappy marriage.
  • He was a naturalist.
  • He contracted syphilis and died in a sanitarium at the age of 43.
  • He is considered to be a father of the modern short story.

Interesting, right?

The nineteen short stories included in this collection are all written and translated very well. Maupassant precisely writes stories of love, society, rivalry, adultery; all filled with an array of darker human emotions: lust, jealousy, fear, guilt, hate, shame.

His novel Pierre and Jean is a quintessential example of simple and realistic writing. The short novel describes a typical sibling rivalry enhanced by the discovery of a mother’s infidelity and consequently, the illegitimate standing of a son and the wedge driven between brothers. While this is the leading story, it was not one of my favorites. I preferred The Roque Girl for its sadness, Marroca for its lightness, and Mad?, for its disturbing turn.

My friend, there are two tortures on this earth that I hope you never experience: lack of water and lack of women. Which is more horrible? I don’t know. In the desert, a man would do anything, however infamous, for a glass of cold, clear water. What wouldn’t he do in certain coastal towns for a fresh, healthy girl? There’s no shortage of girls in Africa, far from it: they’re in plentiful supply. But to continue my comparison, they’re as dangerous and tainted as the foul water of a well in the Sahara.

The one story I was really looking forward to, although I couldn’t pinpoint why, was Le Horla. And it wasn’t until after I read it that I remembered ( years ago, a discussion on Don Quixote’s sanity brought up Maupassant) It kind of makes sense now. Syphilis can make a person go crazy. This story of paranoia and clepto-vampires that will steal your breath, milk and peace of mind is odd, to say the least. But I don’t know that he was crazy when he wrote it…I felt the same way about Cervantes. I think Le Horla is an accurate portrayal of teetering over the edge.

I can easily see how his writing influenced generations of American and European writers. I don’t want to say he perfected a formula for his stories, but he was very successful in writing solid stories by exposing what he observed in the everyday, mixing in a little drama and including a ‘surprise’ ending.

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Let’s Discuss — The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

Animated chaos, the profound need in what was once your people, Urania, to stupefy themselves into not thinking and, perhaps, not even feeling (6)

The Feast of the Goat takes place during the end of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The narrative switches between the infamous Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas (aka el Jefe), the daughter of one of his top officials, and the anti trujillistas that take part in his assassination.

The book begins with Urania Cabral, daughter of the most distinguished Trujillo loyalist. She visits her father in the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years. Over decades her father has degenerated into a vegetable, yet despite his condition, Urania remains bitter and borderline hateful towards him. Little by little she sheds light on how Trujillo caused this woman to stupefy herself, to hate her father and become estranged from her people. Her story and the flashbacks within it, frame the other narratives.

And then it occurred to him: “A cure equal to the disease.” The face of a beautiful woman, exploding with pleasure in his arms, thanking him for the joy he had given her. Wouldn’t that erase the frightened little face of that idiot? Yes: he’d go tonight to San Cristobal, to Mahogany House and wipe away the affront in the same bed with the same weapons (128)

The one ever-present element in this book is the intertwine of sex, politics and machismo. It seems when Trujillo isn’t ordering people around, he’s thinking about taking a trip to the Mahogany House (the local upscale brothel) What’s interesting about this is Vargas Llosa parallels failings of the Trujillo regime with the failings of Trujillo’s body; old age, impotence and incontinence.

Urania Cabral, however, is repelled by anything suggestive, due to certain events in her adolescence directly linked to Trujillo. I would go as far to say that Trujillo and Urania are complementary characters in almost every level of analysis. Trujillo holds a very low opinion of intellectuals, artists and writers. These are all types of people whose work might influence the progression of freedom of thought and challenge his sovereignty. Urania falls into that category, not only professionally, but personally. And not just on an intellectual level–a physical one.

It must be nice. Your cup of coffee or glass of rum must taste better, the smoke of your cigar, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, the movie you see on Saturday, the merengue on the radio, everything must leave a more pleasurable sensation in your body and spirit when you had what Trujillo had taken away from Dominicans thirty-one years ago: free will (144)

I could go on and on about gender, sex and politics in this book. It’s a really good book to analyze for that type of reading. But generally speaking, I think this book is great because it shows how fear, shame and paranoia can spread like a disease in all parties. They spread through the oppressed and the oppressors–and not just in those individuals in the moment, but through generations over time.

Let’s Discuss — A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

…a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark (195)

A Wizard of Earthsea is a fantasy bildungsroman* and origin story of Sparrowhawk (also known as Ged) the greatest voyager of Roke. Readers follow Ged from his humble beginnings as a nobody to his first adventure as wizard.

Ged, is very interesting character; he’s the last born and a natural loner. Left to his own devices in a small village, he finds creative ways to cultivate his mind. His magical roots begin with learning charms from his witch-aunt: calling goats, healing spells, patching leaky roofs etc.  However, simple charms aren’t enough for Ged, future dragonlord and Archmage. Eventually he takes up an apprenticeship with a Master Wizard, but impatience and immaturity rule over him. The Master Wizard sends Ged to the Roke School of Wizards, famous throughout all of Earthsea.

Ged begins his adventure talented but immature and flawed. Along the way, he learns the importance of balance, not letting one side overwhelm the other.  He develops the courage and wisdom to finish what he started. Major conflict starts when ego leads Ged to summon a power he doesn’t understand and cannot control. He creates a gateway for a shadow to enter the world. But this is not just any shadow–it’s everything dark. On his journey to understand the shadow and his connection with it, he matures greatly. What begins as a source of self-inflicted damage and destruction of Ged becomes a passage to wholeness and adulthood.

There were many elements and little details in this book that intrigued me. I like the idea of limits; knowing them and testing them–be it the power of a spell, or sailing the seas to the edge of the world. This is relevant because Ged is a wizard, but he is also human with weaknesses. I also like the dark invitations: the elder dragon on the isle and the stone that was before all things. Both had knowledge of the shadow (knowledge that Ged needed) but their power was sinister and untrustworthy. I also like the importance of names. Knowing someone or somethings true** name grants one the ability to speak to, connect with, and in certain instances control them. I’m looking forward to the next book in this Earthsea series by the always impressive, Le Guin.

* I don’t know why I didn’t just say Coming-of-Age…

**Ged is Sparrowhawk’s true name.